Opinion: Why agency life can still be the best life
360i's Jared Belsky says shops afford great experience and shape culture
If industry headlines and anonymous commentary are to be believed, job-seekers should run for the hills rather than risk their sanity and professional fulfillment on the ad agency life. High turnover, ever-shrinking margins, tough clients, inequality, lack of work-life balance, transparency woes, offshoring of jobs, consolidation and clients taking business in-house—the list of gripes is long.
But dammit, there's so much good stuff here. This industry has things to work on, but by letting this negative narrative define us, we're admitting defeat, allowing some of our best and brightest to head for perceived greener pastures, and slowing the pipeline of incredible talent that sees marketing as a promising career option.
The fact is that the advertising industry offers opportunities that you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. I believe that if we continue to work hard to address the aforementioned issues, the true golden age of advertising still lies ahead of us.
So set your skepticism aside for the five minutes it will take you to read this note of optimism, and allow me to make the case for why we're fortunate to be part of the advertising agency life—and why we should pledge to make it better, together.
There aren't many jobs out there where you can gain so much leadership experience or exposure to truly complex business challenges at such a young age. By age 27, it's entirely possible to be managing 10-plus people as a director. If you were working at a typical monster CPG company, at 27 you'd likely be managing one or two people, or perhaps even zero. In fact, I know some very talented brand directors in their late 30s who manage brands worth $500 million-plus, yet manage only two people. Agencies provide an incredible chance to develop a hugely transferable skill: management.
Access and innovation
In any given month, you could be meeting with the best and brightest of Facebook, Google, Verizon, Amazon, Pinterest, Microsoft, Hearst, Conde Nast, iHeartRadio and more. You likely have countless other publishers, data providers and creative solutions lining up to educate and partner with you. You may have the opportunity to attend conferences in exotic locations, which offer top-tier learning environments alongside the enjoyment of a special locale. You have innovation labs and partners who make sure you hear about the latest in VR, AI and the cloud long before they're mainstream. You have the chance to be part of an industry that moves incredibly fast and reinvents itself frequently. At many agencies, you can ask your head of programmatic or your chief creative officer to lunch, and chances are they will say yes. (Try finding the CEO of Apple, Facebook or Amazon for an impromptu lunch–it won't be quite as easy.)
Agency life is an incredible low-risk training ground for future leadership roles. No other job prepares you as well for rapid multitasking, for prioritization, for persuasive communication, for effective writing or for storytelling. And at an agency, you get to practice them in relatively low-stakes moments. You might get 20 to 30 at-bats a year for big meetings or pitches, and the dirty truth is the world won't come to an end if you stumble through the fourth-quarter campaign wrap-up or you flub your big slide in a pitch. There are people to back you up, and you can always try again. In an environment like investment banking or consulting, you might not see your first high-pressure at-bat in front of clients for years. It's hard to practice something and get truly better without the opportunity to hone your craft.
I just came from a global conference with colleagues from nearly every country around the world, and I heard story after story about how advertising is influencing culture not just in the U.S., but globally. It's an opportunity not many industries outside of entertainment have. Advertising can reinforce social norms–or shatter them. Whether it's Cheerios using a Super Bowl spot here in the U.S. to highlight an interracial family eating breakfast, or Heineken reminding people on different ends of the political spectrum of their commonalities, this industry presents us with the opportunity to impact popular culture and public opinion for the better. I don't think we're doing this quite enough … yet. But at least we have the canvas and the creators to make that difference.
Agency life is imperfect, yes, but let's be real: It's still pretty darn great. I don't know about you, but I'll choose to roll up my sleeves and tune out the haters.