“10 Things I Wish I Knew 10 Years Ago” by John Frahm, Account Director at Latitude

By the minneapolis egotist / /

I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn from massively talented, varyingly patient, and endlessly good-natured people over the duration of my short career.

If one of the steps in self-growth is to not only come to recognize your ability at self-awareness, but also challenging yourself to come to terms with it—oh buddy have I been growing lately.

This industry does a grand job of putting personalities on a pedestal.  It does a crap job rewarding young personalities for accepting themselves, their faults along with their strengths, to allow them to move forward with their provided tools through their career.

To pay it forward, or backward (however have you), I assembled a short list of things I wish I truly understood about my modus of operation as an Account Service professional in this creative industry we all work in.

For all newly minted, growing, aspiring and incognito Account Service folks, an incomplete list of things that I wish didn’t take me more than a decade to learn.

1. Don’t look for the next opportunity. See the one right in front of you.

“I just need to get through this brief.” “I just need to get promoted to the next title.” “I just need to get offered this opportunity.” “I just need to work on this type of client.”

This job, in this industry, for all clients, in any role, at any point in time, the opportunity is. all. the. same.

And it’s sitting right in front of you. “But what’s next?” you ask. What’s next is the thing that’s after what you’re doing right now. A banner project turns into a GIF project turns into a video project turns into a TV project turns into a moon landing.

People need to be served. Problems need to be solved. Thinking needs to be done. Teams need to be led. Focus your eyeballs on what’s in front of you, right now. At this moment. And run with it.

Make it the best brief, email, ICR, formatted deck, budget spreadsheet or pot of freaking coffee that’s humanly possible. Because, if everything you touch is done well, you’ll keep finding yourself in the “next” opportunity.

2. Make it simple. Simple is hard.

Another way to say this, is that writing or sharing something that is long and meandering, with multiple requests, or an unclear point-of-view with what exactly you want, or a buried ask as to what is needed, or a crap brief with deluge of information, or just a poorly prioritized conversational approach by not reading the construct of a situation, is irresponsible, and exhausting, and, frankly, just plain lazy. Phew.

“If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” —Albert “Bud” Einstein

“Don’t give me all the information, give me the right information.” —Every client on the planet

This idea is well-worn ground. It’s also probably the easiest thing in the world to say, but the hardest thing in the world to do. It requires critical thinking that forces you to understand what the other designer, writer, director, client, needs to advance a situation toward a solution.

I had a colleague that would give three rounds of feedback on meeting notes before I could send them to the client. Emails that probably went straight into the garbage can. I needed help cutting through the shit.

Think about the information. Understand it. Serve it back to others in a simple but usable way. This basic idea is a self-growth opportunity that is always available to you. 

The bonus roll that sometimes gets lost is when you distill things into simplicity, you are acting strategically. 

Don’t ask, “How do I be more strategic?” Ask, “Is this as simple as it can possibly be?” 

And then commit to spending the extra hour, minute or second making it so. Because people want to work with other people who make things simple.

3. Control what you can control

“This client is a pain in the ass.” “That creative team is a clown posse.” “This budget is a joke.” “This timeline is insane.” “This project is bullshit.”

Yep. Get over it. No, seriously. Cork it. Put your nose down and put your energy into the work.

I honestly couldn’t quantify how many hours (days! WEEKS) I’ve spent complaining. Just broad-based, up-and-down-the-line moaning. Born out of a place of lacking self-awareness. Fear of failure. Uncomfortable in my own skin. And the inability to get out of my own way.

To who? What for? Holy shit I want that time back. 

Spend your energy figuring out how to solve the problem at hand. Solving problems amidst the wild west of uncontrollable craziness is the proving ground for brilliant creative professionals.  Complaining about the uncontrollable is proof you’re not ready for prime time.

Focus on the work. No one else can control the quality of the thinking that goes into it but you. Ultimately, your brain can’t solve the problem at hand until you’ve freed it from focusing on what you can’t control.

4. When all else fails, apply basic common sense.

“What do we do?” “Who owns what?” “When should that happen?” “How can we do this?” “Why do they want this?”

Don’t believe for a minute you are required to have all the information. The flip: don’t act like you know all the information.

You don’t. 

Taste thy spoon of humility.

Cut the jargon. Jargon sucks. People make fun of people who use jargon behind their back.  Don’t pretend to have all the answers. That sucks and we make fun of those people, too.

One of the biggest learnings in my professional career is this: you don’t have to have the solution to advance a massive herd of people towards one.

Meet ambiguity head on with common sense. If you look around a room and see those nervous, pissed off, crazy eyes, do this: focus on the facts. Say what you need in plain language and others will follow.

Because nobody has the solution. But common sense is a language everyone can latch onto which will get you somewhere productive.

5. Questions are good. Asking is bad.

The entire existence of Account Service is based on solving problems, which you can’t do properly without asking questions. 

Good questions create momentum. They create air for the team to feel like they get the information needed to be successful. They engage people. They open opportunities that didn’t exist before.

Asking sucks. Asking stalls. Asking is an isolated death.

Active vs. passive.

Ethereal vs. deferring.

Building vs. scuttling.

Hear the difference and read the difference in your words and in your actions. It’s worth its weight in gold.

Never feel awkward by speaking up with questions. It shows you desire to truly understand and propel a situation.  But make sure it’s a question, not an ask.

6. Come to terms with this fact: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

“I’ve got this mastered.” “I can do this in my sleep.” “I am amazing.”

