How To Get Ahead in Advertising: Essential Career Advice from The Game’s Top Names

11 pieces of career advice on how to thrive in the ad game.

How To Get Ahead in Advertising: Essential Career Advice from The Game’s Top Names
[Photo: Flickr user Zach Dischner]

Vernon Law, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1950s, once said, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” It’s one of those enduring quotes because it so aptly summarizes life, articulating how we really have no idea what we’re doing until we’ve already figured it out.


It’s also the first thought that came to mind when Sarah Hofstetter is asked what advice she’d share with her younger self. A former journalist, Hofstetter weaved her way through PR, social media and brand strategy before recently taking the mantle of CEO at digital agency 360i. Without knowing it, she was studying for the test, preparing herself for what lay ahead. “Each learning experience was a building block, and even when I wasn’t sure what I was building towards, I knew I was accumulating transferable skills,” she says.

Perspectives like this are insightful when trying to understand how successful people have reached their current heights. What decisions were most pivotal along the way? What did they wish they knew when they were starting out? And, ultimately, what advice might they have for others forging a similar path?

Since advertising in particular is an industry in permanent flux, and one that places a high premium on something so intangible–creativity–we sought out industry leaders and asked them to share their perspectives on their career path. Drawing on that collective wisdom, here 11 pieces of sage career advice.


But first, a caveat. In the words of Remi Babinet, founding chairman of French agency BETC and global chief creative officer of Havas, remove from your mind any notion of the “right” career path. Instead, he offers, “The best approach is not to map everything out or get caught up idealizing the future. Instead, you should be aware, focused and driven in each step of your professional life. That’s the best way to deal with all of the little surprises that can crop up along the way.”

Photo: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker


People in advertising love to talk about risk. They encourage their clients to take more risks and applaud work that’s deemed risky. But, it seems, the greatest risk is the one that most of the people we spoke with took early in their career: moving.

Susan Credle, chief creative officer at Leo Burnett USA, bought a one-way ticket to New York at age 20 to follow a dream. Tiffany Rolfe, chief content officer at Co Collective, bought a one-way ticket to Miami to get on board at CP+B in its feverishly creative early years. Pete Favat, partner and chief creative officer at Deutsch LA, left a great gig in New York for in Boston and ended up with his name on an agency’s shingle. Tor Myhren, president and worldwide CCO at Grey New York gave up a spot at TBWA\Chiat\Day for what many considered a fool’s errand in Detroit. Anja Duering, creative director at 180 LA followed her gut and quit her job to road trip with her husband and creative partner in a ’76 VW bus. Sarah Barclay, executive creative director, JWT New York, moved to a different country to play on a bigger, global stage. While the locales and paths are different, the story is the same: moving was one of the most pivotal moments in their careers that yielded personal and professional gains.


“The best, and hardest career decision I ever made was to leave a great job at Chiat\Day in Los Angeles to take a tougher, messier job at Leo Burnett in Detroit. People thought I was crazy to leave the sunshine of LA and leave one of best agencies in America, and go to a broken shop in a broken market like Detroit,” say Myhren. “But it was a chance to run an agency, and it was in Detroit that I learned how to manage and how to build a creative culture in a place that had historically resisted creative leadership. These lessons, and this experience, prepared me to help reinvent a big agency like Grey New York.”

Rolfe says that landing at the only place she wanted to work, one that was on a serious upward trajectory, allowed her the opportunity to thrive. “It propelled me forward quickly in my career. It was learning and doing measured in dog years,” she says.

And Duering says her labyrinthine career path has been guided by instinct. “I always follow my gut, over any logic or over being comfortable. I quit my first job at Arnold after just 9 months, right before my first huge TV production for VW and went to CP+B following my fiancé and also my love for the different kind of work Crispin was doing. There was a chance of losing my work visa, but it all worked out. A couple months later Crispin had the VW account and I was part of the team to create the first batch of work for them,” she says. “Three years later my husband and I quit our job at CP+B and bought a ’76 VW bus and drove around the U.S. for a couple months. It wasn’t the ‘safe’ decision, but it was what our gut told us we had to do. It made us really explore what we wanted to accomplish as both a team and as people. Our next role was being global CDs on a new product launch for Nokia out of W+K Amsterdam. We wouldn’t have found that opportunity if we never followed our gut to find something new. Things always work out if your gut and heart are in it.”


But as the experience of Remi Babinet–who’s famous for his work with Evian–illustrates, risk is not restricted to location. “The best advice I got was to just be myself and, in that capacity, to not be afraid, not hold back, to truly seek out risks. I was also told to never take my position for granted or get too comfortable with what I already know, to keep going and not give up,” he says. “All along the way, I’ve always done what people have told me not to, even disobeyed them. My very first decision in advertising was to choose it as a career and that was the last thing my parents wanted for me.”

