How to have a successful career in advertising

That’s a very arrogant post title isn’t it?

Actually it’s more, what I have learned to be key to succeed in advertising.

This is my farewell post as I will be too busy to post for a long time with the move to W+K Amsterdam. It’s kind of a summary of most of the things I’ve been talking about.

If you can’t be bothered to read it all, here it is in one line:

“Creativity is the ability to see relationships where none exist” Thomas Disch.

Knowledge is power. In advertising, people pay you for what you know and your ability to use this knowledge to create outstanding communication.

There are 2 key things in our jobs: How you deal with people when at work. How you find inspiration when you are not.

So here is my list of the 10 things (ok 12) I believe you need to be successful in advertising today. Whatever you are or want to be: planner, account man or creative. I find it pretty obvious but I am always baffled by the amount of people that pay no importance to any of it whatsoever. In no particular order:

Be curious

In today’s world, you need to have your finger on the pulse more than ever. But just checking advertising news and new work like most people do, is not enough.

Keep an open mind and look for every communication, not just the ubiquitous TV ad. Look for banners, virals, ambient, stunts… They are often the more interesting / innovative.

Understand product innovation and design. Look at firms like Ideo for inspiration. Not Charlotte street ad agencies.

If you look into advertising to find other advertising ideas, you won’t go really far. If you want to know how to create the next thing everyone will envy, you need to look elsewhere. Remember that all virals are black swan.

Know what’s going on in business, design, interactivity, learn how to make mental models.

Whether you work in digital or not, you need to know how to use the Internet. It is the adman’s best friend. And no I’m not talking about Youtube and Facebook. It is a scary beast but it will always give you the edge against someone who doesn’t. Re-read finding inspiration online for example.

Old school advertising agencies are struggling to cope with change because they have lost their curiosity. For them, the world hasn’t changed and Internet hasn’t changed anything. But don’t be as stupid as them and make the same mistake with Internet as they are doing with TV ads. Keep an open mind because everything will soon change once again.

I think one of the main reason that so many ads are similar is because so many people lead the exact same life. They come from the same place, have gone to the same schools, live in the same areas, work in the same places, read and do the same things, frequent the same people…

If you want to have original ideas, this will start by having an original life. Whatever that means to you, your goal should always be to experience things that will give you a ‘unique’ edge, that will provide you with ammunition no one else has. Good employers will always value a good ‘excentric’ profile, rather than just another one of the drones.

People will always respect integrity

If you think it’s not right, say it. Remember that you are here to serve the interests of your client ultimately and you should always have your audience in mind. Not your boss or account director. People are often scared of voicing their opinion in front of their superior or telling their clients they are wrong. If you think he is wrong, say it. But then you need to use the right words to say it, which takes me to the next point.

Become a diplomat

“You can never win an argument.” Jerome Courtial.

Being talented but not diplomatic is going to slow your career. If you think something is shit and say it to someone, you will just hurt them. I’ve learned it the hard way. Still learning it actually. I’ve always been quite confrontational in my early career. Had a lot of arguments. And got myself a lot of enemies as a result. If you learn how to avoid arguments, people will always come to you for advice and help and your career will blossom. If you don’t, you’ll struggle.

Say you get stuck in a lenghty debate with a colleague because you think your idea is better than his. Say you win the argument by openly proving that he is wrong. He’ll be hurt and will seek vengeance. Say you lose it, well, you’ll think he is a twat. The solution is to avoid this type of situation that happen just too often.

You should learn by heart the difference between a dialogue and a debate. They are two very different things. Most of the time, we are in a debate mode, wanting to win the people over with our ideas and ready to do everything for that to happen. But unfortunately it doesnt work that way. Learning the art of dialogue will save your career and you’ll become one of the most valuable asset in the company.

Click here to read the difference between Dialogue and debate.

Book recommendation:

Dialogue and the art of thinking together

– Love your job

It’s obvious, but if you are not 100% sure you want to work in advertising, get out. Now. You won’t last. You’ll be bitter. You’ll hate it over time. On the other hand, if you are fascinated by advertising (in all its different forms), use every bit of your spare time to read creative reviews, constantly watch new work, read blogs, then you are almost guaranteed to succeed.

I have been spending at least one / two hours a day browsing the web for new work / new campaigns for the last 8 years. It had served me well… When I see planners or creative spending almost no time doing it… It kind of scares me.

– Be nice to people and meet a lot of them


Having a genuine interest in people is something that will dramatically help your career. It is also something that you can work on, if you don’t think you have it. The more sociable you are, the more people enjoy you and your conversation, the more opportunities you will have. And you will never have to look for a job again, they will always come to you.

