Career Overview: Advertising

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012
Maybe you're an English major whose friends are all receiving job offers from consulting firms, banks, and the like, and you're wondering what the heck the business world has to offer you. Maybe you're a banker, frustrated because your job doesn't let you express creativity or take advantage of your abiding interest in popular culture and the media. Or perhaps you're a struggling writer or artist tired of living on ramen and happy-hour buffets, and you've come to the conclusion that a cell phone and a steady paycheck don't necessarily make a person a sellout. Then you turn on the television, open your Internet browser, or pick up a newspaper or magazine, and it hits you: Why not work in advertising or public relations?

Advertising is big business. The biggest advertisers spend billions of dollars each per year to market their products and services through direct mail, advertising, and promotions. For instance, Verizon spent over $2.2 billion in 2008, and Macy's spent over $892 million, according to the magazine Advertising Age. In 2008, U.S. marketing-communications agencies generated $33.7 billion in revenue, up 3.7 percent from the previous year despite the economic downturn, according to the 2009 Advertising Age Agency Report.

In broad terms, an advertising agency is a marketing consultant. It helps the client-for example, a consumer goods manufacturer such as Nike or a service provider such as Charles Schwab-with all aspects of marketing their product or service, from strategy and concept through execution. Strategy involves helping the client make high-level business decisions, such as determining which new products to develop, or how to brand or define itself to the world.

Concept is where the agency takes the client's strategy and turns it into specific ideas for advertisements-such as a series of ads featuring "extreme sports" athletes for a soft-drink maker with a strategy to enter the teen market. Execution is where the agency turns the concept into reality with the production of the actual ads: the print layout, the film shoot, the audiotaping. Full-service agencies also handle the placement of ads in print and electronic media so that clients reach their intended audiences. Sometimes the agency works in conjunction with the client's marketing department. In other instances-when the client doesn't have a marketing department-the agency takes on that role.

Public Relations
PR has long taken a backseat to advertising in terms of industry revenue and prestige, but with the proliferation of media outlets and the increasing complexity of the marketing landscape, it's growing in size and importance. Now the U.S. PR industry has nearly 7,000 players and annual revenues of over $6 billion, according to a report released by First Research Inc. in June 2009.  

Unlike advertising, which is paid media exposure, PR involves communicating the organization's message through the news media, whose supposed objectivity lends credibility to the message and thus makes it more powerful. The goal in PR is to make your client-or your company, if you work in-house in a corporate or marketing communications position-look great.

PR professionals work primarily with members of the press to ensure that newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV outlets run stories favorable to their clients. In addition, they might speak on behalf of client organizations; arrange for clients' presence at appropriate industry events; help mitigate harmful publicity when, for instance, the federal government sues a client for antitrust violations; or help clients come up with an overall marketing strategy for, say, a new product launch. PR professionals serve companies, government agencies, charitable organizations, and famous individuals-in short, just about anyone seeking to promote a public image, message, or product.
Most advertising agencies prefer candidates with bachelor's degrees and a liberal arts background-preferably in advertising, journalism, public relations, literature, sociology, philosophy, or psychology. Obtaining an internship and taking courses in marketing, statistics, economics, accounting, mathematics, and creative design will give you an advantage when you enter the job market. Skills in interactive technology-such as HTML-may also make you a more marketable candidate.

For marketing and sales promotion positions, it's helpful to have a BA or MBA with a focus in marketing. Creative jobs require at least a 2-year degree from an art or design school and top-notch communications skills. For entry-level copywriting or art direction jobs, a book is essential-this means designing and producing mock advertisements.

Midcareer professionals from other industries should be prepared to start at square one. This is an industry in which people work their way up from the bottom. It's often necessary to jump from agency to agency to move ahead. People looking to jump agencies will find they're judged by the success of the campaigns on which they've worked. Job Outlook
When companies struggle, they often cut marketing budgets first. So the outlook for the advertising and PR industry depends largely on the economy at any given time, and how much clients are willing to spend on marketing activities. In 2008 and 2009, several agencies announced layoffs because there wasn't enough work to go around. Global powerhouse agency The Ogilvy Group, for instance, cut 10 percent of its staff in early 2009, and the month before, Detroit-based agency Campbell-Ewald laid off between 100 and 200 employees.

Another trend in the advertising agency that job seekers should consider is the ever-changing ways in which companies reach consumers. Newspapers and magazines are currently losing popularity, while online media is becoming more and more important. Those with digital experience - in design, programming, web copy, etc. - will most likely continue to be in high demand in the near future. The digital outlook for PR professionals is also good. BNet blogger Jon Greer posits that PR professionals will "position themselves as gatekeepers and experts on leveraging Internet communications," because marketing departments within corporations will do what they can to stay relevant on the web.

If you're looking to break into these fields, be wary of trends like the one mentioned previously, and be prepared for intense competition. Advertising and PR remain attractive industries for several reasons. In advertising, many writers and artists are drawn to agencies' creative and production departments because the salaries are much higher in the ad game than in the starving-artist realm. For business types, advertising offers an exciting proximity to the creative process. For liberal arts people, PR provides opportunities that can be both lucrative and creatively fulfilling. Pros in both industries often enjoy perks like dinners, plays, and ball games with clients. And everyone in these industries gets to spend time with some of the hippest, most culturally aware coworkers around-and play a role in creating the stories and advertisements that shape our culture.
Career Tracks
If you work in a larger agency, you're more likely to specialize than in a small agency, where you're more likely to wear multiple hats. Most people start at the junior or assistant level and move up the ranks-if you come to advertising from another industry, you're likely to start at the bottom. The greatest numbers of entry-level positions exist in account management and media.

