Happy woman smiling at desk. Oh wait, that’s me. Photo by Brad Holt, videographer, photographer and Tesla owner extraordinaire.
When I began my first internship a year ago, I was pretty clueless. I wouldn’t speak up in meetings, I second-guessed my intuition, and I simply had no idea what was going on in the industry, or even how to find out.
Now I realize that I lacked some tacit but important skills, ones we never discussed in college, and ones I believe were actually hindered by the education system itself. Granted, these aren’t easy skills to develop, and I know I’ll be working on them for years to come. I just wish someone had told me about them ahead of time, helped me understand how important they were. I may not have worked very hard at developing them then, but at least I would have been prepared.
Sure, we did group projects all the time in college, but that kind of teamwork is pretty half-assed. Don’t lie to yourself — splitting up essay paragraphs does not equal teamwork.
When you’re in an agency, especially a small one like mine, everyone has specialized skills. I was hired to do the thing I’m good at, and our paid media manager was hired to do what he’s good at. If I had the same skills as he does, one of us would be unnecessary. That’s the kind of environment that fosters real teamwork.
Real teamwork means understanding everyone’s strengths and limitations (especially your own), and working together to take advantage of everyone’s unique strengths to collaboratively do your best work.
In school, writing that group essay, we didn’t have specialized skills. We were all studying the same thing, cultivating the same talents. Not only does this not teach teamwork, it hinders the ability to learn teamwork. When we’re all trying to be good at the same thing, we start thinking competitively. When we think competitively, we focus only on our own strengths (and making sure they’re stronger than everyone else’s). This is exactly the opposite approach college graduates should have when they enter the workforce. Think cooperatively, and save the competition for new business pitches.
2. Identifying problems and opportunities.
In school, problems are handed to you, and you’re expected to apply lessons from your course material to solve those problems. In an agency, nobody’s going to give you lectures, handouts, textbooks, syllabi or any other collateral (duh). They might give you some basic training and guidelines, but for the most part, you’re going to have to figure out how to solve problems yourself.
But solving the problem isn’t the only issue. Actually, school prepares us decently well for that. Finding the problem is much harder. It’s easy to look at your work and go, “Yep, good enough!” and send it off. No more. No longer are you simply doing work to get it DONE. Every time you send off something you haven’t critiqued for issues or opportunities, you’re missing the boat. You have to learn to ask the hard questions, see through the cracks and second guess yourself. That’s the only way your work will continue improving and you’ll continue growing.
Speaking of growth, in school you’re encouraged to spend time reflecting on your work and what you could do better — which nobody took seriously. But in the professional world, sometimes projects come at you so fast that reflection takes the back burner. Why should you spend time reflecting when there’s more work to be done?
I’m here to tell you that it’s seriously important. If you never self-assess, you’ll either end up stagnating (which in the advertising industry is probably the worst thing you could do), or sitting across the table from your supervisor struggling to identify how you’ve grown in the past year. Learn to evaluate your work and what you would do differently. Unlike school, you will have to do the same project again.
4. Finding sources.
This is one I still struggle with. We were all taught basic research methods in college, but when you work in advertising, EBSCO doesn’t really have the data you need.
To deal with this, I snoop. Who do my coworkers follow on Twitter? What sources do they share articles from? When I first started, I asked my bosses for the sources they find helpful. That was a good first step, but when your AE says the client wants examples of the effectiveness of in-game mobile advertising, those sources don’t always have what you need.
To solve this issue, I began a research database. Any time I find an article, study or report that I think is really interesting or has some helpful stats, I save it. I save the best search sources and routinely check Pew Research and Nielsen for new reports. It’s not really a quick fix, but it’s worth it.
I didn’t write this article to bash my college education — or anyone else’s. I learned a lot in college. I wouldn’t be in this job today if it weren’t for my amazing professors and mentors. And honestly the advertising industry and advertising academia is a special case.
But a contemporary college education has its shortcomings — ones that I believe are more in the structure and culture of the education system than the content. I hope that we can begin an open dialogue about the true costs and benefits of a college degree, and maybe soon work toward a system that truly benefits everyone.