You should also start networking. Join clubs, write a blog, comment on blogs, go to meet people. Make friends. Look at Rob Mortimer, who has a great blog and commented in every advertising blogs around (part from mine that is). He finally got his dreamed job in advertising. I got my job at W+K thanks to having worked with former Campaign Face to Watch Jenny on Eurostar. And writing this blog.

I sincerely wish I had read that book when I was 20: How to win friends and influence people. Seriously, it would have made my life a lot easier. Go read it.

– Be confident

Again, confidence is a key factor in advertising. Clients and colleagues need to be convinced by your ideas. Most people are not able to judge the potential of an idea. They want to be reassured. You have more chances to sell an average idea if you are confident, than a brilliant idea if you are not. It’s unfair, but that’s how it works. If you don’t feel confident, you’ll have to hurt yourself to become it. But it can dramatically improve. Confidence is altered by many factors and will come with experience, but there are tricks that can help. There is no magic formula for it, it depends on personal circumstances.

But there are a few books that can help. I found some interesting tricks in the Mind gym, but it will take a lot more than that to become confident. It’s something you’ll have to work on every day.

– Become an expert

I once had a presentation from some one at Givaudan. They create the fragrances for most luxury perfumes. Their approach is short from being exceptional. They have an incredibly difficult task when they get briefed by one of their clients. And they go to extra length to deliver. When they got briefed to capture a ‘fresh’ sensation for of their main client, they took the whole team and spent a week in the Norwegian winter in the ice hotel. When they needed to understand the smell of nature, they had a trekking experience in the Canadian forest. They didn’t have brainstorms in their offices or tried to understand what consumers wanted from a ‘nature’ smell. They got stuck in and tried to capture it by themselves.

Sounds tricky and expensive, but how many times are people expected to come up with ideas on stuff they have little knowledge of? You can find imaginative ways to be inspired and inspire in return. If you do that, you’ll always be one of a kind.

As soon as you start working on a project, you should make it your mission to become the expert in the field. Be it cars, laundry or nappies, you need to have immersed yourself into t so much that the solution will come naturally to you. Yes it can be boring at first, but bizarrely, after having digested a lot of stuff, it starts being fun.

Also, you should develop your own ‘expertise’ in your area. A certain style. Your trademark. Have a set of questions you always ask yourself. Read how to get to better ideas #1 and #2 for example. I always try to find out to find a couple of books on the products am trying to advertise. Need to work on Ikea? Read Alain de Bottom’s Architecture of happiness and you will have a thousands nuggest about what makes a house a home.

What are your tricks of the trade? What makes you unique?

– Look for new creative opportunities

There are so many different ways to do the same job nowadays, planners and creatives need to be be capable to leverage any channel. New creative opportunities appear everyday, and as we most things, it is first come first served.

I’ve always wanted to do a Facebook app for British Airlines where you could put all the cities you have been to. Now it’s been done and seen by million of people. I should have pushed harder.

Advertising has never meant TV ads. Just remember that. As someone at Nike said:

“We’re not in the business of keeping the media companies alive, we’re in the business of connecting with consumers.”

Advertising can take any form and doesn’t have to be push only. It’s from participating rather than just advertising that Nike’s domination has come from. Often what you do for your audience is much more important than what you say.

Learn new ways to communicate. I have written one model for modern communication but there are many others. Find yours.

– Learn to collaborate

There are now more and more different partners involved in the creative process. Inside but also more and more outside of an advertising agency. It’s open house. The ones who think the planner writes the brief and the creative writes the ad are going to find it difficult in the long term.

The ones who can embrace complexity, change and the fact that an idea should (not can) come from anywhere will be the ones who make great work. The creative process is not rigid anymore but is an organic thing, involving all sort of different partners, meaning outside of your agencies.

Also remember most of the experience you will need will come from outside of your agency. The best writers, developers, designers, etc. tend to be available on a freelance basis. There is no shame in getting people outside of your agency. There is a shame in trying to do it all in-house and failing.

Read: a response to the creative revolution.

Also learn how to deal with brainstorms, it can be helpful, but not the way it’s used.

Book recommendation: Group genius, the creative power of collaboration. Keith Sawyer.

– Understand human nature

Claude hopkins had it right. The (real) inventor of advertising – he was behind brands like Palmolive, Campbell Soup, Ford… – hired creative with only one criteria: that they understood human nature. He didn’t care whether they were experienced copywriters or just farmers or city bankers. He just wanted people that were capable of understanding people and had common sense. Yes, in theory that’s what planners should be doing. But this is not something you learn by looking at research documents. This is a talent you can develop by always trying to understand what makes people tick. By always trying to understand how people’s emotions are triggered. Get a feel for what motivates people.

