Achievements, Assets, Advocacy: The AAA Approach to Career Progress

Ilya Repin, Volga Boatman

Ilya Repin, Volga Boatman

I didn’t really enjoy being Planning Department Head.

I’d call Planners’ Meetings to rally the troops and share experiences. A motley crew of the bashful, intense and sartorially challenged would file silently into the Indigo Room. They’d sit staring into their notes, unwilling to disclose their secrets, reluctant to make fools of themselves. I’d present my ‘Broad and Shallow Planning’ philosophy and they’d glare back at me as if I was a buffoon. I found it all a bit passive aggressive. And I longed for a few Account People to puncture the tension and jolly things along.

I walked out of those meetings speculating on the collective noun for Planners: a Confusion of Planners, an Awkwardness of Planners, a Circumspection?

And then there were those times when a member of my Department popped half an hour in the diary for a ‘catch-up.’ Blimey. I wonder what they could want? Please don’t let it be another resignation…Generally they were just unhappy; they didn’t feel valued; they wanted to know my long-term plan for their career. ‘Can I work on a more glamorous account? Can I have a pay rise? Can I have a new job title?’

The truth was I rarely had anything that could really be described as a long-term plan for any individual. I was mostly just trying to get people performing at their best within roles that served the commercial needs of the Agency. I was often too busy worrying about immediate job allocation to ponder enduring career development. And I rarely had spare accounts, budget, or titles to distribute. I felt a bit useless.

At length I realised that I could at least offer my colleagues some direction on how they could advance. I was conscious that the feedback you get from line managers is generally pretty nebulous. I wanted to give them something more consistent and tangible; something they could refer back to at appraisal time.

To my mind, if you are to progress as a Planner, you need to deliver on three fronts.

i) Achievements

However much we may applaud effort, enthusiasm, talent and good intentions, we’re none of us in the game of valiant defeat. If you want to get on in an Agency, you need to be associated with success - whether that be commercial, cultural or creative. You need to be part of a winning team: winning business; winning awards; winning plaudits and client approval; plotting a path to growth, demonstrating success.

Inevitably, you may say: ‘But I’m not able to achieve much in my current role. How can I win on a losing team?’ And that may be a fair complaint. But never assume that it’s easier to win on more celebrated accounts. Sometimes those accounts are crawling with senior management, such that it’s difficult for younger staff to make an impression. You may make a bigger impact where the expectations are smaller. Sometimes, on the tough pieces of business, just holding on is regarded as victory.

ii) Assets

Nowadays we talk a lot about ‘making, not managing.’ This principle should be applied to your career. Progressive Planners create assets that are tangible, visible, shareable. You should endeavour to create thought pieces, training programmes, cultural initiatives that have your name on them. Lead the Agency’s understanding of behavioural science; volunteer to write new business points of view; initiate an outreach programme for working class schools; organise a yoga class. Coin a phrase, write an article, invent a process, build a team. Make stuff.

Many years ago I put together a compendium of different approaches to strategic problems. I called it ‘Jim’s Planning Tool Kit.’ It was relatively well received, and my boss suggested that I invite my colleagues in the different BBH offices to contribute their own Planning tools, so as to make a more comprehensive ‘BBH Planning Tool Kit.’ I rather irritatingly demurred. I explained that, if I did that, the Toolkit wouldn’t be ‘Jim’s.’

iii) Advocacy

There’s a common assumption that job allocation is the unique preserve of the Department Head. But this is to misunderstand the subtleties of the process. The Planning Director may hold an individual in high esteem; may recommend him or her to a particular position. But if the relevant Business Director doesn’t share that view, or has some reservations, then it can be a very hard sell.

The truth is that job allocation is a marketplace. Every individual in the Department is a stock with value that rises or falls depending on the broader reputation that person has in the Agency. So you need your colleagues to believe in your worth, just as much as you do yourself. You need their advocacy - because individual success is very closely tied to team performance. Me needs we.

So this is my guide to AAA performance. If you can achieve things - commercially, culturally or creatively; if you can develop assets that are clearly associated with your name; if you can earn advocacy within the broader Agency community, then your career is bound to progress – with or without the help of your Department Head.

(You can read more career advice from a variety of authors in the 'How To Get On' series on the Guest Editor section of the APG website.)

Time for a festive break, I think.
Next post with be on Thursday 4 January.
Have a restful Christmas.
See you on the other side…

'It's coming on Christmas.
They're cutting down trees,
They're putting up reindeer,
And singing songs of joy and peace.
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on.'

 Joni Mitchell, River


No. 161