Alistair Stephenson's Diary 2015

Alistair Stephenson  

Agency: SapientNitro
Age: 25
Degree/education: Bachelor of Arts, Juris Doctor (postgraduate Law)
University/college: University of Sydney

Diary Entry 4 (May 2015)

I’m going to take this month to talk about a little competition I entered – the Young Lions.

The Young Lions feeds into the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, held in (you guessed it) Cannes, France. Winners of national Young Lion competitions around the world then go on to compete in France. At this point I usually draw on two pop culture references to explain how it works:

•    The Cannes Lions are seen as the Oscars of the advertising world. I still don’t fully understand how they became the most elite of all advertising awards – all I know is that people go apeshit for them. Seriously, if you’re in ads and you’ve won a Lion, that’s it, you’re done.

Unlike the Oscars, winners don’t really cry when they take their trophies; they jump up, scream “fuck yeah!” and dudebro around on stage like they’re at F1 racing. The record-holder for most awards won for a single piece of work goes to Australia’s iconic “Dumb Ways to Die” campaign for Metro Trains (agency: McCann Australia; they won five).

•    To explain the relationship between the Australian Young Lions competition and the Cannes Lion Festival, I then draw on the timeless example of Australian Idol vs World Idol. The winners of the Aussie Young Lions competition are our Guy Sebastian, and go on to either take the global title or get pummeled by that mop-head guy/Kelly Clarkson.

The competition is held annually and is designed to let talented advertising/media/marketing juniors practice their skills (while stoking their bloodthirst for professional rivalry at a young age).

There are five categories of entry: Print, Digital, Film, Media and Marketing. Because only non-agency people are eligible to enter Marketing, I made the rogue decision to enter the Media category.

There are many rounds. First up, I had to work through a roughly three-page problem on why Diet Coke was declining amongst its middle-aged female loyalty base. This was a really fun exercise – it draws on a lot of strategic and creative thinking and forces you to challenge a lot of your own assumptions about how we interact with iconic products.

I had a lot of awesome people from my agency pick it apart and put it back together with me. I ended up pitching a strategy about how DC can use feminism and a unique digital platform to reconnect with loyalists. It was good enough to land me a spot in the NSW Finalist round.

In this round, fifteen of us were asked to “bring to life” our ideas in a five-minute presentation. We presented at the News Corp offices to a full amphitheater of judges, which was somewhat overwhelming. I had a slick little deck ready for it, but I felt my Media chops weren’t strong enough against the many other amazing guys and girls present (most of who worked for, you know, actual media agencies).

Unfortunately that’s where my journey in the competition ended – I didn’t make it to the final round – but it did reinforce a bunch of valuable learning lessons:

1. Enter competitions. Enter them all. They’re good writing and thinking practice, and it’s exciting when you make any sort of progress.

2. You can’t circulate your work to enough people for feedback. While you have to draw a line at some point, I gathered so many different tidbits from a bunch of people who wanted to help – I think it really helped transform a solid submission into an excellent one.

3. If you’re asked to give a presentation, don’t spend 90% of your time refining the PowerPoint deck. Sounds obvious, right? I found the time management a bit challenging here; as easy as it is to deliberate over good visuals, it’s your speech that’ll ultimately seal the deal.

4.  School up. Earlier I mentioned that my Media chops weren’t up to par. This is partly because I’m an advertising graduate that entered a Media strategy competition – but knowing that I’d have some deficiencies there, I could have made the time to read up a bit more on it. See – it’s fun and learning!

All in all – I had a blast, got in some good practice, and met a bunch of cool media people in the process. Many of my colleagues lament the fact they didn’t enter more “young people things”, as there aren’t as many similar opportunities once you’re over 30. I encourage anyone thinking about it to just give it a go! 

Diary Entry 3 (April 2015)

April has been a very full month – a lot of planning, progress reports, and more meetings than you can shake a stick at.

