5 Paths To Doing Great Work At A Terrible Company

We’ve all thought it: If only I worked at so-and-so, my genius would be recognized and I’d churn out award-winning work. But you don’t have to work at so-and-so. Here are some workarounds to getting your best ideas realized right where you are.

What can I say? I needed the money. My kids were small, my own agency had just ground to a halt, and I needed a job—tomorrow. The phone rang. A headhunter told me about a place that wanted me for a ton of money and I could start right away. The only catch: It was a dreadful, dreadful advertising agency. Walking into its reception was like entering a scene in a horror movie. It wasn’t blood on the walls that broke me out in a cold sweat; it was the ads.

If you work in the creative industries, or you’re trying to break into them, then you’ve probably watched some industry legend swagger onstage to dish out career advice. Their life story almost certainly went like this: They got their first job at the hottest shop in the world. They kept working there for years earning the square root of nothing. Then they took a creative director role somewhere amazing, before setting up their own world-dominating company. Well, not everybody can do that. By definition, half the companies in any industry are below average. And somebody has to work at them. For a while, one of those somebodies was me.

You will search in vain for that job on my LinkedIn profile; I don’t admit to ever having been there. But when I emerged six months later, I’d got some decent print work out the door and won them their first-ever major award. I’d also learned a lot about the differences between a good company and a bad one—they’re not what you might think.

1. Work as if you live in the early days of a better company

"Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation." These words are carved in stone on the wall of the Scottish Parliament. They’re also pinned up above my desk as I’m writing this. If you’re working in a dump, you don’t have to work as if you’re in a dump. Form a startup in your own head. Write a manifesto. Keep showing up for work in the same building, but follow the ideals of your invisible hotshop.

Nancy Vonk is a partner at Swim, a coaching company for creative directors. She recommends creating your own "micro climate" within your company. "Another terrible brief? Find out the business problem. Pull together a group and brainstorm. Go for diversity—somebody who ‘isn’t creative’ from finance, an intern with fresh eyes and an inability to edit themselves. Even ‘terrible’ clients recognize and prize great ideas, in my experience. If going rogue means great work, forgiveness is usually a given."

You’re not the only frustrated talent in the place. There will be plenty of recruits to your startup-within-a-terrible-agency. Find a few and you will already be working in the early days of somewhere better.

2. Good companies aren’t more talented. They’re more tenacious.

Today, James Bond is the best-known fictional character in the world. How could you go wrong making a James Bond movie? Simple. Give in to every suggested improvement. That’s what happened to the first attempt to make a Bond movie. I can imagine the meeting now:
"Bond is too English for our audience. Let’s make him American. ‘James’ is kinda stuck-up as a name. ‘Jimmy’ is more down-to-earth. The book character is a bit of a psycho. I know! Let’s make him smile all the time."

Nod. Scribble. Nod.

Watch this clip and see the difference a few helpful changes can make.

A while ago, I talked to one of the most successful commercials directors at Cannes. He’d spent the last few years working with some of the best ad agencies—yet he’d started his own career at a small provincial sales promotion shop. What, I asked, was the difference between a great agency and a terrible one?

"It’s not talent," he said. "Bad companies aren’t full of mediocrities. There are actually a lot of really brilliant minds behind the world’s worst ads. The difference is that great agencies commit to the integrity of an idea. They won’t let it get watered down or compromised." Most crappy ideas start out as good ideas. But between that first scribble on a pad and the finished article, they’re destroyed by a million little improvements. Just ask Bond. Jimmy Bond.

3. "This sh*t doesn’t happen at Dro5a."

There’s always somebody walking round every company saying something like this. They imagine a perfect office where folks just swan in off the street waving a checkbook and asking you to win awards on their behalf. Naturally, they have never worked at such a place, but their friend has. Don’t be that person.

One day you will work somewhere great. And there will still be people walking round saying, "This shit doesn’t happen at Dro5a." One day you may work at Dro5a. And I expect that exactly the same snafus happen there. When they do, I bet that somebody will say, "This shit doesn’t happen at Wieden."

