Stay Curious and Keep Learning

“What is a college? An institute of learning. What is a business? An institute of learning. Life, itself, is an institute of learning.” – Thomas Edison

I recently addressed a class at the University of Texas Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations. And while I only wish I were as succinct and insightful as Thomas Edison, here’s what I said:

I’ve been in your seat before. Sitting where you are right now, I was pretty sure I had my future figured out.

I wasn’t studying marketing or advertising. I was a double major in English and elementary education. I was going to be a first grade teacher. And I was. For two years.

But I’ve spent 40 years in advertising.

I’ve been on the creative side. I’ve been on the client side. And I’ve been on the client management side, where I’ve been for the last half of those 40 years.

I know that very few people have taken the career path I’ve followed. It’s a little odd, I’ll admit. But I wouldn’t change one leg of the journey. And here’s why: You learn something from everything you do. Every victory, every defeat, every mistake, every recovery. Every good boss, every terrible boss.

As a teacher, I learned the fundamentals of presentation skills. I learned about inspiring and motivating creative thinking. I learned about accountability. I learned about leading vs. managing. All of which have been invaluable in my “other” careers.

Presentation skills, for example, will be critical to your future in marketing and advertising. Whether you’re on the client side or the agency side – in creative, account management, media, or strategy – you’ll need to be a good presenter. The only power we have, particularly on the agency side, is the power of persuasion. I would go so far as to tell you that if you can’t or don’t want to present, this is most likely not the career for you. So work on your presentation skills every chance you get.

As a copywriter, and eventually an executive creative director, I learned that without strategy, creative ideas are rudderless. They will go nowhere and achieve nothing if they aren’t anchored by powerful insights into the problem you’re trying to solve. If you’re headed for a career in marketing and advertising, regardless of area of practice, you need to have a passion for strategy and strategic thinking. Take classes that aren’t just about the what but about the why.

I also learned that it’s not personal. Your ideas will die at the hands of others. Sometimes for valid reasons, sometimes because you didn’t express the idea well (see presentation skills), sometimes because it just did. In realizing that it’s not personal, I listened better to others’ points of view. And listening can often make those ideas live a little longer and perhaps even thrive. My advice is to grow thick skin and big ears if your future is in the idea business.

On the client side, as the managing director of an international company, I learned that the more you try to meet people where they live vs. where you live, the more work you can get done. You are the most diverse generation this country has ever seen, and I envy you that. Infuse your thinking and your work with that diversity.

I also learned that every decision you make as a client truly affects your business and the people who work there. I brought that reality with me when I came back to advertising. If your future is working at an ad agency, never forget that the ideas you come up with and the solutions you recommend can have a significant impact on your client and your client’s business. Your ideas are not the end – they’re a means to the end. I guarantee you that if you keep that in mind, you’ll have a client who listens to you and trusts you.

Today, as you sit there where I sat, you’re paying to learn. And what you learn will be invaluable in preparing you for your chosen career.

And when you get your first paycheck, turn the tables: Don’t think of it as someone paying you for the work you do – think of it as someone paying you to keep learning.

Categories: Advertising, Conferences, Industry, Jobs

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