Saturday, 1 September 2007

Star Stories: Jon Steel

Here is our first 'Star Story', by Jon Steel, Director of the WPP Fellowship. This will be posted on the Wiki shortly, along with other people's personal experiences of getting into the industry.


by Jon Steel

I am writing this by accident.

You see, I was never supposed to work in advertising. I should have been teaching geography and coaching the 1st XI cricket team at some leafy English private school. If I ever really had a plan, that was it.

But twenty-five years after leaving university, I have spent my entire working life in the advertising business. I was a director of a London agency after five years; within ten I was a partner at another agency in San Francisco. Since 2002 I have worked for Sir Martin Sorrell at WPP, one of the world’s largest marketing communications groups.

So where did it all go wrong?

It all started when a friend suggested that I should apply for jobs in the advertising business. He told me that all the good jobs – and therefore the interviews – would be in London. And in London, he said, he knew a number of fun-loving nurses.

That seemed quite appealing. As I started to research the business and its requirements for graduates, it also seemed that advertising might be a good fit for me. In a year spent working for my university’s students’ union I had run advertising for the newspaper and radio station and managed a number of full-time staff. I had been told I could write reasonably well. I had a good degree. Even without the nurses I would have felt compelled to apply.

I applied to about fifteen agencies for a position in account management (the account manager is the person who represents the client’s business interests inside the agency). Within a few weeks I had been rejected by fourteen of them, including all the major agencies owned today by WPP. At the fifteenth, BMP, I was asked whether I might prefer to be an account planner. When I admitted that I had never heard of such a role, my interviewer explained that planners used consumer research to help craft advertising strategy. I told him that it didn’t really appeal to me.

BMP subsequently hired me as an account manager, but only when their first-choice candidate turned them down for a higher paid job in the City. Within six months I had transferred from account management to account planning. (Once inside the agency I had seen the job in a new light and had discovered that it was more interesting than I had initially thought.) Five years later I was surprised to find myself running a planning department in an agency in San Francisco, a job I held for a decade. On my return to the UK – again unexpected – I now find myself working on a daily basis with the management of agencies like Ogilvy & Mather, Grey, Young & Rubicam and J. Walter Thompson, all of whom had rejected me when I first applied a quarter of a century ago.

My career has been full of accidents, and it has also been enriched by others who stumbled into jobs they probably always wanted but never knew existed. At BMP I was trained in the ways of advertising by a man whose degree was in aeronautical engineering, and by another who was a classics scholar; in the ensuing years I have hired lawyers, doctors, and engineers and even a killer whale trainer, all of whom realized along the way that they didn’t really want to be lawyers, doctors, engineers or (surprisingly) killer whale trainers.

I tell you all of this for three main reasons:

First, being focused and having a plan is not all it’s cracked up to be. Over the years I have met a lot of unhappy people who were doing the jobs that their parents and teachers always wanted them to do. I’m sure there are lots of people out there heading for careers in teaching, management consultancy, law, or indeed anything and everything else, who would actually have a lot more fun in the marketing communications business if they knew what it had to offer.

Second, being rejected is not the end of the world. In my case, it was probably a good thing that all those other agencies rejected me when I was twenty-one, because I later realized that I wouldn’t have been happy at most of them. At my first agency I found the perfect job, in an environment that suited my personality. At other places I would have been a fish out of water. With every rejection I also learned some important lessons, and in the end, albeit with a generous dose of luck, I was able to put them to good use.

My final point relates to my experience of rejection. Each year as the director of WPP’s Marketing Fellowship programme I have to say ‘no’ to almost 1,500 applicants, but when I do so I always try to remember how it felt when I was the recipient of such bad news. In those days the news came in a letter. Sometimes they started with “Dear Mr. Steel.” Others addressed me with “Dear Candidate.” One started, surprisingly, with “Dear Shirley.” But one recruitment director took the time to write me a personal letter, and I have never forgotten that. BMP’s chief executive actually took the time to call me after my first interview and explain what was going on. Now I can’t make 1,500 phone calls, but I do always call the one hundred or so interviewees and give them feedback on our meeting. If they haven’t made it I tell them why.

It’s impossible to make anyone feel happy when telling them they haven’t made it, that the answer is ‘no.’ But you should never forget that when you hear that dreaded word, it may well signify the beginning of something much better.

Jon Steel is the Director of WPP’s Marketing Fellowship Programme, and author of “Truth, Lies & Advertising” and “Perfect Pitch” (John Wiley & Sons, NY). He still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.


Georgina said...

WOW! Jon Steel!!! This is VIP guys!

I'm becoming a regular reader here, someday I'll tell my story too ;-)

good work!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Georgina, we have more heavy hitters to come. Watch this space.

Anonymous said...

And he is bald, too.

Anonymous said...

Interesting reading! Is it possible to get in touch with Mr.Steel himself? We´re making the impossible pitch and could really need a good advise or two from a pro. Greetings from Sweden