“My first job was basically a mistake.”
“I stumbled upon it by accident.”
“I thought of being a journalist.”
It would be easy to imagine that today’s agency leaders have been driven by a passion for advertising from a young age, fueling their dogged determination to earn their ascent to the positions they now enjoy. But in real life, the waters are always a little murkier.
Isobar’s global CEO Jean Lin studied foreign languages and literature in college and first wanted to be a journalist in Taiwan, but says she was talked out of it by her journalist father.
“There was no real intention to go into advertising,” says Stephen Li, now OMD’s Asia-Pacific chief. “In those days unless you had a creative calling to be a copywriter or an art director, I think the rest of us tended to stumble into advertising.”
Tan Kien Eng, the Malaysian CEO of Publicis One and Leo Burnett, was one who did study art in the late '80s and had that creative calling. But he still stumbled into his job. Determined to make it as an art director, Tan bought an ad directory and wrote letters to all the ad agencies. When none replied after two weeks, he picked up his bag and headed to the first agency on the list, a shop in Kuala Lumpur’s satellite city of Petaling Jaya that later became part of FCB. After telling the receptionist he was there to see the creative director and waiting 15 minutes, he was escorted to a cubicle and began working. It just so happened that a new designer was supposed to begin work that day but never turned up. “They assumed I was him” says Tan, whose odd start to the job would only get stranger.
“I remember walking through the cubicles… [on what was] not supposed to be my first day of work," he says. "I looked into the creative director’s room and he was lying on the floor and there was this senior account director—she was sitting on him.” (Tan would not be any more specific, saying he left so quickly he can't say for certain what was going on.)
Thankfully, times have changed and it’s hard to imagine such an uncomfortable scenario faced by a new joiner to advertising these days, much less at a major agency. But the story underscores some of the major differences between now and then.
Agency life was much more haphazard a generation ago. New recruits were often thrown quickly into the mix with clients, given loads of new responsibilities and less guidance. “I didn’t know what an account executive was,” admits Li, on starting his first job at a Hong Kong agency in the early '90s.
Saatchi & Saatchi, Shanghai
In contrast, today’s new joiners are more prepared heading into their careers. Many, like Saatchi & Saatchi Shanghai creative Daniel Lo, first had internships to develop the experience and contacts that led to future jobs. Others, like OMD strategist Sophie Lees, first took on entry-level sales and marketing work before joining her first boutique agency in 2013 and OMD in 2015.
It’s also common for agencies these days to proactively seek young talent. Isobar media director Prachi Karan first signed with Havas earlier this decade after the agency came to her management school campus in Mumbai on a recruitment drive. After a written test, assignment presentation, shortlisting, and a day-long workshop at the Havas office on a live brief, Karan made the cut, with a strong ideas of the demands ahead of her when she joined.
Agency life a generation ago
“I remember it vividly” says OMD’s Li, of his account executive job in the early 1990s at an agency that eventually became Lowe in Hong Kong. “My days… involved doing pretty much everything that wasn’t seen as a ‘specialist’ [ie. creative] job”. Generating and selling ideas, writing content reports, dealing with clients, filling out timesheets, making coffee and tea for meetings and being a bag carrier were all part of daily life.
With media planning still part of creative agency work then, Jean Lin, an account executive at Ogilvy in Taipei at around the same time, remembers physically delivering creative work in big tapes to the local TV stations. But most of her work involved “anything you can think of” from defining and creating briefs, managing project timelines to balancing clients’ budget constraints.
“I was taken to see the client the second day on my job,” Lin laughs, “before I actually knew how the process worked.” She remembers it being a steep learning curve.
Stephen Li found early client work taxing. “I was doing everything for a big raft of clients,” he says. “I remember not knowing what the job was one day, and then being told the next day I was working across eight different clients.”
Most difficult, Lin found, was understanding the client’s business, knowing their expectations and then serving as the go-between client and agency. “You realize very soon that you’re actually a very important part of their marketing mix.”
