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A letter to my younger self – the advice I wish I’d had

When does middle age officially start these days? Is 60 the new 30? Are millennials really fast-tracking towards knitting and Ugg boots, bypassing the joyous indiscretions of youth in favour of gluten-free, spinning-class, Guardian-tutting, ‘lights out by 9pm’ sensibility – all fuelled by probiotic, Bullet-blended, curly kale smoothies and a thousand grains of muesli?

As I creak towards my 40th birthday it’s getting increasingly hard to tell what colour-coded stage of life I’ve actually reached. I may have no certainty on when I can finally sign out of Skype for good but 17 years into a career in marketing I reckon I’ve earned the benefit of hindsight and can make a (somewhat) informed assessment as to whether the decisions of my formative years were ultimately for the best. Or whether youthful exuberance and naivety did, in fact, lead me down some avoidable rabbit holes.

If I could email myself as I strutted cockishly towards Golden Square in the summer of ’99, here’s what I’d have to say.

Don’t burn your bridges

We’ve all been there – a few times at least. The leaving drinks, the final client meeting, the last email before handing back the BlackBerry. You’ve written a parting shot to all staff and luckily had the presence of mind to employ ‘the 12-hour rule’ and park it in drafts overnight. But what about now? You’re leaving and it would feel so damn good to empty an Uzi of colourful language into their rapidly deflating egos.

But wait. Once the enter button is pressed, how good will you really feel?

Let me save you the risk and ensuing trouble: no good comes of it, ever, in my opinion. I only lit the touchpaper once – an early client, total asshat, not qualified to manipulate Play-Doh let alone multiple drinks brands. I emailed him on my final day in an agency role pointing out his (many and varied) flaws. I spoke of burning bridges and how, if I ever had the misfortune to work with him again my career was already over and I’d have to become a Hare Krishna instead.

He never replied (probably couldn’t work out how to send an email) but that didn’t matter. I felt no better – in fact I felt pretty sordid. I’d been paid to do a job, which included managing tough clients, and by sending that one single email I’d fallen at the last fence. I wandered home that night feeling hollow, and very much like I’d let myself down. Take note.

Be who you want to be: find an impressive, enthusiastic mentor

A number of the most successful people I know across the marketing and gaming worlds, and beyond, have a couple of things in common – they’re extremely bright and incredibly hardworking. They’ve also often had various doses of good fortune sprinkled over their career along the way. If I were to define an element of how this luck is consistently manifested, it would be the presence of a mentor figure in their early careers.

In most cases it was a boss who guided their development and decision making – and in some cases their first progression to a new firm – whilst embedding solid behaviours that take the rest of us a number of jobs and numerous mistakes to embrace. Find that mentor and follow their lead.

Ask more questions

My big bug-bears were contact reports and budgets. Contact reports were skull crushingly boring and apparently pointless tasks that required me to take notes rather than engage with the meetings themselves. As for budgets, well, numbers as a whole just left me cold.

As far as Achilles heels go, it’s quite a big one if you want to move up the marketing ladder.

However I was lucky in that I faced up to my initial gremlins, removed my crumbling ego from the equation and asked for help from my then account director. She not only facilitated my practical development but also, in a piece of Schadenfreude yet to be bested, gave me a leaving present I still use to this day – process management skills in the form of ISO9001 auditor training.

The cream rises (and trash gravitates towards its natural home near the bottom)

I wish I could forewarn the younger me about the absolutely dreadful people I would come across over a career spanning 13 companies, 10 job titles, six countries and four industries. However the bright side is that the darkness was ultimately outshone by the light emitting from many terrific, talented, fun and engaging people.

The truth is, dickheads are like coffee stains – every company has them and they’re a nightmare to get rid of – but they eventually fade away to nothing.

Don’t knee-jerk: if your heart tells you to leave, wait three months before you jump

In your early career especially, the temptation to run back to university and take an eight-year master’s degree in kite flying can sometimes feel like a no-brainer. The endless dreary meetings, pitiful salary, late nights working on unwinnable pitches and absurd rent bill to live within an hour of the office simply don’t add up. But then you get a glimmer.

The rat race is very much a marathon, so a steady pace with occasional bursts of speed will serve you well.

I remember one low ebb in particular: in my late agency days and inherently unhappy at work I managed to pitch, win and deliver a tiny viral project for Sony with the help of a couple of creatives and a developer, all working after hours. There was a general fug of negativity around the pitch and on a couple of occasions one of the senior agency figures tried to get me to cease work entirely, on the suggestion that I was soon to be canned anyway, but I persevered.

