Radical Careering

Is your career kicking you in the nuts? Kick back.

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Hogshead: "You always have the power to revolutionize your career, at any stage, at any agency, in any economy."
There are creatives who are thrilled with each of the dozens of spots they've produced this year, who just got a big fat raise and are catapulting toward world domination. Both of them are kindly requested to skip to the next story. I'm talking to the rest of us. This article is about refusing mediocrity. It's about doing everything possible, even reinventing your portfolio, if necessary, to have a job you love. What it's definitely not about is maintaining the status quo or getting home in time to watch Blind Date.

So what exactly is radical careering? It's the relentless dedication to having exactly the job you want -- no matter how daunting it might seem or how discouraged you might feel. You always have the power to revolutionize your career, at any stage, at any agency, in any economy. And with that power comes a significant responsibility: being accountable for your own success. You have the portfolio you've earned. Of course, there are some outstanding exceptions to the observations below, so in the interest of avoiding caveats, feel free to consider yourself one of them.

RADICAL TRUTH #1 Being in a crap job isn't your fault. Staying in a crap job is. I can already hear the chorus shouting that it's cruel to be making such grand statements about long-term goals during a time when so many people are just trying to survive in their jobs. But being demoralized is not the same as being disempowered. Even if you're in a job that you loathe, you're not without options.

Radical careering is about reclaiming your life. Most of us build brands for a living, but we have no idea where we ourselves are going. What exactly is your brand? Who are you as a creative person? Where do you ultimately want to be? Only when you figure it out can you construct the steps to get there. About 18 months ago I decided on an absurdly specific goal: to open a West Coast office for an internationally respected agency. I didn't tell anyone except my husband. A few weeks later, Alex Bogusky asked me to dinner to talk about opening the new CP+B office in L.A. Freaky karma, yeah, but not necessarily a coincidence.

RADICAL TRUTH #2 If your agency sucks, your ads will probably suck. Even a creative who's enormously talented and hard-working is still only a tiny fraction of the overall team. Coming up with great ideas is easy compared to selling them, and that takes a brilliant collection of account people, planners and so on. Doing truly outstanding work requires that everyone, from the CFO to the client, prioritizes the creative over everything. Including, in some cases, the bottom line. Of course, there's nothing wrong with being at an agency that's not creatively-driven -- unless you're committed to producing great creative. In which case, you and the company do not share the same goals. You're an artisan in a widget factory.

RADICAL TRUTH #3 Almost no one's having fun in advertising right now. Creatives I talk to at every level, even at top shops, seem discouraged. The collective self-esteem is low. In a sense, I think this trend is heartening. If you're not having fun, it's not because you're doing anything wrong -- that's just the weather report. Nothing personal. When the weather changes, your experience will probably change, too.

RADICAL TRUTH #4 Be ready to get laid off at any point. I'm not talking about being paranoid, just keeping your eye on long-term goals. The novelist Anna Quindlen wrote, "Think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived." I find that incredibly inspiring. Your job is one stop on a journey, not a sofa to hang out on with a remote control and a bag of chips. Figure out where you want to be next and then do something to move toward that every single day. But back to that paranoid thing for a second. Signals that you may be asked to leave: If you're not included in meetings. If you're given only low-profile assignments. If you're pigeonholed on one medium (like radio or print) or genre (like humor or long copy). If you're not able to look back over the past six or 12 months and see progress. If there's a pink slip in your mailbox.

RADICAL TRUTH #5 Agencies do not "turn themselves around." The quality of creative is part of a company's DNA. The culture, work ethic, day-to-day operations and even the physical office space all define the creative that the agency produces. A shiny new logo can't change it. A big speech can't change it. Philosophically, it's at the molecular level.

When I was at Fallon years ago, every computer started up with the same message: "To be the premier creative agency in the world with a shortlist of blue-chip clients." I still remember that mission statement by heart. The mailroom guy, the traffic managers, the receptionist -- everyone was aligned around one purpose. So, if a CD tries to hire you by saying, "We're about to start doing award-winning work," I'm not saying you shouldn't accept the job. Just don't accept it because they're about to start doing award-winning work.

RADICAL TRUTH #6 Never let the size of your mortgage get bigger than the quality of your work. It's dangerously short-sighted to drive your career decisions by your cost of living. Money follows great work, not the other way around. You only get to sell out once. Bide your time wisely. Do it in your 20s and you can make an extra $10,000. Do it in your 40s or 50s, and you can retire early.

RADICAL TRUTH #7 Aspire to be the dumbest person in the room. Working with smart people is the mac daddy, the end-all and be-all. What to do if you're surrounded by myopic clients, apathetic co-workers or wussy management? Find motivating people to partner with. Experiment with all kinds of styles. Read books by industry stars for insight. Get feedback on your work from people outside your office, even sending it to creatives whose work you respect. Constantly evolve your book. Then scram before you become a flabby mid-level drone.

