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What You Won't Learn in Ad School
Insights for the Next Generation
by Curt Hanke

There's one thing that everyone in the fields of advertising, marketing, digital media and the like all share: We were all once newbies. Young pups. No matter how we earned our first job or snuck into this industry -- and regardless of previous class work, internships or competitions -- we once 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 the impending entry into the workforce of new graduates, we decided that instead of the expected dog-and-pony show, we'd offer a fresh perspective for the soon-to-be-ex-students - and anyone else thinking of 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 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. Emily is a 2010 graduate from the University of Oregon (go Ducks!).

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. We would like to share a few of our key insights, 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 have in their agency partners - and how the agency honors and cultivates that trust - will have a very real impact on your career (and your 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 but are fired by their clients. And I dare say, even more agencies that do lackluster, mediocre work for their clients that aren’t fired when they should be. 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 often-necessary budget/schedule/expectation conversations, or how to be an effective "junior". 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" an agency may be, it is ultimately responsible for helping clients interact with real, living, breathing human beings. While it's tempting to get caught up in pursuit of glittering awards to put on the mantel, remember that you’re being paid to create connections between people and brands - whether you’re building awareness for a new product or re-invigorating an established brand. So while your immediate task may be to make ads, or build apps, or design and program websites, never lose sight of the fact that you are truly in the "people" business.

Ambiguity Is Everywhere

Every agency or firm has its own universe made up of a unique mix of people, personalities and processes. In addition, every client has its own universe - its own dynamics, motivations and politics. And then there is the real universe in which we live, breathe and market - constantly shifting and 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 universe is altered. It is our job to understand this: to divine not just direction but inspiration, to create engagement platforms that resonate, and ultimately, make everyone feel good about the process.

The World Is Not Rational

Research has demonstrated that even when consumers believe they are making rational choices, the vast majority of brand decisions are driven by emotions. If you think this irrational behavior is constrained to the consumer marketplace, you're kidding yourself. When I graduated, I believed - naively - that the workplace is 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, we deal with the stresses in our lives while trying to maintain a good work/life balance, and we cope with the miriad complications of 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, you’ll find few people that sit around drinking and napping all day before scratching out a brilliant campaign idea on a cocktail napkin the night before the presentation. You’re going to work hard and you’ll need to take what you 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.

This article has been written by Curt Hanke and reprinted with the permission of Ad Age.