Learning the hard way

The following letter was brought to Strategy's attention by Toronto-based career counsellor Jim Hayhurst.Hayhurst, who owns and operates a career counselling service, The Hayhurst Career Centre, says the letter was written to him by one of his clients, and was intended,...

The following letter was brought to Strategy’s attention by Toronto-based career counsellor Jim Hayhurst.

Hayhurst, who owns and operates a career counselling service, The Hayhurst Career Centre, says the letter was written to him by one of his clients, and was intended, as much as anything, to simply put his experience into a written form.

The client, who is 27 years old, was in the midst of his Masters degree when he decided to enter the business world.

He says he was looking for a career that would match up with his skills and his expectations, and after several interviews with a Toronto ad agency, felt optimistic about his prospects in advertising.

The relationship lasted five months. Here is the young man’s story.

I used to be an account executive at one of Canada’s most successful advertising agencies.

The fact that I no longer have a job in the industry is not a particularly newsworthy event; agencies everywhere are becoming ‘leaner,’ and lost jobs are the inevitable result.

At a glance then, my lost job is just another in what has become a common occurrence in the advertising community.


But beyond this simple statistic is an experience that, considered in a broader context, has potential ramifications for the industry as a whole.

For this reason, my story is worth relating.

Let me begin by explaining that my lack of experience in the advertising industry was well known to the agency when I was hired.

In fact, it should be noted that this was one of the keys to my getting the job – the person who hired me was looking for someone with new and different ways of thinking about his client’s businesses.

Although I would be expected to learn quickly, I was also assured that he and others would assist in my training, and that the overall approach would be one of developing my skills over the long term.

The situation seemed ideal, and I based much of my decision to accept the position on this stated commitment to my future.

In reality, the agency was ill-equipped to teach a newcomer about the business – there was neither a formal plan, nor the manpower for my training.

In retrospect, it is possible to identify three factors which, in combination, led to our collective failure.

Lack of structure

The first was the lack of a coherent and structured agenda for my training. This meant that we had no timeline for gauging my progress, rating my performance, or organizing ourselves for future challenges.

The second was that I lacked a trainer; someone who could act as a mentor or role model, and could assist the learning process by being an accessible resource and trouble-shooter.

Third, and perhaps most significant, was the lack of time.

I was ‘let go’ not because of my performance, but because the needs for my position had changed.

The original commitment to my development was now considered to be a ‘luxury,’ and the immediate need was for someone with more experience.

It was explained to me that, as much as anything, I was a victim of circumstance, but that there was little that could be done.

While the logic of this decision is self-evident, it is, nevertheless, difficult to reconcile this conclusion with the expectations that the agency and I had at the outset.

As an individual, I cannot change the nature of the agency business, and this is not the intention of my letter.

Instead, it is my hope that my experience will be recognized as one that must not be repeated, for the sake of the individual agency as well as the industry as a whole.

It seems to me that in a business dependent upon the generation of new ideas and an ability to reinvent itself for continued good health, the infusion of new talent ought to be seen as a necessity, not a luxury.

Common sense would, therefore, dictate that investing the time to train and develop new people is the only sure way to meet the challenges of the future, in this or any other industry.

Admittedly, I had no particular expertise with regard to the agency business and certainly not a great deal more than when I began.

But if my having experienced the harsher realities of advertising in the 1990s will lend any credence to what I have to say, then let it be this.

Training new people will pay dividends as long as there is a commitment to it within the organization.

Having committed to developing new talent, be sure there are supervisors and managers in place who are capable of executing the plan; people who can teach and act as role models.

As an eight-year veteran of the agency business remarked: ‘You can bring an mba in off the street, but it won’t do you any good unless you can teach them about the business.’

In the end, an organization is defined by its policies, practices and the manner in which it chooses to pursue its goals. We call this the credo or ethic.

Ultimately, this is what holds a business accountable for the results of its actions.

Much like a professional sports team must continually draft and develop new players in order to sustain itself, so, too, the agency must bring in new blood.

With new blood comes new ideas, and perhaps more importantly, it is the process by which the status quo is continually tested.

What then happens to the organization whose philosophy shortchanges its future for instant gratification? I ask this question only while looking back.