… And Learn From It
By Max Ottignon. I’m the co-founder of Ragged Edge, a London branding agency that builds brands globally. I’ve spent my career fighting to change how people think about our industry. From brands as logos and typefaces, to brands as ideas with the power to change perceptions, behaviour, categories, industries and – just occasionally – the world. At Ragged Edge, we’ve ripped up conventions to help brands like Bulb, Mindful Chef, East London Liquor Co, and Papier redefine their industries. Right now we’re working with a host of more established brands to create change at scale, globally. I’m here to share what I’ve learned. To challenge conventional thinking, to fight for braver thinking, and bigger ideas. To learn from others, and to support those who care as much about this industry as I do. I write about branding for Fast Company, Creative Review, It’s Nice That, The Dieline and more.
Shortly after leaving university, I got the chance to do a month-long internship at a reasonably well known ad agency*. It meant moving to London on my own, knowing no one, and sleeping on the sofa of a friend of a friend of a friend. But it didn’t feel risky. I just assumed that once I ‘got my foot in the door’ they’d never let me leave. Advertising would be lucky to have me.
Things started off pretty well. I impressed people with my ability to write to a decent standard, made a couple of friends, embraced the liquid lunch culture, and got myself an ‘advertising’ haircut. The internship got extended, and there was a promise of a full-time contract by Christmas. I rented a flat, spent a bunch of money I didn’t have, and started living the life of a young ad man.
But Christmas came and went. No sign of a contract. Don’t worry, we’ll get it sorted in January. January became March. Still no contract. And then one day my manager, Fiona, asked for a quick catch up. This was the moment.
It wasn’t the moment.
Instead of furnishing me with a proper salary, a promotion, and an ego boost, she came armed with a few home truths. The main one being that I wasn’t particularly good at my job.
I’d been making mistakes, my attention to detail was non-existent, my dislike of writing timing plans was poorly disguised, it didn’t seem like I was trying particularly hard, and my haircut was ridiculous. (I may be misremembering the last one, but if not, she wasn’t wrong. Blonde highlights. No.)
The upshot? Start looking for another job. And probably not an advertising one.
I had not seen this coming. Nowhere close. The prospect of returning home to go and live with my parents started to feel very real. And very, very unappealing.
By pure chance I managed to secure a stay of execution. Another team was short staffed, and they figured that my help would be marginally better than no help at all. But it was made very clear this was a temporary reprieve.
Temporary or otherwise, it gave me enough time for the penny to drop. I realized that possessing a medium amount of talent was zero guarantee of success. Or even survival. I realised that my standards weren’t the right standards. That good enough wasn’t anywhere near good enough. And that I had a lot to learn.
So, I knuckled down. I started to embrace timing plans and proof-reading. I cut out the liquid lunches, I let the blonde tips grow out. And slowly I started to get better at my job. People started to trust me to do things. Sometimes they’d even trust me to do things that were slightly important. And while I ended up leaving the agency eventually, I got to leave on my terms, with my head held high. I even got a reference.
But the impact of that conversation with Fiona lives on.
Today, nearly twenty years later, I still shudder when an unexplained ‘quick catch-up’ goes into my diary. But more importantly, that particular catch-up was the most influential twenty minutes of my career. A sliding doors moment. Without it, I was on the fast track to mediocrity. But with it … Well, I still have a career.
Some lessons I learned. If you can learn them, you might be able to skip the catch-up and get to the good stuff.
1. ASK FOR FEEDBACK.
It seems scary but it’s a cheat code. If you get good at asking for feedback, and you get good at receiving it, you have a ridiculous advantage over those who are either too apprehensive, or too apathetic to seek it out.
2. MAKE IT YOUR BUSINESS TO FIND OUT WHAT GOOD LOOKS LIKE.
Figure out who succeeds in that organization, and look at what they do. Because it’s very likely that your definition of good will be a long way from theirs.
3. GET COMFORTABLE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE …
… because being good at anything is hard. If you’re not finding it hard, and you’re not putting in an uncomfortable level of effort, it’s unlikely you’re excelling at that thing. Natural talent will only get you so far.
I honestly don’t think I would still be in this industry without that reality check. I certainly wouldn’t have had the discipline, work ethic, or standards, to start my own agency.
Thank you, Fiona. And sorry for all the mistakes. Particularly that big proof-reading fuck-up. I really should have caught that typo.
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* It was actually a direct marketing agency. Back then I didn’t know the difference between an ad agency and a direct marketing agency. I’m not sure if direct marketing agencies still exist, and an ad agency sounds cooler.