I did sociology at school and it sure helped me doing that. Having seen the Maslow pyramid is good. But not enough.

I also enjoy some work from anthropologist like Kate Fox’s Watching the English.

Doing people watching is also always interesting, looking at how they behave, what they wear, drink and do.

– Be a better presenter

Having a good idea is great. But if you can’t sell it, it’s pointless.

They are countless ways to make an idea feel bigger and exciting.

It means unfortunately learning to master the trickery of PowerPoint. Frequent reading of Presentation Zen always helps. But also learn how to make videos, designs, animations, drawing, pictures…

The more multimedia skills you have, the more efficient you’ll become at convincing people.

Part of the reason David Armano’s blog is so great is his ability to communicate complicated things in very simple and appealing visuals (and the originality and excellence of writing, of course). You can write long paragraphs. Or you can make a graph that explains it all:

– Harness the power of stories

Whether you are a planner or a creative, stories are the best communication tool we have at our disposal. I have just started realising it and it’s been an enormous help when presenting and working with creative:

Re-read Where are the storytellers if you need convincing.

Books recommendations:

Stealing fire from the gods, James Bonnet

The hero with a thousand faces, Joseph Campbell

The secret language of leadership, how leaders inspire action through narrative, Stephen Denning

Made to stick, why some ideas survive and others dies, Heath Brothers

There are a lot of other things too, someone in the comments section mentioned having a mentor. I never really had one mentor, but always found one in every agency I worked for. And they’ve always been of a great help. What is your experience?

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  1. September 10, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    Fantastic post!

    Something else that helps in having a successful career in advertising is getting a mentor. Easier said than done, I know. But if you find one, they’re great to bounce ideas off and to learn things from.

  2. HL
    September 10, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    Great post Jerome. Good luck at W+K.

  3. September 10, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    In the spirit of being nice to people and meeting them, let me buy you a pint once you’re here in Amsterdam.

    Welcome in Mokum.

  4. Digicynic
    September 11, 2008 at 9:53 am

    Thank you.
    Henry, I wanted to thank you for your early support. It has helped me carry on.
    Piecenl, I take your offer! Don’t know anyone in the Dam.
    email is jcourtial at yahoo dot co dot uk.
    Thanks again!

  5. September 12, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Fantastic post Jerome. Best of luck at the new gig!

  6. Digicynic
    September 12, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    Thanks Dino, hope your new job is good!

  7. September 13, 2008 at 9:06 am

    Thanks for an excellent and well presented list. Will definitely redistribute this throughout my agency. :o)

    I personally like the start with curiosity. I would say curiosity even outside of business and innovation is most important as it leads to a better understanding of the fragrances and nuances of the people of the world. And leads to EMPATHY, one of the most important abilities I think an ad-person can have.

    The ability to put own feelings aside and see the world from the eyes of the “target”. As Robert McNamara said while referencing understanding Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis:

    “We need to pt ourselves under their skin, and look at us through their eyes, just to see the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions”.

    Again, thanks for all the valuable knowledge so far, and good luck in Amsterdam. :o)

  8. September 13, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    What a great post Jerome. I am distributing it to all and I wish you all the best in Amsterdam. I’m going to Picnic – http://www.picnicnetwork.org and so will hopefully be dropping into the agency week after next, maybe see you there.

  9. September 14, 2008 at 9:51 am

    Really, really nice post.

  10. Digicynic
    September 18, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks all.
    Damiano, drop me a line if you are around. PicNic sounds great!

  11. September 24, 2008 at 11:11 am

    Very nice indeed. Honestly I struggle the most with keeping a dialogue rather than a debate and I know this is and will keep hindering me until I can figure out how to chillax enough to not be to aggressive. This applies both in real world relationships as well as in the working world!

    Thanks for the tips.

  12. Digicynic
    September 24, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    don’t worry, I’m still struggling. But getting better. Slowly…

  13. September 30, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    what a brilliant post; I can’t believe Scamp has left it til your last post to plug you!

  14. September 30, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Thank you for this. Hope to cross paths someday. Best of luck

    D

  15. Andrea
    September 30, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    I’m here to join the crowd that has just discovered your blog via Scamp since it’s sooo hard to keep track of all the interesting people out there but I’m glad I did – better late than never!