I’m 100% assigned to one client which means I get to live and breathe the project’s wins, struggles, and everything else in between.  It also means I’ve had plenty of practice in project managing. I used to think I was a fairly organized guy, but with the power of Microsoft Excel I’m now reaching brand new levels of anal-retentive.

The main difference between my first two months and now is that I’m able to be actually relied upon as a teammate. As you become more and more useful, you get to become known for “owning” specific tasks and responsibilities.

One example is that I’m in charge of collecting the team’s progress for the client’s Weekly Status report. This goes out to track progress and project risks, and is an important accountability tool for the client. Another responsibility is helping to run the internal team catch-ups so everyone’s on the same page with what we’re building.

The fun stuff we’ve been doing this month – green smoothies and wraps for Health Week, gourmet pizza for leadership preso’s, a BBQ lunch to kick off Easter weekend, chicken rolls and chips for work trivia. Food – my agency is really good at giving me  free food.

Outside of the office, I also went to an industry talk by Dan Wieden, the legendary co-founder of Portland-based agency Wieden+Kennedy. It was a session held at DDB for Creative Chiefs only – I only got to go along because my Creative Chief dropped out (I was instructed to faithfully impersonate him during the talk).

He spoke on how to keep your teammates inspired and how best to foster a creative working environment. He unpacked his agency’s most iconic campaigns – Nike’s Just Do It, Nike’s Find Your Greatness, Coke’s Open Summer, and many more. I always tag along to these nights because they’re incredibly motivating – and there’s no shortage of them!

Diary Entry 2 (March 2015)

It's been two and a half months since I began as a graduate in the advertising industry. It's been a huge learning experience, not least because I had no idea what to expect from it. At SapientNitro I am an Associate in the Program Management team, which is similar to account service roles in many respects. It's definitely an adjustment going from a relatively comfortable environment, like university, to the workforce where you have to build knowledge from scratch and feel like you can't contribute as much as everyone else. Obviously this is to be expected, but a great team helped me get on my feet pretty quickly and ramp up. My main role is to help manage the projects of a huge client we have, by tracking work progress, timelines, budgets, staffing, and so on.

Getting my head around orientation took some time. It was a mix of online learning, team presentations, quizzes, asking a billion questions of my team mates, and best of all, a paid trip to Singapore for a week-long induction. Not too shabby! While there, my starter group got to learn about our company's history, values, and vision for the future. With a healthy dose of teamwork and group participation thrown in, it was also a great way to meet some very talented colleagues from different offices. I spent the rest of the time blowing my newly-earned wages on tourist traps and clothes. This probably isn't typical of most agency orientations but I lucked out so I may as well brag about it!

I'd say the biggest challenge I've encountered so far is making sense of the sheer amount of information coming at me at once. The learning doesn't stop. From information about being a Project Manager, to Sapient-specific information, to information from the Comms Council, to studying for the IPA exam, to a bit of filler reading… there's a lot needed to ramp up, and it's initially tricky prioritizing what is important and what isn't. The same goes for task management. One of the speakers from the Comms Council's Getting Started workshop, Emily Perrett (Clemenger BBDO), gave us this diagram which now takes pride-of-place on my desk:


Important to remember when sweating out what type of blue gradient should colour the header cells of a spreadsheet that only two people will read. Prioritisation and time management is always important, but never more so than in the last month in the lead up to the IPA Foundations Exam. As I mentioned in the last entry, the course is mandatory for all Comms Council grads and is aimed at educating industry-starters on the 101s of advertising – account management, planning, creative, and so on. It was hugely helpful and filled in a lot of blanks. We had to study a fair amount for it, of course. A lot of late nights after work, and a few late-late nights in the lead up to exam day. Most of you have probably sat a healthy share of exams and this is one was no different. I'm supposed to present some study tips, but it's nothing you don't already know – start early, study iteratively, test yourself, time yourself, don't bother cramming (like I did in the minutes before the exam).

