We're not saving lives: What I learned about advertising after two days with military officers

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The industry talks about the accelerated change it faces, but continues to recycle the same people through the same agencies, says BBH New York's head of talent

As head of talent at BBH New York, I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity. Not just gender or cultural diversity — although our industry needs a lot more of both — but about the shake-shit-up kind of diversity. Diversity of thinking, diversity of opinion, diversity of experience ... diversity of anything.

We constantly talk about the persistent, accelerated change rocking our industry, yet we continue to recycle the same people through the same agencies. We are the Olympians of navel-gazing and nepotism. If the world is changing so much — and that change demands new models, methodologies, creativity and codes — then shouldn’t we be looking outside the industry for talent, instead of just within?  

I’ve also been thinking a lot about training, leadership development, team-building, loyalty and other things HR people say. This led me to an unlikely yet obvious source of new talent: The United States Armed Forces.

I recently attended a recruitment event hosted by Cameron Brooks, an organization that recruits junior military officers transitioning into civilian careers. You can’t even imagine the officers’ qualifications and life experience; their resumes alone were both humbling and intimidating to read. These guys are the real deal — a realer-deal at 26 years old than most of us are at, um, 28.

When I asked to hear their stories, they talked about engineering bridges so that young Afghan girls could make their way to school, life on an aircraft carrier and missing their families. They talked a lot about witnessing 9/11 as pre-teens, the moment that inspired many of them to join the military in the first place.

Do you know what I did after 9/11? As an account executive at a now defunct agency, I made brochures for Verizon Wireless. These guys committed the next eight years of their lives to serving their country. These valedictorians and Dean’s Listers, MBAs, snowboard champions and varsity football captains.

I walked away from those two days having had some of the most inspiring conversations I’ve had in years. It had everything and nothing to do with marketing. Here are a few things I learned:

Purpose is everything. Stop with the massages and taco trucks and yoga classes and happy hours. Actually, don’t stop with that stuff at all — it’s important, too — but rather don’t stop at only that stuff. Nothing motivates people or drives engagement more than a connection to a bigger cause. Determine what you stand for as a business. What makes you different? What’s your reason for being? Then make sure your people believe it and follow it.

You can’t always choose who you work with. In the military, you don’t really get to pick your team. If you don’t like someone on your team, you can’t do anything about it. You can’t really say, "Mike doesn’t consider my opinion" or, "Jen doesn’t respect my authority." And so you don’t bother with those trite complaints.

Learn what makes people tick. When these folks are thrown into a new position in a combatant zone with almost no experience, credentials or training, they succeed by getting to know the people. They take an interest in the people around them, determine what motivates them, what interests them and what drives them to perform. And then they define roles for those people that will tap those individual motivations and deliver on their personal goals.

All of a sudden you have a team whose whole is bigger than the sum of its parts, because everyone is getting what they need from the operation. Relationships, empathy, emotional connections, emotional intelligence are as important in the military, as in advertising.

Bureaucracy’s a pain, so dare to break the rules. These JMOs have resumes packed with mind-blowing achievements, all backed by real stats and real results. Yet when I asked them what frustrated them most about life in the armed forces, they mostly said, "Bureaucracy."

Red tape. Constraints. Processes. Hurdles. Tradition. Sound familiar? The next time you complain about copy-testing or organizational layers or budget cuts or too many stakeholders getting in the way of a really good idea, please just for a minute consider that some people have achieved far bigger things despite far bigger hurdles. And for those people, bucking the system isn’t really an option, yet they still make things work. Dare yourself to break a rule, if only because you have the right to.

If you’re not a little intimidated, you’re not growing. These JMOs are thrust into positions that they are extraordinarily under-qualified for but they make it work. That’s the power of daring someone to fail. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to test people beyond their limits. It’s better for them and better for our business. Next time you second guess whether someone on your team is ready for a challenge, stop thinking and drop them in at the deep end. Just make sure you stick around to see if they’re drowning.

Armando Turco is head of talent at BBH New York.


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