Several readers of this blog have asked for an explanation of the agency pecking order. I thought that explanation might best come from a young person who is succeeding in the agency world through hard work and keen observation. Tyler Marciniak, 25, is a Senior Account Executive in Edelman’s New York Corporate and Public Affairs Practice. Tyler’s personal and insightful explanation is clearer than any textbook version I’ve ever read.
I just completed my annual review – always an interesting experience. After receiving positive and negative – sometimes called “constructive” – feedback, it was time to set goals for the next year. As I painstakingly reviewed the career progression guidelines to figure out what was needed for promotion, I began to think about the various levels of responsibility within the public relations agency environment. While my undergraduate degree and internships prepared me with many of the tactics I would need to start a career in PR, I realized that many of us often enter the agency world with little understanding of the agency hierarchy and what it takes to ascend from one level to the next. So, let me share a few thoughts from what I’ve experienced thus far.
Every agency is different, but most agencies have three levels of professionals:
- Support staff
- (Interns, Account Associates, Assistant Account Execs, Account Execs and Senior Account Execs)
- Mid-level supervisory staff
- (Account Supervisors, Senior Account Supervisors and Vice Presidents)
- Senior executives and counselors
- (Senior VPs, Executive VPs, General Managers and above)
Despite the title, support staff have responsibilities to their teams and supervisors above them, but also themselves. This time period, usually about 4-7 years, is a time to act like a sponge and soak in as much knowledge as possible. While you may want to be tactically perfect in everything that you do, it’s important to remember that you probably won’t be. Your peers and managers will want you to show that you can learn from failure, and grow as a practitioner and as a leader. The questions you ask when receiving an assignment should improve as you gain more experience – asking better questions at the beginning improves your odds of success in the end. This is a time to learn the tactics of PR and to discover yourself as a professional. As you grow in age, skill and experience, you will be rewarded with more autonomy, interesting assignments, client face-time and opportunities to lead projects and teams.
So, what does it take to succeed? People with all kinds of backgrounds succeed in PR, but the most successful often share common traits. Here are my “must haves”:
- Solid writing skills as you will use them everyday
- A true passion for interacting with people – peers, supervisors, the media, influencers and clients.
- A strong work ethic
- A thirst for knowledge
- The ability to figure out how to be your own best publicity agent, but in a most humble way
- Recognition that your first few years are an investment in the rest of your life. You will likely work long hours (but not necessarily for bad pay), question why you’re calling reporters in a market you’ve never heard of and think you’re supervisors only want to give you the assignments they don’t want, but trust me, in PR, patience truly is a virtue. Remember, as you earn the trust of your peers, supervisors and clients, so will you earn more responsibility.
After a few years, you’ll be convinced that you know how to plan and execute any program, manage the most difficult clients, and supervise a team of 1,000. You might be right – or perhaps just partially right – but either way, your supervisors will decide if it’s time for you to move on. To make this move, you will need to show that you can consistently create client-ready materials, juggle the responsibilities of multiple projects and accounts, think beyond tactics to strategies and present yourself as a leader to colleagues and clients alike. I want stress the word “consistently” as your supervisors will look to you to meet these challenges everyday, not just once and a while to check off boxes on the career progression guidelines. Once you’ve mastered these competencies and illustrated your leadership potential on a daily basis, you can look forward to the next steps of your career to be spent developing program strategies, leading teams and working with clients to develop communications solutions for their business problems.
It’s obviously different for everyone, but that’s my take on the first few years of your career. What do those in similar situations, or perhaps the leaders who’ve been away from the bottom for a while, think it takes to succeed in PR?