Six Months in Advertising

November 23, 2017

(Published first on AdAge India.)

I stumbled upon advertising — it was not the first, second, or even my third option. My time away from college was largely spent on internet experiments, which eventually got me to ask, how can I play with the ways of computers, the web, and its media all the time?” After a rather circuitous route, I reached Dentsu Webchutney — where so much of what I’ve wanted to learn and do is right there to imbibe. These are some of my observations while working in advertising for six months:

Opportunity is all around you: Advertising is fun to work in because it’s designed to be an ideas business. In it, people are inclined to listening irrespective of who’s talking (an insight is always around the corner.) This is encouraging for someone new who inevitably takes some time to acquaint themselves with the dynamics of the firm. They notice what can be better. It’s unlikely that everything is in place, so building and fixing things is a happy necessity. Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls, therefore trusting our gut to charge forward is the cost of progress which also happens to be well rewarded in advertising.

Help? At your service: As much as I might believe that the world is on my shoulders to make things great, no one person can do it all — it’s not a college assignment (XIC Represent!). It is a team effort with collaboration at its core. In hindsight, it’s obvious: oftentimes, the same problems I’ve had have been experienced by fifty times as many people! — they’ve already dealt with the simple (timesheets, I’m looking in your direction) and the complex (emotions around the first campaign/pitch). Sometimes, given the context of rapid growth, some problems are entirely new to the company (establishing a Slack channel.)

Kill your darlings: In the passage of time, prioritisation has become, well, a priority. Advertising is a crash course on the saying, you can do anything but not everything.” It is about identifying highest-leverage opportunities — for the agency, for the client, and for your fulfilment SIMULTANEOUSLY. All sides want something great, so nixing what’s low-leverage (“kill your darlings”) while managing expectations is the way to achieve balance. Saying no to myself has been necessary for no more than discipline. I’ve realised, the more time an idea spends in my head, the less critically I think of it, so rapid iteration helps reduce the cost of failure, without the peril of getting obsessed with it. Maintaining a work notebook has helped get over these ideas — bad in retrospect — with joy rather than spite for lack of execution.

Make some noise: Voicing out is necessary when immediate solutions are not available and there are multiple moving parts. If it’s software you can’t do without, make a case for it. A big learning is that an agency should not be fixed in its ways, and that its people have a moral responsibility to help shape what it can be. If there’s a better way, voice out, and be persistent to a point where you get to prove it with performance. One surefire way to cloud objective evaluation of a problem is to complain — then it becomes about the person and not the problem: always focus on why it needs solving. (Thanks for the Macs!)

Kinds of mistakes: Marty Neumeier once proclaimed, In the realm of creativity, mistakes aren’t mistakes. They’re clues. Each one reveals a part of the mystery you’re trying to solve.” But there is a difference. Mistakes made out of ignorance in goal-defined areas are not worthy of neither reward nor sincere apologies”/self-loathing — it’s faster to move forward and fix it for good. This is conveyed multiple times through #NoExcuses at Dentsu Webchutney. However, mistakes in pursuit of ideas or areas of high ambiguity should encourage a high failure rate. Lessons from these are carried forward, so talking about them makes it easier to shape collective thought around a problem.

Getting your hands dirty: In an agency, one gets to see how the proverbial sausage is made. Coordination is prized, and just sitting next to my amazing colleagues — account managers, video producers, technologists, copywriters, media folks — has brought out deep appreciation for what they do and how their pieces fit into an execution. This is invaluable. It enables identifying relative competencies to get work done either by seeking help or acquiring the skill myself. Hands-on involvement in any project is possible: there’s understandable tension in how resources are allocated. (Constraints inspire creativity, as they say.) The set up enables one to take advantage of a startup mindset where a great idea is not 90 percent of the work,” so it’s useful to acquire a holistic outlook.

Hobby-friendly workspaces: I learned from a colleague who brought in his talent for impersonations — and deep observational skills — to work on a concept for a web series. He’s YouTube proficient, and so now we get to film a low-budget (but good for the agency, fulling for its people, and high-leverage) series, even if it’s never released. Taking initiative towards natural inclinations at work has made it a rich experience for me, since people are around to refine and listen. These bursts bring a feeling of contributing to a culture — and finding permissionless progress elsewhere is hit and miss.

Why can’t this happen in other industries? Digital-first agencies need people to experiment with everything new to pass on benefits to consumers/brands. It’s a playground in the best sense of the word. The opportunity is enticing: we help shape the internet & media on it, while also defining use cases; this endeavour requires patience and irreverence. Instead of falling in love with the goal (as university education imparts”), there’s value in learning to fall in love with everything that supports the outcome. I look forward to what’s to unfold in this journey.