Account Manager
At the entry level, an account coordinator, administrative assistant, or assistant account executive ensures that ads move smoothly through the execution process. Occasionally, these jobs include some competitive analysis and assistance in client meetings or on ad shoots. Past the entry level, an account executive handles all aspects of an account-from planning to implementation. Account executives determine a client's needs and coordinate with other departments to ensure they are met. From there, you can move on to become an account manager, account supervisor, management supervisor, vice president, and eventually, director.

Some agencies will start you as a media assistant, a largely clerical position. From there, you'll move to assistant media planner, where you'll analyze consumer habits and evaluate content to determine where an ad is most likely to get the target audience's attention (think beer ads during the Super Bowl). Assistant media buyers purchase airtime and advertising space and ensure that ads appear as scheduled. From the assistant level, the career trajectory progresses to media planner or buyer, senior media planner or buyer, media supervisor, vice president, and director.

Account Planning
Most people move into account planning laterally as junior account planners or are hired from account planning departments in other agencies. Account planners try to quantify and qualify what makes people tick-and analyze mountains of data in the process-by conducting focus groups and researching things such as why teens like one kind of soft drink more than another. If you do well, you can advance rapidly to senior account planner, vice president, and director.

Creative Services
Creative career tracks require a book of sample ads. You might take an assistant position in a creative department while putting together your book. Entry-level creative positions are called junior positions: A junior copywriter assists a senior copywriter in writing copy and scripts for ads; a junior art director helps an art director develop visual concepts and designs for ads. Copywriters and art directors work together as partners to come up with strong ideas to carry out a client's strategy.

The closer you are to entry level in the production department, the more your work will consist of grunt layout tasks. As you move up, you'll have increasing say in design issues. Production generally has the most contact with account management and creative, and it can be a good path to other careers in advertising. If you're a young graphic artist, this is a good place to learn about advertising and get to know people who can advise you on getting a book together. Compensation

Lifestyle and Hours

People think of advertising as glamorous-and it can be depending on what types of ads you're designing. Print ads and branding may afford you the opportunity to see your work on a billboard, while working in direct mail may mean your work will end up in somebody's trash can (digital or real). The perks of a career in advertising depend on the economy and on the size of the agency you work for. At big agencies you may attend extravagant parties-one insider tells of being delighted when he got to his Christmas party and learned that Los Lobos would be the band. You'll also likely have camaraderie events like softball games and schmooze sessions with clients at high-end restaurants. (Look for a bit less extravagance than usual these days, though, as advertising agencies make like companies in every industry and look to cut costs.)

There's also the opportunity to create an ad that makes a permanent mark on popular culture-but be prepared to work hard in the industry for many years before you get to this level. Thousands and thousands of hours of hard work go into every campaign, and entry-level workers are often the ones hunkering down long into the evening hours. If you're good and your ideas prove successful for clients, you'll gain more influence. 

Those in PR, on the other hand, do lots of hard work and usually get significantly less recognition-though there are still perks, especially at big agencies with wealthy or plugged-into-the-scene clients, as well as the opportunity to create a buzz or contribute to a story that becomes part of popular culture.

While most people in advertising and PR work the kind of hours that get you home in time for dinner, the hours can skyrocket when a deadline is approaching. We're talking 90 hours per week during crunch times, conceivably. And when the client makes a request for an emergency press release or a revision to an ad? Well, you can kiss your dinner-and-a-movie date good-bye-and your weekend trip to the beach, too. Even advertising creatives, who can slack off when they're not under gun, can be at the office until late at night when there's a deadline approaching.

Along with the hard work comes occasional high stress. You might be in advertising account management and freaking out because a design mock-up that had to go out at 5:00 pm isn't ready yet at 5:15 pm. You might be in advertising production and freaking out because the account executive waiting for you to finish that design is standing over your shoulder, freaking out herself. You might be in PR and freaking out because the client-company executive you're supposed to brief before tomorrow morning's press conference is stuck in a meeting that's supposed to last well into the evening. And there's a lot of money riding on your work in an advertising or PR agency, so you don't want to make mistakes. "You have to be able to handle pressure," says an industry professional. If you screw up-or even if you haven't, but some bigwig at your agency or the client thinks you have-you can end up out of a job in a hurry. And if your agency loses a key account, you might be handed a pink slip no matter how well you do your job.

So why do people go into advertising and PR? Again and again, insiders tell us the same thing: These industries can be a lot of fun. The people who are drawn to advertising and PR are either creative themselves or have a great appreciation for creative work. They're smart, curious, and into popular culture. They're also young. One advertising insider estimates that the average age at his agency, including senior management, is 28. And a PR insider tells us that most of the people in her office are her age (late 20s), and that the oldest guy in the office is 45-"but he doesn't act like it."

Depending on their agency, people in advertising and PR also tend to congregate during their nonworking hours. They go to happy hour together on Friday evenings, invite each other to events, and attend company events together, allowing for lots of social time.

All of this creates a looseness and sense of humor that you might not find in companies with more rigid processes or older, more conservative staffs. This might not be an absolute rule-things can be more uptight at the bigger, account-driven advertising agencies or the larger PR agencies-but it's safe to say that working in advertising or PR can be a lot more fun than working in most other industries.

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