Maybe. At what you know. But not at what you don’t.

At one point in my career someone I highly respect looked me in the eye and said, “You’re really great at your job.  There’s nothing you’re doing wrong. But you just need more time in the saddle to see some more grizzly shit to get to the next level in your career.”

I was pissed.

The most honest direction and favorable professional critique you could receive, but I couldn’t move beyond feeling like I was being praised, collared and fenced in. I couldn’t process it.

Zero awareness. 

Accept you can be good at what you are doing right now, but it doesn’t mean you should be the CEO of an agency in a multinational holding company.

Lack of self-awareness and a false sense of humility turn relationships, respect and collaboration into full-blown dumpster fires. Nobody likes working with an emotional dumpster fire.

Get to a place where you can recognize you’re good at what know, but you not good at what you don’t know. 

If you operate like you are not the smartest person in the room, it’s not only a truthful place from which to be working, but it’s from a place of honesty. And power—people will underestimate you. And that’s awesome.

7. Plan like a pessimist. Act like an optimist.

The Planning Fallacy Theory = Plans are always created with the best-case scenario in mind, never accounting for challenges.

The Pollyanna Principle = People remember the good more accurately than the bad.

Google it.

Have you ever tried to remodel your kitchen? Takes twice as long, costs three times as much and has four times the number of Home Depot runs you thought it would take.

Have you ever been trapped in the Boundary Waters in the soaking rain? That probably sucked at the moment but I’d bet you trade stories with it like hot cakes.

Manage your work where you plan for the absolute worst-case scenario in mind. Cover yourself. Protect your team. Pack extra parachutes.

Then, go into the shit-eating-grin mode. Relentless optimism, underpinned with grit and perseverance.

“We’ll figure it out.” “We can overcome that.” “A curveball, but a baseball nonetheless.”

Account for the worst-case scenario at the project beginning and then meet challenges through the process with positivity. Your team and clients will love you for your optimism. Especially when the project goes into the toilet. (It will.)

You’re ultimately giving yourself the best chance for success and positioning yourself as a leader in the process.

8. You don’t need to have a “Strategist” title to think strategically.

If information is power, then Account Service is the most powerful position at any agency.

Account Service people know better than anyone the delta between your client’s business, agency values and creative opportunity. You know the overlap in client motivation, agency desires and team skills.

Account Service lives and breathes and operates in the grey matrix managing what people want vs. what they need vs. what they will most likely get. That information lives and dies with you.

That’s powerful. So, own it.

See the strategic opportunities that live in those overlaps.  Speak up.  Point stuff out.

Strategic thinking takes on all forms. Embrace the power in information that exists in the grey of your job. Pause and understand it, because it’s empowering.

9. Measure with your own yardstick, not your peers.

“How do I get promoted?” “What is that person doing that I’m not?” “What box do I need to check to continue climbing?”

“There’s a reason why they put blinders on plow horses.  It kept them focused on their own row.” —my Iowan dad

The ad guy comparison provided by a wise (but habitually tardy) mentor of mine calls this the Subway punch card disease.  9 CPG project punches get you a promotion!

There’s no magic formula of checkboxes to complete that ladders up your professional game.  It’s a person-by-person, agency-by-agency basis.

You want the gates nicely laid out in front of you. Tuck the ball, follow the map and run. I did.  And I didn’t get them. Nor will I.  Nor will you.

This industry just isn’t set-up that way. It’s creative. It doesn’t run in a straight line, so can’t get frustrated when it doesn’t. This gets exasperated when you’re looking the person to your left and to your right saying, “what’s that person doing that I’m not?”

Comparing your skill relative to your peers will never provide you with the answer you seek.  Or, maybe, more importantly, need.

Focus on you. Your job. Your client. Your task. Your life. Your own self. Because even if it feels like a horse race, it’s not. It’s a plow.

If you focus on you, you’ll ultimately get where you want to be going faster, with more grace and greater respect.

10. Be human.

I had a different number 10 up until a few months ago.  When at a department presentation on this content, an abrasively tender-hearted AD shared this anecdote to the room, lent to her by another wise woman on her team.

People are human. Treat them like it.

So simple. As straightforward and honest as it gets. And, man, how easily does THAT idea get lost in the passive power plays, personal critiques and subjective finger pointing we all deal with every single day? Or during the tension of the most heated point in a stressful project?

I got to hear Luke Sullivan speak a few years ago and his quote I won’t forget is, “If we lived in the middle ages, we’d be stupid sign painters.”  We make pictures in boxes! 

Be human.

We get to think of an idea, put it down on paper, excitedly talk about it and then try to make it become a new physical thing that exists.

In a world where nuance is in short supply, humanity can take you a long, long way.

Bring a dose of humanity into it every now and then. Talk to people like humans. Treat people like humans. You are one (hopefully), so be one.

Above all else…

This is a hard job, in an almost impossible industry, under constant subjective scrutiny.  Breathe in and out occasionally.  Blink a couple of times. Give yourself some credit.

Recognize you don’t know everything. I sure as shit don’t. The best people I’ve ever worked with admit they don’t either.

But know that’s ok. Pair your intelligence with common sense. Approach your work with humility and grace. Everything is going to work out just fine.

2 Responses

  1. Maurice Northrup August 8, 2018

    A great article for all creatives. I really enjoyed reading it.

  2. Zaar September 17, 2018

    Thank you for this, fellow sign painter.

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