Forget mentors. What you need is an advocate

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They take a lot more work to find, but for career advancement, there's no comparison.

About a decade ago, while working as a group account director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Nancy Reyes found out her boss was spreading rumors about her. "He had been talking about me all around the agency," said Reyes, now managing director at TBWA\Chiat\Day NY.

Relatively new to the San Francisco shop, Reyes looked to him for mentorship, but giving advice wasn't his strong suit. "He actually was a kind of stinky mentor, if I'm being honest," she said.

So Reyes figured she'd need to go it alone, until she found out what her boss was actually saying about her. "He had been basically telling people, 'Oh my God, that Nancy's awesome. Wait until you see Nancy rock this presentation,'" she recalled.

Reyes discovered that while she may have had a lackluster mentor, she had a great advocate. "It helped break me open, so I could be part of the fold and part of the group of people that other folks would rely on," she said. "When I wasn't around, people were saying really great things about me, which is almost better than having somebody tell you how to do it to your face."

Much has been made of the importance of mentorship, and many companies and ad agencies have instituted official programs to pair younger employees with more experienced mentors. But another kind of relationship is becoming more common, one less focused on building a close bond and more on actively promoting people deserving of credit and praise—advocacy.

"An advocate is someone who is actually putting their own neck and their own reputation on the line to promote you and move you to the next level of your career," said Tiffany Edwards, senior programs and outreach manager at Droga5. Whereas "a mentor is kind of supporting you in your current role, helping you be better at your current job."

It's a distinction that's especially important for people who are looking for a new job or seeking advancement. "As you get to higher levels of your career path, you got there because people were advocating for you," Edwards said. "Most senior level positions these days rely on word of mouth recommendations."

In fact, a job recommendation from another employee doubles the chances of landing an interview and increases the likelihood of being hired by 40%, according to a 2012 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

"The last two jobs I've gotten have been because of people speaking up for me. It wasn't something I asked them to do," Edwards said. "It was something they chose to do, because they believed in the work I was doing, and they also believed that I would be a great fit for the work."

Felicia Geiger, a consultant, has been one of Edwards' advocates. "Not only has she advised me on countless occasions, she has also recommended me for positions without me even asking," Edwards said.

Geiger credits Edwards for her own success. "If I helped in any way, then that's wonderful," she said. "She got the jobs because she's incredibly qualified." Edwards first came to Geiger's attention at the One Club, where Edwards served as the organization's first education and diversity director, and later, when Edwards won the AdColor Rising Star award in 2010. At the time, Geiger was in charge of Deutsch's diversity efforts.

"An advocate sees the potential that you don't realize you have," Geiger said. "You do your job every single day, you participate in industry events. You don't see yourself as the person who could be leading them, creating them, moderating them and really being at the helm. Sometimes you need a person who is going to remind you that you have those strengths."

That kind of encouragement is particularly useful in the ad industry, according to Reyes. "It's hard for people to come to highly creative environments and understand their impact right away," she said. "You've always got that question of, 'What value do I bring?' That little burst of confidence is a big deal at agencies where folks are probably struggling to figure out where they fit in."

While a more typical mentor relationship can be forged by anyone proactive enough to seek one out, an advocate is tougher to come by. The nature of advocacy doesn't lend itself to formal agreements or a quid pro quo arrangement. Those who want to attract an advocate need to make themselves stand out. "An advocate seeks you out," Reyes said. "You've got to earn something to take to the advocate or for the advocate to notice."

It may mean toiling away for a while before getting noticed. "For young folks coming into an agency, you put your head down, and you learn your stuff. Get really smart about your brand or your craft," Reyes said. "I would say not everybody should get an advocate. Not everybody earned one."

There's work involved in being an advocate as well, but it needn't be a selfless act. Being known for making smart recommendations for new hires or assignments is a reputation booster. "It makes you look good because that means that you're connected to the pulse of the industry," Edwards said. "It means that you know really good and strong people that can help."

It can also reflect well on the agency as a whole, Geiger added. "It reinforces that the company really does value its talent," she said. Instead of looking externally to fill an open position, an advocate may make an internal recommendation that not only benefits the employee, but also saves the company money in recruitment fees.

And for an industry that continually decries its lack of diversity, advocacy specifically on behalf of women, people of color or other minorities can help bring more parity to a system that often elevates the same kind of people to positions of leadership. "Maybe they've been putting their head down quietly, doing their work, and they've been stars all along—especially women, especially people of color," Reyes said. "It feels like a privilege to advocate on their behalf."

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