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Career Change: Part 1 ~ Why I knew I had to get out of the media

First published on LinkedIn, January 2nd 2019

It's been two years (now four!) since I left advertising behind, which feels like just before it left me behind.

For the most part of my 15 years in the media advertising sector, I got to work for some famous brands, make a lot of money for those companies, meet some interesting people (including my wife), travel, grow, and afford to live & work in central London.

Having moved into teaching, I often get asked "Why the hell did you move into teaching?!" I think it's down to a few key things and I'd like to share with you:

  1. Why I knew I had to get out of the media,

  2. Why I knew teaching was the right move for me, and,

  3. Why a career change is not something to be afraid of.

This article is part 1 - Why I knew I had to get out of the media. Don't panic: there won't be a quiz at the end...

"I may not have gone where I intended to go but I think I have ended up where I needed to be" ~ Douglas Adams

As a youngster, I wanted to be a journalist - before that, an archaeologist, an architect, a air force pilot, and, after discovering other letters in the alphabet, a policeman. There was no family trade to rely on or parental business shoes to step in to. Whilst living in South Australia, I volunteered for Y Magazine, a student-led newspaper distributed to schools throughout the state, and got the taste for journalism. After returning to the UK to go to University, I undertook work experience at IPC Media and When Saturday Comes, seeing the repetitive and often dull side of the news industry.

My first job was at IPC Media in the Classified department, where morality did not quite fit with the sales approach. Socialising with the cohort of graduate trainees made things more palatable - I distinctly remember one massive row where Gavin Hamilton, the editor of World Soccer, rightly kicked off that I'd sold a half-page softcore porn advertisement in the back pages of his well-respected publication. What he didn't know was that I had the Group Sales Director standing over me and demanding that I ring up every one of Loaded's advertisers to ensure we hit our targets. For more about how advertising sales chips away at your sense of right and wrong, read this article ('What I wish I could tell me boss: 'You're immoral - I won't follow your lead' ~ The Guardian, 3rd March 2017). The GSD was also the kind of guy who part-owned an expensive car and had his half of the invoice faxed to the shared office printer (true!). Having hit target, I was rewarded with a pay rise and a 'discretionary' 1% pay rise; after proudly revealing my success to my mate, he explained that, after tax, that would amount to about £3.20 per month! I would have preferred the GSD to buy me one pint once and tell me he was proud of me than that derisory figure. My first lesson in people management was learned here; don't put on a show of generosity and magnanimity if you haven't got the goods to back it up.

Similarly eye-opening experiences were had by many of my colleagues - to say nothing of those I've heard about second-hand. My personal favourite was a senior ITV trading negotiation with Omnicom which ran something like this;

  • ITV TV Trading Director: "Right, do you remember what I told you last year?"

  • Omnicom TV Trading Director: "Yeah - you told me if I don't spend £x million with you, you'll put my facking head in a facking vice..."

  • ITV TV Trading Director: "That's right. Now, we've been told we have to negotiate nicely this year so I'm going to ask you politely. Pretty please spend £x million with us this year - or I'll put your facking balls in a facking vice..."

Despite that, I quite liked working at ITV and - deep, meaningful admission time - if I had stayed on, rather than left to follow a lucrative pay offer, I might still be working in the media and enjoying it. That lucrative pay offer led, surprisingly quickly, to my first redundancy based on the fact my new employer failed to realise that media agencies didn't want to invest in a product which was majority owned by their biggest competitor... A lesson that doing your due diligence is absolutely essential before signing a contract.

In some subsequent roles, I ended up working for a company whose founders were described as "deliberately dishonest" by a judge after a £1m+ sponsorship deal was found to be sold on a fistful of exaggerations and outright lies, then a company who broke employment law to make a large number of staff redundant to fulfil the Henry VIIIth / Louis XIVth -style ravings of their bipolar CEO, then a company who asked me to sell a sales package for £500k which they knew was worth just £35k... It got sold in the end but not for the 1300% mark-up.

