By Larry Oakner, Senior Brand Director, CoreBrand
Over the course of my career in branding, a number of young people have asked me how I got my start. And how they could find a job at a branding agency.
Pure branding as it is practiced today didn’t really become a recognized branch of marketing communications and strategy until the early 1980s. Before that, the disciplines of corporate identity, naming, advertising, marketing strategy, employee training and management consulting were seen as separate professions.
While there was always some overlap among the companies in these lines of business, they did share the fundamental skills of writing, design, analytical and conceptual thinking, business strategy and presentations.
I have a Master’s in English and hoped to be a poet/teacher. My father was originally a radio journalist who eventually became a copywriter/client contact and finally a partner in a small advertising agency in Los Angeles.
He guided me into my first job writing ad copy for a department store chain. It was good training as it taught me to be quick with concepts when I had to write 20 ads a day for pots and pans, mattresses, home electronics and furniture.
From there I worked in a number of ad agencies and creative shops as a copywriter and eventually a creative director for one of the top ad agencies in Portland, Oregon.
When I moved to New York in 1983 to work for one of the few corporate ad agencies (dedicated to producing ads for corporations, not packaged goods) I found myself going down a path that was more involved in how to sell a “concept” rather than a product or service. That meant being good with Big Ideas, rather than a laundry detergent’s fragrance or how many vegetables fit on a soupspoon.
In 1985, I found myself in the small ad group at one of the pioneering branding consultancies. The firm valued good writing and high concepts, and was evolving from being a corporate identity design/naming/simplified language agency into one of the early “branding” firms.
Because I could write, I was pressed into writing “brand positioning statements. Since 2000, I have worked at other branding companies, including the world’s largest branding firm and one of the smartest and smallest.
During my time at these companies, I began to develop the practice of brand training, which has evolved into brand culture and employee engagement and employee communications.
My current incarnation as a one of the first to link brand training with Brand Culture started in 1993 with a series of workshops to introduce a company’s new brand to their legions of communicators and managers around the world.
It was a big hit, became part of a Harvard School of Business case study and launched me on the second part of my career in branding. It combines presentation skills, teacher training, strategic thinking to interpret branding for people, advertising creativity and experience as a writer. Just as branding combines all those disciplines!
So, what would I advise for those interested in going into branding?
1. Decide what job you want to do
Strategists are often called on to interview clients to gather the information to make the creative leap from facts to a differentiating brand position. But some strategists are terrible writers, and most branding firms don’t hire writers exclusively.
Designers within branding firms usually do logos, design systems, comps to demo corporate identity projects. But since Branding is such a hybrid profession, you can sometimes make your own niche based on your skills.
2. Consider how you will sell yourself.
As in any job, you have to know your own “personal brand.” Are you a brilliant conceptual person who finds and can articulate the Big Ideas? Can you write a broad spectrum of material—from taglines to brochure copy to 100 word positioning statements?
Are you a buttoned-up project manager who can keep on schedule and budget and organise meetings, interviews, present to clients, ask for money, write proposals, and inform creative teams? Or are you a great “people person” who can interpret brand values into human actions? Or are you a phenomenal designer with a portfolio of brilliant logos?
3. Where will you fit in?
Most branding firms are organised structurally around a management consulting hierarchy for strategists; for creatives, the structure resembles an ad agency with an executive creative director at the head and designers of various levels below.
If you are skilled as both a thinker and a creative person, you might be “strategically creative, or creatively strategic.” Most people start in a branding firm as a project coordinator or manager—it’s a lot of the research, analytic, information grinding work.
It also involves daily account management. With two to three years under your belt, and depending on your abilities, you’ll be allowed to be a project director where you’ll be responsible for handling your own accounts and clients. Finally, you may end up with a specialty - such as research analysis or brand culture.
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