What to Expect From a Career in Advertising

The Roles, Responsibilities, and Expectations of an Ad Career

Ad Agency
Ad Agency. Getty Images

If it's Monday, you're shooting a big-budget TV spot for a Super Bowl advertising campaign. Wednesday, you design a geek-sleek website with apps out the wazoo for a world-famous beer brand. Friday has you rubbing shoulders with Aerosmith, who's about to record your snappy jingle.

Ah, a career in advertising. Inspiration, affirmation, glitz and glam all day long. Or so the movies and TV shows would have you believe.

In truth, if you plan to succeed as something other than the owner's nephew, expect to work harder than you ever have in your life. But as advertising legend and former ad agency owner Mary Wells once said, it might be "the most fun you can have with your clothes on." However, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Whether you're a recent college grad or you've been in the workforce a few years, and you're wondering whether a career in advertising is right for you, here's a preview of what to expect as one of the Mad Men or Mad Women.
 

Where You'll Work

One of the great things about a gig in advertising is the number of places it can take you. With the proper credentials, you could work in a variety of settings:

  • Advertising agencies
  • Media buying service firms
  • In-house creative services departments
  • Consumer package goods companies
  • Industrial firms
  • Hospitals
  • Banks
  • Professional sports teams
  • Television and radio stations
  • Non-profit organizations
  • Web and digital media houses
  • Your house, in your own business

That's because there's far more going on behind the scenes than what appears in a magazine ad or a TV commercial. Not just the domain of "creative geniuses," there's a role for every skill set, serving all kinds of businesses.

And thus a job for every aptitude.
 

Job Titles and Functions in Advertising

There are many different roles in advertising. Your skills and interests will guide you to the career path that is a perfect fit for you. Here are some of the key players:

  • Copywriter: Are you wildly creative and wonderfully witty? Do you like a little alliteration? Then you would fare well as a copywriter, the brainchild who helps develop the ideas for ads and websites, and then writes the text.
  • Art Director: You love illustration, photography and design. You don't just read headlines; you wonder whether they would look better in a different font. Visual masters of the marketing universe, art directors work directly with copywriters to design the websites, ads and the brochures that make us buy stuff.
  • Media Buyer/Planner: Yes, there IS a conspiracy behind why commercials for your favorite products appear during your favorite shows. Or why websites seem to know what you've searched for in the past. Blame the media buyer -- part CPA, part Machiavelli.
  • Account Executive/Account Supervisor: Although advertising agencies often combine roles, one person usually handles contact with the client and guides their projects. The account executive is the captain of the client's ship. If you're a control freak and a detail person, you could be a client's best ally.
  • Creative Director: After a few years as copywriter or art director, you might rise to the role of creative director and become a Don Draper doppelganger. As the title implies, you'll nurture all things creative, inspiring and evaluating ideas for TV spots, websites and ad campaigns, and working with account execs to keep the client the happy.
  • User Experience (UX) Designer: You have strong opinions about how a website should work. In fact, you'd like to engineer the very way people interact with them. You, oh organized and computerized soul might make a great UX designer.

But let's say you're a corporate type who can't see himself working in a wild and crazy advertising agency. Consider a path to director of communications, acting as the liaison to the ad agency, or setting up an in-house agency.

Or maybe you'd rather be on the media side. If you can sell, you'll be getting a swell commission to persuade media buyers and clients to place their advertising on your TV station, newspaper or website.
 

Love and Know Your Computer

No matter what you want to do in advertising, it pays to be tech-savvy. The more self-sufficient you are with a computer, the more valuable you'll be. Naturally, the software you need to understand will vary by your area of focus. But the price of admission to advertising is comfort with programs like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. And familiarity with design programs such as InDesign, Quark, Photoshop or Dreamweaver, may be helpful, depending on your job.

In just the last few years, technology has changed the advertising business dramatically. Once a staple of any ad plan, newspapers are indeed yesterday's news and failing daily. In their place, social media is a rising marketing tool. Facebook, Twitter, and blogging have gone from being fun activities to the media many companies now use to promote. When McDonald's has a Facebook page (with over 62.5 million fans), you know the world has changed. And that leads nicely into...

 

Digital Skills are Becoming the Norm

The ad business is constantly evolving. As the last section indicates, the use of a computer as a staple in advertising is relatively new. Indeed, just 30 years ago many ad agencies had a "computer room," which housed Macs and PCs for the sole purpose of creating visuals. Copywriters and account teams would have a basic PC on which to write copy and creative briefs. Now, everyone has a very powerful Mac or PC in front of them all day. And thanks to smartphones, the need for digital skills is growing rapidly. 

If you are an art director, designer, or creative director, you need to get at least a basic knowledge of coding. That means HTML, Javascript, Java, XML, and perhaps Linux. This is the future of the industry, and employers want to know that your skills will translate seamlessly into the digital space. Sure, you can rely on agency webmasters and programmers to do it for you, but that will not last long.

The "jack of all trades" creative employee is becoming king. An art director with a superb knowledge of the Adobe Creative Suite, and a firm grasp of HTML will be much more attractive to an agency that just an art director. And copywriters, do not think you are off the hook. If you want to advance your career and eventually become a creative director, lacking these skills will put you at a huge disadvantage. If it comes down to you and a designer with coding, you'll be out of luck. Fortunately, it's quick and easy to get a basic grasp of these skills, with many outlets online teaching them free. Check out CodeAcademy for starters.
 

Show Me the Money

All of this leads to the ultimate question: "What can I earn in advertising?"

As with any field, the answer is, it depends -- on your years of experience, where you live and your title. Indeed.com, the search engine that aggregates company career sites and job boards, posted a suggested salary of $40,000 for an entry-level job in advertising in Philadelphia, PA. The same title in NYC gets you $60,000 a year, while a starting spot in Chicago pays $43,000. Of course, you should do your own research, as salaries are changing all the time. 

Should you attain Don Draper status, and become a creative director in NYC, Salary.com says you can expect to earn a base salary of about $132,000, but after benefits and bonuses, that can easily top $190,000 a year. 

Advertising is great (and hard) work… if you can get it.