Tony Altilia on things we know now (that we wish we’d known then)

Tony Altilia's new book, I Wish Someone Had Told Me That, shares the learning Canada's adverati have acquired over their careers. here's a few nuggets

I spent 33 years of my life in the advertising business. I loved it. I loved the people, the diversity, the pace and the constant adrenaline rush.

When I retired and my heart rate slowed a tad, I reflected on what I had learned and wondered what others had experienced too. What had 50 boomers – from Tim Penner to Frank Palmer – gleaned over the years, and what did they want to pass along to the next generations?

I asked them all one simple question: ‘What are the three things you know now that you wish you’d known at the beginning of your career?’

Ten kernels of experience emerged. Here are three:

1. Embrace a godfather

Most boomers said they wished they had actively searched out a mentor early in their careers. Many eventually did discover one but it was usually by happenstance and not planned. They wished they’d planned it and now recommend younger folks do so.

‘I initially thought that my mentor was my immediate boss. In many cases this will be as far away from a mentor as you can get. Seek mentors inside and outside your company. Choose those who can give you sage advice and from whom you can learn. Many of them will develop into lifelong colleagues.’ -Jim McKenzie, former president, Leo Burnett

Choose a mentor you like, respect and trust.

‘Identify and commit to a mentor. Create a strong and trusting relationship with someone who cares about your success and offers insight, guidance and help to manage the minefield of career progression.’ -Fred Jaques, president, Santa Maria Foods

2. Jump in

There’s no need to be intimidated by more experienced people. They make mistakes and so will you. It’s a part of learning. That’s why pencils have erasers.

Believe in yourself. Be confident, not arrogant. You were selected for the job because of your intellect, motivation and experience. So take some risks. Have the courage to jump in.

‘You will get ahead by implementing bold plans that have the potential to completely transform the way things are done. When I graduated from university, I had the impression that companies were made up of stodgy, conservative people at the top and energetic mavericks at the bottom. Over time I came to appreciate that people get to the top by thinking out of the box and implementing bold plans that have a dramatic impact on the way things are done. In hindsight, I think I was too conservative early in my career.’ -Tim Penner, president, Procter & Gamble Canada

You will make mistakes. When you do, learn and move on.

‘I wish I had known that you get through and survive anything.’ -John Clinton, SVP and GM of consumer publications, Transcontinental Media

3. Make integrity integral

All any ad agency exec has to offer clients is counsel. Nothing more, nothing less. If they tell a lie, even a tiny white lie, they lose their clients’ trust. And trust, once lost, is impossible to retrieve.

‘Integrity is the only thing. It’s up to me and only me to take a stand when a potential action may seriously compromise my values. Doing what is unpopular, or even job-threatening, in the name of what is right is both freeing and empowering, and ultimately is the basis on which integrity is built or destroyed.’ -Tom Collinger, professor, Northwestern University

You simply can’t lie. One lie leads to another and another. You might get away with the first lie, but eventually you’ll get caught.

‘What you do for a living contributes to who you are, but it should never define who you are. Jobs will come and go. Careers will start and stop, but never lose sight of the things that truly define who you are: character, integrity, trust, honesty, humour and loyalty.’ -Tom Wright, former commissioner, Canadian Football League

Feel free to act on the advice of Canada’s top advertising minds, without learning it the hard way.

Tony Altilia is a partner with Jim McKenzie in the brand consultancy Maxim Partners Inc., and gives back to the next generation through writing, speaking and teaching including the executive masters of advertising and design program at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Prior to his current career, he was president of DDB and Downtown Partners. His book, I Wish Someone Had Told Me That, is available at