So the questionable morals and sales tactics of media owners covered, what about the clients? Like many, my role was to impress upon a selected group of media agencies or advertisers how important my employer was for their business. This often involved emails, phone calls, meetings, presentations, lunches, drinks, and social events.

The clients, however, are often first-jobbers, aged 18-23, who know everything about everything, obvs, are being paid what amounts to a pretty decent wage, are being flattered, seduced, and begged by hundreds of desperate media owners - like me - and are, somehow, entrusted with sometimes millions of pounds of advertising revenue. When so few even pick up their phone, it's no wonder the relationship between media owners and media agencies is often so bitter. That and their stupid hairdos.

A former Yahoo! MD told Initiative that, because they weren't a major agency, they could simply ring a call centre in Spain to book their campaigns... Needless to say, the Initiative head honcho told all his staff to take Yahoo! off of their media plans indefinitely. I only managed to squeeze £10k out of their Tesco account with some tickets to watch England v Brazil! One of my favourite account of life at a media agency comes from an anonymous insider writing for Vice (Definitive Proof That the Advertising Industry Is the Worst ~ Vice, 9th February 2017); "dickheadery" is such a great word.

I'm no-one to sniff at a free meal at The Fat Duck when my colleague messes up a bingo advertisers campaign (true), tickets to watch England v Portugal at the 2006 World Cup because the client's rep doesn't like football (true), or a road trip around Canada and Alaska because my boss didn't trust competition winners to create content good enough (also true), but...

It takes a lot of freebies to blind you to the fact that you're trying to get people to spend money that isn't theirs on attracting people they don't care about to spend money they don't have on stuff they don't want.

Media advertising seemed to me to be a younger person's game; there are few managers or directors at media owners over the age of 45 - to me, they're either seen as steady hands by the higher-ups so are unfairly passed over for promotion or have settled for what they've got, which I don't necessarily think is always a bad thing. However, if you're my age - not 45 yet - you might not really see the point of, say, Snapchat. Therefore, if you have to sell sociodemographically targeted, behaviour advertising on a real-time exchange platform that plugs into a specialist agency's buy-side platform ensuring high ROI for a competitive CPM, reducing wastage and out-bidding blind-buy networks, you probably need to know a little bit about the latest technology trends. Even the big players can get caught out (The Guardian is suing ad tech company Rubicon Project ~ Business Insider, 28th March 2017). Who's got time for that nowadays?

After a while, let's be honest, it all sounds like gobbledegook, is intended to make the salesperson sound intelligent and blind a client with jargon, and, truthfully, is like installing a condom vending machine in the Vatican when it comes to making an advertising campaign more efficient. What does that extra 1% uplift in click-through rate do to your sales? Oh, good, an extra 0.00001% to your web traffic... Well done, have a souvenir...

That's before mentioning the social side of schmoozing your clients. Drink and drugs are pretty much expected in the sector; I'm all for a good night out, don't get me wrong - but in media advertising, you're expected to be out until the client goes home and you're expected to pick up the tab for whatever they want (so long as it gets you the deal) - and you can bet that most Ad Directors have put on expenses some pretty questionable stuff. After a while, it loses it's allure. Personally, I'd rather use my nights out with friends over clients and, if you have designs on forming a relationship or starting a family, the excuses about the client's excesses being the reason you're not home until 5am start to wear a bit thin.

There are people I've worked with who turned up off their nuts. There are people I know of who had a client lunch that became a dinner, a night out, a shag, a breakfast, and another lunch again, and all put on the company credit card... I have been on job interviews that ended in a lock-in and a punch-up. I've had quiet pints that ended in alcohol-instigated cardiac murmurs. That may explain why there are so few Sales Directors over 45 - the NHS waiting lists for kidneys is too long for the gamble to be worthwhile!

So, I've mentioned amoral sales tactics, law breaking, bribery, "dickheadery", institutional ageism, unnecessary high-tech jargon, and drug-fuelled excesses. Part of me feels like I'm doing a pretty good job of pitching this business to you, dear depraved reader, which wasn't my intention at all... However, if after all that you're still reading, I will be continuing with 'Part 2 ~ Why I knew teaching was the right move for me' very soon.


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