Five Things You Should Know To Survive in the Agency Business

4 min read

Ken Honeywell

I’m old.

Let’s just get that out of the way. I know I’m old—especially for someone in the agency business. People don’t usually last 40 years in this business, certainly not on the creative side. It’s a high-burnout game.

So if I sound like an old man, well, yeah. I started my advertising career in the summer of 1981.

And I’m ending it at the end of this month.

Lots of old folks have stories, and I’ve got a million of them. Some of them are funny. Some are horrifying. Some of them are even true.

But storytelling is not my purpose today. My purpose is to pass on, without too much old-man bloviating, a few nuggets of wisdom. Here are five things I know that, if you’re going to make it even half as long as I did in or around this business, you should know, too.

1. Know your clients’ industries.

The best advertising and marketing people want to know as much as they possibly can about their clients and what they do. Why do people buy what they’re selling? Why do they choose a competitor’s product instead? What issues do they face? What’s coming next? What can you say and do that’s different from what their competitors can say and do? Stop thinking of yourself as being in the agency business and start thinking of yourself as being in the healthcare business, or the machine tool business, or the whatever-your-client-does business—because, in a very real way, you are in your client’s business. The better you understand that, the more successful you (and, in most cases, your clients) will be.

2. Know what’s possible now—and what’s ahead.

I saw some of the most talented commercial designers of my generation refuse to make the leap from the drawing board to the computer. I saw some of the most perceptive marketing strategists I know treat blogging and social media and digital marketing with blithe disregard. Yes, TV and print advertising are still things, but they’re not everything. If you’re not keeping up, you’re behind. And don’t think hanging onto the past is just a Boomer problem. If you’re not ready for everything to change again in a few years, well…back to the drawing board for you.

3. Know how to collaborate.

Politics ain’t beanbag, and marketing ain’t solitaire. For example: Getting a TV spot done typically involves a writer, an art director, a producer (or producers), the account service team, a director, an editor, actors, an audio engineer, maybe (if you’re lucky) a composer—plus location scouts, DPs, PAs, gaffers, grips, hair and makeup artists, and others. Oh, and your client. If you’re not prepared to compromise, if you’re not prepared to collaborate and let others do their jobs and contribute, you’re either going to be miserable or make everyone else miserable (or, more likely, both). And—wonder of wonders—sometimes other people have good ideas, too.

4. Know when to just build the cabinets.

Too many times, I’ve been witness to creative folks fighting with clients, trying to salvage an idea the client isn’t going to buy. You will not win them all; in fact, you may not win most of them. Treasure your wins and know when continuing to push for your idea is important—and when it’s only about your ego. Remember that advertising is not art: It’s a craft, more like carpentry than sculpture. You’re spending someone else’s money, and their name and logo—not yours—is going on the final product. Put it this way: You owe your clients your best ideas and your best advice. But there’s no shame in relenting when they want something different. If your clients continually want you to do dumb or crummy work, maybe you need new clients. Until you decide to fire them, know when it’s time to back down and give them the cabinetry they want.

5. Know how lucky you are.

Seriously. The agency business is stressful. You’re only as good as the last thing you did. You’re going to get rejected a lot. You’ll have to learn to turn on dimes and adjust on flies. Sometimes, you’ll have to work more than 40 hours a week. But here’s the thing: You also get to work with a bunch of smart, kind, nice, funny, curious, interesting people. Over the last 40 years, I have enjoyed my work more than anyone has a right to. I have almost never been bored. That’s what agency work should be: hard, but fun. If it’s not that way for you, it’s time to either get out or find a better agency.

On that note: If you’re looking for a place to work, I invite you to consider Well Done Marketing. Drop me a note if you’re interested. I have stories.