Advice for "Ad Kids" on Going Back to School

Yesterday my friend Nicole published an email with her advice for an aspiring “ad kid”.

Like fellow lady boss Nicole, I get A LOT of people who email me for advice. Since I don’t work at an agency anymore, I don’t often get asked about things like internships (read her post for advice on that!), but I do get asked about things like freelancing and how to make the transition in to (or out of!) the strategy world.

In the spirit of turning this knowledge share Nicole started into a little snowball, I decided to publish one of my emails, too. Below is my reply to a young woman feeling suck in her marketing coordinator role and wondering if she should go back to school.


SO nice to meet you! VCU Brandcenter is amazing — congrats are in order just for getting accepted. What an exciting time for you professionally. I know you’re probably feeling stuck, but the good thing is there are a few different options in front of you and options are GOOD!

Like you, I hit a point a few years into my career where I also debated whether or not I wanted to back to school for a Masters or even pursue a PhD. One thing that helped me out a lot during that time was meeting with people who I admired professionally to hear more about their background and asking them their perspective on getting an advanced degree. Where I netted out was that unless I want to work in academia or unless I need specific licensure for what I want to do, an advanced degree was not the best investment for me.

As a person that is potentially in the position of being one of those professionals who would be able to help you by sharing my background & opinion on higher ed., I will do that.

I went to MassArt and did their communication design program undergrad. I interned at Arnold and a couple of other places (a record label, an event decor co.), then went to work in the Marketing department at WBCN toward the end of college and following graduation. When WBCN stopped existing (a very sad time), I sort of bounced around until I landed a job at a trade org for the advertising industry. They hired me to manage their online community — social media, newsletter, blog, etc. (this was before it was even called “social media”!).

Lucky for me, at this time the demand for expertise in all things internet was going up — a lot. I got poached by a small agency about 10 months later. There I learned more about the strategy side of digital — not just the tactics of it. I learned how to conduct secondary research and I supported much bigger campaigns and projects. Then another 10 months later, a big agency snatched me up. I ended up staying there for almost 3 years in addition to building a small freelance business on the side. That big agency is where I really honed my skills as a more well-rounded brand planner — not just doing digital strategy, but getting thrown in to all facets of a strategy engagement: primary research, brief writing, etc.

The team I worked on there had people who had done things like Planner Bootcamp at Miami Ad School (not dissimilar to the program at VCU) and people who had MBAs or a lot more experience working at agencies as strategists. But you know what? I was never made to feel like they were necessarily any “better” at the work than I was. In fact, I learned that in some ways having too much education or training can hold you back. It is easy to develop a rigid notion of how things are supposed to go — what a brief needs to look like, what the best planning process is / isn’t… And the reality of our field of work nowadays is that THERE ARE NO RULES. So for me coming in as somewhat of an outsider with unique expertise worked to my advantage. I got put on a lot of fun projects like working with LeBron James, because they wanted someone on the team who was more tuned in to the culture/lifestyle of his brand, who was digitally savvy, and who didn’t try to attack every problem with a methodology.

Over the years I would say I learned 85%+ percent of what my peers learned in their schooling on the job. No one has ever faulted me for not knowing things as long as I am up front about what I do/don’t know and work hard. Branding, marketing, strategy — these are SUCH broad fields. No one could expect you to be an expert in all of it anyway! Besides, I decided that the people I want to work with/for, value me for having a creative, non-traditional background. Those who don’t aren’t a good fit. And having that background has also made me a better strategist. I think differently about the world and that is what my clients need — it’s why they come to me.

VCU is great. You’ll meet so many brilliant, likeminded folks and you’ll build a killer portfolio. But I would just say that if you’re going to go — go because it’s what you WANT to do, not what you feel like you SHOULD do. I am living proof (and a lot of the people who I respect the most are living proof, too!) that furthering your education just to get ahead in the strategy world is not necessary. All of the tools you NEED to grow and succeed in this field are around you. The tools you WANT?… well they might be at Brandcenter.

In the end you gotta do what’s right for you, but I hope that hearing more about my experience helps with your decision making! If you’d like to talk more, I actually do 1:1 coaching for creative professionals in addition to my consulting work. A lot of the clients I work with are like you — working in the communications field and/or in transition career-wise. I have more info about it on my website [here!] let me know if that would be something you would find valuable.