There’s a video on YouTube of a guy answering the questions he asked of himself more than 20 years ago. It’s an unbelievably compelling idea and one that has generated millions of views.
Sometimes I wish I could do that. Of course without time travel, I can’t speak to the Cory from 20 years ago -- but at least I can give advice to the fresh-faced versions of me who are currently surfacing in the work force. Maybe I can provide them with some of the knowledge I’ve accumulated from the experiences I’ve seen. Where do I begin?
First of all, the world doesn’t owe you anything. To have a strong career requires work, and if you don’t put in the work, there are 30 people standing behind you waiting to take your spot. You’re not entitled to work because you graduated from college, and you’re certainly not entitled to make a lot of money and be promoted in your first 12 months. Be patient, work hard, and the rewards will come.
You don’t have to start your career in an agency, but I highly recommend it. It’s an amazing environment where you can gain valuable experience across a multitude of clients and categories. The speed of this business is remarkable, and your learning curve will be steep in an agency environment. After a few years, you will have a firm base for your career , and you can then make decision about where else to go.
Whatever you do, if at all possible, your first job should be for no less than two years. Don’t bounce around because you get bored, or because you see others getting exciting opportunities. Be loyal, be patient, and be a sponge. Learn everything you can without looking at the clock. At the end of every day or every week you should recap what you did and objectively examine what you learned. Even keep a journal so you can record your experiences for later use. This reflective learning will make it easier for you to connect the dots on the ladder of success at a later date.
Never say no to a meeting. Everyone is worthy of your time, and every interaction is an opportunity to listen and learn. You need to practice listening and applying what you hear to solve problems in the daily challenges you face. Listen to a pitch and see if the pitch is relevant to your customers. Mold the idea and merge it with other ones until you’ve fully determined if it’s applicable or not. This process of weaving together ideas creates a foundation for strategic thinking with a partnership focus. Strategy and partnerships are at the root of everything in marketing. Plus these kinds of meetings are valuable networking for you and your career. You never know when that salesperson will recommend you for your next gig!
Write whenever you can. Write articles, write presentations, and write a POV on a topic even if it’s not going to be used immediately. This kind of extended strategic thinking also helps you to hone your skills and make it easier for you to see the strategic connections down the line. I got lucky when Mediapost took a shot at letting me write a weekly column, and 11 years later it’s still going!
Routinely put yourself in uncomfortable positions. Present to large groups of people you don’t know. Take on new challenges you weren’t previously prepared for. Reach out to very senior people in your industry and offer to buy them coffee for 15 minutes. Take a meeting with a customer, break down everything you’ve done to date, and start over with a new attempt at strategy. All these efforts encourage you to rethink what’s been done and challenge your previous thinking. You can’t rest on your laurels and you can’t be complacent if you want to succeed.
Keep this one thought in mind: You’re not as smart as you think you are until you find people you know are smarter than you. If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re wrong. If you recognize the intelligence of the people around you and even try to ensure that you’re surrounded by folks smarter than you, then you’re destined to keep learning and grow. This kind of respect for your co-workers will create lasting relationships, forcing you to keep working hard so you don’t let anyone down. A team of people can do better work than any one individual can.
And one last thing to keep in mind: Always assume best intentions. Things happen and people will get upset about the ways things are going, but if you assume the people around you have the best intentions you can more easily forgive them, move on and focus your energy on the things that matter like problem solving, instead of zeroing in on things like politics and jealousy.
These are the kinds of insights I recently gathered in my first book, “Internet Ad Pioneers” (shameless self-plug). It’s a collection of stories of some of the people who helped build and grow the Internet ad industry. These people have even more advice and insights into how to be successful -- so if this kind of thinking is of interest, you might want to check it out.