An open letter to myself in the year 2000

PHD's chief planning officer Alex Pacey has some advice for himself 17 years ago to help him avoid poor choices and embarrassing screw ups.

Throughout my career in media ‘How long have you worked in the industry?’ has been a question that is asked almost any time I meet anyone new.

‘Years in the game’ has always been something of a badge of honour, at least that’s how I had always seen it.

In 2014 however when entering my 15th year the industry a switch of some kind went off in my brain and a little voiced posed the question: “Yeah but how much longer do you have to work?”

I did a quick calculation and promptly went into a panic – What? 25, maybe 30 MORE years?? I officially now know what a mid-life crisis feels like.

So lately I’ve been taking stock of what I’ve learnt, what I now know about the environment in which we work and the person I am.

So, what to do with this information?

It seems presumptuous to offer other people advice as not everyone’s experiences will be the same as mine. But one guy who has been through the mill in one form or another, who learnt mainly on the job, and could have done with some advice at the start of the journey is me. Circa April 2000.

So, Alex Pacey here they are, the four best pieces of advice future you wished he’d been given from the start.

Name your price. Dave Chappelle, a man who will become something of a hero of yours once said about starting out in show business:

My father told me ‘Name your price in the beginning. If it ever gets more expensive than the price you name, get out of there’.

This is solid advice. It’s something you need to think about now. This industry gives you so much but it expects a lot in return. And it will keep taking. I came to this realisation later in life after a personal stress-related event turned my world upside down. I just decided that there was a line that I would no longer cross. That there were certain things that I would no longer allow myself to be ‘expected’ to do. And here’s the thing, the quality of my work sky rocketed along with the trajectory of my career. Why? Because I took back some control in an industry where I found it to be a rare commodity. So, name your price, revisit it over time to make sure you’re still comfortable with it, by all means change it as circumstances change but don’t ever compromise on it.

Slow Down. This is a tough one to take because despite how you like to think to yourself, you are competitive. So, here’s the thing, in your career you are going to see multiple peers overtake you and get promoted into roles in apparently super-quick time, based on criteria that you can’t fathom. The tough part to accept? It doesn’t matter. That’s not to say that being successful doesn’t matter but honestly the speed of it is irrelevant. As we’ve covered, this career of yours is a long one! Here’s what I’ve learnt: those guys that overtook you way back when? You’re going to catch them up and when you get there you’ll know more than them. Not necessarily because you’re smarter but because you have the experience and you took the time to build a point of view. So, SLOW DOWN. Listen. Debate. Learn. It’s all coming.

SHHHH. Throughout your career, you will hear an unmistakable mandate repeated ad nauseam: “Don’t go to the meeting unless you have something to say”.

This is how you (and most others you come across) will interpret this: “Say something important as quickly as possible so you don’t sit in the meeting crapping yourself”.

You are going to spend countless hours in meetings. You will enter meetings with your ‘thing to say’ safely tucked in your back pocket only to have some wiseass across the table usurp you. For years, you won’t listen properly in the meetings because you’re going to be trawling the content for something insightful to say. Multiple times you will have your important point buried by those that come after you piling up their ‘important things to say’.

It took me years to learn a simple truth: speaking last is infinitely more powerful than speaking first.

Having the confidence to say nothing until you have all facts and thoughts from throughout the room. That wise guy that usurped you for years? Turns out he was just summing up what everyone else had said throughout the meeting.

One day the most important person in the room is going to turn to you and say, “Alex, we haven’t heard from you yet. What do you think?” That’s when you know that what you have to say may actually be important.

Understand your relationship with your comfort zone. People in the communications industry seem to me to be obsessed with the ‘comfort zone’ – it’s evidently a bad and dangerous place that comfort zone.

You will constantly hear how important it is to “push yourself out of your comfort zone” apparently, everyone “really needs” to do this. Alex, this is vague and dangerous advice from poor managers who don’t have the time or the inclination to understand that a one-size-fits-all approach is a road to failure. It’s a horrible cliché that’s trotted out by those who know little about you or what makes you tick.

Here’s the truth of it, you need to understand what your relationship with your comfort zone is, and most importantly you don’t need to apologise for it.

You may find that you do your best work when you are at least partially familiar with what it is you’re trying to achieve. Alternatively you might work best when you’re running around like your balls are on fire – you won’t be alone! Bottom line: you make that decision no one else.

Alex, mate, I’ve made multiple poor choices and embarrassing screw ups over 17 years to get me to a place of being happy and established at what I (we) do. The four things you just read I hope will help you get there quicker and more smoothly! Use them wisely and look me up in a parallel universe when you’re done.

Alex Pacey is the chief planning officer at PHD. 


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