Mini episode: Career advice
This is the first of several “mini episodes” of How Brands Are Built. Hopefully, you saw this mentioned on social media or in the newsletter: between now and the next season (TBA), I’ll release a few short episodes on a range of topics—no consistent through-line, just some interesting, snack-sized branding content.
I reached out on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook asking for feedback on which mini episodes would be most interesting or useful. If you’re one of the many people who weighed in, thank you! And now that the results are in, I’m happy to share this first mini episode, all about careers in branding.
I’ve spent some time reviewing interviews from the past two seasons, looking at the advice guests gave, and grouping them into themes. I’ve boiled it down to six pieces of advice broken out across three categories:
Category 1: Where you work
- Surround yourself with good people—it’s more important than getting to work on cool, big brands, especially when you’re just getting started. And it might mean starting out at a smaller agency, where you could have more exposure to clients and experienced coworkers.
Category 2: How you work
- Master the basics, such as running an interview, presenting, and writing, as well as gaining a basic understanding of how business works.
- Pick a lane; for example, research or analytics.
- See the big picture—always think about the problem you’re trying to solve for the client. Know that saying, “To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”? Don’t be a hammer.
Category 3: Why you work
- Get out there—experience new things
- Enjoy what you do
WHERE YOU WORK
Surround yourself with good people
When it comes to where you work, it’s critical to surround yourself with good people. People who are not only experienced, but will spend some time sharing that experience with you. That might mean starting at a smaller firm, like Ken Pasternak of Two by Four did. As he put it, “When you’re at a smaller firm, you may not work on the big brands quite as often, but your exposure to the real work and the senior executives within client organizations will be that much greater.” He says he got to solve big questions very early in his career, which gave him a maturity, point of view, and perspective that he might not have gotten had he started at an entry-level position with a larger organization.
Erminio Putignano of PUSH Collective in Melbourne recommended finding an agency that feels like a school, and staying there long enough to really learn something. He said, “If you … [can] identify an agency…that can be a good school for you…stick to it. Try to learn as much as you can, like a sponge.”
And Gareth Kay of Chapter, in San Francisco, said: “[It]’s really about being less obsessed about the companies you work for and the brands you work on, and … spotting really interesting, generous people to work with who have different takes of what strategy is and can be.”
Dennis Hahn of Liquid Agency recommended you “work with people that know what they’re doing … Really get good mentoring, see how it’s done up close and learn it if you can in a hands-on way.”
Dennis used that “mentor” word, and Ken Pasternak used it literally, saying a mentor can really help when you’re getting started out. He suggested finding one “through a university network, a business or personal connection, LinkedIn, or even someone you can shadow for a while, even without pay.”
I’ll add one point here about the big agency versus small agency question. Of course, each has their advantages and drawbacks. At a smaller agency, you may gain more experience more quickly, like Ken did. But you might also be frustrated by a lack of resources or a lack of diversity in thinking. At a big agency, you’ll probably have more resources and maybe feel you’re working for a more professionalized operation—but you might feel like a cog in a wheel. Personally, some of my best work experiences have been at small offices of large organizations. I worked in Interbrand’s San Francisco office—a 20 or 30-person office of a thousand-person company. I had a similar experience at FutureBrand Singapore. In many ways, it was the best of both worlds.
HOW YOU WORK
Master the basics
Many guests have talked about the importance of mastering basic skills. I’m not even talking about branding skills, necessarily—just basic business skills.
Tim Riches of Principals called them “practitioner skills” and mentioned “being able to run a good interview, being able to present well, and being able to design and facilitate a workshop.”
Fabian Geyrhalter, principal and founder of FINIEN, talked about emotional intelligence—listening, being empathetic, understanding what clients and their customers are really saying and thinking.
And Alan Brew of BrandingBusiness alluded to the value of good writing skills when he said he’s increasingly hiring brand strategists with experience in screenwriting.
Another “basic” skill set that’s come up repeatedly is an understanding of business fundamentals. Denise Lee Yohn, author of What Great Brands Do and Fusion framed this up nicely, saying “you can’t really build a brand without understanding how to build a business.” She suggested you learn to run a P&L—profit and loss statement—be a product manager or brand manager, “do something where you can actually run a business and know all of the different aspects of running that business.”
Caren Williams, who started her career as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble, had a business school professor advise her that by working on a brand—managing a brand—she’d become an even better consultant. And that advice worked well for her.
Lastly, Jeremy Miller of Sticky Branding summed up this point nicely:
The key thing I look at is getting really good at business. For me, successful businesses create successful brands and never the other way around. A lot of times, we spend too much energy looking at logos, taglines, colors, campaigns, and not asking the strategic questions of, “How do we actually serve our customers brilliantly? How do we create a competitive advantage?” I think if marketers spend more time actually looking at business strategy, they would be able to deliver even better creative. So, let’s look at the business so that we can actually do better at what we do.”
