Once upon a time even I was in my 30s.
At the time I was trying to forge a name and reputation in the advertising business. I created an online persona – adliterate – and styled myself as an anti-orthodox voice in a world of the unthinking and complacent. An enfant terrible that matched the energy of the 2000s and the ethos of the agency I worked for.
It served me well. But as my 30s become my 40s and eventually my 40s become my 50s, I was no longer enfant anything.
I was becoming part of a smaller and smaller group of people – the older in advertising. A business that has a habit of hunting down its veterans and making it clear they are no longer welcome.
But so far advertising’s grim reaper hasn’t come for me, so I wanted to unpack why this might be. And in doing so what guidance I can offer those wishing to enjoy sustainable success in whatever career or passion they choose.
To be clear, this post is about sustainable success, not overnight success nor necessarily nose bleed altitude success.
Sustainable success is different. It might well be slower and it may not reach quite the same peak in status or remuneration. But my experience is that it’s a happier place to be. And it’s no cop out – it’s still about success, just success that can last you decades rather than the sort that runs through your fingers like sand returning to a beach.
Of course, I write this in knowledge that a good part of why I got a job in advertising, progressed though the business and have survived at the top for so long is due to my privilege. I am male and I am white, and both have always been a big helping hand if you want to get to the top of something and stay there. So, take my advice with caution and with the unconscious bias with which it is almost certainly soaked.
Sorry, but there is no getting away from it. To survive you need to progress and to progress you need to be good. Really good.
Of course, there are plenty of mediocre people that are successful but by and large they get found out. They might find success, but they rarely keep it, not in this business. If you are going to spend a considerable time enjoying something you really need to be good at it or to get yourself good at it.
Had I stayed an account handler, the discipline in which I started, there is no way I’d still be in the business. I simply wasn’t good enough. When I found planning, something I could excel at, that’s when things changed for me.
So, be honest with yourself, are you really good? Do you have a flair for the endeavour you are pursuing? Or at least bags of tenacity and perseverance?
Because, you don’t just get to the top and then they keep patting you on the back until you retire. Not any longer. Even for old white men like me. You have to stay good and be every bit as good as those coming through the ranks that aspire to the very position you are in. And while a reputation or profile is a massive help in sustaining your success you need to prove you are still good at what you do when it matters.
So be good and stay good
Being an arsehole is an excellent strategy for success. There is no denying that. I have seen loads of them zoom past me on their way to greatness and riches.
But it is not a strategy for sustainability. Because if you play that game – and I include managing upwards to the detriment of the people around you – you better stay on your game. For all those arseholes that have zoomed past me on the way up, there are as many that come crashing back down again. And the funny thing is that when they do no one is there to support them, to give them a second chance or soften the blow, suddenly they seem to lack allies.
Of course all careers have ups and downs and sustainable success demands that when you hit a rough patch people want to support and help you. They want to forgive and forget rather than weaponise your difficulties to make sure they never have to work with you again.
So, just be kind. Not soft, placid, inoffensive or bland but kind. And kind to everyone, your bosses, your peers and your reports. And for fuck sake be kind to leavers. The measure of the successful is that they can part company with people whether it was their decision or not and still be human and kind.
Find your spiritual home
If we are lucky, we will find our spiritual home. The place that we just fit, that we love and that seems to love us back. You need to find that place and spend some time there.
It’s not that it will be your forever home – though it might work out like that – it’s just a great place to be and to have been.
In lots of ways my spiritual home was HHCL, somewhere I left 15 years ago and no longer exists. In your spiritual home you develop a muscle memory of what it feels like to operate in an environment that seems perfect for you. And that’s incredibly helpful in working out what you need from employers in the future and how happy you are in any particular place. Time in your spiritual home calibrates every employement.
It also means that when you run somewhere you are able to help it become the spiritual home of people that come to work with you. That’s what I am trying to achieve at Saatchi & Saatchi, to create somewhere that works for others as HHCL did for me.
Create an independent reputation
I don’t mean create a reputation for independence, though that can be incredibly helpful. It’s about forging a reputation that is distinct from the reputation of the place you work – though hopefully the two should rub off on each other.
This is because you will not always work in a place that is at the top of its game. In fact occasionally whether by misfortune or mismanagement the place you work may have a reputation that’s going down the toilet. Being able to go into the market with a profile that is seen as distinct from that employer is therefore incredibly handy. Even better is when your brand is bigger than or at least distinct from the place you work.
