in: Career, Career & Wealth

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

So You Want My Job: Advertising Executive

Vintage Michael Geneseo portrait.

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

The advertising business these days isn’t as glamorous as it was during the heyday of Madison Avenue, when Don Draper and company came up with campaigns over three martini lunches. But now that an ad man needs to know not only how to work with traditional media but help companies with their online presence as well, it’s a career that’s as interesting and creatively challenging as ever. Michael Geneseo knows all about straddling those different worlds. He’s the Client Manager for the aptly named Pulp+Wire, a graphic design, web, and advertising firm that works with companies on both print and web ad campaigns. Mike may not be able to tell you how to get a Mad Men haircut, but he does offer plenty of tips for making it in the advertising biz.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc).

My name is Michael Geneseo, I’m 34 and originally from Hopkinton, MA. I grew up in Hopkinton, a small town outside of Boston and moved to Portland 7 years ago from Boston.

My title is “Client Manager” of Pulp+Wire, a small graphic design and advertising firm in Portland, Maine. However, due to our size, we all wear a lot of different hats. I’ve been with this company for just over three years. My role is largely in business development, strategy, and client relations, but I also function as a copywriter, production artist, and illustrator.

As a result of my function here, one of my main concerns is finding ways to improve companies and organizations through design, consistent branding, and aligning creative to business goals.

2. Why did you want to want to work in advertising? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

In short, I didn’t. I graduated from Emerson College with a degree in Public Communications specializing in Print Journalism. Journalism and Advertising fell under the same umbrella of Communications, so there was a lot of shared coursework. But my understanding of “advertising” was more than a little colored by some fairly naive preconceptions and consisted of “advertising is the practice of routinely lying to people to convince them to buy things they don’t need.”

I finished college, found myself totally disillusioned by journalism and wound up working many different jobs, all that were totally unrelated to advertising as an industry and still involved me in various elements of advertising, design, copywriting, marketing and promotions.

I lucked into my current position as a result of a mutual contact, a broad skill set, and an inherent adaptability. It wasn’t until I was a year into it that I realized that I was really enjoying what I was doing and started to see this as a legitimate career (or calling, so to speak).

3. If a man hopes to become an advertising executive, how should he best prepare? Is majoring in advertising a must? How important is landing an internship while in college?

I’m proof positive that majoring in advertising isn’t a must. However, for people who see themselves on an advertising track early on, I’m sure it’d be pretty helpful.

  • Speaking from my own experience, READ, READ, READ. To catch up and fill in the gaps as well as to make sure I’m ahead of the curve on trends, I read a ton of industry books, follow industry blogs, and pay attention to what the leaders in our industry and other industries are saying on Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media.
  • Network. I’ve been fortunate in that I have a number of friends and colleagues that I’ve developed over the years that have gone into advertising and design positions as well as other related fields. Those contacts have proven to be invaluable resources. However, I’ve found it’s just as important to have relationships with people in a wide range of industries so that I have a tap on market trends, industry-specific resources I can trust and, in some cases, people I trust that refer business to my company.
  • Be proactive. Cultivate the habit of looking at advertising not from the standpoint of what’s cool or clever, but from the standpoint of “what’s the ultimate goal and how should I craft the story in order to achieve it?” Advertising, and really all of marketing, be it design, production, packaging, promotions…it’s all about telling stories. Learning to tell effective stories that an audience can relate to is crucial.
  • Learn to write. Or, more appropriately, learn to write effectively. This may seem so fundamental as to be foolish, but I can’t underestimate its power. The number of typos I see in “final” work and on resumes and presentations is astounding. This may be a holdover from being a writing-based major in college, but it’s just sloppy and once someone sees it, be it a potential employer, a client or a target audience, it takes a lot of work to dispel that image.

In regards to an internship, I can’t really say it’s crucial—I never had one—but being able to apply for a job coming out of college with actual real-world agency experience puts you way ahead of people with just class work. In looking for an internship, I’d suggest foregoing the flashy big name agencies in favor of a smaller studio with a good reputation where you’ll be able to get your hands into more actual client work.

4. How competitive is the advertising job market? What sets a candidate apart from others when he’s applying for a position?

In my space, I see a lot of kids coming out of art school with graphic design degrees and a lot of kids with advertising degrees coming out with fewer and fewer jobs open for them.

In my eyes, preparation. I don’t see a lot of people coming out of college with any real idea of how to go out and get a job. In a previous job, I interviewed and hired a lot of people, so I tend to be hard to impress in an interview. But if I get someone who’s done their homework, comes prepared and brings something to the table, all in a humble way, that’s going to get my attention.

