Less Don, More Draper: How working for a brand agency is nothing like Mad Men

POSTED BY on Apr 14, 2016

A few weeks ago, Kim Kern and I had the pleasure of making the trek up to beautiful Bellingham to give a lecture to both sections of Cat Armstrong Soule’s MKTG 475: Brand Management class. Prompted by a need to provide practical industry context to the theory that has been taught through the course’s curriculum, Professor Soule was kind enough to reach out to Hornall Anderson to get our perspective on brand, its influence on the companies we work with, and working in the industry.

We decided the best place to start is to address a question we often get when interviewing young prospects (p.s. don’t ask this question).

Is it really like Mad Men?

And the answer is… No.

It’s not really anything like Mad Men—except when it is. But most of the time, no it’s definetly not like Mad Men.

So, our presentation, “Less Don, More Draper: How working for a brand agency is nothing like Mad Men” gave students a look into how life in a real agency is a far departure than the fictionalized, and often glamorized, version seen on AMC.

What is Brand?

A logical starting point was to talk about how we view brand. For the students, this was a start to better understanding the distinction between what we do at Hornall Anderson versus that of an “ad agency.” As a brand experience design agency, we believe that all great communication in any form comes from a solid foundation built on insight—about your consumer, your competition, the cultural context, and the very soul of who you are. 

When you use brand as the core for your marketing efforts, you have a powerful, singular idea that provides guidance and clarity for what you’re trying to accomplish. At its best, brand becomes a litmus test for your actions and behaviors that extend far beyond marketing and communications.

We also believe that your brand and the strategy that defines it are timeless, remaining steadfast in the face of trends, go-to-market strategies, or individual preferences. Who you are at the core—what you stand for—shouldn’t change. The expression of your brand, however, does change depending on a litany of variables from the target consumer, marketing channel, or use case. Those tactics pulse over time and it’s on this level where trends and business strategy influence the ultimate communication seen and heard in the world, but the core idea never changes.

Take Nike for example. Their brand promise is “Authentic Athletic Performance.” This idea remains the foundation for everything they do. Whether they are designing a line of shoes for Stefan Janoski or a pair of hiking boots, marketing a pair of Frees or Flyknits, or sponsoring the next Michelle Wie, it all is in service of strengthening the idea of “Authentic Athletic Performance.”

Getting the Job

After imparting such wise brand knowledge (wink) on the students, we wanted to give them some practical tips for their job search.

Do Your Research: Learn as much as you can about the company and the position you’re interviewing for. Look at their website, know the type of work they do (and have examples), and search for your interviewers on LinkedIn. Have a good idea about who the company is beforehand—it will show the recruiter/hiring manager how interested you really are.

Tailor Your Approach: Edit your resume and portfolio to reflect relevant experience for the position. If you’re interviewing for a design position, highlight and walkthrough past design internships or recent projects that you’ve worked on in class. Omit anything that doesn’t help tell your story for why you’d be a good fit for the position.

Create a Portfolio: Putting together a portfolio, regardless of the position, is the best way for recruiters/hiring managers to see examples of your work and have a better understanding of how you think. It also shows that you’re willing to go the extra mile to make a good impression and be a step above other candidates. 

Ask Good Questions: Interviews aren’t just a time for recruiters/hiring managers to grill you; they’re also a time for you to learn about the company and the potential role you’re interviewing for. Ask questions that really show you’ve done your research — “How do strategists and designers work together in the creative process?” or “I saw from your website that you just released a rebrand for Alaska Airlines; can you tell me about the team that worked on that project and their biggest challenges?”  

Job Hunting is a Two-way Street: Always remember that you’re interviewing a company just as much as they’re interviewing you. People spend a lot of time at work, so be sure it’s a place where you truly feel yourself fitting in, growing, and spending 40+ hours per week.

Be Hungry: This is true especially for recent grads. Try to learn and grow as much as possible. A good company and supervisor will give you endless opportunities within an organization, so make sure you utilize ALL of them. Always ask, “What else can I do?” and never wait for people to give you opportunities. You need to open your own doors.

Have a POV: This is different than having an opinion. The difference is a point-of-view is based on your experience, your research, and what it all really means. It’s not just speaking to be heard or speaking because you feel like you need to. Ultimately, clients pay an agency for their POV (good clients at least). As part of that agency, you will add the most value by working hard to educate yourself so you can present an insightful, thought-provoking, and impactful response.

Ask Us Anything

To close our presentation, we opened up the floor for the students to ask us whatever they wanted. Here's what they asked:

Q: Is the process for crafting strategy the same for every project?

A: No process is ever the same with budgets and timing being the two most critical variables. Another thing that varies greatly between clients is the amount of research that is available. At Hornall Anderson, we try to be as nimble as possible to deliver a brand strategy that is effective but also works within the constraints of the project.

Q: What is a brand you admire and why?

A: Airbnb. Their tagline is “Belong Anywhere” and it is a great position for a brand that is highly emotional and connects the deepest part of the human condition. They are also doing some wonderful things with brand storytelling that makes us very jealous. Everyone should refer to the great case study by designstudio.


Q: What is the one skill you see this generation of candidates lacking?

A: Drive—and this isn’t millennial bashing… heck we are millennials. But for the most part, a vast majority of candidates lack the hunger for our profession (or at least they don’t show it). Don’t leave anything to chance. Prove you want it more than anyone. Prove that you’ll work harder than anyone.

Q: How do you create a portfolio for business students?

A: Class projects work, writing samples, anything that might be relevant to the job you want. Also, don’t be afraid to create a POV piece that you can share in your interview. Do an audit of competitors, culture, and the company itself, and come with a thoughtful presentation about what it all means, what are the opportunities, and what really matters to the consumer. If you need some inspiration, search SlideShare.

Overall, our trip was very rewarding and hopefully the students got something out of it. At the very least, we hope they learned that the people we work with every day aren't a bunch of boozy misogynists.

Stay Hungry. Stay Humble.

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