Pick a lane
The second piece of advice in the “How you work” category is “Pick a lane.”
Adam Morgan of eatbigfish calls this having an “angle,” and recommends every consultant—and every agency—find a unique angle and stick to it.
And if you’re looking for suggestions on what angle or lane to choose, I have a few for you, especially if you’re just getting into branding.
Ken Pasternak said, “consider starting in a research role because in research, you can become an authority on information that your client didn’t know before, which is hugely valuable for them.” He goes on to point out, “It doesn’t matter whether you have years of experience behind you or not. You have the information.”
And David Aaker of Prophet recommended roles related to social media or analytics. He says consulting companies are “absolutely terrified about becoming irrelevant in the digital age” and that, if you’re younger than most people at the company you’re joining, you may have a leg up on technology or social media. So why not use these skills as a way to open the door?
See the big picture
One last, but important, piece of advice about how you work: See the big picture.
When I asked Marty Neumeier, author of books like Brand Gap and Zag, for his advice, he shared a story about a conversation he had with a Swiss designer early in his career. I won’t repeat the whole story here—you’ll have to go listen to Marty’s episode—but the moral of the story was “always look at your work from the customer’s point of view.” That’s one, big-picture idea to keep in mind, no matter what you’re doing in branding or marketing.
A similar piece of advice came from Tim Riches, who said “being focused on the problem that you’re solving or what is the most important problem to solve, or what does value look like for the client, is such a critical thing to bear in mind.” He pointed out that, in his words, “practitioners get fucking obsessed with methodology.” He made a great point: That early in your career, it’s tempting to cling to some methodology you can learn out of a book, because you might not have the experience required to listen to a client problem, adapt in the moment, and start working toward a solution that makes sense for their unique situation. Instead you may be too rigid, trying to fit every client’s problem into your pre-baked, prescriptive methodology. I’ve seen it many times from inexperienced consultants or agencies who have no business doing brand strategy work. Avoid falling into this trap by always staying mindful of why you’re doing something—not just how you’re doing it.
WHY YOU WORK
Get out there
“Get out there” was probably the most frequently cited piece of advice from every guest I’ve asked.
Laura Ries advises clients such as Disney, Ford, and Frito-Lay through her consulting firm, Ries & Ries, which she runs with her father, Al Ries (author of Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind). Laura says her advice, first and foremost, is to “get out there. Meet a lot of different types of people, work with a lot of different types of companies, get as much experience as you can working with different companies, in different cities, and different people in different countries.” In her words, “really what a consultant does is they work off their experience.”
Gareth Kay echoed this point:
Stop reading advertising books, advertising blogs, marketing books, marketing blogs, etc., etc., and take time to observe the world around you. Get off your computer, get off your phone, walk around, listen to people’s conversations, try and find interesting stuff that’s going on in culture and think about what you can learn from them. Build that bank of just rich stuff in the world to learn. I think that’s one really important thing I would ask people to do. Just fill your mind with just really interesting random stuff.”
Ana Andjelic, strategy executive and doctor of sociology, said “importance of observation and being very aware that one’s own perspective is limited so that means travel, expose yourself to other cultures, observe how people behave, observe obstacles, how they overcome obstacles in their behavior. “
And Myra El-Bayoumi of Character talked about “getting inspired on purpose” by going out into the world and seeking out people with differing views from your own—it’s part of their process at Character. She also pointed out that branding is relevant in so many aspects of our lives these days—politics, for example—so keep your eyes open and see what you can learn.
Enjoy what you do
The last bit of advice is simply to enjoy what you do.
Caren Williams shared a story of her first project at Interbrand. Coming from P&G, her experience was with fun products, like ice cream, and this project was for a client in the aerospace industry. She says it taught her that “no matter what it is, B2B, B2C, someone has something that they want people to engage with and then there’s an audience that needs to engage with it.” She loves the craft of branding, and says “if you love the art and the craft of brand building, it doesn’t matter what you work on. There is some excitement or some thrill in working on anything.”
And I’ll leave you with the words of Allen Adamson, co-founder and managing partner of Metaforce:
I always tell people, if they’re not thinking about what they do when they’re at the gym or running in the park, then do what you’re thinking about when you’re running at the park or at the gym. Don’t look at your job as something, “Oh, I’ve got to go to the office. It’s like 400 emails. By 4:30 PM I’ll be able to get out.” When I met founders of successful companies throughout my career, my father-in-law was in the shopping mall business. I say to him, “What’s so exciting about that?” He would take me on Saturdays and we would walk the mall. I had a tour of the mall. “Why was the food court here? Why was the sneakers store next to a socks store?” He was passionate about malls. He was there on a Saturday and Sunday and loving it.
Whatever you choose to do, do something you love doing because you’ll do it better over time than if you’re there just to make a buck.”
To learn more about each guest featured in this mini episode, go back and listen to their full interviews from seasons two and three (or read the transcripts and follow the links here on the site). For future mini episodes and seasons, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or elsewhere.