We recently hired someone that we didn’t really have room for strictly because he came to the table with a professional resume, some unrelated experience that he made relevant to our needs, and a clear understanding of our company, what we’re trying to do, and how he could make that happen.

5. Once you’ve got your foot in the door at an ad agency, how do you work your way up to an executive position? What’s the hierarchy and job advancement like?

Bust your ass, be willing to take on challenges, and bring something to the table. I can’t really speak to the hierarchy in a larger agency, but I think of it kind of like being in band in high school—in a huge band where there’s a lot of players, if you don’t put in as much work, you can kind of drift but still get by. In a smaller group, a couple of wrong notes are the difference between awesome and horrible.

6. How does an ad agency go about finding clients and landing contracts with companies?

Our model up until the past year has been based on 99.9% referral from past clients and vendors, which is fantastic. It speaks to the quality of our work. But we’re trying to change that in order to pursue clients that we want to work with.

7. How do you come up with ideas for ad campaigns? What’s the creative process like?

I think for anyone in a creative industry or position, the process is always a bit different. For me, I tend to be a verbal thinker. I start by trying to get a clear idea of the goal and the primary and secondary audiences. And then I start writing. Word association is big in my own creative process and from there I start to evolve visuals as things connect.

If you talked to each of my colleagues, they’d likely have different starting points and evolution. But the core is making sure that whatever we’re doing, it speaks to the client’s business goal. It’s not enough to be pretty. It’s got to be compelling and convincing.

8. What is the best part of your job?

The range of clients and industries we work in. I’m kind of a knowledge junkie, so getting to immerse myself in, say, how to compellingly talk about accounting or insurance one day and the next day looking at the inner workings of barbecue culture is pretty satisfying. And the fact that every client has a different set of challenges that requires fresh thinking and renewed perspective is pretty awesome. It’s very satisfying being able to implement solutions that help people and promote businesses.

9. What is the worst part of your job?

From time to time, we’ll talk to a client or prospect that doesn’t have any real input at the beginning of the process. “I’m not sure what I like, but I’ll know it when I see it.” Working with this mindset is exceptionally frustrating, because it’s like playing darts blindfolded and being spun around three times and still being expected to hit a bullseye.

Where we try to form collaboration with our clients, this kind of attitude can be extremely frustrating to both the client and us. It’s a waste of everybody’s time and money.

We go to great lengths to sidestep this and manage the expectation.

10. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

I imagine it’s probably pretty similar to any other industry in that establishing that balance is often more a matter of individual commitment. The tough thing is that you don’t necessarily turn off the creative process. I carry a notebook with me everywhere, because I’ll often think of something while I’m out at the grocery store or sitting down to dinner. At this point, I think my wife and family and friends just ignore it.

11. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

The value of good design to a business. There are a lot of misconceptions about what value solid design brings to a business or organization in achieving its goals. From the cost, to the value, to the thought that it’s fine to just pass it off to the admin in the office because they took an art class in college and have Photoshop on their computer at home.

I think that last one is pretty tough to get around. It’s not to take away from the admin’s talent—I’m sure they’re a wonderfully talented artist. But their talent is likely focused on their own personal artwork. Graphic designers and advertising agencies deal specifically with issues of communication and aligning creative solutions to business objectives. It’s a whole other set of skills. And a graphic designer isn’t juggling your whole company’s payroll and the monthly financials and the phones and scheduling conference rooms in addition to trying to create a professional, targeted ad or the creative for your website.

12. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

There’s a concept in Zen teaching that refers to the “beginner’s mind.” Loosely put, it refers to the mental state of someone coming into something new as being totally open and ready to learn as opposed to someone that’s been at it for a while and works off the assumptions and habits of experience rather than seeing it new. If I was going to offer any other advice, I’d say, foster the beginner’s mind. Being able to look at every client with new eyes and not through past assumptions is absolutely crucial to this job. Especially if you’re on your fourth campaign for your fourth mid-sized, regional sales company client. Being able to get at their differences is what allows you to execute exceptional creative.

13. Finally, what would you say to people who, like you did once, think “advertising is the practice of routinely lying to people to convince them to buy things they don’t need?

Advertising and design, at its best, isn’t about lying to the consumer. It’s about cutting through the noise in order to tell a unique story and ultimately letting the consumer make a decision. How well you tell that story is important, but if the product on the other end of that decision falls short of the expectation you’ve created in the advertising, you’re only hurting the brand and pissing off the customer, neither of which are good. Authenticity goes a long way in advertising, especially when you’ve got the product to back it up.

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