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What You Won't Learn in Ad School

Insights for the Next Generation

By Published on . 15

There's one thing that everyone in the fields of advertising, marketing, digital and the like all share: We were all once newbies. Young pups. No matter how we earned our first job or sneaked into this industry -- and regardless of previous class work, internships and competitions -- we really had no idea exactly what we were getting ourselves into.

Recently, the University of Wisconsin Ad Club asked Shine to speak at its monthly meeting. Inspired by their impending graduation, we decided that instead of the expected dog-and-pony show, we'd offer a fresh perspective for the graduates -- and anyone considering entering the business.

Now, to be fair, it's been 17 years since I passed through the UW Journalism School's hallowed halls (go Badgers!), so I thought it worth pulling in another perspective as well for the presentation -- one more relevant for the modern student. With this in mind, I invited a Shine colleague (and advertising newbie) to join me, a 2010 graduate from the University of Oregon (go Ducks! -- you're welcome, Emily).

The assignment we gave ourselves: Identify some of the key insights that we wish someone had shared with us when we were in school. The presentation theme: "21 Things You Won't Learn in School." The result: Surprisingly similar perspectives, albeit from very different vantage points. And for you: A few of our key insights for your reading pleasure, as another generation of students enters the ad game.

The Stakes Are High
Welcome to agency life. A life with real clients, dollars, expectations and people. It's a profound leap from classes and competitions to clients and campaigns. Every project matters. Each decision has implications. The trust that clients place on their agency partners -- and how that agency honors and cultivates that trust -- has a very real impact on your careers (and life). Very quickly, you realize that you're not in Kansas any more. And that your success is defined by much more than a grade.

It's Not Just About Great Work. Or Even Results, for That Matter
There are plenty of agencies that do great work every year that get fired. And I'd dare say, even more agencies that do lackluster, mediocre work for their clients that don't. Our business isn't just about the work or whether it makes the cash register ring. It's about people -- relationships -- and the myriad of individual interactions that build trust. In college, you most likely didn't take a class in how to show the right level of urgency for a client, or how to best manage and push back on subjective feedback, or how to handle the oft-necessary budget/schedule/expectation conversations, or how to be a "junior" all over again. But these are some of the many tests of the workplace that will influence every individual's success or failure in this business, in one way or another.

It's Ultimately About People
No matter how "creatively driven" the agency, we are ultimately responsible for helping our clients interact with real, living, breathing human beings. While it's tempting to get caught up in pursuit of fake gold awards to hang on the mantel, we need to always remember that we're being paid to create connections between people and brands -- whether it be building awareness for a new product or cultivating evangelism for an established brand. So while we may make ads, or build apps, or design and program websites, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are truly in the "people" business.

Ambiguity Is Everywhere
Every agency or firm has its own universe -- its people, personalities, processes and the like. In addition, every client has its own universe -- its own dynamics, motivations, politics and such. And then we have the actual universe -- the world in which we live, breathe and market -- constantly shifting and increasingly morphing at a faster rate than ever before. It's a web of connections that changes each and every day. Remove or modify just one component, and the entire web is altered. And it is our job to understand this web; divine not just direction but inspiration; create engagement platforms that resonate; and make everyone feel good about the process. (Indeed.)

The World Is Not Rational
Research has demonstrated that even when consumers believe they are making rational decisions, the vast majority of brand preference are driven by their emotions. And if you think this irrational behavior is constrained to the consumer marketplace, you're kidding yourself. When I graduated, I most certainly had the naive perception that the workplace was rational. "Look at them! They wear suits! They must be rational!" The reality is that we're all emotional beings, sorting through the needs and wants of our conscious and subconscious each and every day. We all have good and bad mornings, stresses with maintaining a good work/life balance, and everything else that comes with the modern-day workplace. Within and between clients and agencies, people want to feel secure, important, respected and, yes, liked. Starting with this premise and working backward for every relationship, client, engagement and assignment is critical to understanding "how things work" -- and successfully navigating this industry's sometimes choppy waters.

It's Less Fun Than You Think (and More Fun Than You Think)
Make no mistake about it: A career in advertising may well be one of the most culturally enjoyable life choices that you can make. That said, we don't sit around drinking and napping all day before scratching out a campaign idea on a cocktail napkin the night before the presentation. We work hard and take what we do very, very seriously. This field is not for everyone. But if you are innately curious, embrace change and have a passion for solving problems, you're off to a good start. So buckle up. Get ready for an exciting ride. And if you ever lose your way, take heed of our final "thing you won't learn in school": A little hustle goes a long way.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Curt Hanke is the co-founder and account director of Shine, a 32-person advertising and interactive agency headquartered in Madison, WI, serving clients such as Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Carver Yachts, Wisconsin Cheese, Kaplan and Winston Fly Rods.
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