There was a time when I thought I could cut it as an astronomer. I actually started a degree in astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin before a kindly graduate advisor steered me toward something more suitable for a man of my limited mathematical acumen. I toyed with advertising and organizational communications before landing in the journalism department, from which I managed to emerge with a major in journalism and some language related minors.
Jobs were scarce in Texas then, and on a whim I went to Washington, DC. I found work with a health advocacy organization called the National Mental Health Association. The pay was nominal but the experience fantastic. I edited the monthly magazine (and survived some typographical errors of epic proportions, but that’s a different story), addressed media inquiries, wrote legislative language and answered mail (pre internet days – I can only imagine the kind of traffic a mental health organization generates these days). From there, a similar post at a larger (and better funded) organization, the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
Lesson from the non-profit world: a great place to start a career. I was given much more opportunity than I deserved. And gained more experience than the years would suggest.
At the ADA I came into contact with our agency, Hill & Knowlton. I was amazed that there were entire businesses dedicated to what my little department did. From there, I went to a small agency in the Washington suburbs, and then on to Ketchum – the agency picked as a partner by my much smaller firm to handle a huge assignment far too large for our tiny shop.
At Ketchum Washington, I had various roles in the healthcare practice and was part of a team that would grow to handle a wide range of clients and assignments: pharmaceutical product launches (and recalls), major health education campaigns, public policy initiatives and huge programs for medical professional societies and patient organizations.
In 2000, I took a two-year assignment in London to help build our European healthcare offer. Two years drifted into 10, and I’ve been afforded a number of ways to re-invent myself over the decade I’ve spent here, including a transition to general management, first of the London business, and now of our expanding European enterprise.
I consider myself enormously fortunate to be a part of this business, especially now. I think we’re on the cusp of a new global industrial revolution, powered in large part by communication, and the opportunity to witness our transition from the old to the new from the inside is one I would not trade for anything.
Lessons? First, find mentors. I have/had mine in people like John Ambrose and Preston Garrison at my first job after college, who helped me see communications as a career, not a job. And Ray Kotcher at Ketchum, who opened the door to the world for me with a job in London.
Second, take responsibility. For your career, your performance and your personal brand. Chances are, opportunity is right in front of you for meaningful employment. And chances are, nobody will hand it to you. Grab it for yourself.
And finally and perhaps above all, be generous.
David Gallagher is senior partner at Ketchum, president of the agency’s European operations and CEO of the London office.