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Innovation Engine

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]