‘Nobody cares what you think’: The three skills new talent need to accelerate their careers

Ahead of Mumbrella's neXt conference, top recruiter Nick Williams reveals how new talent can find success in advertising and how agencies can discover the leaders of tomorrow.

Nick Williams has been a head hunter for 10 years, with his boutique firm Williams International specialising in placement for senior-level roles. Before recruitment lured him, he spent 10 years with Leo Burnett – he is better placed than most to know how critical premium talent is to the advertising industry. “In an industry like advertising, where there isn’t much intellectual property law, or many particular ways of doing things differently, the people that do your job for you make up 90% of the effectiveness of your company. Your ability to be successful, in a large part, comes down to the people you hire.” What’s more the lean structure of agencies mean that their talent can be truly transformative – for better or for worse.

Williams says the advertising industry haemorrhages talent

Nick believes in many ways, advertising is a candidate’s market. The advertising industry haemorrhages talent. According to the MFA 2019 Industry Census, average “regrettable” agency turnover sits at around 28%, with roughly 15% absorbed by overseas markets and other industries and 12.6% competitor agencies. Add to this the 9% “non-regrettable” exists, and advertisers are scrambling to replace close to 40% of their workforce yearly. Williams says, to a certain extent, there are structural components of agencies that make replacing senior-level talent challenging. “There are certain areas, and strategy comes to mind, where we don’t recruit enough junior and mid-weight talent. They [agencies] only want to pay a certain level of seniority.” The problem “they” encounter is that when the time rolls round to replace someone with a person of four-to-five years experience, they can’t, in Williams’s words, “magic those people out of thin air.” 

Importing from other markets has historically been an attractive solution; however, the 2017 restrictions on the 457 Visa making permanent residency more challenging have made the move less attractive for those at the senior level considering a significant sea-change. The hiring manager’s dilemma exponentially increases opportunities for those new to the industry looking to scale their careers. So, how can those in the early stages of their careers ensure they’re making the right choices early on?

Williams says the first essential thing, given the intense demands the advertising industry places on staff, is to ensure you want the job. “People might do things just for their CV or talk themselves into it because it’s a good job, a promotion or more money. But ultimately, you need to be able to devote the physical and emotional energy over a long period to be successful at anything, especially in advertising.”

 Assuming you have the passion, here are a top recruiters three tips for making it in advertising.

The first is understanding your core skills. The jobs of the future are currently being dreamed into existence, so the chances are if you’re starting out in advertising today, your position may not exist in 10 years. Williams said when he worked at Leo Burnett, one of the key drivers of his success was his relationships. And it wasn’t about being friendly. “It’s about deeply understanding and communicating in a variety of ways with a variety of people. It’s about insight and intuition. Ultimately the people part of advertising was what I was good at.” These relationship management skills were the foundation of his success when he pivoted into recruitment. But they are skills that many people might dismiss as soft or innate, and therefore unimportant or not interesting to hiring managers. Understanding your native strengths and then communicating and leveraging them effectively can provide you with the road map for a resilient career, as opposed to nurturing dependence on the strictures of a profession, which moving forward will be more and more vulnerable to change.  

The second component is to seek out measurable opportunities and to ensure they are the right opportunities. Williams notes that no matter how important it is for an employer to make the right decision with an employee, it will always be more important for an employee to make the right decision with an employer. “Ultimately, the employee is x percent of your business, but the employer is 100% of your employer.” Increasingly churn within the advertising industry is attributed to employees not being offered enough experiences in their workplace. But Williams says junior employees need to be applying an acquisitive lens to skills and experiences, rather than waiting for mentorships to fall out of the sky. Instead, look for companies and opportunities where opportunities for you to make a difference are immediately identifiable. 

This doesn’t mean jumping around workplaces but it does mean being proactive, and at times pushing your management. “Very often it suits companies to keep you doing the job you’re doing because you know it well, and you may have relationships with a particular client, or in a particular area. But people should be looking at the first five or six years of their career as an apprenticeship.” 

Think about every project you undertake as a case study for your own abilities and leap on opportunities others might shy away from. “Being able to say, ‘I worked with this client, or this company or this portfolio and this is where we were when I took it over and this is where we are now and this is what I had to do with it…”, these examples provide clients with concrete road maps for how you operate in a business and how you might operate in theirs. “Your manager or your new employer can look at you and be like, I can drop her in different places because she’s done x, y,  and z in a, b and c situations and solved problems in different ways and she’s versatile enough to handle most things.”

The third may be the most difficult to master. Williams tells me about an advertiser he worked with early in his career. “He used to infuriate me because he’d repeat the exact fucking thing I’d said in a meeting, and suddenly everyone would like ‘wow, X that’s brilliant.’” This individual (who shall remain nameless) didn’t think differently or use different language. He had conviction, and he was able to sway the room. Williams doesn’t grudge him that. “Everything in advertising starts with the sale; we’re not a toothpaste factory; we’re not a car manufacturer. You could be the most brilliant, cunning operator in the world, but if you can’t persuade everyone that you’re right and that your way is the right way, then it is not going to happen.”

Williams believes influencing ability will be the ultimate transferable skill of the future.

As we gear towards automation, it is generally accepted that any job that can be written into code is vulnerable to redundancy. Research by NCEVER found that employers request communication skills above all other skills, including data and tech, the very human ability to convince and influence is set to remain automation-proof.

 This doesn’t mean being a Gordon Gekko or taking 12 Tony Robins masterclasses. It means knowing your proposition, and knowing your argument from all sides. And having the passion to back it up. “There’s no special sauce to being a brilliant influencer. Simply, you need to understand the issue from all possible sides and then use that knowledge and logic to present your argument in the best way possible and be prepared to handle objections and show evidence. It sounds horrible, but nobody cares what you think, they care what you know. There’s a significant difference between those things. And that difference is where the good old-fashioned hard work comes in.”

Williams will be speaking at Mumbrella neXt. Mumbrella neXt is a half-day conference dedicated to the development, growth, and investment in the next stars of the media and marketing industry. It features some of the best-known senior leaders as they arm attendees with the skills they need to fast track their careers. Tickets can be purchased here.


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