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Joining the Sharks: What I’ve Learned About the Ad Industry

October 5th, 2010

The following is a guest post from my friend Brook Johnston:

My name is not Bryan.

Actually, it’s pretty close. Except the last few letters are different and I live in a country that runs rampant with rogue moose and poutine.

But aside from these minor differences, Bryan and I are pretty similar.

See, when I’m not busy training beavers and drinking maple syrup, I attend St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Much like the owner of this fantastic blog, I’m a young adfreak that’s about to hopefully – nay – definitely break into the ad industry.

So when Bryan asked me to write a little diddy for Trail Blazing, the answer seemed obvious: a retrospective on the lessons I’ve taken away from college as I get ready to throw my hat into the industry ring.

What have I learned?

I’m not that good
I recently interviewed the incredibly accomplished author/copywriter/guru Sally Hogshead about writing, portfolios, and idea generation. She sent me a document with the 800 headlines she created for a BMW print piece. 800 headlines for one ad. And guess what – they were all good. Even her scraps were great.

In other words – I’m nowhere close to being where she is. And that’s fine. I’m not supposed to be. That’s the difference between an entry-level person and a senior writer with a wealth of experience and insight.

But keep that skill-gap in mind; so many people are better than you. You can get there too, but it’ll take work. Don’t drink your own kool-aid. Stay humble and work hard to get to that 800-great-headlines zone.

Great creative is the backbone of all advertising.
You can yammer on about marketing strategy and media selection and all that jazz and it will always be very true. The back end of advertising is crucial to success. But guess what? Advertising only works when the creative is brilliant. Maybe it’s smart or hilarious or emotionally powerful – it all can work in its own way. But it has to be incredible. People must take notice.

You can perfectly peg every demographic, medium, positioning strategy, and all of  the 4567 other terms in the back of your textbook – but if it doesn’t make people stop their friends and say “Hey! Have you seen that ad……”, then it didn’t work. Creative rules. Everything else is just setup and teardown.

Obvious is the enemy
First-level thinking is the worst thing that you can fall into as an advertiser.

When faced with a new problem, sit down and let all the answers come rushing to your head. Record everything that pops into your mind. Brainstorm wildly. Write it all down.

Now light that piece of paper on fire and never think any of those thoughts ever again.

Bad advertising is bad because it’s stupid. Literally, stupid – as in, the opposite of smart. It doesn’t reward the consumer for thinking and it doesn’t entertain. Bad advertising is obvious. It’s overdone and redundant and doesn’t require any critical thought.

Stay away from that stuff. This means throwing away a lot of early ideas. Dig deeper. Think harder. Fill up the trash can. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.

Simple is best.
Ideas aren’t explained – they’re understood. If you have a cool message that you can’t accurately convey to anyone, it’s dust in the wind; one of those trees in that metaphorical forest everyone talks about. Make sure the thought is simple and easy. That doesn’t mean it can’t be big – just don’t turn your 30s spot into Lost.

In his book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, Luke Sullivan recommends boiling down a brand to one adjective – a single word that identifies its persona. Volvo is safe. Coke is classic. BMWs are fast. Find your word and make sure that everything fits accordingly.

Little fish. Big pond. Lots of sharks.
This industry is hyper-competitive. Only the best make it into prestigious agencies and their jobs are on the line every day. After all, you’re only as good as your last campaign.

Even more daunting though, is the thought of breaking into such a fiery industry as a bright eyed, bushy tailed entry-level underling. How will you distinguish yourself from the swarms of graduates that are all hunting for the same positions as you – especially those that attend prestigious outfits like Miami Ad School?

The answer lies away from the discomfort of your lecture chairs. Extra-curricular involvement is the key to your success. I love my school and I can’t say enough about my professors – but the bulk of my learning has taken place at home. Connecting with industry experts, blogging, keeping up with trends, viewing the best (and worst) work that comes out every day. School is primarily meant to lay the foundation – the theories and principles that you absolutely need to be successful. But that’s the bare minimum, isn’t it? Everyone can define a few terms and explain a couple concepts. But what will you do that none of your classmates can?

I can’t tell you how to stand out. That’s your job. But if you start looking, you’ll find it. For me, it was a starting up a dorky blog. It got me paying attention to the ad world like never before and became a living resumé for people that wanted to check out my writing skills and industry savvy.

Here’s the bottom line: advertising is wicked awesome. It’s an industry that allows for boundless creativity and intelligent thinking. You even get paid for it. So work your ass off. Find something that will set you apart. If you’re passionate about the world of advertising, it will reward you.

Now I gotta get going. The heat coming from my laptop is beginning to melt my igloo, and I need a place to sleep tonight. Big hockey game tomorrow.

-Brook Johnston | MarketingMan.ca | @Brookjohnston

I would like to thank Brook for stopping by and doing an exceptional job at laying down a foundation of great tips for those who plan on entering the advertising industry.

What do you think of Brook’s 5 tips? Do you have additional advice that may be useful to us entry-level underlings?

Bryan Ricard Advertising, Guest Post , ,

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