John Adams, chairman and CEO of The Martin Agency, knows what it's like to give and receive bad career advice. In fact, he claims the worst advice he ever got came from himself, about a decade into his career as an account manager at the Richmond, Va., shop. He decided to quit the business because he doubted he had some essential abilities necessary for the job, such as public speaking and developing client relationships. "If I couldn't be among the best at this job, I didn't want to do it," he says. But, before he quit, he consulted a few others and took a career-placement test. The test came back with a surprising answer to his dilemma: He should be an adman. Now in his 32nd year at the Interpublic Group shop, he offers advice to rookies in the field: "Becoming really good at something requires tenacity. It's a matter of buckling down and deciding [to] do it."
Here's what some other top ad leaders think is the worst advice they ever got:
"The worst advice I ever got was from a guy who was a senior executive at Ted Bates in New York [in the late 1970s]. He looked at me and said, 'You know, Joe, you need to go look like all the people around you. Buy your suits at Brooks Brothers, buy your shirts at Brooks Brothers and wear gray suits and white shirts.' It is ironic that in a business where your principal mission is to distinguish and differentiate and create unique personalities, I was advised to be totally ordinary." —Joe Grimaldi, CEO, Interpublic Group's Mullen
"Learn to play golf." (Advice told by many, and something she is determined never, ever to do.) —Shelly Lazarus, CEO, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide
"I came out of Kellogg [at Northwestern University]. Most people go into brand management. I had a handful of job offers for brand management positions. One of the recruiters for a brand management job sat me down, at The Palm Court restaurant in the Plaza, and says, 'Tell me about where you have the job offers.' I named five different marketers. Also, I added Ogilvy & Mather in New York. He looked at me and said, 'Tom, I'd like you to come work for us. But whatever you do, don't go into advertising.' That pretty much sealed my decision to go into advertising." —Tom Bedecarré, CEO, AKQA
"Follow the money. But the problem is, if you follow the money, you quickly run out of it. The way most people make money in the ad business is to keep an eye on the work. That's what clients want. That's what they pay for. That's the stairway to heaven in advertising."
—Andy Berlin, CEO, Berlin Cameron/Red Cell
"Almost every decision I've made, I've been told to do the opposite ... [by] everyone I've worked for." —Susan Gianinno, CEO, Publicis USA
"Just lower your head and keep on working, and everything will take care of itself. Several bosses along the way told me that, probably because they thought I was overreaching. But I've found that if you do that, your contribution to the enterprise will be small and finite. You always want to know what's going on, about the hubbub outside. To me, that advice says give up, go back to your desk." —Ed Meyer, CEO, Grey Worldwide
"Don't go into advertising because eventually you'll hate it." —Jon Bond, co-chairman, Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners
"When I was a young man, in my 20s ... I had a boss once who suggested it was a good thing to let the client win when I played golf with them. But most clients know that you're doing that, and don't like it. They think you're kissing up. I had another boss who said when I take a client out to dinner, I should order the same thing. He said [doing] that would confirm the client ordered the right thing." —Brian Morris, CEO, Dailey