Lessons from a Career – Part Two

Back in March I wrote: “From time to time … I’m going to do my best to share some lessons learned (over my career). I’ll try to stick to one per post, and to illustrate with examples”. When all’s said and done, I have been at this a long time (over 50 years) and would have to be a complete fool not to have picked up a few tips along the way.

March’s Part One (here) was about respect for others’ expertise, and recognising that no-one, not even you, can be expert in everything.

This time the theme is curiosity, and the benefits of being curious.

Be curious about your particular specialism – take the time and trouble to discover what others are doing or saying about the latest trend, the newest techniques. This applies even, in fact especially if their views differ from yours.

So far, so obvious.

Adrian Vickers, one of the founders of that great agency AMV once said that one of the best things about being in advertising was the freedom to be able to suggest anything, however random, to the client who trusts you, without having to take the ultimate responsibility for actually making the decision to do it.

Yes, we are all accountable, yes, we all have bonuses and PRIP schemes, but those things are really about justifying or being penalised when something you do doesn’t come off. That’s different from actually deciding to do the thing in the first place.

The point is: more you know, the more relevant your off-the-wall ideas.

Mark Palmer, in a comment on last week’s post on the new breed of media entrepreneurs put this very well. He suggested that one reason for these guys’ successes is: “All of them … lean forward and are bothered about understanding their client’s business”.

We’re in the privileged position of being asked for our opinion and advice. We’re listened to because we have views considered to be of value.

How can that be if you haven’t bothered to find out all that you can about what it is the client does, what makes his business tick or stumble, and what constitutes the art of the possible?

McDonald’s always used to insist that their agency teams spent time working in a restaurant (they may very well still do this; I hope they do). For those in management, the time was a week; for the direct client team it was four weeks. No-one in the restaurant besides the Manager knew what we were there to do, nor did we tell them; we were simply short-term help.

It was a brilliant way to learn not only how hard staff work, and what they think about their jobs, but also the practicalities (and I speak from experience). You wouldn’t be quite so quick to suggest multiple Happy Meal promotions if you’ve spent time working out where to store the bits and pieces, and how long it takes to box a set.

The art of the possible is also about ambition. Procter and Gamble once asked Carat to put together a team (we weren’t then a P&G agency) to come to their European HQ to present to them on what we saw as the key trends impacting the media business over the coming years.

‘We’ve enjoyed a competitive advantage in media over the last 30 years; how do we maintain that for the next 30?’ was the modest brief.

After the presentation we went to lunch. Tell me, said the senior P&G guy, what are the implications for us of these new satellite channels? I remember wittering on about media stuff, when to consider this or that channel, how to measure audiences, and concerns over what we would now call brand safety.

No, said the client, what I meant was how do we rent one? What programmes should we make or commission? Should we resurrect P&G Productions? What would the commercial model look like?

My understanding of their ambition was all wrong.

The lesson is to understand the client’s business; take every chance to spend time with them, doing what they do away from talking about the minutiae of media and marketing.

Be curious – your clients deserve it, and your career will thank you for it.


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