Editor’s note: This third article in our new Emerging Voices Series is made possible by the generous support of our patrons on Patreon.
The advertising industry is a solar system. The sun represents the brands we make work for—they give us our central purpose and provide vital resources. The planets are advertising’s preeminent cities like New York, LA, London, Tokyo, etc. The hundreds of moons that orbit those planets are smaller markets. In this metaphor, smaller cities are secondary to larger ones. Consequently, talent from smaller markets needs to overcome additional hurdles to prove their worth and break into agencies in larger cities.
What’s often overlooked in our solar system analogy, however, are the marvels found on these moons. We’ve discovered hidden oceans, mountain ranges, thick atmospheres, and magnetic fields on these rocky beings. The same treasures can be found in talent from agencies in smaller markets. Their scrappy backgrounds and unique perspectives set them apart from those who start their careers in larger markets. And when well-known agencies in larger cities recruit from them, their teams become more valuable and more diverse.
Hurdle: Without A Name-Brand Agency On Your Résumé, It’s Hard To Move Up
Landing an internship or entry-level position at a big-name agency with big-name clients has the power to propel one’s career. Because of the high level of visibility associated with their work and the familiarity linked to their names, recruiters have more confidence in candidates from these shops than those from smaller agencies in smaller markets whose work and clients they may not instantly recognize.
Stevie Archer is now an ECD at SS+K in New York, leading work for Wells Fargo, Mount Sinai Health System, NCAA, and WhatsApp. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and started her career at a small agency in North Carolina. When she was a junior creative, well-known shops were hesitant to hire her because they weren’t familiar with the small agency on her résumé. She says, “There’s a trust level that comes when you’ve worked at Droga or BBDO. People see those names and say ‘oh, that agency is good’ or ‘I remember that project.’ When you’re at a small regional agency, the name doesn’t mean anything to anybody.”
Hurdle: You Need Well-Known “National” Brands In Your Portfolio
While there are smaller agencies in smaller markets that produce work for large accounts, it’s still common practice for national clients to tap agencies in larger cities to be their agency of record or piece out project-based work to them. Agencies outside of the leading cities are more likely to have regional or local clients on their roster. Consequently, people working at these agencies are less likely to have national client experience, which can impact their chances of getting hired in larger markets.
It’s common to see the phrase “produced campaigns for well-known brands” in posts from recruiters and openings on LinkedIn. Furthermore, recruiters tend to favor talent with prominent industry awards, but many smaller agencies can’t afford to enter work into these pricey competitions.
Britt Nolan, CCO of DDB North America, attended a small college in upstate New York and started his career at a small agency in North Carolina. He pursued jobs in larger markets for several years and experienced significant obstacles in doing so before launching his illustrious career at Leo Burnett in Chicago. During one of his interviews, an ECD told him, “You seem like you’d be great to have around, but you haven’t worked at the kind of places or done the kind of work that wins awards.”
Nolan went on to create Allstate’s Mayhem campaign, the Van Gogh Airbnb, and other industry-defining projects. Revenge is best served over champagne in Cannes.
Hurdle: Geographic Isolation Makes Building A Wide Network More Difficult
It’s much easier to build a robust network when you’re living in the middle of a bustling industry hub. You can buy a creative director you admire a cup of coffee, drop by someone’s office for an informational interview, and become friends and network with those at the other leading agencies around you. If you’re outside of these major markets, geographic isolation is another hurdle to overcome.
Archer says, “One of the biggest challenges I faced breaking out of a smaller market was that my personal network was also much smaller. I hadn’t been working in any of those areas to personally know people at those agencies. I found that I was almost entirely dependent on headhunters.”
Here’s a tip for smaller market creatives: Plan ahead when you travel, so you can meet ad people in other, larger markets. When you have a well-defined time frame to meet someone in, it gives them the incentive they need to pause and see if they can meet you at that time.
Medal: Candidates from Smaller Markets Have Unique Perspectives
Those who start their careers in cities like Salt Lake City or Chattanooga have completely different life experiences than those who start out in cities like New York or LA. These smaller markets are vastly different culturally, and because of this, the talent that hails from these areas have valuable perspectives that can make agencies in larger cities more diverse in thought and practice.
Heather Baldock started her career at agencies in Utah and Vermont. Now, she’s a copywriter at Hill Holiday in Boston and a Community Leader for Fishbowl. She says, “By being in a smaller market, you really have to fight harder to improve your skill and meet people and get in the door. In general, you just have more initiative. To get someone with a good book that didn’t have those same opportunities as those in larger cities really speaks to their talent and initiative.”
Medal: Scrappy Agencies Develop Scrappy Creatives
Oftentimes, agencies in small markets don’t have the resources that an agency under a holding company in a large city may have. Naturally, this makes these agencies and their employees scrappier, and employees develop leadership skills, production experience, and general industry knowledge more quickly than they would have in a larger agency in a larger market. This has huge implications for them as future leaders—they’ve already been honing the skills needed to be a successful boss, and because of their resourceful nature, they’re prepared to be thrown in the deep end. Furthermore, they’re used to doing more with less, so the sky’s the limit when they’re working in an environment where resources are plentiful.
Patrick LaBelle is a copywriter who intentionally chose to start his career in a smaller market—currently, he’s working at Planet Propaganda in Madison, Wisconsin. He says, “I went on my first shoot in LA in January, and if I was at a bigger agency, that might not have happened for years. Being able to develop my skills in a smaller market has let me learn a lot, fast. It’s also helped with my people skills and talking through more aspects of the industry than just writing.”
Medal: Recruiting from Smaller Markets Adds Diversity
One of the benefits of working in a larger market is the ability to work for several different agencies in the span of one’s career without uprooting one’s life in the process. However, this also means that the same people are circulating amongst these agencies, which can lead to standardization in thought and culture, which gets output in the work, making it staler than it might otherwise be.
Agencies cite difficulties in hiring diverse talent, but they’re limiting themselves to a smaller pool when they’re recruiting talent from select cities with expensive college and portfolio school backgrounds. Opening the door for those with nontraditional backgrounds outside of major cities will naturally result in a more diverse staff, and more diverse staff means better work and greater profitability.
The majority of the nation’s Black population (55%) lives in the South, according to the 2010 United States Census. California, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas are all states when minorities are in the majority. Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, and Nevada are home to populations where fifty percent of the people are minorities. A lack of raw talent is not the problem, knowing where to look and what to look for are the problems.
Make the Same Choices, Get the Same Results
Just like the moons in our solar system, talent in smaller markets contain multitudes. Ability develops in people no matter where they dwell. When ambition and adventure are in the cards, a big city and a name-brand agency on the 20th floor of a gleaming highrise may also be in the cards.
Nolan said it best. “You’re hiring someone for what they’re going to do in the future, not what they’ve done in the past.”
The best people from smaller cities are already strong leaders and resourceful employees. Of course, all candidates from every market—large, medium, or small—come with their own unique set of positive and negative attributes. Collectively, the way forward is for the culture of recruiting to adapt. If advertising is ever going to “think different,” the industry must first find people who are different.