Recently I was a speaker at a marketing conference, and one of the participants caught me slightly off guard when she asked me what advice I would give young advertising professionals that want to move into management positions.
After some rather common answers around finding the right mentors and support network, and some textbook fluff, I couldn’t help but feeling like a major letdown. So, as you might be thinking about what you want to achieve in 2020, here are 10 pieces of advice I can offer. I can’t guarantee these will work for everyone, but I believe adopting these philosophies and practices has helped me in my own career, and it certainly comes from an honest place.
1. F**k politics
This might seem like a no-brainer, but no matter how unpolitical your agency in general might be, the higher you move up, the more you will have to deal with somebody’s toxic BS. Try to stay out of it as much as possible and focus on what really matters: the work.
In the end, it’s not playing games that builds relationships, wins business, or awards. It’s the things you do that add real value to your clients and to your own people. At least that’s what I believe - in my book, the good guys always win (yes, I’m an optimist).
2. Know your KPIs
It always shocks me how few people in an agency setup have actual clarity on their performance goals. KPIs are not there to put pressure on you, but to help you get your priorities straight. Agency life is hectic most of the time, and there is always some sort of fire to put out. Under such high-pressure conditions, it’s impossible to give 100% on everything. Knowing your KPIs will help you to focus your efforts in a way that supports your career advancement.
Admittedly, sometimes (probably most of the time) it’s the supervisors that either set fluffy goals (i.e. difficult to measure) or none at all. In that case, chase your boss or even write your own KPIs. After all, they’re not meant to be a one-way assignment—you need to feel confident that they are achievable (still challenging though) and in line with what you believe will help you to progress into new roles in the future.
3. Track your KPIs
Don't wait for your supervisor to assess you during the company’s standardised evaluation periods. Ask her or him for a chat (or two or three) in between. Tell them how you think you’re performing against your set goals, where you believe you’re “behind” and how they can help you to get ahead again.
It helps to keep what I call a "KPI journal”—a simple Word or Excel document that lists out all of your goals, the current status (in progress, achieved, over-achieved), and next to it a list with all the tangible results supporting it.
4. Do the job you want, before you have it
If you’re after a promotion, know what that particular job requires and do it before you even have it—or at least most of it. So, when the time for promotions comes around, your supervisors won’t have any doubt that you’ll be up for a bigger role, as you were doing it already anyway.
Here again, tracking your progress is of the essence. I would usually have an appendix to my KPI journal that clearly describes all of the additional responsibilities I proactively took on, as well as my achievements that went beyond my initially set performance goals.
5. Understand how the agency makes money (and how you contribute)
This is particularly directed at planners and creatives. I myself was happy and content for a long time to not entirely understand the financial workings of an agency. However, if you’re aiming for a management position, there is no way around it. So, you might as well get the hang of it early on.
I’m not saying to get obsessed with numbers. All I’m saying is you should understand how the agency is making money, and what your role in it is. Know your rate card, know the revenue and profitability of the accounts you’re working on, and know how much of your time is covered by what client.
6. Be prepared to play the long game
I personally was able, enabled, and lucky enough to climb up the career ladder fairly quickly. I did so, however, not by jumping from one post to the next, but by starting off with the willingness to commit to one agency and play the long game. This might have something to do with my parents having worked in the same place for almost all their lives.
Given the current talent shortage within the advertising industry, there will always be a new and shiny job offer with a sparkly salary and glistening title promotion somewhere around the corner. While this might seem like an instantaneous answer to all of your career cravings, I believe it will not actually benefit your career in the long run. Staying in one place for just a short period of time doesn’t allow you to earn the level of trust from clients as well as your own people required to do the best work possible. And coming back to point number one, without the work, everything else is just BS.
7. Don't threaten your way up
Every so often you’ll go to a job interview without the actual intention of switching. I get it. It’s nice to see what others think you’re worth—call it “job flirting”. If you’re thinking, however, of using this as ammunition to “threaten” yourself into a promotion, I’d highly recommend you think that over. Nobody responds well to threats, and even if it does lead to that salary increase you wanted, there will always be some sort of dark cloud hovering over your head.
During a performance review, I believe it's ok to tactfully mention competitive job offers (any employer with more than two braincells will anyway assume their talented people have offers), but I’d only do so after having listed my achievements and contributions to the agency.
8. Don’t compare yourself to others
A few years ago, I found out that many juniors in Hong Kong agencies were openly discussing and sharing their salaries with their peers. I’m assuming it’s a way to get a benchmark, but ultimately, I believe it leads to unhealthy comparison. While job titles and even job descriptions might be the same, it does not mean that each individual’s contribution to their respective agencies’ businesses is the same. Hence, I personally don’t think that people with the same title should by default earn the same salary. If someone over-performs, they should be compensated accordingly. Simple.
Unhealthy comparison can also happen in regards to career trajectory. Generally speaking, I’d say have a plan, stick to it, and focus on your own shit. You never know what other circumstances might have led to someone else’s promotion, and most probably it’s out of your control anyway. So, rather than wasting precious energy on envying someone else’s path, spend it on something you can actually control: yourself and your work.
9. Invest in your soft skills
Management is primarily about people. So, it makes sense to build up your soft skills in the areas of teamwork, communication, conflict resolution, networking, and obviously leadership. The further you move up, the more hard skills become a greens fee, and soft skills become what employers are really looking for.
So, whilst it’s easy to deprioritize the ‘people’ or ‘partnership’ section in your agency’s performance sheet, try to make an effort to put it on top of your personal list. Also, it’ll make work a lot more pleasant if everyone just gets along with each other. Or, as Bill Bernbach once said: “Life is too short to sacrifice so much of it to living with a bastard.”
10. Know yourself
Some agency folks are superstars in their respective disciplines, but not necessarily when it comes to the people aspect of the work. Some want and can get better at it, and others don’t or cannot. It’s important to know early on if you’re “into” people or not. If you move up to a leadership position without actually enjoying that particular part of the job, purely chasing the “prestige” of a title, it is highly likely that everyone will just end up miserable.
Not being a people person does not mean however you won’t be advancing your career or pay grade. Like in a football team, the highest earning star player is not necessarily also the team captain.
Ultimately, planning your career is just like planning a campaign: define the goal and create a blueprint from A to B. While getting there, be passionate, be committed, be flexible, and most importantly, be nice.
Andreas Krasser is the CEO of DDB Group Hong Kong.