The beer we shared the day of the win was the sweetest validation and an immensely enjoyable (if ultimately hollow) ‘screw you’ against the agency. I was paid-off and farmed out soon after, but left feeling that at least I’d taken the chance to lead something myself and exit, if not on my own terms, at least with my head held a little higher.

If you can see the bandwagon, you’ve probably missed it

So. Many. Ideas. One of the most fun things in a marketing career is the opportunity to open the creative gun cabinet and start taking pot shots. I’ve got a few gigabytes of hard drive storage with everything from dotcom startup ideas to app concepts, culminating in a fair number of business plans. I even tried to get a few of them off the ground, but if there was one poison arrow that killed more of them than anything else (even more than the stagnating fear of failure) it was that I was replicating – even if subconsciously – ideas, campaigns or businesses that had already been brought to life in another earlier, better-funded guise.

Originality is an elusive maiden but those ideas that stand the inevitable self-doubt and criticism are the ones worth pouring your heart, soul (and most likely savings account) into.

They’re as rare as hen’s teeth but totally worth the wait.

Managing people well will be your highest priority

When I took on my first account manager role at 25 my father, proud though I’m sure he was at the time, did ask with a certain amount of trepidation whether I’d ever been trained to manage actual people.

In fact I believe he was more expressive than that.

Back then in agency land, you learned on the hoof – by emulating your boss (if they were decent), collaborating, and trial and error. Mistakes were made – many, many quite cringe-worthy mistakes if memory serves.

Things might have changed – training in management skills may now come as marketing industry standards alongside pointy shoes and a snazzy haircut – but what’s certain is your ability to nurture direct reports only gets more important as you progress in seniority. The ever-useful Google is a start point, as are the plethora of books on Amazon. I’d add to that a recommendation to constantly ask questions of managers you respect (remember the mentor); the ones who always seem to get the best from their team and run a tight yet motivated ship.

A product of personal development is that the job you chose as a graduate becomes less about the practical work and more about how you brief, advise, cajole, rein in and ultimately motivate those who work for you. It pays to take the time required to get it right.

If the offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is

Sometimes opportunity smacks you round the head when you least expect it – a piece of professional good fortune like a bolt of lightning from the depths of LinkedIn. It might be a random startup offer with a chunk of equity which they swear is worth half a mil already. Or it could be the promotion with a flashy job title that will make colleagues seethe and women swoon.

Hold fire, champ – time to pause for thought.

Has anything that’s been offered to you been guaranteed? Will it be in the contract? Even if so, will the company be around long enough to honour said contract (I can name three examples of firms going belly up around me just as I was due to be paid out).

Sadly, real ‘golden ticket’ moments are few and far between. What tends to breed ongoing success are the pillars of solid marketing skills twinned with a strong work ethic and a ‘get on with everyone’ personality. Focus on those and you’ll find you’ll start to make your own luck.

Measure twice, cut once

It’s highly recommended to apply the ‘more haste, less speed’ axiom to almost anything you meddle in. From Powerpoint to public speaking, take your time and focus on quality over quantity; it’s a sure fire way to appear more professional, competent and able than your peers.

The rat race is very much a marathon, so a steady pace with occasional bursts of speed will serve you well.

The grass certainly looks greener – but isn’t always, so be thankful

No matter how difficult your working life becomes at times, if you have a job in any area of marketing or professional services it’s likely you’re considerably better off than the majority. Statistically speaking, you’ve probably got a university degree, you’re able to cover rent (perhaps even a mortgage after a while if you’re lucky) and you work among the young and the beautiful in an ever-changing, lively industry.

Be grateful for what you’ve got and what you’ve achieved. It doesn’t get any easier as you earn greater responsibility, but it does pay better.

Work in what you love – and if you can’t afford to do that, do it on the side

There’s a utopian dream that we can all achieve nirvana by simply doing what we love for a career. But what if you love painting? Or writing? Or baking? And then you find you lack the talent, determination, confidence, drive, bankroll or pure luck to make it pay enough of a living wage while you find your feet? If that’s the case, then never fear – as that’s what evenings and weekends are for.

Time management comes more naturally to some than others but once you have a passion project it’s amazing how easy it is to get up that little bit earlier, to ignore the TV or go out less. You can shave time off pretty much everything else in order to reclaim those lost hours and commit them to something that brings you genuine joy.

It’s no surprise or secret than many of those that ‘make it’ claim that work doesn’t feel like work – its recreational fun that can have the added benefit of payment. Investing time in a beloved hobby outside work is hugely rewarding and a balance to the stresses and strains of your career, so invest in yourself, recapture your passion and see what amazing things could come of it. It’s free to try, and totally in your capacity to have a go.

I wish I’d done it sooner myself.

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