Work Person or Career Person?

Last week Paul Burke, the excellent creative and friend of mine, wrote a very interesting article.

It made the undeniable yet provocative suggestion that some creatives are ‘work people’, while others are ‘career people’:

Sweeping generalisation alert
Here’s the first one: creatives are all work people, aren’t they? Coming up with ideas and executing them brilliantly is all that matters to them. They take great pride in the craft of creation. For them, excellence is its own reward – but if their work also receives garlands from various awards juries, their careers are destined to flourish. 

But it doesn’t quite work like that, though, does it? We all know some brilliant creative people who have not been as successful as they should have been. And we certainly know some spectacularly useless ones who have somehow secured very senior positions. Second sweeping generalisation: they will be the career people.

So to sum up, we have people in the creative department who are really just interested in the work, ie: making the best ads they can make, while others are partly interested in that, but only to the extent that it helps them to advance in their career. Paul concedes that he is generalising in his assertions, as he then suggests the ‘career’ people are most likely to be middle class because they’ll be better at the inevitable meetings that come with ascending the corporate ladder:

The doctor and the priest
Creative departments have always attracted people from working-class backgrounds. When I was growing up, Dr Curry and Father O’Leary were the only people I knew who had anything resembling a career. Everyone else had jobs. Usually manual, often menial, so they were obviously work people. Which is why creative people from humbler beginnings tend to be work people too. And while they are being judged purely on their work, that’s fine. But after a few years, other factors start creeping into play. 

In a meeting
As creatives become more senior, they are expected to attend more meetings and raw creative talent becomes less important. This is the moment the career people have been waiting for. If they have managed not to get fired – and they are very adept at this – they can now start to pull ahead. Often more (sweeping generalisation) middle-class, they are quite comfortable in meetings. And the more they can talk the talk, the less they will have to walk the walk.

Wow, I’m really doing a bad job of paraphrasing this article, but lazy copy-and-pasting seems to a better way of getting Paul’s points across. Having said that, I can tell you Paul goes on to suggest that career people apparently care much more about job titles and have better websites, some of which might mendaciously imply that they’ve done some great work that they actually haven’t.

In the end he says there are good and bad points to both, but you’d be a tiny bit thick if you didn’t see him leaning somewhat in the direction of the ‘work person’. He doesn’t seem to have ended up with the multi-hyphenate job title in the upper reaches of WPP, but then he does have a pretty distinctive online presence.

My take on this is that it’s an interesting view with a certain amount of truth to it, but it’s in those ‘sweeping generalisations’ that it starts to break down. I guess the definitions of ‘middle class’ can get pretty muddled these days, but I wouldn’t say that Trevor Beattie, Paul Silburn or Tony Davidson are the ‘career’ types Paul suggests, yet each has risen to the top job in a London office of an international network from fairly normal beginnings. David Abbott’s dad ran a shop. Is that middle class? Surely Mr. Abbott was utterly obsessed with the ‘work’, and yet progressed in a very ‘careerist’ fashion when he became MD of DDB’s London office in the 60s. Similarly, Peter Souter’s work was brilliant, allowing him to be promoted to be in charge of people he admits were more talented than him, and even when he was ECD of the largest agency in the UK he still wrote plenty of ads. Were the working class Mark Denton and Chris Palmer just doing another job when they opened their own agency, or were they building a career? Does the intention matter, or just the reality?

Paul also suggests that career people spend 25% of their time on their work and 75% of their time on their career. There may be some truth in that; after all, who hasn’t met the team with one articulate PR person who shakes the right hands and ingratiates himself with the management, and one quiet fella who everyone suspects of writing all the ads? The former will be most likely to become a CD, while the latter may well become one of the perpetual ‘workers’ Paul mentions. Having said that, this does bring up the thorny question of what counts as careerist behaviour and what merely helps to suggest a creative has all the attributes necessary for promotion? Any creative promotion has to start with some good work, so wherever anyone heads after that, they would had to have shown some promise in that area in the first place. And to get up to the management positions you really have to have done a fair amount of acclaimed stuff (yes, in these digital days the need for famous, awarded work might have been reduced, after all, if it’s not in the old traditional media of TV, Press and Posters, the chances of it really affecting culture are much lower). I think the people who have risen to the top with very little good work are few and far between, in numbers that don’t really back up Paul’s point sufficiently for it to be credible.

