Ad Agencies of Today

We’ve all seen the Mad Men version of advertising – hard-drinking advertisers vying for the best business, trying to scoop each other’s clients with little more than brassy self-confidence and a slogan. Advertising agencies have changed a lot since then – that much is clear – but are there still agencies out there like Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce?

There’s always a competition for business across agencies, but perhaps nothing so dramatic,” said Karen Kavanagh, Coordinator of Algonquin’s Advertising and Marketing Communications Management program. “What Mad Men did portray well is the high energy of creative work, the struggle of coming up with great ideas. The ideas are still core to everything an ad agency does.”

Nowadays it’s far more than a print ad with a slogan that sells the idea. Modern campaigns are steeped in experiential advertising, event planning, and social media. All these aspects support campaigns that are still focused on the Big Idea, one Don Draper might have pulled from his back pocket.

It’s always a crew of people, working together, that gets the job done

No current agency is held afloat by the work of one person alone. It’s always a crew of people, working together, that gets the job done.

“Generally a traditional agency has a creative team, a strategic team, and a marketing team with several different positions in each,” said Kavanagh. “Ideas come from everywhere and all those people depend on one another.”

After graduating from Algonquin College’s two-year Advertising program in 1995, Kavanagh moved to Toronto to work with Echo Advertising and a few other firms. Four years later, she returned to Ottawa where, among other things, she taught one class per term at Algonquin, becoming a full-time employee in 2011.

The program she coordinates has since added Marketing Communications Management to its prior focus on advertising, besides adding a third year of study. Its curriculum helps her students develop the skills to work well with others, and to think quickly and strategically. But even well prepared students may find ad agency work tough, she points out, even without a Pete Campbell breathing down your neck.

Decide whether to serve a narrow or broad field

“It can be intimidating when you first get hired,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to share your ideas, and be aware that you’ve been hired for your input as well as your skills.”

Every type of person can work at an agency, even an introvert, as long as they work well with others, are self-reliant, and take interest in the world around them.

Just as an agency can serve a narrow niche or a broad range of advertising needs, grads too have to decide whether they will serve a narrow or broad field. Questions to ask: How will you, as a recent grad, differentiate yourself from your peers? What specialization will give you an advantage?

The media space has become quite fragmented since the Mad Men era, immensely complicating the task of getting an advertising message across. No traditional campaign of the kind Don Draper knew could reach the majority of Ottawans today. Now you’re as likely to find the target audience through a smartphone or ear buds as through a magazine or television.

“I’m constantly learning new things in this ever-changing industry, and every year we’re adding new strategies, new technology, and new ideas to the program,” said Kavanagh.

Now, depending on who you ask, there is still some drinking at the agency. Think social drinks instead of morning whiskey. There is a certain amount of excitement around planning campaigns for films or festivals, and always opportunity for mingling. Agencies are social places.

But hard drinking? Well, what happens at the agency stays at the agency. In that sense, Don Draper would be happy – but otherwise his wings would be a little clipped.

Based in North Grenville, author Joseph Mathieu is a bilingual freelance writer and editor. He bolsters brands, explores music and narrates lifestyles worth celebrating. He tweets @JRMwords.

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