Lin’s first client, Philips home appliances, was demanding, she remembers, run by a sharp marketing director relocated from Amsterdam. But those were the experiences she learned the most from.
“I’d feel very grateful every day that as an account executive just graduated from college, you’re actually seeing and meeting and getting comments from people that are top in their industry that are treating you like you really make a difference to their marketing program,” Lin says.
“We didn’t have the excuse of hiding behind a computer screen sending emails all day long,” says Li. “Emails didn’t exist. To make anything happen you had to pick up the phone, get out there to see the clients face-to-face and build the art of human contact.”
Agency life nowadays
In contrast, Li says agencies nowadays are more sophisticated, professional, and also apprehensive about sending newer members in front of their clients.
That checks out with what we’ve heard from more recent recruits from this past decade. At Saatchis in Shanghai, Daniel Lo and Gavin Lee admit they didn’t have much direct early exposure to clients and it’s mainly their bosses who interact with them.
Over in Mumbai, Karan’s introduction to clients was measured and gradual, beginning with limited contact. Soon, however it transitioned to a client-facing role and eventually she took over certain accounts.
Yet newcomers seem to appreciate the more cautious approach, not because they want to avoid clients, but because they can provide more value for them once they’re prepared.
“The moments I feel most proud of are the ones that are client-facing; knowing that I can actually impact bigger strategic decisions for a brand,” says Lees of OMD Shanghai, who fondly remembers educating a group of American clients on Chinese cultural dynamics.
A major difference between then and now is that there are fewer Jack-(or Jill)-of all trades; entry jobs are more specialized. Not only are early-stage jobs already broken down by agency and department into creative, media, planning, digital, video, data, programming, and so on, but even those managing accounts don’t generally dabble in everything like they used to.
Karan appears to be a bit of an anomaly. “A lot of times I went beyond my work profile into areas like ad ops, billings et cetera to ensure smooth account operations,” she said. “Nowadays, I don’t see a lot of people who are starting off their careers open to that idea. They want specific roles and they want to stick to only those roles.”
What’s changed is that many administrative tasks have been automated, allowing newcomers to start contributing at a more value-added level.
“People joining the industry right now have the advantage to start from the point where inferences have already been drawn. That’s the power of big data and analytics…which gives us more time to think and expand on,” says Karan.
Listening to this generation, you’re less likely to hear their jobs described as a series of tasks and more likely to hear them in goal-oriented terms.
Lees describes her senior strategy role in Shanghai this way: “About 80% of my time is spent on strategic recommendations, involving client meetings, briefings, research and strategy development; the other 20% is spent on initiatives that drive creativity within OMD.”
Having guidance towards that greater vision is key. Given the demands and frequent turnover in the industry, not every newcomer to advertising will have or speak glowingly of his or her boss or have stability in who to report to. But, as with most professions, there’s been a growing recognition that investing is proper management pays dividends for employees.
Lees credits her superiors in her first four months at OMD for making overt attempts to include her in creating agency-wide initiatives and provide direct feedback.
Long hours, absent bosses
There was less clear guidance from the stories shared by those a generation ago. In her first month at Ogilvy in Taipei, Jean Lin’s account manager quit. The next month, her account director resigned. “I had to get set up very quickly,” Lin says, as she was left alone to handle the client as a beginner for a long time. With no one looking over her shoulder, she learned how to take action and to “shout out to the right people when you needed something.”
Lin feels she had more of “a canvas to imagine what the solution would be.” Yet now in contrast, she says, agency specializations mean that junior members “may be briefed quite clearly on what the solution needs to be. And that may eliminate the learning opportunities.”
Over in Malaysia, at least one of Kien Eng Tan’s bosses may have been hands on with the female staff in the late 80s, but were less so with his work. He mostly remembers working alone and given ample time to think, create and experiment on his own.
That had pluses along with minuses. Tan feels he needed the independence for his creativity. Back in the late 80s they didn’t have the Internet to see what others were doing around the world.
