What a Road Trip Taught Me About Agency Life

06 Dec 2016 Photo Credit: Warner Bros.


Recently, I drove from Austin to Louisville, Kentucky, for a wedding. There were several incidents that provided good lessons for a creative agency—or a professional trying to fit into agency life.

Fall Down Go Boom

In the middle of the wedding service, just as the preacher launched into a stirring homily, one of the teenage groomsmen fainted.

As he fell forward—toward the bride!—some quick-thinking groomsmen grabbed him around the waist and kept him from hitting the floor.

The preacher paused, then directed the groomsmen to a nearby bench to recover. He calmed the crowd down quickly with a message about locked knees and hunger-induced lightheadedness, made a friendly joke about the interruption, and then picked up right where he left off with the service.

The Lesson: Working at a creative agency means being accustomed to the unaccustomed. We expect the unexpected: timelines suddenly shrink, a client changes her mind about liking a design, a new security patch on a CMS causes temporary hiccups on a new website, etc.

We have to develop the attitude of that priest—remain calm and steady, then make everything work.

A Second Fall, A Big Smile

My 93-year-old great aunt traveled to Louisville for the wedding. But the day before the ceremony, she had a fall that cost her a couple of teeth and some time in the ER getting stitches.

Instead of attending the wedding, she spent the day recuperating—and enjoying unexpected visits from friends and family she hadn’t seen in many years.

Once we were back home in Texas, I asked her how she enjoyed the trip. “I’d do it all over again,” she smiled. “Even the fall! I got to be with the people I love most in the world.”

The Lesson: If you want to thrive in a creative work environment, develop a positive, optimistic point of view. See the daily, unexpected challenges as opportunities to strut your stuff, to show off how well you solve problems. Re-frame problems in a constructive way.

Keep an Eye on that Car

For a while on the return trip we had a mini-caravan of two cars—with me driving the first and my mother following. My mother is notorious for her inattentiveness while driving and, particularly, while following. She’s been known to take exits and head in the wrong direction just because the car in front of her did.

Since I was leading, I had to constantly appraise the gap between our two cars, making sure she stayed in sight but also that she didn’t follow the wrong car in the wrong direction.

Whenever I changed lanes I had to imagine a long tether between us, making sure that when I changed there was room in the new lane for her as well, without any cars between us and without any cars directly beside her that she might run into.

The Lesson: Don’t let your daily tasks (e.g., driving my own car) keep you from keeping an eye on the future (e.g., mom’s driving quirks). Creative work can be highly detailed, and it’s easy to be consumed with the task right in front of you. But you better take a look around, often, if you’re going to keep your work at the leading-edge of your industry.

An Uplifting Lesson

On the drive back from Louisville, my great aunt was telling stories of growing up during the Great Depression. She mentioned that they were taught to “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

It’s rare for a Web design project—or any “creative” project—to have an unlimited budget. So we need to decide where it’s best to spend our resources, i.e., time and money. We need to constantly look for ways to make our processes more efficient so that we can spend our resources making the deliverables as perfect as possible.

Here at TradeMark, we’ve built this sort of scrutiny into our process. So we’re regularly asking questions like:

  • How can we structure our content is such a way so that it can be reused in multiple sections of the site?
  • Is it better to spend time creating a flashy widget or trying to understand what our customers really want?
  • Can you accomplish in one meeting what would normally take two?

The Lesson: Use it up. Wear it Out. Make it do. Or do without.

The Final Word

Here’s the thing about working at a creative agency: It’s creative. Meaning, we spend our days inventing things that weren’t there before—we’re creating. And that process—of summoning your tastes, goals, knowledge, and insights for purposes of invention—can be a confusing, tricky one. But approached with a positive, collaborative, eyes-on-the-prize attitude, it almost always works.