Note to Human Resources: An agency's most crucial equity is its people. Not just for warm 'n' fuzzy reasons, but in terms of training investment, intellectual property, replacement expenses, morale and client consistency. Most people quit their jobs not because they hate their work but because they either dislike their boss or they feel underappreciated. On the flipside, most firings are not because of poor performance but bad chemistry.

RADICAL TRUTH #8 Stick your portfolio with a cattle prod. Never let your portfolio get lazy. When it's time to change jobs, your body of work counts a lot more than your batting average on the company softball team. Doing great work isn't just about collecting a glittery shelf of awards -- it's about earning more control over your career and more options for your life. It's currency, literally and figuratively. I've heard that every One Show Pencil adds at least 20 grand to your price tag. What to do if you're struggling to produce great work? Find under-the-radar assignments that people aren't really paying attention to. Develop cool projects for existing clients. Or create as many opportunities as you can outside your job. Do a bunch of genius pieces and try to get them produced for cheap. Show spec in your book as long as you're honest about it. Constantly upgrade your thinking. Then parlay that into your next job ASAFP. A copywriter named Robin Fitzgerald used to work at Bozell in Omaha, where she invented all kinds of work from scratch. Now she's at CP+B, and she's the most exceptional new talent I've ever seen.

RADICAL TRUTH #9 You're not done paying your dues. Neither am I. We never will be. Mediocrity is tenacious; the second you stop fighting it, you become one of those lurking middle-aged cronies who brags about writing the Wesson tagline. Chuck McBride, the North America creative director of TBWAChiatDay, told me something 10 years ago that's always stuck with me: "Doing great work is all about getting as many at-bats as you can." It's a statistical fact that the more assignments you have and the more options you create, the more likely you are to produce great work. If you're lucky, you draw up 100 ideas internally for every 20 that go to the client. You present 20 to the client for every five that get produced. You produce five decent ideas for every one that's great. If you're lucky.

RADICAL TRUTH #10 This is the ideal time to accelerate your career. While the industry is stalling, crank the afterburners on. Use this time to become a smarter employee, build a stronger web of people to support you, and attack undiscovered projects. My first job was as a baby writer at Wieden in Philadelphia. When they lost Subaru, the closing was announced before I'd even unpacked, and it seemed like my timing couldn't be worse. But Izzy DeBellis, now creative director at Berlin Cameron/Red Cell, said, "There's always opportunity in chaos." It was true in that situation, because I got assignments that I otherwise would have been too junior for, and it's true in chaotic times like these. When uncertainty overthrows the usual structure of hierarchy and bureaucracy, you can pounce on openings that normally wouldn't be possible. Harry Cocciolo, creative director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, recently commented, "Smart agencies and smart creatives don't waste time worrying about how hard the world is; they look at the landscape as an opportunity and they get back to work."

RADICAL TRUTH #11 Jump, and a net will appear. This expression probably came from a fortune cookie somewhere, but I've repeated this to myself many a time. You can't be successful when you cling to obsolete situations out of fear. Only when you put yourself out there wholeheartedly can the best opportunities present themselves.

Five years back, when Jean Robaire and I opened Robaire and Hogshead, we were about to sign the lease. I was nervous because the monthly payment was more than my mortgage. Jean told me something that I'll never forget: "Remember this feeling, because in order to be successful you'll have to get used to it. This is risk."

So when is it time to think about jumping? If you loathe the idea of going to work in the morning. If you're more focused on surviving than flourishing. If you've traded the goal of doing your best work for the goal of making the client happy. If you've lost faith in the people you work with. If you've lost respect for the company. If you've lost confidence in yourself. If you've stolen a closetful of office supplies and they're on to you.

RADICAL TRUTH #12 It's never too late to reinvent your career. Or even restart it, like my friend Stephen Curry did when he left his job as an ACD in Atlanta to become a junior writer for better work. Now that, my friends, is radical careering. It's not easy, and it might require a pay cut, but I've seen it work many times. I once watched a book go from pathetic to meteoric in literally three months and the writer got hired immediately at Fallon. Consider this: Statistically, 50 percent of creatives are below average. Making your book even a measly 10 percent better can take you from a B+ to an A+. You can do that.

RADICAL TRUTH #13 Quality of work, quality of life or quality of compensation? Pick one. Maybe two. Is your priority to do internationally award-winning work? Or to go home at 5 p.m.? Or to have a wheelbarrow of stock options? They're all valid choices, but no job gives you all three, at least not now. Being happy in your job is all about finding a company whose priorities are in line with yours.

RADICAL TRUTH #14 That being said, nothing's more important than balance. Me, I struggle with this one every day. It's not easy being a mother and a creative director. But I'm learning. Advertising is an extreme sport; it requires so much focus on the next pitch, the next presentation, the next whatever, that it's essential to make sure short-term deadlines don't eclipse the bigger picture. A job that makes you fulfilled and proud is just one part of being a happy person. I hope that in some way radical careering can help you create a career, and a life, that you love.

Good luck and Godspeed. And when you kick back, I recommend steel-toed boots.

(Sally Hogshead is creative director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky/Los Angeles.)

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