6 Realities of Jumping from Journalism to Agency Life
Anchoring television news for the first time, I had the honor of reporting American troops captured Saddam Hussein. They found the dictator strapped with an AK-47 and $750,000, while hiding in a spider hole near the town of ad-Dawr. That was a huge night for America. It was a big night for me. Broadcasting was exciting. I got to tell stories and talk to interesting people. After television I took a job in radio and hosted a two-hour daily talk show and refined my skills as a storyteller, writer, presenter and communicator. It was an effervescent experience, but the fizzle went flat.
During my journey through broadcast journalism, I found myself disappointed with the pitches and story ideas I was getting. They lacked imagination — just more boring news to report. In addition to those PR pros sending weak stories my way, most of the advertising lacked imagination, strategy and cross-channel reinforcement. It was a unique perch from which to watch the flow of communication, and it made me want to fly in a new direction. As a storyteller, I knew how to write for reality, but I wanted to try my hand at crafting strategic messages that would make money for clients. It turned out to be the right move, but I wish somebody would have shared these realities with me before I jumped.
Here are six lessons I learned along the way:
1. Snowflake: You Are Not Unique
“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile,” said Tyler Durden to his band of vigilantes in the film “Fight Club.” As a minor celebrity, you and your crew sometimes got noticed covering the latest crime. On occasion, somebody would come up to you at the grocery store and gush about that package piece you did on Sally the seeing-eye squirrel. We get it. You’re big shit. But you weren’t always this hot. Prepare to reinject yourself into the compost pile. In the agency world, you are nobody. People do not know you, nor do they care how marginally famous you once were. Your resume tape with that killer live shot where 80-foot flames were shooting out the top of city hall means nothing. That’s a difficult pill to swallow for fame junkies like us. But as you will find, agency work is exhilarating. The challenges are unique, and often you have more time to work through problems. You’ll just do it with a higher degree of anonymity. On the plus side, you can finally shop for groceries without giving autographs.
2. Brush up on Budget Know-how
Most journalists look at Excel spreadsheets the way King Kong looked at helicopters — get away from me. If your client is ponying up $30,000 a month, your job as a service stallion is to spend that money wisely, stay on budget and get results. In addition to spending your client’s money on claymation films that triple web traffic, you have to send them a bill, coordinate paying media outlets, and in some cases, calculate your fat commission check. Brush up on your Excel chops and get ready to look at spreadsheets like King Kong gazed at Ann Darrow. Before you know it, you’ll be measuring results in dollars instead of ratings.
3. Eat a Big Slice of Humble Pie
As a noble journalist, you were an advocate for the little guys, burning corporations and greed mongers under a gigantic magnifying glass. Idealism was your guiding principle. Your job was to find the bastards blocking the world from the way it should be and expose them. Those days are over. You’ve got a new boss. As newly minted agency talent, you work for the client. Results, not ratings, dictate your salary. That undercover article you wrote about an illegal gas pipeline in Puget Sound will not serve you well in client service (unless you use that knowledge to land a gas pipeline company). Sure, you approached that story as an advocate for the people, but your days of accepting accolades for that type of work are over. It’s hard to swallow humble pie with a righteous lump in your throat. I understand. But the mental shift doesn’t take long, and the work you do helps build businesses that employ good people — it’s noble in a different way. Once you get a great client, you’ll know the satisfaction agency life can offer. Eat the humble pie. After a while it just might feed your soul.
4. Shed the Fear of Specialization
A great thing about journalism is the exposure to variety. One day you might be interviewing a presidential candidate and the next you have to tell a compelling story about rusty city water pipes. Change is the dance of each day and you get conditioned to its constant sway. Don’t like your job today? Wait until tomorrow. You’ll go to a new town and talk to different people. In agencies, you not only have to concentrate on long-term projects, you often must specialize and adjust to a more focused pace. Good work takes time. It requires precise execution and expertise. Many companies want to hire an agency that specializes in their industry. Embrace the focus. It’s rewarding. Many journalists specialize as well, but instead of reporting on sports, business or weather, you’ll concentrate on automobiles or alcohol (not at the same time). Too much distraction leads to boredom. Focus is fun. I promise.
5. Apply Your Storytelling Skills
You’re a good writer (at least you should be). As an account executive or copywriter, you’ll spend a lot of time typing. No matter what you write, make it a good story. Are you doing a proposal for a new energy water? What’s the angle? Put on your journalism hat and make it interesting. David Ogilvy shared one of my favorite examples about finding the story within the product. Ogilvy spent several weeks reading about Rolls-Royce in hopes of creating a gripping campaign. He came across the statement, ‘at 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise comes from the electric clock.’ That became the headline. In 1960, cars were loud and few had electric clocks. In a single stroke, Ogilvy told more than just the facts. The real story was that many cars were loud. The real story was that few cars had the luxury of electric clocks. Journalists know how to find that unique angle that creates a lasting impression and tells the real story. Trust those instincts and tell the tale. When I joined the agency world I didn’t trust myself. I thought I needed to write like a business person. Bullshit. Write like a storyteller. Find the magic and meaning in all that you do. When I finally got the confidence to share my opinions with colleagues, they appreciated the fresh perspective and it added value to what we were doing to serve clients. If you find the copy boring, your audience will feel the same way. Trust your storytelling standards and push for perfect.
6. Banker’s Hours with a Dose of Midnight Oil
Before you start telling me that Matt Lauer’s multi-million dollar deal offsets his shitty hours, realize he is the exception to a broad rule. Most people in journalism grind it out working when the birds sleep, making what the elephants eat. For great storytellers, the advertising industry is a blue ocean. There are a multitude of emerging technologies — all of which are meant to engage audiences — and the real pros are in for an exciting ride. There’s money to be made, and for the most part you get to work decent hours. Go to your kids’ baseball games and ballet recitals. Hit the slopes on a Friday afternoon. Grab your mountain bike and shred some singletrack. Just be prepared to pull all-nighters. I make it sound romantic (and it is), but you’re going to work hard. This industry will chew you up and spit you out if you’re lazy. It just doesn’t support those who lack talent and motivation because your work is constantly measured. Crank out crap and you’ll be back to the Channel 5 Morning Show before you know it. However, if you’re motivated and brilliant — which I’m sure you are — it’s the best business in the world. And it’s rewarding. You imagine, create and build things with a team and usually get to keep banker’s hours.
About the time troops pulled Saddam out of his pitch-black spider hole, I heard of another place called “the dark side.” It’s how journalists often refer to the PR and advertising world. Fear not. After crossing over the divide, I find it to be a bright and wonderful place. There are passionate people and interesting challenges. As a journalist you can thrive in the agency world, and these six lessons should give you a jumpstart on what it takes to make it in a great industry.
Mark Kinsley is a vice president with MediaCross, a strategic communication firm based in St. Louis. He rides a mountain bike, collects toothpick holders, drinks left bank Bordeaux and once made 69 consecutive free throws in high school basketball practice. Mark is an expert in brand storytelling, strategic communication, account leadership, community building and American masculinity.