Five interesting answers from ten years of interviews
Every journalist has fall-back questions should their mind go blank mid-interview. Whenever the tumble weed of anxiety swept across my brain, this one was usually good to me: “If you could give one piece of advice to someone entering your industry today, what would it be?”
Last week, when I finished my ten-year career as a magazine journalist to begin work in an agency, I was drawn back to some of the more interesting responses that question elicited – not least because I’ve spent the past five years asking it of people working in the industry I’ve now moved to. So, before I become fully immersed in WIP meetings and client briefings, pitch presentations and strategic innovations, now seems the ideal time to pull together the five answers that stuck in my mind the most.
1) “Be afraid of not making mistakes” The single biggest thing creative agencies have going for them is they have always been in the ideas business, and with that comes an inherent tolerance for mistakes. Acceptance of people making mistakes came up time and again when wheeling out the ‘one piece of advice’ question. Indeed, most considered it a pre-requisite for any agency culture capable of generating great work and hope they’ve created an environment where nobody is scared or sharing an idea – no matter how naïve it might seem, what their job title is, or whether they’ve come up with the odd dud before.
2) “Look who’s not talking” This one roughly goes: ‘always treat everyone you come across with an equal level of interest, curiosity, and willingness to help out, no matter how junior, quiet or unassuming they are: You never know who you’ll end up doing a favour.” With time so short for everyone in business this one seems particularly tough for most busy agency folk: it also seems particularly admirable if you can pull it off.
3) “Please bring your personality to work” A particularly effervescent agency head once asked me in an interview how often I’d heard the following apology at work: “I’m so sorry about how I reacted earlier, it’s just work. I’m honestly not like that at home.” He then went on to explain that he felt it entirely unacceptable for people to behave towards each other at work in a way that they wouldn’t consider acceptable to behave elsewhere. And he’s right. His advice: be brave enough to bring your personality to work, and take responsibility for dealing with the unusually stressful situations that you occasionally might find yourself in at work. It’s hard, but it has got to be better than hiding behind a protective shield of arse-covering emails, secrets, lies and ridiculous political victories.
4) “Live in the real world” The marketing communications industry isn’t shy of giving itself a pat on the back, and with that comes a whole lot of trade press, awards shows, proper reading, seminars, workshops and general dancing around on the head of a pin. A wise advertising bod once told me: “The best people I’ve worked with bar-none are the people who didn’t spend their entire life thinking they wanted to work in advertising.” His advice to people entering the industry was to live a broad life, have interests that are way outside of anything to do with marketing communications and involve yourself with as many varied and interesting people as you can. It’s tough to achieve if you’re stuck in the office all hours and live in the Eastern Suburbs or St Kilda, but the benefits are huge – both to you personally and you’re employer.
5) “Pretend to be the receptionist” This is a little more specific than the other things mentioned, and isn’t really useful for someone junior entering the industry (which admittedly is the vast majority of new intake) – but I like it for it’s ‘hiding in plain sight’ approach. The advice is that, should you find yourself in the position of interviewing someone to come and work for you, and it is of particular importance to you that they make a good first impression, are personable, and able to communicate well with anyone they come across (see point 3 above) then why not pretend to be the receptionist at the time they are due to arrive for their meeting with you? If you’re feeling really bold, have a bit of a chat with them while playing receptionist, or even get someone else to pretend to be the real you briefly – that way you can gauge any change in the interviewee’s attitude, and whether they’re the sort of person that behaves rudely towards receptionists. It may be a bit extreme, but it’s a pretty funny idea.
One common thread that runs through all of the above is that they’re about asking people to be themselves – except for the receptionist one, which is about pretending to be someone else in order to see what another person is really like. Are all these things possible in the frenetic world of the modern communications agency? What do you think? There should be a comments thread below, and I’d be interested to hear any wise words of advice you might have come across in your early days in a new career – and whether they’ve stood up to the test of reality?