by Alistair Mokoena (@AlistairMokoena) I recently did an exercise to see what traits and functional skills are needed to succeed in advertising today. My ingoing assumption was that, because advertising keeps evolving and changing, I expected the human attributes that led to success in the past to be redundant today. But the results were surprising.

Traditional advertising, as we know it, has evolved from being simple and predictable to being dynamic, versatile and multilayered. Consumers are a lot more discerning, more demanding and more involved in the creative process than ever before. But what were my findings? Even though advertising has changed fundamentally over the years, the traits, skills and competencies that drive creative excellence have remained the same. This is because the basic construct of the advertising model is still the same, too.

Basic transaction hasn’t changed

The model involves collaborating with others in coming up with a creative solution to a business problem, successfully selling that solution to a client and getting consumers to believe that the brand in question is the best solution to their problem. The fact that we have now added social and digital marketing to the mix does not change the basic transaction that defines the advertising process — in many ways social, marketing is the old word-of-mouth marketing, while digital advertising is the old direct (1on1) marketing that we are all familiar with.

The big difference is the increasing role of technology and the increasing role of data, as well as the platforms that consumers now have to instantly broadcast their views.

The character traits that a successful advertising career requires include:

  1. Resilience: The ability to deal with anxiety, stress, rejection, failure, loss, abuse
  2. Simplification: The ability to simplify complexity
  3. Judgment: The ability to see potential in an idea
  4. Influence: The ability to sell or persuade
  5. Empathy: The ability to relate to and empathise with others
  6. Insight: The ability to listen and understand what is being said and not said
  7. Adaptability: The ability to adapt and learn quickly
  8. Collaboration: The ability to work with others

You’re right: there’s nothing new

If you are sitting there thinking “there’s nothing new in this list,” you are right. The point of this exercise is to remind all of us to go back to brilliant basics. The skills that made advertising great eons ago are still relevant and important today.

Advertising is a stressful profession. We work under pressure, we face hostility and abuse, we face rejection, we face fear of loss and we experience anxiety all the time. Resilience is the ability to cope with all these things. Resilience gives us perspective to deal with these issues, as well as the ability to bounce back from these setbacks. One of our biggest indictments as an industry is our failure to equip our people with coping skills or resilience muscles. We expect them to roll with the punches and rise to the occasion every time.

It’s not that easy. We all need help.

We deal with a lot of complexity on a daily basis. Clients’ businesses and brands are complex. Briefs are often difficult to decipher. Our ability to simplify complexity and make sense of what needs to be done is crucial. We are often thrust cold into unfamiliar industries and businesses; our ability to adapt and acclimatise is key.

Creative judgement

Another important trait is creative judgment; in other words, the ability to spot a good idea or potential in an idea. We know that not everyone possesses this skill. Understanding the consumer and your client’s business help turn a good creative idea into a relevant, effective idea.

The ability to crack great creative is one thing; being able to influence others and sell these ideas is another. Selling work doesn’t just involve convincing clients that an idea will address their business challenges; it’s about helping clients overcome their fear of brave work. Buying brave work is a scary thing for many clients. Show them that other marketers are doing it. There’s nothing like a bit of FOMO to get a client to be braver.

Advertising is teamwork. Every part of the creative process adds value to an idea until it becomes magic. Integration is like an orchestra that brings various teams together to produce a melody. Without teamwork, there are no chords and, without chords, there is no melody.

The trick

As you can see, these are neither new traits nor competencies. They have always been there. The trick is in knowing how to apply them to modern-day challenges for success. Going back to brilliant basics will help propel us into the future we desire.


Alistair Mokoena November 2014Alistair Mokoena (@AlistairMokoena) is a Unilever-trained chartered marketer with lots of blue-chip marketing experience who switched from client- to agency side at the end of 2012. He is currently managing director of Ogilvy & Mather Johannesburg; previously, he was MD of FCB Joburg. One of Alistair’s favourite pastimes is driving around in the bush, photographing wild animals. He contributes the monthly “The Switch” column, covering relationships inside agencies and between agencies and clients, to

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