For some reason, I didn’t think I was weird enough for an agency. It seemed like the kind of place where Willy Wonka would have worked if the candy thing hadn’t worked out so well. Looking back on it, though, that’s just silly. I’ve always secretly pined to fill my days dreaming up creative ideas and being surrounded by a room full of artists, designers, developers and eccentric folks. “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men,” Wonka says. Modern agency life is a lot like that: A little nonsense and a lot of wisdom. And the longer I work here, the more I discover the secret skills that make agency life an even better fit for me. These are the skills I have picked up along the way that have helped me thrive in the 7+ years of my agency career.
1. ANALYTICS … OR AT LEAST AN APPRECIATION FOR THE WISDOM OF ANALYTICS
I’d always thought writers and artists were the dynamic duo of every great creative effort. But in recent years, I’ve embraced the trio. Treating the analytics folks as part of the creative team has produced some of my favorite projects that turn a profit for the client. They have numbers to back up all those creative “hunches” in your noggin. And while clients like good ideas, they like numbers better. Anytime you can hang a concept on a strategic insight, you can make something that makes a difference in people’s lives, for both the client and the consumer.
2. CREATING STORIES AND PRETTY MUCH EVERY OTHER JOURNALISTIC SKILL YOU CAN THINK OF
I started my career at a newspaper because I wanted to learn how to write. Turns out, newspaper work taught me everything I needed to know about agency life. I learned how to write under pressure, how to parachute into almost any situation and get up to speed quickly, and how to find and pitch compelling stories that move people to action.
3. CODING—BEING A CODE NERD CAN COME IN QUITE HANDY
I’m glad I started learning to code early on. Whether it’s HTML, CSS or Adobe Premiere, I like to learn new tech whenever I can. A coder at a previous employer was always telling me things couldn’t be done visually in an email newsletter we worked on. Once I learned HTML, when she’d say, “That can’t be done,” I loved to say, with clarity, “Yes it can. I’ll show you.”
4. (HUMMED TO THE TUNE OF “HELPLESS” BY NEIL YOUNG) BEING SELFLESS, SELFLESS, SELFLESS
Treat this one like a skill, because in 2021, it’s really not about you anymore. It’s about them. All of them. Jerry Seinfeld says this well, again and again, in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. All that matters is whether or not the people got a laugh. If somebody laughed, he did the job well. In agency terms: Did the client get what they needed? Did the work go out into the world and do a good thing? That’s the mark of success.
5. LISTENING, AND IF POSSIBLE, LISTENING LIKE RICK RUBIN
The music producer known for giving us Adele and the Beastie Boys and for getting Johnny Cash to sing “Hurt” takes a less-is-more approach and is well known for being a deep listener. Imagine what would have happened if Rubin listened only to his vision—not the artist or his client. Adele might have ended up sounding like the Beastie Boys (a stretch, I know, but work with me). Rubin brings out the unique voice of each artist. A good producer, a good agency or a good creative partner gives you what you want but also helps you find a version of yourself you didn’t even know was there. With that in mind, I’ve always aspired to help clients find their true, authentic voice—the voice they didn’t even know they had.
Still, I can’t believe I get to spend the day playing with words, pictures and ideas. And I never would have set out to study the skills listed here to get an agency job. Everything I’ve learned has happened as I’ve stumbled along on my creative, happy way (PSA for liberal arts degrees). It’s like Willy Wonka says, “We are the music makers and the dreamers of dreams.” Dream and learn and listen, every step of the way.