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How to get ahead in advertising

By
my calculations, next year is the 25th anniversary of the film How To Get Ahead in Advertising, in
which Richard E. Grant plays the suave Dennis Bagley, a brilliant young ad
executive who gets besieged by a big problem.

From
the mercurial director of Withnail and I,
Bruce Robinson, the movie is undoubtedly odd, at times poignant, occasionally funny,
admittedly a bit all over the show but still relevant a quarter of a century
later.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJQHdhjQXgg

For
those who haven’t seen it, the plot centres on the frustration Bagley feels
trying to create a campaign for a new pimple cream. He gets strung out by the
challenge and suffering from obsessive worry, develops a nasty boil.

The
unsightly boil then morphs into a head, complete with eyes, ears, moustache and
garish personality. It speaks only to Bagley whilst the rest of the world remains
oblivious. Eventually he is admitted to hospital to have it removed. But the
boil then takes over the real Bagley and he becomes the personification of a
shameless, selfish ad man.

This
caustic satire also provides a probing look at how the advertising industry
perpetuates some of the worst things about capitalism, despite the fact
Bagley’s efforts have earned him a country home, flash cars and beautiful, loving
wife (played by Aussie Rachel Ward).

I
won’t disclose the ending but suffice to say when the boil emerges, she starts yearning
for a simpler time, one where Bagley hasn’t been corrupted by the worst excesses
of the industry and sold his soul to get ahead.

It’s
a film that’s a bit dated and isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact,
I’m not even sure if I should recommend it. But if all you do is watch the YouTube
clip then you’ll see three things to consider as you try to get ahead in your own
chosen career. 

Be creative in every situation

Go
create something. Do something original. Help create a working environment you
can tell people about with pride, today and in years to come. Invent. Develop
new ideas and share them. Write hot and edit cold.

Never lose perspective

To quote Lindsey Redding: “It turns out it was just
advertising. There was no higher calling. No ultimate prize. Just a lot of
faded, yellowing newsprint…a lot of framed certificates and little gold
statuettes. A shit-load of empty Prozac boxes, wine bottles, a lot of grey hair
and a tumour of indeterminate dimensions”. So don’t take it all too seriously.

Never bring your work home

Well, that’s a tough one because sometimes you just have to.
I never heard of anyone who won a pitch because they refused to work weekends
or the night before. The point is valid though. We aren’t curing cancer, so
park the hucksterism at the door as you arrive home. Your friends and family
will love you all the more for doing so.

And here’s one that isn’t in the YouTube clip…

Do something good

At its best,
advertising is about more than selling. It’s about solving problems, making
life easier for people or helping them make big life decisions. So enjoy the
people you work with. Be proud of what you do. It’s hard to think of any
industry full of so many smart and interesting people with contrasting
backgrounds. So challenge yourself to be questioned by them because it will
only make you a better person.

Check the film out if you want but, hey, be warned, I don’t
even work in advertising, I’m in PR. 

  • Kelly Bennett is managing director of Eleven PR and is leading brand activation, experiential and PR services for the TBWA\ network throughout Asia Pacific. He is also the deputy chair of the CAANZ Marcoms Leadership
    Group. 

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