Careerism vs. Sticktoitiveness

IStock_000007775215XSmallThe PR industry is renowned for “churn.”  This is not an easy profession. 

At the newbie level, there is a ton of database entry work, research, and reporting to handle; it’s not glamorous at all and many new college graduates burn out on it quickly.

At the mid-level, you’re on the frontlines of media outreach.  Even if you’ve been thoroughly trained and even if you’re an exceptional relationship-builder, there are gonna be days when: journalists hiss at your incompetence; bloggers post your sloppy pitch alongside some embarassing pic they scammed off your Facebook profile; your newly-minted management skills are tested by a hoity-toity intern; your boss takes credit for your work; etc.

At the senior management level, on top of a whole lot of exhausting business travel, you’re also tasked with keeping both your team members and clients happy — with P&L responsibilities that don’t come easily to the math-challenged.  (And let’s face it, we PR folk are all math-challenged.)

Meanwhile, however, a sizable cadre of tough, bright, creative people realize that this is exactly the type of challenge that they thrive on, and they build lucrative careers. 

HOW those careers get built is the true subject of this post.

Because the PR industry is wickedly competitive, the OTHER reason for “churn” is due to the rash of slightly-better-offers from agency competitors, which arrive in an endless stream (in good times) via professional recruiters.

It’s nice to be recruited.  It’s nice to be wooed.  And more money is always nice, too.

IStock_000008871495XSmallBut if you are a young PR pro, you should know this: speaking as an agency owner, I’ve already hand-picked the young execs whom I expect to be our firm’s future vice-presidents. 

I won’t tell them of this process; I don’t take folks aside and whisper conspiratorially about their bright future at SHIFT.  Why?  Because I don’t want them to ignore those better offers with the expectation that they’ve been promised something here.  Rather, I want them to “drink the KoolAid” and to decide to stay here DESPITE hearing better offers.

When I look around the proverbial Round Table in my senior staff meeting, I mostly see folks with whom I’ve worked for about 10 years.  They mostly started out as interns and account coordinators; they were among the brightest minds way-back-when, and now reap the rewards of their loyalty and sticktoitiveness. 

There were OTHER brilliant souls who came to us at about the same time, but each of those folks eventually chose other paths: some went corporate, some left the industry, some went to other firms.  I can’t think of a single one who’s now kickin’ butt as an executive somewhere else.  Yet I know they were capable of greatness. 

IStock_000003546550XSmallI can’t help but think that there’s a fine line between chasing greatness and chasing your tail. 

My advice is to find the place where you feel confident that you can achieve greatness.  Realize that this process is always a quest, never a coup.  And then settle in for the long slog to glory.

By the way, and for what it’s worth: no, this post was not inspired by a recent employee departure (there haven’t been any).  Actually, it was inspired by watching one of our young stars burn truly brightly in a recent newbiz pitch.

Posted on: April 3, 2009 at 10:44 am By Todd Defren
32 Responses to “Careerism vs. Sticktoitiveness”


  • Jessica says:

    I agree with this blog post. I am excited to begin my career in public relations, but I am afraid that I will be in over my head the first few months working. However, I know that these large work loads are necessary because PR must keep their clients happy. However, I love PR, and I think I won’t mind working long hours, especially if I enjoy the company where I work and the people with whom I work.

  • jresick says:

    As a mid-level PR pro, I found this post refreshing and inspiring. We are all faced with lots of “slightly-better-offers” and “grass is always green” scenarios. I’m grateful for the mentorship I’ve had to keep me at the same company, and it’s been good decision for me, so far.

  • Melissa says:

    Good post.
    I’m a college student who has one more year left before I graduate and enter the real world looking for a PR job. While the first part of your post is filled with information about the levels of PR jobs, it’s a little discouraging. My internships have had more responsibility than you describe so I’m hopeful.

    But, thanks for the good advice.

  • George Snell says:

    I know, I know. I couldn’t resist!

    • George: I see your point about it looking badly for young career minds to be jumping from job to job. (looking like a job hopper is a common fear among us yuppies) Speaking as a young professional, I can say you don’t always have the choice. Many of us don’t know what we want to do, which is exactly why we have to end up job hopping. If I could go back, I would strategically plan my career the way I should have, but hindsight is 20/20. We also need a paycheck, so sometimes you get stuck in a job that isn’t related to what you truly want to do. I’m willing to defend all like minded young professionals!

  • Jeff D says:

    Good post by someone who has probably forgotten more about PR agency life than may of us will ever know. Any aspiring PR folks should print this out and pin it somewhere prominent.

    Some things I agree with:
    1) Jumping around between every job offer that comes your way says a lot about you and from an executive’s position, it isn’t good. You don’t know what you want (unless it is money) and you have no strategic focus (unless it is money). Either way, your interests do not align with the clients’ interests.

    2) Institutional knowledge is cruicial to any organization’s success and execs that don’t cultivate it do so at their own peril.

    Some things I disagree with:
    1) Your first priority should be to yourself and your own career, not the company. When you’re 20 years into your career are you going to feel more fulfilled by spending 20 years moving your way up at the same company or will you be more marketable with experiences in the public and private sector, agency and corporate or employee and entrepreur? As an executive, I know which one I’d rather hire, but everyone must decide which one they want for their life. As Todd points out, a firm like Shift values the former (and has been very successful with that strategy), but other jobs/organizations/situations need the latter. Bottom line, do what is best for you because in the end that’s about all you can count on.