Inspiration, he says, came from anywhere, “a leaf, a flower, a rock, someone’s shirt” and there was more desire to do what hadn’t been done before. Nowadays, while many still strive for originality, he sees more “lazy” work across the industry where creatives will tweak ideas they find elsewhere, partly due to client or time pressures.
As a sign of how much latitude Tan had, he was given the key to the office since he often closed the shop after working late till 10, 11 or 12 at night, especially during big pitches. He didn’t mind when the work was exciting. Once he worked for 48 hours straight at the office for a pitch. “We were young, full of energy—it was nothing,” he says. “By 26 hours we were so high and delirious, it was fun.”
Li and Lin also remember working late. “I don’t remember when [the day ended] because you never wanted to leave the office, Lin says. “It was long hours but you didn’t really feel that because you were doing something exciting.”
Not all overtime work was exciting, however. “You would definitely spend a lot of time on the clerical side. That is something that would keep you there till 10 or 11 o’clock at night catching up,” says Li who notes that without email and laptops, the paperwork would often be something you’d have to return to the office for on weekends.
Tan’s moment of greatest frustration, he remembers, was when the photocopier stopped working at 2am and he felt like pushing it out of the building.
“It was a very long day but it wasn’t 24/7 in the way that it is now,” notes Li. “You weren’t able to receive things on the fly and make decisions.”
Smells like team spirit
In contrast, today’s generation is not necessarily stuck in the office. Their hours, they say, are less strict but they’re always connected, multitasking and juggling priorities.
“I’m currently part of numerous team WeChat groups, working on different projects simultaneously,” says Lees at OMD Shanghai. “I guess you could say I’m ‘always on’. I check emails daily, even on weekends, though maybe a little less often on holidays.”
Social-media chat platforms are the preferred means of communication, but the young recruits we contacted are quick to say they prefer face-to-face interaction. They’re social. Team meetings and group exercises appear to energize them, even though they may each have more specialized roles.
“Within my team, we freely get involved in each other’s work-related discussions on consumer behaviours or ideas,” says Lees. “We often have casual lunches with our team, and brainstorming sessions always start late and end late, but with the whole team involved.”
Stress and deadlines continue to be part and parcel of agency life, but with a difference. There tends to be less blame and responsibility placed on the shoulders of individuals.
As Lee from Saatchis explains, “in the team I work with, we don't really have a specific responsibility or fixed role. Everyone kinda shares the load. Teamwork all the way!”
This doesn’t mean the new generation is completely absolved of pressure and ownership. They all speak of work stress related when faced with short deadlines, when solving client problems or when failing to execute on ideas as planned. But there seems to be more collective control which helps cope with the pressure. “I can sleep easy every night because I'm working with an awesome bunch,” Lee says.
Agency life has a well-known reputation for being a grind. A generation ago it seems to have been a thrilling grind. Now, it’s dare we say, a fun grind.
When this writer spoke with Karan from Mumbai, our interview had to be delayed because a Diwali flashmob had just taken over the Isobar office and we wouldn’t have been able to hear each other. A few decades ago there were formal holiday celebrations also, but the need to make work ‘fun’ for employees is a generational shift.
“The atmosphere, the fun-loving notion is really important for anyone working in a creative industry,” says Isobar’s Lin, who notes that while it’s always been a part of the industry work there’s also a desire on the part of leaders like her now to set a positive culture for employees.
Competition, one might say, has thankfully made this shift necessary, since as OMD's Li admits, early jobs in advertising have never been a get-rich-quick scenario. The moderate pay and the long hours still lead to plenty of churn. Those leaving the industry will have a much different view of agency life.
But as Karan describes, new young joiners are still willing to sacrifice if they see a bigger purpose. The long hours, she says “never really mattered because I wanted to learn as much as I could and each hour was teaching me something new. What mattered the most to me was what I was getting out of the entire experience.”
From then to now, the lesson remains that careers built on more than titles, perks or pay, provided there is sufficient opportunity to learn and develop on the job.