    I’ve struggled a bit with trying to be a diplomat at times. I used to work with a lot of women in the creative department and took the first hits when they were very blunt in their approach so I thought well sod it, I’ll do the same. Naturally they were offended (as if I hadn’t been) and it was a bit of a struggle between a lot of women fighting for the ‘Miss Right’ title. Anyway.

    See, I wish I had read this post when I started working 😀

    Good luck with your new work place…and you know, er is leven na werk 😀

  16. September 30, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    Great post Jerome, that’ll add to my monthly amazon order. Good luck in the ‘dam.

  17. Wal
    October 1, 2008 at 10:00 am

    wicked post, just read it, gonna go through all linked content tonight. thanks a lot!

  18. Martin Bush
    October 1, 2008 at 11:07 am

    Glad I’ve stumbled across this today. Wicked post mate. Reminds me of all the things I once knew but now have clearly forgotten. Thanks for the kick up the arse! Good luck with the new job.

  19. Digicynic
    October 1, 2008 at 3:36 pm

    thanks everyone, makes me wish I spent more time on it, I wrote it so fast, it’s full of typos and definitely not comprehensive!
    Glad you found it helpful 🙂

  20. October 1, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    What a fantastic post for anyone anywhere actually. From a young man about to start in this industry soon, i could not have asked for better advice. Thank you Jerome. Best of luck in Amsterdamn.

  21. October 2, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    I was nodding in agreement then noticed my name!!
    Great post, I can’t think of anything I disagree with.

    (At least I can say I have posted here now…just after you stopped writing!)

    Good luck at W+K!

  22. Monica
    October 2, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    Hey there,

    I’m a student at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I’m constantly on the web scouting cool things & lurking in the background of the gazillion blogs I read. I really appreciate your article as when I graduate I will be in my late 30’s (thank God I don’t look my age!!) So any insight into how to break into the ad world, even though I’m getting a bit of a late start, helps a bunch. Fare well at your new job!!

  23. October 3, 2008 at 12:29 am

    Bloody hell Jerome, that that’s the most sensible stuff you’ve ever written… and i’ve read a lot of your planning docs. haha

    good luck at W+K mate.. sure you’ll rock it

  24. Alina Hueckelkamp
    October 24, 2008 at 8:40 am

    thank you very much for these rules. made my day and so much inspiration.

  25. October 25, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Wow. Useful and inspiring. Thanks for that and best of luck at W+K.
    Hope to meet you someday.
    Amandine

  26. November 3, 2008 at 11:35 am

    I recently started on a grad scheme and this blog really distilled and articulated a lot of the training I’ve gone through. Good luck in Amsterdam.

  27. amal
    November 8, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    very inspiring, i’m going to forward it to my little brother and of course welcome to the city of cities.

  28. leahdelrosario
    November 15, 2008 at 5:37 am

    hi, i’m an advertising student from the Philippines. i really find your blog posts very essential to my field. thanks for the inputs!

    would you mind if i repost this topic to my blog? =)

  29. November 23, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    hi, i’m a creative from the philippines. i really find your post very essential to my world. thanks for the inputs!

    would you mind if i bookmark this topic? =)

    lol

  30. December 16, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    While I have always been a fan of T. Disch, I need to point out that long before he said “Creativity is the ability to see relationships where none exist” it was something that Leo Burnett said again and again. And I am sure he wasn’t the first to say it either.

    • Digicynic
      December 17, 2008 at 11:24 am

      Thanks for that. Duly noted. Yes it’s one of those quotes that is hard to own.

  31. December 19, 2008 at 8:55 pm

    hey man, don’t know how i ended up here – but glad i did. fantastic list.
    i’m a planner in the w+k ny office (on espn). hope ams is treating you well and hope to work with/meet you sometime soon. happy holidays.

  32. Olivia
    May 21, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    I found this utterly inspiring, for someone who wants to be in advertising you have just inspired me.
    Thank you and Good Luck to you.

  1. September 13, 2008 at 5:07 pm
  2. September 19, 2008 at 8:54 am
  3. September 20, 2008 at 10:23 pm
  4. October 8, 2008 at 12:39 pm
  5. October 12, 2008 at 9:36 pm
  6. October 13, 2008 at 2:24 pm
  7. October 22, 2008 at 4:44 pm
  8. November 6, 2008 at 11:44 am
  9. November 15, 2008 at 2:54 am
  10. January 10, 2009 at 10:43 am
  11. February 19, 2009 at 3:26 pm
  12. July 28, 2009 at 9:17 pm
  13. August 23, 2009 at 3:28 pm

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