Mentors, Experience and Knowledge…

We’d all hope for something like this – well, maybe more careery…

Hello there.

By trying to get Sammy I elected as IPA Hottie (vote Ismail, vote often – send it round your agency), I thought I probably wouldn’t write anything until that had been decided.

But no, Neil’s posted something on the topic of being engaged with your career which has stirred me to blog. More specifically, how surprised he was that so few of his audience had read certain key marketing textbooks which (given that they were 3-5 years into comms planning) you’d have expected them to read.

He shot me a cheeky PM to ask what I thought about it from an Adgrads perspective. Well, with or without my Adgrads hat on, I feel pretty sad – and a little justified for helping set up the blog (and this one, to be honest).

I’ve posted on the topic on his blog (warning, turns into a bit of a rant about process), though I thought I should address the topic here as well.

Having been in this business for about 2 1/2 years now (almost time for my two year planning birthday, lordy), I’m almost at the experience level his audience were and I think I can have a stab at just why so few had read those books.

Bluntly, I think it comes down to mentoring. An awful lot of agencies (media, creative, PR etc etc) claim to practice training. But it’s a nonsense. Agencies don’t have very big HR departments, and don’t know – more than ever – just what to train their staff in. Should they be digital specialists? Should they focus on strategy? What about being able to source things, in order to be entrepreneurial and exploit new channels?

I’ve been very lucky, and very fortunate in my career. Growing up with a father who worked in advertising meant that whenever I had a silly question to ask, I could ask him. So before I ever got into the business, I had a good grounding in what was acceptable practice at an ad agency and what wasn’t.

Then, I was hired by one of the best minds in planning and (though it wasn’t for very long), learnt a lot from him. Namely, to have ideas, to read weird shit, to keep looking for ways to surprise and delight my clients.

Bouts of freelance and blogging meant I met an awful lot of very smart people who helped shape my thinking and kept me reappraising how I approach things from a professional (and personal) way.

And then, finally, in my current role, i’ve learnt core planning skills, and worked with some of the best in the business. What’s really important, I feel, is that I’m allowed a free reign; yes, I work on clients, and do conventional work – but if I really want to go to an event, or to meet with a company to talk about a partnership, i’m allowed to. Not every job would give me that freedom, and i’m hugely fortunate and thankful for that.

Now, compare my experiences with say, the average planner at a media agency or ad agency. On a grad scheme, you’ll spend a long time learning the ropes of how an agency works (I didn’t have to, to be honest – been told about that from day dot), about how to deal with clients (ditto – when your father deals with concrete manufacturers, it makes you have a low tolerance for juniors bleating about ‘boring’ brand briefs or clients shouting ‘insight’ when something obvious is ‘discovered’) and about the process.

Well, fuck the process. The process makes you stupid. Efficient, yes. But so what? I’d rather be the lateral thinker than someone who knows how to put figures into an Excel spreadsheet or doing lots of ‘crazy builds’ in PowerPoint.

It’s not to say the process isn’t something you need to be aware of, and yes – as a planner, you do need to know how to use PowerPoint and Excel. But is it the job?

God no. If it was, I wouldn’t be in this industry. Read Rory Sutherland’s account of how he got into the business, and focus on the last few paragraphs:

“This is one of very few jobs where doing almost anything of interest can make you better at your job.

Actuaries, bankers, acountants – their jobs aren’t improved by watching people in a cafe, listening to conversations from bus passengers or taxi drivers, reading a book about history or economics or watching a film. We can become better copywriters in our spare time. Never forget what a rare and wonderful thing that is.”

Remove copywriters and add in planners or account management. The same applies. I want to work with those who can think laterally first, get shit done and be willing to learn. They can learn the process at any time.

And, for my part, I think it’s taken the sum of all of my many mentors – from Richard to Amelia, to Rebecca, to my father – to help me learn this.

Aha, you say – but my current comms job is a war of attrition, is boring and I have no shining light…

So what? FIND one. Make one up if you have to. Come along to the odd coffee morning. Inspiration is where you find it. Write something. Blog. Tweet. Most importantly, have an opinion.

Just don’t be like the client (who shall remain nameless) that my father told me about when I was a little lad:

[NB: It’s a fairly well known FMCG brand]

Every two years, my dad would meet the new junior brand manager, someone fresh from University and brimming with new ideas for a new campaign.

Sounds good, you might think. But wait.

“Mike – I’ve had an idea for our new campaign. You see, I think we’ve been missing a trick. People don’t buy x product for the taste. No, it’s more than that. More sensorial, more something which stirs the senses.”

“I think, this year…we should focus on conveying aroma in our communications”.

Right, you think. This sounds fairly conventional. But bear in mind that my father’d spent probably a good 15 years with this client on his roster. And, routinely, there’d be a junior brand manager – each one who’d say the same thing. Every two years, regular as clockwork.

That’s what not having a mentor does for you. That”s never going to happen to me, but I worry it happens at some agencies.