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One word of advice (literally)

By Randy Mitchell


The question still haunts me.


It was the 4A’s annual Career Day, an event that brought hundreds of aspiring advertising professionals into Chicago.


I was on the portfolio panel with three other agency creatives. Surrounding us was a wall of eager college seniors, all ready to shove their portfolios into our chests. (Remember physical portfolios? They could do some serious damage.)


Just before the eagerly anticipated Portfolio Review, the floor was opened for questions from the students. Most of the inquiries were directly related to finding a job: where to look, who to contact, what to say, what to show in the portfolio.


Then, a quiet student from Indiana University asked us the ultimate question. “What one word of advice would you give to someone who just learned they were hired by an agency?”


We all took turns answering that inquiry. Nobody said anything of consequence and the Portfolio Review was unleashed.


Later that day, I was still feeling the buzz from the event when I recalled the question and it brought me back to reality.


That simple inquiry was our chance to shape the future. We could have told a captive audience something valuable about agency life and helped them all become better professionals. They were all paying attention and we blew it.


Years have past since that pivotal moment. I sincerely hope that young student has become a happy creative director with many awards and even more friends. However, in the miniscule chance that she may be reading this very blog article, I want to beg her pardon and answer her question again.


Q. “What one word of advice would you give to someone who just learned they were hired by an agency?”


A. Listen.


Wait…what? That’s it? Listen?


Yes, that’s my answer and I don’t mean it lightly. I have given this matter considerable thought over the ensuing years, and no single word better describes the path to creative excellence.


Consider the many applications of “listen” and what they can mean to your work. (All of the following examples are drawn from real events.)


Listen to all voices

You’re in a massive client download meeting when someone makes a quiet comment about a new software product. This person isn’t the project lead or even in the client’s “inner circle,” so it would be easy to dismiss his understated input. Most people do. Back at the agency, the team pulls out their notes and takeaways from the big meeting. You review what all of the key players said, but everyone still struggles to find the true essence of the project. Then, you write those softly spoken words on the white board and the concepts start flowing. In retrospect, you realize that one simple comment actually defined the key differentiator on the biggest product launch of the year. You simply had to listen.


Listen to your customers and prospects

This seems like such an obvious statement. It’s not. As marketing professionals we listen to our clients, our agency leaders, our coworkers and even the competition. We listen to the experts who tell us what’s trending or where to spend our marketing budgets. But our customers and prospects know better than anyone. And they’re willing to tell us what to do by their actions, preferences and comments. Boomm puts a greater emphasis on “voice of the customer” research than any other agency I have worked at. The reason why is simple. If you ask the right questions and dig deep enough, the answers will surface. Again, all you need to do is listen.


Listen to your instincts

This sounds like advice for the creatives, but it actually applies to everyone. If you read something and it doesn’t sound quite right to you, say something. If an image sends the wrong message, comment on it. But first, make sure you’re not simply stating a personal bias. Remember, agencies hold a sacred trust. Our clients expect us to be their voice, as well as the eyes and the ears of their market. So review creative work, strategies, project briefs and every form of marketing communication like a customer. And listen to your instincts.


Honestly, I feel so much better now. It took years, but I finally answered that question in the right way.


Thank you for listening.