I’m frequently asked for career advice, and find myself at the moment with four incredible people who I’m “mentoring” through a point in their career here at Microsoft. Because I’m not managing a large team, I’ve taken this on as a point of obligation.
It occurs to me that after 11 years in online advertising, I’m seeing cyclical trends. The same issues are coming up repeatedly. So today I’m going to use this forum as a “bully pulpit” for the industry. These are some thoughts you can take with you on your own career path, and also use to help coach others along theirs.
In general, resources are scarce in our industry, and it feels like it’s harder to hire great people every day. Here are two pieces of advice that should be useful for you and your colleagues. This first one isn’t unique to online advertising, but it comes up with people over and over again.
Cream Always Rises, But Ambition is a Scarce Resource
We’ve all seen them in our day-to-day life. Walk into any business, even a Starbucks, and you’ll frequently find that one “stand out” person who’s clearly lifting more weight than their colleagues. Sometimes it’s at your local car dealer’s service center — the guy who’s managing the crew is a bumbling idiot, but there’s one person on the team you notice all the others ask for direction.
People of ability will always lift as much weight as they can carry, but don’t always get rewarded. In management I frequently see strong managers who fight like lions for their team members, but who manage their own careers like lambs.
There’s a general belief out there that if you do great work, if you make your manager look good, and you kick ass — you’ll be rewarded. This isn’t always the case.
You need to be ambitious. The rarest commodity on the planet is ambition. Our culture has vilified ambition, but it’s not a bad thing. You’re the only person who should care as much about your career as you!
Don’t rely on others to hand you rewards. Be clear with your manager about your career goals, and directly ask for what you want.
I recently talked to a woman who was devastated that she hadn’t been promoted at her annual review. I asked her if she had told their boss that she expected a promotion, and she said no. I asked her how she could possibly be upset about it.
The Experience You’re Building in Online Advertising is Extremely Valuable
When the Internet bubble burst in 2001, thousands of strong — many of them incredibly talented — people left the online advertising industry. Some went to other industries, some went to graduate school.
Those of us who stayed found great value to sticking out the lean times. Those quality people have done well in their careers because they’re now the ones with the experience nobody else will ever have.
Many people are now nervously watching the pendulum of the economy swinging back toward recession, remembering past experiences, and remembering that advertising is usually the first area hit. Don’t let this scare you out of our industry. The roles in the online space are going to translate into leadership roles for all advertising within the next decade. Take advantage of this. Build valuable and broad experience while you can and leverage it to be a leader over the next decade of advertising evolution.
There seem to be two inflection points for people — one in the mid-20s, one in the mid-30s, so I’ll address them both individually.
Several young talented people are thinking about leaving our industry right now. Some are just “antsy.” They feel like the time is right to move onto the next part of their life, and it’s early enough to switch directions without losing momentum.
Some of them are simply burned out — they work ridiculous hours for not enough pay, and simply can’t see the forest for the trees they’re dodging as they run full speed through their days. Many of these people are in ad operations or entry-level media buying jobs, which often are a thankless, never ending fire hose of work.
These folks don’t realize that the experience they’ve gained in these early roles is valuable. Often these roles are entry points to the industry — and these roles should be leveraged that way. Everyone isn’t expecting them to stay with what they’re doing now.
Some of the entry-level roles in this industry are quite brutal. Just because you’ve been doing repetitive thankless work for three years right out of college doesn’t mean that all jobs in this industry are that way. Move up, not out.
The second group of people are in their early- to mid-30s. Many of these people feel like they’ve done their time in the industry and aren’t getting what they want out of their career. They look longingly at other areas to leverage their experience, and see green grass outside of the advertising industry.
This is a normal reaction to being at the point you’re at in your life and career. And while that grass looks pretty green — it’s verdant right under your own feet. We simply can’t hire enough people into our industry right now; the experience you’ve gained over the five to 10 years you’ve spent in online advertising is far more valuable than you realize. Frankly, we can’t afford to lose you. Leverage that experience to move to the next level in your career.
I vividly remember a conversation I had with a colleague who was 38, back when I was a fledgling of 32. He said something like, “You know Eric, I’m 38 and I only have a few years left to make my mark, to set myself on the right path for the rest of my career.” And he was right!
Many people will restart their career many times, and certainly you’re not locked into doing what you are now for the rest of your adult life. But in your mid-30s, you’re laying the groundwork for the last few decades of your career.
If you’ve been an individual contributor, push yourself into a management role. If you’ve been managing and that’s what you’re burned out on — try being an individual contributor for a year. Shake the tree. Do something different. But don’t think that the answer is to give up that valuable industry experience. Leverage it!
And here’s one last piece of freebie advice. Raise your hand and ask for hard projects that your colleagues are afraid to take on. Make risks clear to management, but point out that you’re willing to take a chance and try to get the project done. There’s no clearer way to stand out in a crowd.