6 Things I've Learned Working at a Creative Agency

I’ve been drawn to creative work, especially storytelling, since before my hands were large enough to type on a standard keyboard—or even dexterous enough to form the letters with a pen. It’s an interest that sustained through my school years and eventually paved the beginning of my career path: I knew I wanted and needed to work with words. After more than five years as a magazine editor and freelance writer, I’ve transitioned to marketing, an industry that makes use of a lot of the same skills I spent years honing in journalism.

Working at an agency has taught me not only new applications for old skills but also opened the door to a host of unexpected lessons. I thought it might be fun to share what I’ve noticed so far. Here are my takeaways:

1. The elements of style are important.

It can appear, at a glance, that ad writing operates with flagrant disregard for convention: slogans are often ungrammatical, online writing seems to have devolved into odd acronyms and the dreaded language of emojis…the list goes on. It starts to feel as though good marketing relies on staying “edgy” in a way that’s incompatible with traditions in proper communication.

I’d contend this isn’t quite true.

changing communicationJust because everyday communication is changing (and marketing reflects that), it doesn’t mean the elements of clear communication have gone out the window.

In advertising, stylistic conventions are still important, but you’re answering to your client, rather than a publication or a style guide (as you might with journalistic writing). A hip new company selling plant seeds to urban millennial gardeners will take on a different (perhaps more—gasp— emoji-filled?) brand voice than a 200-year-old investment firm in a Big East Coast City.

The bottom line is that communication style, message and tone—brand voice— must match the business’s image. A company’s brand defines its individual “style guide,” and each one will be a little different.

When you’re dealing with a new brand or trying to help a company rebrand, this can get tricky; you’re writing the rules as you’re trying to abide by them. An agency experienced in brand definition will be able to navigate these challenges and set up your business for success as it moves forward.

2. You have to know where you’re aiming.

With advertising, your audience guides your message. But companies often develop marketing plans based on guesswork: they don’t know for sure the type of person who’s consuming, or even most likely to be interested in their services.

Your audience may not be who you think it is!

To this end, any agency worth its salt will conduct or consult market research and direct strategy appropriately. (Though that information certainly doesn’t have to come from an expensive formal project. Intel on consumer habits can be gleaned from existing sources; you just need someone who’ll take time to find them.)

3. Facts matter.

facts matterMuch like good journalism (and contrary to popular belief), good marketing doesn’t seek to make false claims. Research goes into any brand messaging an agency proposes.

The facts are important in both industries but what’s different is how you use them. Stating things plainly is the backbone of news writing.

On the other hand, great ad copy is about crafting functional poetry.

Great copywriters make the facts sing. An assignment early on brought this into focus for me.

One of our clients is a pizza buffet franchise, and after a relatively smooth dive into writing some Facebook copy for them, I had the wildly inaccurate notion this would be an easy client to write for. Not so.

The first promotional email I composed for them took hours. A bit like eating a large meal, coming up with pizza- and buffet- and food-related lines is satisfying at first and then quickly exhausting. And liable to leave you sprawled across your chair, waiting for naptime.

I knew the what—all the details of their menu lineup, the promotion they were offering, their company philosophy. But I was more used to translating those things into simple, straightforward terms for a story and spending just a bit of time spinning a clever headline or teaser. With an email, the pithy one-liners are the most important part. No one will bother clicking on a boring subject line!

The learning curve turned out to be steep, and once I built some upward momentum, things panned out—new ideas began to unfold more easily.

Every subsequent email or set of headlines for that client has been considerably quicker work. And adapting my wordsmithing to different clients’ needs and styles gets easier every day. 

4. It’s never simply about what you say: it’s how you say it.

Medium and format matter. Marketers spend a lot of energy considering where to market a client’s product or service. Much the same way, in journalism, you find a story and decide how best to tell it.

The principles of great storytelling apply, regardless.

functional poetryClever, punchy copy piques people’s interest. It’s not about clickbait; it’s about spotlighting the most interesting pieces of what you’re selling. People won’t buy something they don’t remember or understand, and a well-told story is memorable and easy-to-digest. This is one place where a journalistic background really helps: I’ve developed a knack for seeing stories everywhere.

5. Keep a finger on the pulse, but don’t get caught up in the hype.

Things move fast in marketing, and it’s important to know what’s going on, even if you don’t flock to it. Agencies keep abreast of big trends or new tools and assess if there is a way to make them work for clients’ brands.

Authenticity is key. Good agencies know this and will be able to guide clients on how to capitalize on trends—and when not to, which is often a hard call for small and midsize businesses.

6. Ideas are a valuable commodity.

ideasCreative problem-solving is highly valued across industries. Good ideas are, largely, what a business is paying for when they opt to hire an agency. And I think agency work has confirmed a suspicion I had: society sees creativity as innate, but it’s really more of a muscle. We all have it. We can train it to be stronger.

Advertising is an industry that demands (and attracts) intellectual curiosity. As in journalism, you have to be interested in any and everything and ready to learn about all of it.

That curiosity drives innovation. The more open you are to learning things, to admitting what you don’t know and committing to find out as much as you can, the more resources and raw materials you give yourself to craft interesting, novel ideas.

My first few weeks on the job, for example, had me delving into the business landscapes of dentistry and dental labs, local restaurant chains, coastal tourism, engineering and more. It’s part of what makes things exciting. And, I suspect, why many people are able to do this work for a long time.

After a year here, I’ve seen these six principles proved true time and again. While creative work is definitely unique, successful ad agencies still draw on the wisdom I’ve picked up in other industries.