Caitlin O’Malley, Strategist at Eleven, Inc. in San Francisco, just finished her first year in the ad industry. To reflect on her experience working at a small creative agency, she brings us tips on navigating the casual, free-spirited agency atmosphere while remaining professional—something that's hard to learn before you're in the thick of it. Here's Caitlin—
Let’s be real. When it comes to company culture, ad agencies have a bit of a reputation. Every agency is different — but more often than not, the kitchens stock more beer than water, company holiday parties go down in legend, and the language used in meetings would give my mother a heart attack. Of course, all the craziness is one of the best reasons to love this industry. There are a lot of benefits to working in a free-spirited creative space, which tend to lend themselves to genuine connections, creative collaboration, and crazy ideas. Plus, it can be a lot of fun and a great way to make friends.
That being said, there are some things I wish I’d known when it comes to navigating the advertising social scene. Free-spirited agency cultures can occasionally create some sticky situations, as the lines between personal and professional can be hard to define. Here’s my advice for how to have a blast, work hard, and avoid cringe-worthy moments.
1) Work Before Besties
At any new job, it can take some time before you feel like you’re really connecting with the people around you. My recommendation? Give it time, focus on your work, and don’t force it. People in advertising are often crusty on the outside and warm on the inside, like a delicious brownie. Meaning before you make friends in the office, you’ll need to prove that you’re going to stick around and be useful — and once that happens, people will warm right up. About four months into my new job, a newfound work friend told me, “I liked that when you came in, you didn’t try to be everybody’s best friend — you just did your job. Some interns make the friends and forget the job part.” So if it’s your first month in and you’re sad because nobody invited you to happy hour, sit tight. Do your job. Your baptism into the crusty brownie brigade will come soon enough.
2) Booze Cart Boundaries
Agency happy hours are an awesome way to make friends, and something about a Thursday afternoon brew just can’t be beat. However, as a newbie, it’s easy to overdo it. It’s not the greatest look to be getting #turnt at 3pm on a Tuesday. My advice is to set boundaries and stick to them. For instance, maybe only have drinks during scheduled agency social events, or on special occasions. It can be hard to turn down the mid-week margaritas your work BFF made in the kitchen, but stick to a plan that makes you feel healthy and productive. Your liver (and your boss) will thank you.
3) Playing Telephone
As I quickly discovered upon entering the San Francisco ad scene, in this industry, everybody knows everybody. With that in mind, try not to burn bridges, and avoid drama like the plague. Dealing with tight timelines, high-pressure accounts, and strong personalities can make it easy to fall into stress-fueled feuds and gossip sessions. However, it’s very likely that you will bump into these same people time and time again over the course of your career — and your reputation and connections are invaluable to long-term success. So, this might seem obvious, but remember it anyway: even when you’re stressin’ out, play nice, and keep it professional.
At the end of the day, keep your eyes open, follow your gut, and do your best. Eventually, with a little luck, you’ll look around at your agency and realize that you love your people and you love your work. You’ll laugh about bad Tinder dates over happy hour beers, respond to client emails at 2am, and make some damn good work.
Good luck, and have fun!
Keep up with Caitlin on Medium (she is an awesome writer) and via her website.