20 Years of Agency Advice for Junior Creatives

Half a lifetime spent in advertising leads to many lessons learned

Outlines of tons of people in a classroom; the outlines are drawn in red and blue colored pencil
Advice to help you navigate a long and healthy career in advertising. Getty Images
Headshot of Zach Canfield

My 40th birthday was recently, which means I am also celebrating my 20th year in advertising.

Yes, that means I wasn’t legally allowed to drink at my first company party. Yes, I did try to use a fake ID.

And, yes, I was caught and almost kicked out (of the party, not the job luckily).

When I tell people I’ve worked half my life in the same industry, they usually give me a weird, “I’m so sorry” look. But I couldn’t be happier that I stumbled into advertising at such a young age. It’s been a great ride, and I feel like I now have a solid big-picture perspective that these past two decades have awarded me.

Now that I’m in my 40s, I thought I’d make a list (I hear that’s something 40-year-olds like to do) of the top recommendations I give to young creatives just starting out.

It’s called a “job hunt” for a reason

Your first job is important, so do your research so you can land at a great shop. You don’t just find a great job; you win it through hard work against a bunch of other focused and hungry competitors. You’ll need perseverance and hard work to land at your first great agency. Don’t just dream about where you want to work, make it a goal.

Stay humble

It’s possible you aren’t as great as you think you are just yet. You’ll probably cringe in the near future at some of your current work that you think is golden. If a good creative director tries to tell you something, listen.

Screw the flan

If your first job is at a tech company, don’t stay because of the free flan or the bowling alley. Beware the golden handcuffs early on. They’ll just hinder your career.

Be you

Great agencies want lots of unique personalities, and they didn’t hire you to be like someone else. Be yourself and own who you are. Try to also partner with someone different from you, as it makes for more interesting and unexpected work.

Run toward the fire

When you’re first starting out, ask to work on the briefs everyone else runs away from. It’ll toughen you up and might bring you a little attention if you spin gold from a fire drill or a neglected brief. Plus, your creative directors will love you for it.

Follow opportunities

Forget the money and the titles (and the flan, of course). This is a long game, so go for the thrill of an adventurous position. If you’re making career decisions solely on the basis of money or a title, you won’t be happy in the long run.

Speaking of titles…

Titles vary wildly from agency to agency and, in my opinion, are often overinflated. Don’t get too hung up on them, as they won’t define you. Whatever your title is, always try to work outside it.

Optimism helps

I’m guilty of being overly optimistic at times. It can be annoying, I’m sure. But negative people will drag you down and be detrimental to a team. Work on your positive attitude and avoid the gloom.


Most agencies pay their juniors the same salary, but try to negotiate a bit when you accept your first job. Not because you’ll get it—you probably won’t—but because it’s great practice for later in your career. This goes especially for women, as research shows they are less likely to negotiate.

Listen to your clients

You can’t force them to do something they don’t want. And if you do, it won’t work out well for anyone (agency, clients, your career) in the long run.

Ride the dips

All good agencies go through ups and downs. Many people leave during the downs, but I’ve grown more in those struggle moments than when everything felt effortless. Oh, and your leadership will remember who rode with them through challenging times.

Talk to the leadership

Check in with them on occasion. You’d be amazed by how rarely junior folks do this. A quick hello followed up by something you’re excited to work on will go a long way. It’ll also help you build a rapport so that the first time you approach them with a serious issue, they’ll already be familiar with your work.

Save that money

The head of our studio, Mark Rurka, pulled me aside during my first year and told me to put as much money in my 401(k) as possible. He explained how compound interest at such a young age would give me a huge head start on retirement. At the time, I was making a salary that was barely north of minimum wage in one of the most expensive cities in the world. It pained me, but Mark convinced me to contribute $200 a month and to increase that with every raise. Someday you’ll need that money, so start saving now.

Hopefully you won’t need a list like this. After all, a lot of it is common sense. But maybe there’s just one thing in there that’ll help you navigate a long and healthy career a little better.

And lastly, if you’re 20-years-old like I was when I started out, my last tip would be to never use a fake ID at work functions to drink alcohol. That’s just stupid.

Zach Canfield is an associate partner and director of talent at Goodby Silverstein & Partners.