This Much I’ve Learned – Part Two: People

I’ve been in the ad business almost 50 years, starting as a messenger in an ad agency in the days when the UK had one commercial TV channel, no commercial radio stations and precious little in the way of formal training for budding agency staff. Despite myself I’ve absorbed lessons, and so from time to time I’m going to devote the Cog Blog to attempting to summarise a few things I’ve learned.

This one focuses on people. What follows could have been much longer and included real-life examples (and will be if I ever bother to work this up into a speech!). The first post, on what I’ve learned about agencies is here.


  1. I’ve never been over-impressed by academic qualifications when hiring, probably because I never went to university. A candidate’s holiday work, part-time jobs, and work experience and how he or she had prepared for the interview always impressed me at least as much as formal pieces of paper.
  2. Interviews are stressful. Don’t keep the candidate waiting (or if you do, get a message to them to explain why), be courteous, and let them know of your decision as quickly as you can. Ducking telling an unsuccessful candidate that they haven’t got the job is pathetic. Explain why; offer helpful constructive advice. One day you may need a job from them.
  3. My go-to interview question was always: ‘What’s your favourite ad, and why?’ I didn’t care what they chose only that they chose something and argued for it coherently. I cared that they cared about the industry they wanted to join. I have a nightmare suspicion that today’s candidates for media agency jobs are instead asked to explain Facebook’s algorithm. And we wonder why we’re in this mess?
  4. In interviewing for any position, I would see at least 5 people who were capable of doing the day-to-day job. And (if I was lucky) one that we would all like to spend time with, including hour after hour in stressful situations. Character and attitude count for a lot.


Managing People

  1. The best managers show empathy, are interested in the work their teams are doing, offer help wherever and whenever it’s needed and live by the dictum ‘Do as you would be done by’.
  2. The worst managers find a dozen ways a day to illustrate how important they are, and live by the dictum ‘Do as I say not as I do.’
  3. ‘Thanking’ people on LinkedIn or Twitter is no substitute for saying thank you to their face or on the phone. All you’re doing by thanking someone on social media is to appear distant and impersonal. The message these SM notes send is that you’re more interested in your own social media profile than in your staff.


Doing the Job

  1. We live in a bubble of privilege. Few ad campaigns are aimed at us. Get out and about with the people your clients want to reach. Keep your eyes and ears open, listen and watch how people behave (clue – it’s almost certainly not like you, or if it is you’ve wandered into one of your agency’s meeting rooms by mistake).
  2. You never stop learning. I’ve been around this business 50 years and virtually every day I learn something new. Remember that next time you meet someone who claims to know it all.
  3. There is absolutely no monopoly on good ideas. However big and important you become, go out of your way to meet as many people as you can, learn to listen (a skill far too many of us don’t have), and (to paraphrase Unilever) steal with pride.
  4. There are few things as dispiriting as being ignored. Having your efforts constructively criticised is OK, but just being ignored is soul-destroying, not to mention plain rude. If someone (I mean a real person) takes the trouble to write to you then reply, even if only to say thanks but no thanks.
  5. You get to kiss a lot of frogs in this business. But sometimes one will turn into a prince. Don’t miss out on the prince.



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