The place where "this shit doesn’t happen" only exists in the minds of bitter people. If you must deal with them, then avoid thinking like them. It’s tempting early in your career to look cool and cynical. Nothing will turn you into a hack faster.

4. Moonlight

David Ogilvy moonlighted. Many of his most famous ads were done outside of his day job. Sometimes he was paid cash. He boasted that his ads for Holiday magazine earned him some "magnificent china lamps." If Ogilvy, a tony pipe-smoking adman with his name above the door of one of the biggest networks on earth could still bang out cracking work on the weekends, then so can you. For many years, an informal team of creatives at Ogilvy ran a whole national gym account in their spare time. I was one of them. I think ol’ Dave would have approved.

5. Your best opportunity is sitting in front of you

Co.Create recently published a list of clients that creative people most wanted to work on. From one angle, it was a disappointing list. Because it was a list of great brands. Where’s the challenge in working on a brand that somebody else has made great? When I started working on ads for IBM, technology advertising was a geek ghetto. The action was all in beer. It meant that there were no rules, few expectations, and if you did a decent piece of work, people sat up and took notice.

If you come out of the elevator this morning and think, "If only I had an Apple brief I could do something great," then you may have a long wait coming.

Whatever you’re working on today, you have an opportunity to make it really stunning. And if you’re working on something that seems dull, then people should be all the more impressed when you nail it brilliantly. And if you’re being held back by the terrible place you work, then start up a new place in your mind.

Head to your desk this morning as if you work in the early days of a better company. And I promise, you will.

[ILLUSTRATION: Waves via Shutterstock]

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31 Comments

  • Michael McBain

    Lovely article. I just spent the past six years manging an outstanding team of people amongst whom I was definitely bringing up the rear. We won awards, created new ways of doing things, challenged existing paradigms, and were the best in Australia at what we did. We're scattered to the four winds now; the organisation we worked for didn't really appreciate those people or understand their
    talent, but we never let that slow us down. i hadn't thought of it until your article, but in hindsight I can see that all the time we were creating
    the place we wanted to work.

  • JB

    Big-ups for the inspiring article. I'm about to start at a digital agency as a new junior creative director and this will be an article ripe for rereads.

  • Jillian Adel

    "I’d also learned a lot about the differences between a good company and a bad one--they’re not what you might think."

    I'm curious to know how you define this. I worked at a company I would consider "bad" for 2.5 years and am now at a company that I would consider "good." Maybe this is a whole other article, but I'm interested to see what you have to say about it.

    At the "bad" company I worked at, a huge issue was that my managers/bosses weren't on the same page as me as far as wanting to make great work. I wasn't supported. I was, in fact, hindered horribly. I found in the face of adversity, I found my sanity in freelance work where I could make things I cared about on my own terms, and working my brain to accept every awful project or challenge that came down the pipeline in work as a game in my own head where I pushed out the best work possible despite anyone really caring. It's a matter of keeping one's own dignity & professional identity. It comes after being shot down at least 1000 times though. The hope isn't in actually improving that company (you can't help those that don't want to be helped), but more in keeping yourself moving forward as an individual.

    This was a nice brush of the subject, but I'm interested to go deeper.

  • sodahead

     "By definition, half the companies in any industry are below average."
     
    That defines the median, not the average.

  • Lenska

    What a great post - with advice that can be applied whether one works at an agency or not. I printed this out so I can look at it for daily inspiration - boy did this come at a good time!

  • RBSTweet

    I'm a freelance graphic designer. But, I've worked in prepress and production for 11 years. This article reminds of something my friend (Dylan) said to me when we were interning. 

    "We don't work in a creative environment. So we have to find ways to be creative…"

    That said, this isn't a terrible company at all. In fact, it's probably the best place I've ever worked. The company is extremely open to ideas and any ways to improve the business/workplace.