When the agency that emerged from HHCL, United London, was about to close I had already begun to build a reputation online through this blog. So, when it did eventually crash into the central reservation of British advertising in 2007, I was able to walk away and secure another more rewarding job on the back of the reputation I had built. My reputation was different that of the agency not only a product of it.
Let go of control
This is the way I believe that you build a reputation. Yes, partly it will be the work that you have been associated and you have been awarded for, or at least is recorded on your CV. But it’s also the voice you have in the industry you love.
And having a voice means sharing everything you think and do with the world. To let it all go rather than defending it with the relish of Gollum obsessing over his ring.
This is super scary because you are literally giving away thinking and ideas that by rights you should be paid for. But in doing so you will find that you build influence.
This is a foundational philosophy for me, that has subsequently appears to have been proven out by the influencer economy.
But what happens if you decide tomake out like Gollum.
There is a cautionary tale I remember from my timea as a junior planner. Back in the mid-90s planners all obsessed about The Henley Centre. In particular we loved the reports on ‘planning for social change’. We would rip them off willy nilly, photocopying them, sharing them and quoting them all day long. They were as famous then as Google Trends is now.
But the Henley Centre got upset about the merciless pilfering of their IP and the way they earned a fraction of the money they should have. So they clamped down and became a consultancy only offering. Now if you wanted their wisdom you had to pay for it, as is right and proper. The problem was their influence evaporated.
No one in our world talks about the Henley Centre any more. So guess what, we don’tthink of them when we want what they do and are prepared to pay handsomely.
So let it go. Let it all go.
You may be anything but a child. You may even have children. Really grown-up children. But one of the most essential characteristics for sustainable success is staying childlike and even a little childish. Childlike enthusiasm, childlike wonder and childlike naivety.
This is the one thing that will keep you fresh and hold off the tidal wave of jadedness that sweeps away many talented people. The people that just can’t help themselves projecting that weary wisdom that makes them seem tired and irrelevant.
This does not mean jumping on every new shiny bandwagon as soon as it pops into your timeline – you should know better than that. But it does mean being genuinely openminded about the enthusiasms of the age. And that whenever you find yourself at odds with the fashions of the moment, asking yourself ‘but what if I’m wrong’.
Children keep you young but so does being a child.
Don’t fly too close to the sun
This is about burn out.
High achievers tend to have terrible boundaries. They often fail to recognise that their mental or physical health is under threat through their commitment, diligence and determination. And the risk is that they cause short and long-term damage to themselves and to the sustainability of their success.
This is not to take the blame from employers that put people under pressure or fail to recognise warning signs in people’s behaviour. But ultimately you do have to police your own boundaries. And that means saying no more often than you would like.
I’m pretty terrible at this so it may be a case of do what I say not what I do. But the truth is that in 35 years I have never burned out, not from work. The issues with mental health that have caused me significant problems in both my personal and professional life are not the result of my work. They have affected my work but they came from somewhere else entirely.
I’m really aware that I work in an industry and an agency in which at times people are called upon to and certainly not stopped from, working beyond a sustainable pace. And maintaining productivity while reducing graft is a massive challenge for anyone leading a business. But you can’t depend upon an employer to know what’s good for you and police your boundaries. You need to know yourself and demand what you need.
Of course this power comes in the main from being good at what you do but as I think I have made clear, that is a non-negotiable.
It’s a piece of piss being you. It’s a total nightmare being someone else. And yet the assumption many make and as many are forced into is that there is a version or type of you that you need to present to succeed.
Adapting yourself to your work culture is a powerful coping strategy but it’s no recipe for sustainable success. Ultimately you do have to be you.
Now, I say this as a white, middle class, straight man and the authentic version of me, thought different to the image I thought I had to conform to, was easily accepted. People with other experiences may still find it more challenging to be truly authentic in a corporate setting.
But it will always be the case that authenticity is the route to happiness and sustainable success.
And it is increasingly powerful too. Co-workers, employers, employees and clients can all spot authenticity these days. And they vastly prefer it to the act. Even in adland, the slick bullshitter has been put on notice and we are making some progress in adapting our cultures to our talent rather than forcing them to adapt to our culture.
Because authenticity eats pretence for breakfast.
These are my eight guidelines for sustainable success. I hate that there are eight, I always prefer seven or nine. But adding or removing one wouldn’t be very authentic. They are all guidelines or rules that have all helped me maintain a very long career in the industry I chose and to an extent chose me.
And who knows, they may help you.
If I was to make a call on the ones to hold most close to your heart they are without doubt the first and last.
And be you.
But above all just don’t be a dick.