Photo: Flickr user Emi Yañez


“Don’t do anything for the money,” says JWT’s Sarah Barclay when asked what piece of advice she’d give people starting out in advertising.

This is one of the greatest challenges for anyone forging a career because it’s so easy to rationalize how a great paycheck will make life better, but on this topic there’s near consensus. Just don’t do it.


“When you’re fresh out of school, don’t follow the money, but take the job that has the most creative potential and will build the best creative portfolio for you. I know this is really crazy to say when you are up to your neck in student loans, but in the beginning of your career, your portfolio is everything, the money will follow,” cautions Duering.

Tor Myhren offers this advice handed to him by his father early in his professional life: “If you do it for the money, you’ll never love it. If you do what you love, the money will come.”

But it’s not just the early decisions that have significant impact. Lucy Farey-Jones, partner, executive strategy director, Venables Bell & Partners has a piece of advice that she counts as one of the most significant decisions she made that positively affected her career: “Take a pay cut to move departments.”


“A career is a marathon not a sprint. Falling for a paycheck or a trumped-up title early on might give you a false sense of success and limit much bigger success in the future,” offers Susan Credle. “Take the crap job at a place or with a person you admire. Learn from people and companies who inspire you.”

Wrapped up in the story of compensation is also recognition. Tiffany Rolfe cautions people to ditch the obsession over title. “Don’t let your title define what you know and do in your job. You should always be learning and saying yes to things that are outside of your job description–below or above your pay grade. As the type of work we do in a variety of media continues to evolve, I am thankful for the experience I gained from taking on projects that stretched me. I believe it has made me a better creative leader and collaborator.”

On the topic of money, Kyle Monson, partner and content strategist at agency Knock Twice offers this observation: “If you care about money, there are easier industries where you can make more, though they might not be as fun or creative. If you care about creativity, you’ll be frequently frustrated by a job in this industry, though it probably provides a steadier income than your more creative alternatives. Advertising and marketing is kind of a sweet spot, which means you’ll always be a little bit satisfied and a little bit frustrated. And I love it for that.”

Photo: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker


Careers are long, and for creative people, the delineation between work and life can be muddy. That’s why so many successful ad folks wisely encourage people to seek outside inspiration.

When asked what he would tell his younger self, Remi Babinet says, “I would warn myself about how easy it can be to get stuck in a rut. When you’re young you don’t realize that, so you should always find ways to learn, try new things and open up doors and possibilities whenever you can.”

Rolfe admits that in her early career she didn’t pursue non-work activities as much as she should have and now sees the challenge she’s faced with. “Even though I believe in hard work, I do think it’s important to have something else to focus on in your life. I should have taken some time to develop a hobby. People need hobbies. So I’m not sure what I’ll do with myself in my sixties.”


“Make time to feed your creative soul,” offers Nancy Vonk, co-founder of creative leadership consultancy Swim. “Don’t let the job become your everything even as the pressure will be on to make the job a 24/7 commitment. Get out to that exhibit, that show, that improv class you don’t have time for. Because it will keep you happy, keep you growing and assure you’re bringing something special to the party every day.”


Once people land the job of their dreams, it’s a natural instinct to get comfortable. This is ill-advised for a number of reasons. First, advertising is evolving at such a clip that what you once knew quickly becomes old-school. Second, the more you know, the more opportunities arise.

Key to the quest to know more is the confidence to ask questions, says Duering. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. When you ask questions you learn. Don’t be worried about looking stupid. I worked with amazing people and in the beginning I was too intimidated and honestly too busy to ask questions. I wish I had asked more.”


Another suggestion is to actively avoid complacency. “It is important to me that I feel challenged every day,” offers Rolfe. “If you’re too comfortable, you’re not learning. If you find yourself bored or stuck, take a chance at going client side, working for a tech start-up, trying out a non-traditional place. We are in a time where these things aren’t exits or missteps; they can now help propel your career forward.”

While learning can be an active decision, it can also come from humility, says Monson. “I’d tell my younger self to be patient, learn from everyone around me, and spend time absorbing. Basically, shut up and learn while working. I think I was OK at that when I jumped into advertising, but terrible as a young journalist. It was easy to feel like I knew exactly what needed fixing and how to fix it, and I’m sure I was an annoying twerp at times.”