    Honestly, there are days I dread the monotony of prepress. But, they give us a creative say, and that allows us to do great work…

  • Larry Constantine

    I have long told my engineering and design students that they do not need permission to do a better job. If you know a better way but organizational policies and practices stand in the way, go ahead and do it right anyway! It's guerrilla intervention tactics, success by sabotage. This can be high risk, but it also is high payoff and, over the years, has frequently proved to be an effective route to a better job or a better company--or both.

    Prof. Larry Constantine (pen name, Lior Samson)

  • OR Travel Experience

    Your piece made me reflect on my creative work for a state agency. My little world of policy, rules, finance, and public service programs has the potential to be looked at as a substandard career. However, it has become the place where I've been allowed to find the most innovative ways to promote our brand, its promise, and the true stories behind what we provide. I have learned more and taken more risk right here in my tiny office than if I worked at one of the "big ones." And, as you point out, the work has become truly fulfilling and effective at the same time.

  • AUDIOMIND

    And if you don't work for a creative or ad agency of some kind and still hate it? ;)

  • Amber Case

    As someone who has worked with both Dro5a and Wieden, prominent examples in your article I can tell you this: "that sh*t *does* happen at Dro5a and Wieden", as it does at every company that produces work that's noticeable by the industry.

    Here's the key: the inside of a company always looks different than the outside. Produced work is always different from *producing* work. Take art galleries for example. They're filled with the work of people who have lived intense lives.

    Does the art gallery show the life and suffering of the artist? Absolutely not. The art gallery shows the end product, just as the world does. If you're not interested in experiencing the pain it takes to create something great, you're missing the point of creating something great.

    The best stuff is often the most painful and difficult to pull off. If the grass is greener on the other side it is because you didn't see how much effort it took to pull something off.

  • Gina Rau

    Brilliantly said Amber. I'd also add that, if you think the grass is greener on the other side, you're just not working hard or smart enough to make your own grass greener. Most people I hear making this statement just want the easy path, much like those who want to work on the brands that are already big and known for creativity. 

  • Bianca

    Great article! Printed the last 2 paragraphs and stuck it on my Mac. Well, I took out the 'terrible place you work' bit. It's not that terrible, and I still need this job. haha.

  • Barbara Mckinney


    Doing
    great work doesn't necessarily mean changing your career.  In many cases, you can sufficiently stretch
    your wings right where you are.  Be
    creative and don't mind those people who don't believe in your skills;just
    keep going.Great post Brian!

  • Jayden Chu

    It would be interesting to see how companies could greatly benefit from having a people who really doing a great work. This would let the upper class on the business how the company is doing as well as letting the employees know how well they are performing on their tasks.

  • PAUL S A N D I P

    This reminds me of what i say to myself during one of those "Low days": my employer is my client...and the task at hand is my assignment to run my own creative studio :)  i have seen the uplifting sense of this thought....and it genuinely brings out te best in me at work! 

  • Jan Gapper

    Absolutely! This thinking is what allows me to grow and refine my process.

  • Shelley

    Absolutely True! I think it's easy to forget sometimes that whoever comes to you with a 'project' in your company, should always be treated as a client. I always try to focus on delivering the best quality work and service, as consistently as possible. Over time people learn to appreciate you and your skills. When once you build up a level of trust and repore with your 'clients' you'll find, eventually, that the cool projects will be intrusted to you. Very importan; often some really cool opportunities originate from the most boring and mundane tasks. If you're good at what you do, then most people will remember that, and approach you directly. Even if it means 'circumventing' the chain of command.

    It's also worth noting that if you eventually do decide to leave, some of those relationships you'll take with you, and could prove invaluable to your future business prospects.

  • Pink Lady

    Totally need to start working like it is my own. Not much worth if I don't and hopefully maybe soon I can move on.
    The company I started with has been around for 150+ years and it seems like they are running themselves into the ground. They want to build my department which is the creative department (of 1 by the way) but then they don't hire anyone. Need to take the next step for them.