I’d also say that there’s a lot of grey area in any career progression. If I look at my own situation, I did enough good ads to be asked to start an agency. Was that career or work? Were my ‘people skills’ a big part of that suggestion? At that point I was in the CD club, which gave me a good standing for my next move, but my next move was to leave the agency and spend three years freelancing, despite plenty of D&AD entries. So was that work or career? I then became a CD at a London agency for the next three years. Was it my middle class articulacy that got me the job, or my book? Was my interest in that position a symptom of my grasping careerism, or a logical next step? I certainly enjoyed being a CD because of the new challenges it provided; having written ads for fifteen years I was ready for something similar but different. The same applies to my move to LA. I could have stayed in London, continuing to do pretty much the same thing as I’d done for the previous three years, but I wanted the fresh challenge of a new situation in a new country. Careerism or a wish to expand myself? In effect, I was one of a handful of people running the London office, while in LA I’m further from the top, but I get to learn from some very smart people, both in the creative department and outside it. I think by Paul’s definition I’m building up some sort of career, but that makes it seem like there’s a deliberate plan which has always been in the back of my mind. Yes, I’m middle class and articulate with a good (non-mendacious) online presence and a job title that I’m not really bothered about. Without going into details, my job is about half creative and half management, but I only really contribute creatively in a CD capacity where I improve work I’ve been shown (when appropriate).

Paul continues:

And that point often comes when career people find themselves in charge of work people more talented and experienced than they are. This can make them feel awkward and insecure, so they set about preventing the work people from doing the very thing they are good at. The career person cannot see that the work people are no threat to them at all. If they had wanted the job, the title, the responsibilities and the anxieties, they too would have spent their careers desperately trying to acquire them.

This is something I can’t recall ever seeing. Managers who prevent work people from doing work? That would be pretty perverse. Peter Souter once wrote an article about that very situation when he was made ECD of AMV. He said he just let his very talented department get on with what they were great at, which was clearly a good idea as AMV soon became the most awarded agency in the world. And ‘If they had wanted the job, the title, the responsibilities and the anxieties, they too would have spent their careers desperately trying to acquire them’? Is it merely lack of desire that prevents this? Or lack of the skills and attributes Paul suggests are necessary for a climb up the ladder?

So is it better to be a work person?
Of course it is. You retain your talent, your soul and the respect of your peers. People like who you are, they like what you do and they will always want to work with you. But, deep down, you do feel slightly embittered. It’s not fair. You didn’t really get to reap what you sowed. Was that because you wouldn’t accept that you needed more talents than just talent? Or because you didn’t play the game? Or, most likely, because you still haven’t realised that there was one? 

Here the sweep of the generalisation is a little too wide. On the whole, I’d imagine work people and career people are as likeable or otherwise as each other. I’ve certainly met some unpleasant workers and some lovely managers, and vice versa. And your ‘soul and the respect of your peers’? I’d say Mr. Abbott retained his soul and the respect of his peers, even when he was at DDB, otherwise no one would have asked him to join them in starting an agency. And if you’ve been a brilliant creative for many years but not become a CD, there’s usually an element of disrespect from your peers. Why have you not made the jump? What are you missing? Surely it can’t just be desire? Whether that’s the case or not is entirely subjective, but the suggestion that a lifelong ad creative is what we should all aspire to be is frankly a bit of an odd one.

Or a career person?
Absolutely. You’ve done very nicely, shrewdly embedding yourself into that major piece of business. You’ve got the big corner office, the nice fat salary and the Club Class flights to that “Future of Creativity” conference in Miami. But, deep down, you know you’re not very good, so how long much longer can you fool people into thinking that you are? You also know you are just a number (actually, quite a lot of numbers) that your global paymasters could delete at any time. So now you use all your creative energy to devise ever-more political survival strategies. Is this really how you wanted to end up?

I’d assume if you’ve got a big corner office and all that jazz then you probably haven’t fooled people into thinking you’re good, but actually proved it. But perhaps it’s being good at a new set of valuable skills, such as being able to compile a good department, hiring and firing as necessary, creating a good mix that works impressively. You should also be able to manage budgets, balance the needs of the department with the needs of the agency and its clients, sell the good work of others, manage the fragile egos of creative people etc. If you’re shit at all that, no corner office for you. And global paymasters can delete any number at any time. Plenty of workers bite the dust along with career people, including very good examples of both.

So overall, there’s a little truth buried beneath a mountain of generalisation. How you make the transition from creative to creative management, whether that’s the right thing to do, and why this oxymoronic career progression is the clearest career path available to advertising creatives, are fascinating questions. But there are so many shades of grey within Paul’s black and white that his analysis doesn’t so much help as entertain.

I’m sure it also makes ‘workers’ feel better about themselves… 😉