What to Expect in an Advertising Career

A Quick Guide For Newcomers to Advertising

The Advertising Agency
The Advertising Agency. Getty Images

Whether you're still in school and ready to launch your advertising career, or you're looking to switch professions, you need to know exactly what to expect. And that can vary greatly depending upon what role you want to fulfill in an agency, and which area of advertising you want to work in. What's more, location can have a defining factor, too.
 

First Question: Account Side, or Creative Department?

Before you get into advertising, you have to decide what you actually want to do when you get to an agency.

In general, there are two roads to take - creative, or accounts. This is, of course, a massive generalization; there are many roles not even covered by those descriptions. A typical advertising agency structure includes, but is not limited to, the following key roles:

Whichever path you choose, it is always hard work.
 

Say Goodbye to Regular 9-5 Hours

All too often, inspired advertising is not produced in a traditional working week. Be prepared for long nights, weekends and a whole lot of rejection. The creative work is the heart and soul of any ad agency. It's the product. Which means it has to be great work.

It's also subjective, so a great idea to one person is a complete head-scratcher to another. That means that, unlike an accountant, there are no right or wrong answers.

You are at the whim of the creative director, who is at the whim of the client.
 

The Client is Always Right, Even When They Aren't

Something you will discover very quickly is that money is power in advertising. With the exception of the powerhouse ad agencies (Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, Weiden & Kennedy, TBWA\Chiat\Day) the clients have all the money and most of the power.

So, be prepared to have your 120 creative ideas flushed down the toilet in favor of a Frankenstein's monster of an ad that the client designed with his or her daughter and the babysitter.
 

Smart Creatives Are Highly-Prized Possessions

You have the ideas that make the agency successful, and thus, you will be treated like a king when you get it right. Keep doing it for a few decades and you will one day have your own name on the door of the agency, joining the ranks of Bill Bernbach, Tim Delaney, David Abbott, Leo Burnett and many more. Work hard and you can literally carve your name into the advertising history books and earn a very handsome living doing it.
 

The Roles of the Account Teams

On the other side of the coin, working in accounts has its ups and downs as well. Despite what you want to hear, you are there to service the creative work. Here's just a short list of what various account service roles entail:

  • Expect to work equally long hours as the creatives
  • Be prepared to fight for work that you may not agree with
  • Know how to formulate a solid strategy
  • Learn to service the client without giving in to every request
  • Balance a budget and meet firm deadlines
  • Present work, often several times
  • Work closely with the creative director
  • Be a diplomat
  • Assist with production of TV and video shoots
     

Knowing When to Say Yes and Say No

You have a client to satisfy, and will often be caught between the two worlds. If you work for an ad agency that values great work above billings, you will be fine. If you work for an agency concerned only with the bottom line, expect to get your head bitten off regularly by the frustrated creatives who see their work limping back to the agency as a shadow of its former self.

But again, do well and you will one day become the next great account planner, alongside Jon Steel and Nigel Carr.
 

Go Beyond the Walls of the Agency

There's also more to life in advertising than just doing the work. Advertising is part of pop culture, and to be good at it, you have to immerse yourself in it.

Which means that, as a good ad agency employee, you will involve yourself in many extra-curricular activities that expand your mind and your horizons. You should:

  • Take vacations that expand your mind
  • Read interesting and diverse books, magazines, ​and blogs
  • See more than the usual movies
  • Go to the theater
  • Write your own blog
  • Read newspapers and magazines outside of the industry
  • Take up some interesting hobbies

A well-furnished mind is a good advertising brain. The best agencies will expect you to fill yours with experiences that will benefit the work, so if you're a social wallflower who spends every second of their spare time playing Dungeons & Dragons, well, advertising is not for you.
 

It's More About Working Hard Than Playing Hard

When it comes to the decadence and debauchery, saying that it doesn't happen any more, anywhere, would be disingenuous. But don't expect to lead the life of a rock-star by working in advertising. While it's true that a certain amount of exuberance and decadence used to proliferate the profession (Mad Men is one such example), it has all but vanished since the stock market collapse of the late eighties.

These days, just like any other profession, it's all about working hard and making money. Keep your head down and it's a fantastic and rewarding career that can take you all around the world. Good luck.