    2) There is value to letting the stars go. I agree that any good exec can identify the real stars very early. However, sometimes keeping them isn’t best for the firm or for the star. It may be a matter of things not moving at the firm as fast as their career trajectory. In those cases, I’m a big advocate of helping them move on. You earn their appreciation instantly and then you’ve got an advocate and intel source dispersed somewhere in the industry. The hope is you can eventually get them back full of new ideas and experiences.

    3) I don’t want to look around my senior staff table and see the same faces for 10 years. Times change, clients have diverse needs. I want a team as diverse as the clients I do (and hope to) represent. I want some new life, creativity and even a touch of competitiveness filling my senior staff from time to time.

    Thanks for the insights, Todd. Your staff is fortunate to be led by someone who gives so much thought (and shares it!)to these kinds of things.

    • TDefren says:

      Great stuff, Jeff, thanks for the thoughtfulness.

      I should point out that not EVERYONE at my senior staff table has been there for 2 years: some have been there 1 – 3 years, and you’re spot-on that new blood has kept us from getting stale (and indulging in navel-gazing)!

      I also agree that it’s a Good Thing to help goose along other stars’ careers. I take pride in it when one of those former colleagues reaches out with news of how their time under our roof served them so well.

      But I *also* (as you pointed out) value institutional knowledge a great deal. My biggest peeve is “Reinventing the Wheel.” What a waste of time! And unless you’re a big company with the resources to create Best Practices (in a substantive, unbeatable way), that “reinvention” becomes all too common.

  • George Snell says:

    Hm. Sounds like a recruiter just snatched away one of your junior executives!

  • Renown says:

    This is great insight and a notable view of ‘the big picture’ of PR. I especially feel a kindling to your observation of math-challenged PR folk. That one really hits home with me!

    Thanks Todd

  • Hi Todd,
    Just the post I needed. I have been thinking lately about how I can’t wait to get into a PR agency environment and see what I am really capable of. So, with your advice of finding a place where you feel confident and achieve greatness, I couldn’t agree more…yet how can you know without actually spending time there? Is this advice along the lines of “testing the waters” as a young professional, until you finally find the place you are meant to be? Thanks for your insight as always!

  • Hello, Todd.
    i agree that there’s no need to tell every exec that he will be president sometime, but there are people, talented PR pro, who can’t wait for years without any exact knowledge of what they will achieve in the future. i mean that in some agencies it’s not obvious that your bosses have some great plans for you. what do you think such people have to do? wait or find another place with more obvious approach from the chiefs?

    • Todd Defren says:

      Natalia, please don’t misunderstand me: we are RIGOROUS about providing constructive and positive feedback on a regular basis to all of our staff about their performance and career track.

      But, to be fair, those performance reviews don’t go to the lengths of, “Someday, you’ll be a VP!” so much as we discuss getting to the next rung on the ladder… Make sense?

  • Jeff Grass says:

    Thanks for the post, Todd. As a young PR pro/student, this post is especially relevant to me. I hope to enter the agency world soon, but with the current economic climate it is proving to be difficult. Still, I am optimistic and excited about my future.

    Thanks for the advice. I read your blog for your knowledgable insights and I am never let down. It is exciting and scary at the same time to hear about the evolution of a PR career.


  • Todd,

    You know I’m with you the majority of the time, but I’m not so sure about this post. While I agree with the spirit, there are two particulars that bother me:

    1. I believe the best path to being a great PR professional is to understand how PR helps a company achieve its business goals. Too often, folks that only know agency life miss that business perspective. For me, some of the most valuable time in my career came when I left a successful 4-year agency stint to go in-house and run corp comm for a start-up. In addition to corp comm, I was involved with fundraising, business development, acquisitions, board meetings. I’m 100% sure that all of this made me a better PR agency person when I did come back to this side.

    2. Are you really saying that the brightest minds from way-back-when that stayed at SHIFT turned successful, while NONE of those that left ended up being successes? I cannot imagine that every young professional with great potential that chooses to switch jobs ends up not fulfilling that potential. (In fact, I can think of many in my own career that defy that point.)

    Again, I understand – and agree with – your point about the benefits of paying your dues, but I think you’ve overstated your case a bit.

    • Todd Defren says:

      Jesse, my core point NOT to “never leave,” rather the point is to NOT chase after every dollar: just as brands curate their online presence, employees should curate their careers.

      If you find a place where you feel appropriately challenged and rewarded, “sticking it out” makes it more likely that you’ll be quite successful, at least compared to those who took a more mercenary approach.

      For the record, I said that I didn’t know of any “big successes” among those who had left us. By that, I don’t mean to imply that they failed or aren’t happy. I dunno. Maybe we just lost touch!

  • Nictos says:

    thanks, todd … i read your blog because you cut to the chase and get to the stuff that i’m thinking about. still early days for me in PR (two years), but i find myself part of a unique team of veterans and newbies, all of whom exhibit the sticktoitiveness you mention. we try to savor the moment for what it is, and usually it’s pretty good.

  • Great post Todd, great insight and inspiration for us PR newbies!

    Edelman Buenos Aires

Leave a Reply

Show some social media love would ya?

RSS logo Subscribe by Email

RSS logo RSS Feed


PostRank Topblogs 2009 - #3 in PR

View Todd 

Defren's profile on LinkedIn