But it hasn't all been work! It is advertising after all, this weird blend of commercial and creative. It's wonderful being a part of a group of hard-working, competitive, type-A individuals who also have aggressively fun personalities. For example, tonight there's an office Toga Party, and this morning people are hotly debating the best places to buy discount Manchester. They're moments away from putting together a price matrix. Also a lot of fun was the IPA Inspirational Foundations two-day course. The grads heard from a variety of speakers who gave their take on creativity and the industry, and also got to compete in a team briefing competition. Rachel and I were both part of the BUPA Trooper group, and have allowed our egos to inflate with the glory of taking first place (literally no one else cares).

Until next time!

Diary Entry 1 (February 2015)

Wading into the world of advertising was an exercise in trusting my gut. Having completed two degrees thoroughly unrelated to the field – Arts with a Philosophy major and postgraduate Law – advertising wasn’t exactly a natural next step for me. But I yearned to work in a creative industry. I tested this interest at an internship with the amazing Droga5, and after a terrific experience there I was all in.

A few friends had made it through the Communications Council’s competitive Graduate Program and urged me to apply. It felt like an easy decision at the time. It’s centralised (so you apply once to many agencies, not to each agency individually) and it touches on a variety of roles and agency types. All I needed was enthusiasm and a bit of charm, right?

Wrong. The process has what feels like a hundred phases and is exceptionally rigorous. As someone who has foolishly endured seven years’ worth of tertiary assessments, I can say with authority that this is no cake walk. But I see that as a positive. The application is pretty extensive but it means hiring standards are high so you’ll only be working with the brightest and most creative people.

Your initial submission consists of a series of short essays and a video. The best twenty-five applicants are then invited to a group assessment day. If you’re lucky, interviews are then offered at the individual agencies. Along the way you tend to figure out pretty quickly what it is you want out of the ad industry and what you can contribute to it.

I have three tips to pass on. They’re hugely clichéd at first glance, but I promise to back them up. First off, allow as much time as possible for the application. We all know that that’s a no-brainer, but we never really stick to it, do we? Give a week to edit and edit and edit. Then read your responses to your friends. If they care about you, they’ll tear it to pieces. It deserves the respect that you’d give to a thesis or university application.

Secondly, find a fresh take for your responses. I think that my unusual academic background helped here; with no real knowledge of the stuff they teach you in, say, a Commerce/Marketing degree, it meant I couldn’t write what I thought they wanted to read (and become horribly predictable as a result). If you find yourself answering “Apple” to a question along the lines of “What is your favourite brand?” then give yourself a smack and come up with something more original. Push yourself to be a bit weird.

Thirdly and finally, let your personality shine through. Unlike other rigid professions, you don’t have to pretend to be a wanker-in-a-suit to prove that you’re hireable. Put on display your natural passions and interests, and with a bit of intuition/magic, the right agency will come to you. In my responses I wrote extensively about organising for the Law Society on campus as well as my obsession with Hillary Clinton – two supremely nerdy interests that, if nothing else, made me look like I was talking honestly. It was brought up with me by three different agency reps during casual chats and gave me something genuine to talk about (beyond any contrived platitudes about how good I thought I was at “marketing”).

Out the other end, it feels good to learn and mingle with a cohort that is switched-on, creative, and as annoyingly enthusiastic as I am. From what I can tell three weeks in, we’re all feeling a bit overwhelmed. There’s a big learning curve, especially when it comes to the administrative stuff. But at SapientNitro I have awesome, wicked-smart people around me (I think that’s what they refer to as “agency culture”) and I pepper them with questions every few minutes – so it’s working out.

This is also the first year the Communications Council is bundling the IPA Foundation Certificate into the program. It’s a clear way of introducing Account Management principles to people without any assumed knowledge and is proving quite helpful so far.

That’s it from me! Shoot me any questions if you’re reading this and thinking about applying (I’ll convince you to give it a crack).