Thursday, 21 March 2013

Graduate Memories & An Exeter Apology...

Me, today.

Hello, Exeter folks (or regular AdGrads student readers).

As you may or may not have noticed, I’m not there speaking today. Sorry about that.

By way of an apology, I’ve decided to write a blog post. Not just any blog post, either. One that, I hope, is helpful for those who are deciding whether a career in communications* (*PR, Advertising in this case) is the right thing for you. It features a bit of my story and some of the lessons I've learned along the way. Read on...

Once upon a time in my first year, I wandered up from Birks (the old one, not the shiny new Birks Grange – this one resembled something like a 1950’s prison) and went to see the careers folks. I was told I should either become a teacher or a solicitor (NB: Exeter's career service is now excellent, but when I was graduating, finding the right job was a bit trickier for the average English student).

Being an English undergrad at the time, both seemed, well, a bit creatively sterile** (**they are creative in their own way, but I was interested in making stuff; y’know, stuff with my own name attached to it in some way – the English student’s creative conceit, I think).

They also, if I'm honest, seemed a bit grown up. And, as a 19 year old man-child who could barely cook for himself, never mind entertain the notion of a ‘proper’ job, I wasn’t overly enthused:

"COULDN’T a job encourage my creative side? DO I have to wear a suit every day, anyway? WHY can't I be paid well for thinking about and helping to create ideas?"

In a way, I was lucky. I knew of one from the start. That was Advertising. I’d been fortunate enough to grow up in a household in the West Midlands where my father was involved with managing an ad agency. I’d been able to find out about the inner-most workings of how ads got made, and the process of talking to clients, conducting research and creating creative work to solve a client’s business problem/s.

Account handlers (account executives when junior, rising through account manager to account director and beyond) were the day to day liaison with the client – the business minded sorts who sold work to the client and generally ensured everything went smoothly. Account planners were the ones who analysed the marketplace, trends and helped some up a defined problem for communications to solve (in the form of a creative brief), assessing the work as/after it was made. Creatives – art directors, copywriters (and even digital/tech developers) were those who came up with the ideas to help clients sell more products or amplify consumer behaviour.

With all of this prior knowledge and career advice bubbling in the background, I got on with the serious*** (***it wasn't that serious – not with my amount of hours) business of getting a degree. And, I got one. And it was lovely, and all that. Mum was very proud.

Knowing what I know now, I should have tried to get some work experience in the holidays. If you’re reading this as a first or second year student, try and do it as soon as you can, even if it's just one stint. Of course, I wasn’t from the South East, and this poses a massive problem for most people – how do you come to a major ad agency (the overwhelming majority of whom are based in London) if you can’t live at home or don’t have friends in the area?**** (**** the answer is ‘stay in a youth hostel’, for those who’re thinking about it).

Anyway, that’s an aside. I applied to lots of ad agency graduate schemes, all of which I found out through the IPA (the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) or through my Dad/googling. And, I was confident. I had a good degree, after all. So, what happened next?

Total rejection.

After the first interview (at Leo Burnett, who run a very fine graduate programme), I was rejected from every other place without an initial chat. You might say it was a bit of a set back.

After completing a few pieces of work experience (at Fallon and DLKW)…with even more rounds of rejection… I had a conversational language. I knew how to speak ‘ad’; I was comfortable when talking about ideas in ads – about what ads were trying to achieve and what they could have been.

I’d urge EVERY person reading this who’s thinking about advertising or comms to practice this, and to ask questions of it – what is the comms trying to say? What do you like about it? Or, better yet, what do you dislike? (NB: Check the AdGrads archives for more information; there's lots about this in there).

Spurred on by this, I started a blog***** (***** back when blogging was a new, fairly useful way of standing out; it’s less useful now, as everyone's doing it.) documenting my adventures in adland. The blog, called ‘Confessions of a Wannabe Ad Man’, can now be found here. All of the archives are there, and I think they helped me when explaining how and why I liked Advertising.

Because of these experiences, I eventually got into account management at Saatchi & Saatchi, where I was a fairly terrible account handler. Happily, I was a better planner. I have worked at Lowe, Edelman, Anomaly and M+C Saatchi/LIDA. I’m still at the latter.

That’s my story.

After going through this experience, I've picked up the odd lesson. I hope these are useful:
  1. Mentors are the most important part of communications (and indeed, any job). With a good one, you learn exponentially and have someone to test things on. Without one, you are prone to free wheeling.
  2. Start big, get smaller. The bigger agencies have the time and resource to train you properly. The small ones, though you learn a lot through doing, you un the risk of not learning properly. You can always work at that sexy small agency. Far better to work there when you know the basics well. 
  3. Think about how you communicate. It’s a bit wanky to say ‘you’re a brand’, but you must be able to prove why you like communications, and be able to be found. If I googled you, would I find you and your opinions/interests? No? Then why do you want to work in communications?
  4. Keep track of your favourite on your lateral thinking. What’s the best example of thinking you’ve seen to solve a problem? It can be non comms led (ideally it would be marketing-based), an ad, something you’ve done or so on – but it must show a clever lateral thought to solve an associated problem. Keep a log of your favourites. They’ll help when demonstrating how you think about the world in an interview.
  5. Don’t get disheartened. Rejection is part and parcel of the game. Before every relevant job or decision, I have been rejected far more than I’ve been accepted. The trick is to use it to spur you on. After all, Advertising is a trade, not a profession. There’s rarely one way to solve a problem, or indeed, one straightforward way to get in.
Exeter folks, I’ll try to be there next time. Honest.

Feel free to email me on William.Humphrey at if you have any further questions.

Good luck to any student reading this.

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