I first heard Kevin Roddy speak at the One Show’s Creative Leaders Retreat last February. He spoke of the difference between a Creative Director and a Creative Leader. It was as if he’d opened my journal (if I had one) and read through my questions and challenges with the transition I was experiencing. He has the most nuanced grasp on the topic of anyone I know, because he’s lived it. I asked him to reprise some of his talk here and he has done so in spades. He challenges us all to think twice about taking that promotion.
I’m going to talk about “career suicide.” You know, that oh-so-happy topic dealing with the self-imposed extermination of your day job—when you turn it from a successful job in advertising into a successful job folding fleece pullovers at Old Navy.
How does it happen? Why does it happen? And how on earth can someone like yourself stop it from happening to someone like yourself?
Believe it or not, most career annihilation doesn’t happen because of a lack of talent or a lack of ambition or even because you take too many tequila shots before noon (although, don’t get me wrong, those are all bad things for a career), it happens when you bite off more than you can chew. It happens when you believe you’re better than you are and that you can do a job before you actually can.
Too many creative people in this business want to climb the creative ladder ten rungs at a time. And too many advertising agencies are happy to help them try.
But why the rush?
Well, I can imagine that the promise of more money is a compelling reason. Or more power. Or a bigger office and a window. Or a sexier title on a business card that you can hand out at the bar. I can imagine there are all sorts of wild and wonderful things that people believe come with the next rung up the ladder.
But none of those things actually matters if it’s only a doorway to Old Navy.
The truth, as I’ve seen it, is that when a creative person in advertising takes a higher job before they’re truly ready, and they fail (which happens more often than not), they almost never recover. Because when they fail they lose confidence in themselves and the industry loses confidence in them—and confidence is a necessary additive to the potion that makes success.
A wise man once told me, “It’s a marathon not a sprint.” He also said, “Build a strong foundation and things will last longer.” That wise man was John Hegarty, so if you don’t believe me, believe him.
This business is notorious for putting creative people on a career rocket sled without a seat belt. And creative people are notorious for letting them. This business is very good at seeing a creative person doing one or two great pieces of work and then saying, “Hey, here’s a new job where you can help other people do what you just did.”
But it ain’t that simple. Believe me.
The way to avoid it actually is quite simple … control your own destiny. But do it with open eyes and an honest self-appraisal of your abilities. Not to mention a true understanding of what success looks like in that job above. Because then, and only then, can you decide if you’re ready and want to move up.
You need to understand that moving up the so-called creative food chain of advertising means moving into very different jobs—different jobs that require very different skills to be effective. Being a writer or an art director is a whole lot different than being a creative director. And being a creative director is a whole lot different than being a creative leader. They may seem alike but, man oh man, they are far from it.
So if you want to be effective, if you want to be successful all along the way and actually last longer in this business, do what you’re good at. You can always be looking at the next job, but just don’t take it before you are truly ready. And the first step to knowing that you’re ready is to really know what success looks like. To know what will be needed of you so that you can decide if you’re good at that … can be good at that … want to be good at that … or are better off staying put and not even trying.
Generally, my advice is that while you are learning about the job above you, you should spend more time than you think getting “great” at the job you’re currently in. Think of it this way, the better you are at your current job, the better you’ll be able to help the person who gets that job once you’ve climbed a rung. And helping the people below you will always be one of the most important parts of any job you have on the ladder. The people below you are even more important to your success than the ones above you, because they are the ones that make you look good. Or not.
Career suicide is often just that, suicide. I’d like to believe it’s murder, but it usually isn’t. And that’s because you have more control over your own success or failure than you think. As I mentioned before, agencies will offer you the moon to move up the ladder, but you are the one who does it when you’re ready (success) or not (suicide).
At The One Club’s Creative Leaders Retreat (an event I would highly recommend), I gave a seminar on knowing the difference between Creative Direction and Creative Leadership. I won’t bore you with it now, but knowing differences like that and how to be successful at either or both is critically important to your trip up the creative ladder. I suggest you learn all that you can and be patient along the way. Know what will be expected of you on the next rung and be honest with yourself that you want it and can do it.
If you do, well, that job at Old Navy can just go screw itself. You’ve got better things to do.