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5 Essential Leadership lessons from my first 'adult job' (in Marketing)

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

I am often asked how accurate the TV show ‘Mad Men’ is to the real advertising industry. I have been out of the agency world for a while, but in the late ’90s… it was pretty darn close.

Dramatic, booze-infused, ‘24/7 all-in’ attitudes prevailed.

In my memories, we pitched ideas and concepts like our lives depended on it.

My first foray into the competitive world of advertising was with a Toronto agency called Echo Advertising + Marketing. We were, by many estimations, the hottest shop in town.

We were a ‘boutique’ agency as compared to the huge internationals such as MacLaren and Ogilvie. Located Downtown, most of the employees were young and single. We had exciting clients: rock n’ roll radio stations, The Toronto International Film Festival, Labatt Beer, and even the Rolling Stones. We attracted bold clients who wanted bold work.

There was an industry saying: two years at Echo is worth four years anywhere else.

At the helm of Echo was the founder and CEO Len Gill. Originally from South Africa, Len was a powerhouse of high standards, hard work, and uncommon generosity.

The most important business and life lessons I learned from Len:

1. High expectations were the key to everything we did.

If a meeting was scheduled to begin at 8 am, the door was closed at 8:00:01 am. No exceptions. We knew that punctuality mattered. Respect mattered. Managing expectations and excellence in client service were fundamental to everything we did.

In fact, some studies (@TkSpeaks ) indicate that punctuality may be the single best indicator of potential success in an individual.

It was ingrained in us that one of the simplest ways to show respect and professionalism was to simply be on time.

2. Optimize your mind.

It was at this time that I adopted the habit of carrying a Moleskine notebook with me everywhere I go. Although I felt that my 28 y/o brain was pretty sharp, Len advised us: “Your brain is for thinking, not for remembering”. He didn’t want us taxing our potential creativity with mental ‘to-do’ lists.

From an evolutionary POV, our brains are not designed to record information accurately and objectively. Trying to hold on to too much information results in us becoming overloaded and overwhelmed.

What’s more, we interfere with what our brains are truly great at—processing information, problem-solving, and creativity.

3. Get out of your comfort zone.

As Jerry Seinfeld says, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two.” That sounds about right to me.

Every Thursday morning from 8-9 am Echo held a team meeting called ‘Power Hour’ in the main boardroom. We took turns researching and presenting topics and responding to a Q+A from the group.

Honestly—it was terrifying.

However, this was especially helpful to newbies like me. I have since found that getting out of our comfort zones, and building confident public speaking skills are keys to most of life’s richest opportunities.

4. Try on different hats.

I started at Echo as an Account Coordinator—in the most junior of junior positions. As I had studied Arts in University, and fancied myself ‘creative’, I was encouraged to stay after hours in the studio and learn Mac design skills. I received some tutoring from good-spirited colleagues and soon found myself shifting into the Creative Department.

(Can we say the rest is history?)

Another young colleague worked in the mailroom but was a skilled and clever copywriter. Len and the team encouraged him to try his hand at copywriting whenever possible. He went on to become an award-winning writer for many agencies in Toronto.

Current stats indicate that The average person will change careers 5-7 times during their working life, and 30% of the workforce will change careers or jobs every 12 months.

When you allow dedicated team members to explore their interests, you bring out the best that everyone has to offer.

5. Invest in your team.

Len loathed cigarettes. And, as per the ‘Mad Men’ kinship, most of our office smoked. Len set an incredible incentive program: if you quit for six months, he would give you $1000 from his own pocket. Len presented these triumphant quitters with their reward in front of the entire office and then held a party.

The result was more than the sum of its parts: we felt a deep sense of camaraderie and care in our team.

Having Len Gill as my first professional leader and mentor set a bar for high standards, good habits, and cultivating a culture of caring about each other. These lessons laid a foundation for understanding some of what it takes to build a high-performing team.


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