A Letter to the Next Generation: Millennials, Dream Big but Keep Moving!

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If there’s one thing I learned from our Think Tank Series: There is this manufactured divide that prevails between generations. The Media and the Marketing industries continue to perpetuate the differences but do not pay attention to the commonalities that binds the ages: in career, in technology consumption, in relationships and in life experience, in general. Through our Think Tanks we’ve developed an understanding that allows each of the generations to put themselves in each other’s shoes and to come to conclusions from a position of proximity and knowledge, NOT from a distance and hearsay. The conversations have been divisive at times but more often than not, the generations have come to build true connections across ages and experience. It’s because of this that we’ve created a short series called, A Letter to the Next Generation. This series of posts come from GenXers and Boomers.  They offer their wisdom and guidance that comes from experience. It can cover life lessons from friendships, career, family, relationships – experiences that may help prove invaluable to the next generation of leaders and parents. Below is my contribution.

Nothing ever goes as planned

I never thought my life would turn out the way it has. I never thought I would ever want more out of life than a stable 9 to 5 job and a pleasant home to hang my hat every night. My parents told me that education was everything. Get a degree and that’ll lead to a good paying job in a big company. That’s when I would be set for life.

That was far from the truth.

When I graduated in 1990 I fell into the recession. I was 23 and moved to Toronto. I broke into the direct mail industry. I was so excited at my first full-time job. That was short-lived. The state of the economy meant no one was paying for conferences and seminars. I moved to another division as my current one shut down. Less than 6 months later I found myself out of a job again, taking an administrative position at a non-profit organization. It would never have been my choice of professions, but thankfully that job would help me ride out the recession for the next few years.

It really doesn’t matter what you’re taught in school. The instability of the market makes us all vulnerable and puts us all in a level playing field.  I learned very quickly that my degree meant very little when the economy throws you a curve ball.

You’re only as good as your last project

I was now 27 years old, in pursuit of an Advertising career that I should have had 3 years previous [or so I believed]. It took me 12 interviews and I was ecstatic when I was offered the job at the prestigious Ogilvy & Mather (at the time).  I became one of the older Account Executives but I was determined to make it work. Like most young people in the industry, I worked tirelessly. Twelve-hour days were not unheard of. You did anything and everything to learn the ropes and be as good or better than your teammates. It was a cut throat industry and we were always reminded there were 100 people waiting in line to take our positions. Work life balance? There was none. I promised myself that I only had to do this a few more years and then I’d be able to relax.

Those few years turned into 7. By that time I was drained. Earlier in the process, I was a sponge. I poured over anything I could get my hands on to learn everything I could about account management, production, research and media. I asked a lot of questions, always conscious of not being perceived as annoying or aggressive. I asked to be put on different client accounts, from different industries: financial, CPG, not for profit, pharmaceutical – all in an attempt have diverse experience.

As many successes as I had, I experienced many rough moments: campaign errors that came at large costs; misunderstandings that escalated into larger issues; trust issues that impacted team dynamics; inter-departmental battles that left political stigmas.

At the time, each anxiety I experienced left an indelible impression, like a perpetual bad dream that I fought hard to ensure it would never be replicated again.

When you work in agency, when things go wrong, you will always be left holding the bag, even if it was the client decision.  As an account person I have been at the opposite end of the table when an irate client bestowed his “knowledge” of the situation upon me. For a young person trying to make her mark, these dramas, which came more often than not, put you another 2 steps back when these types of situations arose. Many of us were in a perpetual catch-up mode. You were a shining star one day and the next day, you needed to find another way to prove yourself.

When it comes to work, results matter. You need to prove yourself time and time again. The wisdom of experience, both good and bad, brings you closer to doing great things.

When opportunity lands, run with it

I didn’t want to be in catch-up mode. When the internet became a viable medium, things began to change. Yet companies continued to do the same things. The money spent on campaigns seemed wasteful and inefficient.

I worked in banking when opportunities to work with the internet presented themselves. Suddenly there were no manuals to reference, no case studies to review. No one knew how to deal with this “thing” and how to bake it into their business. I landed an opportunity to figure out how to bring banking into the 21st century and to slowly transition from our traditional channels. I had no idea how I was going to do it.

While parts of the bank continued status quo, I was put on a team to test out the channel and figure out how to bring new customers to the bank. It opened my world. My little microcosm exposed me to other departments that would be impacted by the new processes and policies we were building: Fraud, Legal & Compliance, Project Management, Product, Operations, Portfolio Management, Central Internet Banking…

That experience alone allowed me the opportunity to take a strategic viewpoint on the entire business and determine how to implement these new systems within existing constraints.

Working within banking can be frustrating. Everybody and their brother needs to approve everything. I’ve never witnessed so much red tape to allow the project to inch forward. Despite our mandate and approval to drive these changes we were blocked by departments who were hesitant to see the change. Thankfully, we were able to forge ahead in the end and bring to market a protoype within 8 months.

That one project carved my path for the rest of my career. I never looked back. I became attracted to companies and opportunities where there was high uncertainty. Trying new things and failing was accepted. But moving fast and developing contingencies were par for the course. It kept us on our toes and continuously learning.

Change is certain

I realize companies who have been complacent for many years are starting to come around. My peers in advertising are realizing that this industry may leave some of them vulnerable as consumers become more knowledgeable and demanding of information and their experience. Twenty years ago, not one of us could have ever predicted the havoc both economy and technology has wreaked in business and society today; even moreso, how these changes quickly weaved themselves into each of our lives and made us increasingly vulnerable. It’s impacting our perception of stability and our very livelihoods. It’s creating new industries and dismantling old ones. It’s forcing business restructure process and policies. It’s finally waking up decision makers in once-thriving companies to pull their heads out of the sand and figure out how to survive.

Aging, in general, makes you vulnerable – to being downsized or replaced. It becomes more apparent to me as I move into this state.  But in the last 10 years I was adamant I needed continue exploring and not rest on my laurels. I continue to strive to keep up to remain relevant.

I don’t fear change. I become curious and I learn.  I say this to my own children:

Don’t expect to have a full time job. Expect to keep moving. Expect to keep learning. Create your own path. Try things no one else has done. Grow with these experiences and learn from them.

I never expected that my life would be this way today. Entrepreneurship was out of the question. Stability was always an expectancy. In hindsight, that view would prove stifling. Slowing down is never an option. As frightening as that may seem, it always comes with tremendous rewards. Trust me.

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