In what feels like a flash, 2014 marks my fourteenth year as a communications and marketing professional. It’s been one hell of a ride to say the least. From serving as a naval officer, to helping indie artists sell vinyl records, to working at both small and large agencies alike, the adventure has just begun.
With that said, here are a few tips to consider for anyone who is at the early stages of pursuing any significant amount of time at a marketing or PR agency. Agency life is a bit fast-paced to say the least and hopefully these tips will help guide your initial foray into the world of multi-tasking and client services.
1. Start Small, Go Big
Plenty of people will tell you that you should ONLY ever work at a small agency or ONLY ever work at a big agency. I call BS. There is deep inherent value in both and the reality is that the people and culture of an agency will ultimately be the defining factors that make a workplace great or not so great.
I lucked out. I started at a small agency in Chicago under the leadership of an incredible president and surrounded by a swath of smarties. I was hired as an intern and quickly advanced up the ranks by finding my niche as our social media and digital marketing lead. It was through that experience that I learned to manage projects, guide teams, plan budgets, drive creative strategy, manage design and video production, develop content strategies and most importantly, build strong client relationships. It was as hands on as it could be and I’m so incredibly grateful for that experience and the huge amount of responsibility bestowed upon me.
Eventually I knew that I hit a wall and needed to take a leap in order to grow my career. That was an incredibly difficult and nerve-wracking decision but one that I now reflect upon as a necessary and exciting move. And then…I struggled.
The big agency I was recruited to was not the right fit for me. It was a huge transition both in terms of the type of work and culture. I knew that it wasn’t going to work. When I hopped over to my current agency, it was night and day. I was suddenly surrounded by a lot of colleagues who shared my same thinking, entrepreneurial spirit and knowledge around digital marketing. I have built a network of colleagues who inspire new ideas and thinking each day and help keep our clients two steps ahead. I didn’t ever think I’d be a fan of big agency world but it’s proven to be a great place to test, break and improve upon ideas. Nonetheless, it was my small agency grounding that helped me accelerate quickly. I wouldn’t change a think about going small to big.
2. Get as Much Client Time as Possible
Want to grow your agency career? You better be able to not only write smart emails and build great PPTs, but also hold your own in a room with a client and be a polished presenter. During your career, you’ll eventually be asked to participate in new business pitches or to jump in on particular client meetings, even if you are a specialist. There is no easy way around it, practice makes perfect. The art of “reading a room” is invaluable but only refined through experience. Ask to be involved at every opportunity possible.
3. Recognize Your Role as a Problem Solver
Your client has a problem. A unique challenge and need to achieve some type of marketing or business goal. You need to find out what that is and put on your thinking cap. Innovative agencies don’t rinse and repeat strategies or force fit tactics simply because it worked for another client. Instead, innovative agencies treat every client problem as a fresh slate. Be that person that walks into a brainstorm with a new and unique idea that will catapult others to build upon.
4. Move Around and Be a Connector
Office workspaces are rarely designed well for effective collaboration. Open workspaces often cause an array of distraction while offices and cubicles encourage isolation. The solution? Get up. Move around. Take walking meetings. Grab coffees with colleagues on the other side of the office and help introduce colleagues to each other. Take a lunch break even (gasp!). When you bump into people in the halls, stop for a moment and ask about their weekend or a project they are working on. More often than not, there will be something that pops up that typically would not have been shared over email. You may even get to know your colleagues on a deeper personal level (read: this is called relationship building and your entire agency career likely depends on it).
5. Get a Creative Hobby, Be a Storyteller
Do it. Challenge yourself. It doesn’t matter if it’s mobile photography, sketching, audio storytelling, writing and managing a personal blog or shooting and editing short-form videos. Just pick one and dabble and then dive deep. Understanding creative art forms expands your knowledge (both around technical demands and approach to production and storytelling), which in turn helps you to understand unique and interesting storytelling in new ways.
6. Learn the Art and Science of Storytelling
Learn to write. Learn to write well. Learn what it means to tell a great story and all the elements that go into an impactful story arc. Learn the power of visual storytelling and the importance of multimedia storytelling.
Learn about content marketing, learn about marketing funnels and consumer journeys.
Learn the basics of analytics. Data-driven strategy is at the forefront of this industry and it’s imperative that you know how to use Google Analytics as well as social analytics tools to help guide strategy. In addition, any marketer worth a grain of salt will tell you that a baseline understanding of coding has become crucial. Why, you ask? Coding is at the heart of creating online experiences, which is in turn critical to the future of marketing. The more you know (Code Academy), the more you can strategically guide designers, developers and most importantly, clients to make the best decisions possible.
Art + Science. It’s a winning combo.
7. Study and Practice Leadership Each Day
Want to stand out like a sore thumb in agency world? Be a leader. A real leader. Not just a manager going through the motions. There are plenty of those. Put your people and their problems and concerns first. Always. Good leadership is a rare quality and yet one of the most important things to master as you grow your career. It takes work, studying and constant improvement. Surround yourself with a great team and your success will accelerate tenfold.
8. Stop Talking and Listen
I’m still blown away by the amount of talking most communications professionals like to do without first allowing teammates or clients to share their thoughts and opinions. There is nothing worst than someone taking up all the air in a meeting and leaving attendees without any clear actionable next steps. Plan and guide a discussion but know that you have brought a group together to acquire their input. Give them the guardrails and beacons but let them help you fill in the whitespace.
9. Learn to Budget
You can pretend that you’ve avoided a career in numbers. For the most part, you’re right. Nonetheless, understanding the importance of planning and managing project budgets is paramount. Agencies are notorious for “guesstimates” and “ballparking” budgets that end up getting signed off by clients. The result? Faulty project team planning, scope creep and eventually, overservice. Avoid it. Be a number cruncher and a details junkie. Crank out proposals with as much detail as possible. Nine times out of ten, a client will appreciate the fact that you’ve already gone through the grind of backing your numbers with reason.
10. Adapt a Proactive Mindset
You will hit a breakpoint in your career. I’ve seen this happen many, many times over. A PR or marketing professional hits the 3-4 year mark in their career and they fail to realize the core responsibility of their new role – to always be a step ahead. Big thinkers are constantly dreaming up new ways to solve problems in this world. They are lifelong learners that study their industry, take inspiration from other industries and help to push smart risk. They are curious cats that have a passion for what they do and that in and of itself is a sign that you care about what you do for a living.
11. Be a Team Player
Projects can come and go at a pretty quick pace in agency world. When work spikes and your colleagues need help, raise your hand as long as the ask is remotely within your skills wheelhouse. Everyone is busy, that’s a fact of life in agencies. But, more often than not, teams require more mundane, rather than specialized, help to get a job done on time and within budget for a client. That sacrifice may require a late night at the office or working a day during the weekend, but your willingness to help will go a long way in demonstrating to teammates that you put others ahead of yourself.
12. Check Your Ego at the Door
Nobody likes an ego. It fills the room. It silences innovation. Check it at the door because the reality is that there is ALWAYS someone smarter than you. Always. I promise you.The sooner you can drop your guard and recognize the value of surrounding yourself with people smarter than you, the better off you’ll be.
BONUS: SHUT DOWN
On vacation? Turn email off…notifications, all of it. You need this. You deserve this and your colleagues do as well. Seriously.
Good luck. Go get ’em.