“There is no better time to be a creative person in the business world,” adds Myhren. “All creative industries like music, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Madison Avenue are collaborating in radical, unbelievable ways. Anyone is capable of doing anything, because the rise of digital has made anything possible. David can topple Goliath, and you could create the next Facebook. If you can think it, you can make it. Stay open, stay nimble and stay curious. Dive in and soak up everything and make sure you have incredible passion for what you’re doing. If it ever feels like a job instead of a passion, quit.”

Photo: Flickr user Carlos Magariños


While Myhren advocates for passion, the companion to that is determination, without which it’s hard to realize your potential. Because we all know, everyone has ideas. Successful people make those ideas a reality. Or, as Hofstetter says, “Be hungry but also make sure you’re doing something about satiating that hunger.”

In her career, Duering says she’s been able to accomplish things with a single rule. “Act as if,” she says. “It’s One of the best tips I’ve been given is one I still follow. If you have a project that everyone feels really strongly about, the client is interested in it, but it’s in a holding pattern for whatever reason, you will only make it happen if you and your team act as if it must happen and move it on. There have been a lot of projects that only happened because my team and I were pro-active. The more often you act as if your best idea cannot be stopped, or your client is braver than they think they are, then the more likely those things will come true.”

That advice dovetails nicely with Remi Babinet’s view toward determination. “You have to really want it. It’s a very demanding career and you have to give it your all to succeed. You have to be motivated and truly convinced that you have what it takes because you’ll be dealing with people who have doubts about themselves or who are afraid to try new things. People who are determined and clear about what they want will contribute a lot to this profession,” he says. “You should be clear and try to avoid limiting yourself to “politically correct” language, especially within your own company. You have to keep learning and surround yourself with strong people. Don’t forget how much your bosses need resourceful, autonomous, and determined people, not the type who always worry that they’re going to mess up.”


Chris Garbutt, chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather New York puts this in slightly different terms. “I don’t think you should be cautious as a young person. Fear is the biggest creativity killer. You need to stay naive, fearless, and believe anything is possible. I don’t believe I would have created the work I have at this point if I had listened to the fear. It’s like surfing. Once you choose your wave, you need to commit yourself to taking that wave. No hesitation. No turning back.”


Fearlessness and determination also requires confidence, which is probably one of the greatest challenges for creative people. Being judged–and awarded–on your ideas is a strong fertilizer for self doubt.

Nancy Vonk, who’s made a career of mentoring and coaching other in theirs, says simply, “Act confident and you’ll be confident.” Everyone feels like a fraud at some point, she says, and they key is to behave as though you know what you’re doing. In her own career, she says that after working with a mentor who exuded confidence she learned to do the same. “Looking back, I went from acting confident to actually feeling confident, in short order.”


Pete Favat’s perspective on confidence came from Walt Disney, who is famous, among many other things, for advising people to hire people more talented than you. “I read this when I was 12,” says Favat, crediting it as a pivotal moment. “It’s important to try as hard as hell to not be insecure. It’s not attractive. It will no doubt set you back. It doesn’t make you better.”

Photo: Flickr user Crodriguesc


In the same breath, Favat qualifies his call for confidence. “I love this quote. It’s from Pixar: ‘You are not your idea.’ If you identify too closely with your ideas you will take offense when challenged. Make work people will talk about. Learn how to read people, how to listen deeply.” Meaning, lose the ego, which too often takes the place of confidence.

Taking ego out of the equation helps leaders better assess creative, says Garbutt. “Don’t judge ideas by how clever they make you look, but by how useful they could be for the audience, or how they will inspire your audience to feel. Do something in life that will gain a following, provoke a positive movement, and change someone’s day for the better. Then tell that story in an engaging way. Craft your ideas and package the thinking clearly and concisely.”

“I wish I had become more empathetic earlier in my career. I was very selfish, and it wasn’t until I began trying to relate to people’s issues and really understand where people were coming from that I finally unlocked my leadership ability,” offers Myhren. “The most cliché and most true thing any leader will tell you is that you’re only as good as the people around you. Understanding them on a human level, and earning their full trust, is gold.”


Even amid the crazy deadlines, extreme pressure and general full-on nature of advertising, many top players are adamant that giving back to the younger guard is essential to their own success.

“Probably by far, the best choice I made was to devote a lot of energy to mentoring and helping others grow,” says Vonk. “Along with my writer partner (Janet Kestin) I gave projects away to young people who needed something good to work on after steady diets of the dregs. Their successes and advancement was as rewarding as the credit I got for my own work. It’s ironic that most people see mentoring as charity work, and find it hard to justify making time to do it. My experience suggests it’s a great strategy for your own development as a leader. It was a straight line to the top.”

“Give back as much as you take,” suggests Farey-Jones. “No matter how high you get, the best managers know that ultimately people don’t work for you–you work for them. Talent is a two-way street.”

