After nearly 30 years in advertising, I’m fascinated by how our careers shape us and the lessons we learn along the way.
Before I was a chief creative officer and a partner at a consulting firm, I was an assistant, a copywriter, a comms lead -- even an amateur local journalist.
Looking for insight from the past, I began to binge-write chapters of my career from the beginning, stumbling onto lessons from each along the way. I revisited all of the experiences that taught me how to sell brands and manage careers.
Five formative lessons stand out. I hope you can learn from them too.
1. Creative assistant: ask and observe
Your first job can shape your entire career. As a creative assistant, I fixed printer jams, submitted expense reports and told unhappy spouses their partner was going to be late for dinner again. I was low on the totem pole, but it allowed me to witness everything.
By doing tedious and manual work, I picked up frame-by-frame how to tell a story in 60-seconds. Practically invisible, I saw behind management curtains. The most important thing I learned was if you want something, you have to ask for it. I remember who handed me writing assignments to build my portfolio, and who simply had me Windex her desk.
2. Copy director: build your craft
Eight years later, I was at an agency creating websites, video ads and early content marketing.
I built my craft as both a writer and an editor as I supervised not just advertising concepts, but wrote articles, built wire frames, and created products for data capture and commerce. I created my first style guide and learned the value of codification. It was a crash course in expanding and honing my creative skill set.
3. Associate creative director: learning to be No. 2
We all want to be the boss. But there are stepping stones to get there, and for me, associate creative director was one of them.
As an associate creative director at Ogilvy, I managed writers and designers as well as several accounts. But I was also the right-hand to Mach Arom, a group creative director who became a mentor and a friend. Mach let me learn how to lead in my own way, whispering advice when I needed it. I developed good habits, such as sending Friday status updates so he was never caught off guard.
It was probably the busiest job I’ve ever had. I learned how to be an effective co-pilot, and went on to be several other leader’s No. 2. When I finally got the top job as creative director, I immediately found my own lieutenant.
4. Communications lead: flexing more channels
After my first layoff, I began freelancing to rebuild my portfolio. I was lucky to meet the folks at a local online male gay dating service that needed help with marketing.
I created a bold campaign to work extra hard in local papers and websites, with provocative headlines that worked: “Network With Your Ex-Boyfriend’s New Boyfriend,” and “Honey, You Don’t Have To Look Good. You Just Have To Spell.” They made online dating, which was new and technical at the time, relevant and easy.
Working for a small business, I learned to wear a lot of hats. I pitched media and built relationships with potential customers. I launched a concept called “Virtual Christopher Street” to offer websites and online hosting for dozens of events, and gained access to their coveted member lists.
All this work across paid, owned and earned shaped me into an effective communications planner and taught me how to design robust programs rooted in a big idea.
5. ECD: setting the bar
At my first executive creative director job at R/GA, I learned to split my time between managing the business and leading the work. When you’re the boss, everyone is watching. I was thorough in my inputs, using the first 30 days as a broad listening tour. I was intentional in making changes, and clear about my definition of good work.
At Agency.com, I literally taped a black line horizontally down a wall, placing good work above the line and bad work below it. At Ogilvy, I took the crowd through examples of what I liked. It’s a worthwhile exercise to align with new clients.
Every job teaches a lesson. I have nearly a dozen under my belt. I recommend reflecting on each of yours.
Mat Zucker is head of the sales and marketing practice at Prophet and author of Bronze Seeks Silver: Lessons from a Creative Career in Marketing.