Photo: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson


What’s a survey of advertising people without an incredibly illustrative metaphor? Not possible. Thanks, then, to Pete Favat for this sage–and awkward–gem. “Stop jerking off spiders,” he says, his point being to think big. Naturally.

“Harvey Gabor, who created ‘Hilltop’ for Coca Cola among other brilliant campaigns, was my CCO. He taught me how to think bigger. He would refer to the act of engaging with small thinkers and small ideas as this jerking off spiders.” Technology, he says, has made this advice all the more pressing. “Technology has opened a million doors but you really have to learn how to solve business problems. Listen hard, care a lot, ask questions even if you think they are dumb. It’s ok. Think very big and very wide. Be prolific.”

Farey-Jones has a similar view: “Our industry can get seduced by the latest executional bauble or sexy technology. But these are always secondary; real success in our industry lies in solving business problems. People that excel long term in our industry do so by delivering business impact not just razzle dazzle.”


The more established one becomes in their particular field, the smaller the world becomes. Early colleagues become peers as you progress, the lowly intern might be the next ‘it’ creative, and that random connection made at an industry party? Well, be smart because they could become your boss.

“In life, and work, relationships are everything,” says Farey-Jones and understanding this, she says, is vital. “Your first job you might get by chance and your CV/resume; the second one and onwards should be on contacts and reputation and the quality of those two things means everything.”

Hofstetter concurs. “This may seem like a big industry but it’s not. Keep relationships strong, and do so by earning trust and being true to yourself and others about who you are and what you’re capable of doing.”

Monson takes a very proactive approach to building his network of strong relationships. He commits to coffee chats with as many people as he can. “I’ll say yes to almost anyone. College students who want an internship, creative people whose work I like, friends of friends of friends, it doesn’t really matter, I’ll do my best to schedule a chat,” he says. “Most of them never lead to new clients or new hires, but there’s still a ton of value for people in our industry in just sitting down with lots and lots of people. I think it keeps me up on industry trends, helps me stay creative for my clients, and hopefully provides value for the other person as well.”

Photo: Flickr user Patrick Emerson


There are many ways to characterize this bit of advice, since the call for positivity comes in various forms. First, there’s the encouragement to avoid negative people who draw energy from you. As Nancy Vonk says life is short so “don’t waste your precious time working for or with assholes.” Or in Pete Favat’s words, “don’t waste time with negative people; don’t let them get you down or hold you back.

“You gotta stop letting people wind you up,” Favat says. “Learn how to take a breath and think things through before you lose your shit. It took me a little too long to learn this. I was easily wound up when I was young, some people knew how to push my buttons. I have never been afraid of confrontation and people would take advantage of that. So I had to learn how to temper my emotions and think things through. I’ve seen other young people suffer this. It can quickly paint a bad picture of you.”

Then there’s the need to internalize positivity in order to produce your good work. As Chris Garbutt says, “It’s a long career, and you’re only as good as your last ad. You need to really love making ideas happen. It’s a marathon, not a sprint; therefore you need loads of stamina, positivity and belief to make great work.”

Susan Credle continues the metaphor: “A career is a roller coaster, just like life. Keep showing up. However, how you show up is important. If you want to show up whining, complaining, defeated, negative–stay home. Show up with resilience. Every time you get knocked down, stand up and believe in the next time. Every once in awhile, and I do mean every once in a while, do something that scares you. And by the way, have fun. Life is simply too short. And we are incredibly fortunate to be paid to be creative every day. Most people do that after they have finished their day job.”

Duering calls it being “delusionally optimistic.” “That’s the hardest one for me to follow. My German-self just pushes against it.,” she says. “Us Germans tend to be a bit too practical sometimes. But my partner who is also my husband has it and it’s a fantastic quality to have and affects people all around you.”

Finally, there’s that old yarn that our parents taught us way back: be nice to other people. In this case, your colleagues or the people with whom you’re paid to communicate (though feel free to be nice to all people).

“Don’t insult people,” says Barclay. “Make stuff that moves them in some way. All the work I love makes people smile, laugh, cry, or want to punch something. David Ogilvy said the consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife. I would add don’t call anyone a consumer.”

“Be nice to people and people will enjoy working with you,” offers Duering. “The people on top didn’t just get there because they are amazing creatives, but also because they are great leaders and people want to work with them and follow them.”


About the author

Rae Ann Fera is a writer with Co.Create whose specialty is covering the media, marketing, creative advertising, digital technology and design fields. She was formerly the editor of ad industry publication Boards and has written for Huffington Post and Marketing Magazine