Career advice I wish I had paid heed to...

Here's how to build a fulfilling professional life  

Many claim to have chosen careers which they dreamed of since their childhood days. It is common to hear actors, pilots, sports stars or few other professionals say that they ‘always’ dreamed of taking up their profession ever since they remember. Such blokes are fortunate.

In my case, and I guess it holds true for many, I stumbled upon my chosen career quite by accident. I was keen to become a doctor (probably influenced by my dad who was one) during my school days, applied to a medical college after my higher secondary but failed to secure admission, though I was confident of getting into one, thanks to my high grades in school. I was then forced to apply for a bachelor’s degree and the only stream which had some free seats was science, with zoology as specialisation.

During my college days, I developed some interest in advertising which then turned into a genuine desire. So only when I had completed my graduation did I have some inkling of a career that I could possibly like. At that time, I had the notion that an MBA degree is a prerequisite to join advertising, but I frankly did not have the skills or knowledge to pass the entrance test. So instead of learning skills to get into a B-school I convinced myself that sitting for an MBA entrance exam will somehow be easier if I had field sales real-life experience. I had a brief stint selling consumables for photocopiers — a commodity business. I realised how tough it was to sell anything and more importantly, it toughened my resolve to chase my liking for advertising. I was unemployed for quite a while, visiting and writing to several ad agencies seeking a job. Even though I wanted an entry into what was known as ‘client servicing’ I had created a portfolio of ‘ads’ — basic concepts that I had created. The big agencies promptly labelled me as confused and asked me to come back after... wait for this, an MBA. So there I was almost three years after graduation and still without a job. I am thankful to Lata Subramanian for offering me my first job as a junior account executive at Trikaya Advertising. It was a creative powerhouse back then and had a bevy of great minds in strategy and creative.

I learnt there that the best strategic minds in marketing and advertising are creative and vice versa. I learned to appreciate good creatives, developed a flair for providing creative direction to address a tactical or strategic business problem for a brand and essentially learnt on the job. Advertising is in any case not dependent on technical skills or formal education in that field. One cannot be a pilot or computer engineer without the necessary education and qualification. But in advertising, an innate flair and what you learn about brand building on the job matters more. So my journey in advertising continued without any additional degrees or formal education. I had my share of ups and downs in the advertising business for 20 years. In 2012, I ventured on my own, which lasted for a couple of years. That stint too taught me a few basics about entrepreneurship. Since then I have had a marketing communications role in a B2B tech services setup. Reflecting on all these, I wish I paid heed to these pieces of advice (they may have come to me in some form since my college days), which would have definitely made me a better professional and human being:

1. Skill up, the world is only going to get tough

I have spent many years in an industry where mining engineers were ad agency entrepreneurs, chemical engineers and MBAs from top-notch schools were strategising on how to sell more floor cleaners and commerce graduates were great TV scriptwriters. But in most industries, not only a basic qualification to do that job is essential, but it is increasingly important to skill up on related fields. If you are a coder, maybe design thinking as a discipline can enhance your skills. If you have graduated in design, maybe a course in digital marketing may help you market your skills better or help you develop a better understanding of the pressures of the marketing manager you maybe working with. Unfortunately, aside from a short course in usability, I have not invested in learning new skills — especially those with certification. In that context, I admire those who constantly learn and make it a lifelong process.

2. Surround yourself with good influence

On hindsight, one’s vision is 20/20. Looking back, I probably allowed far too many negative influences to shape my thinking and action, rather than pausing to reflect and thinking on my own…figuring out the right from wrong.

Surround yourself with positivity…be it in the form of a mentor at work, a life coach, people with positive energy or simply inspiring books. Ensure that you strike a balance early on in your career.

3. Be prudent in your habits

Living for the moment comes naturally at a young age. It is difficult to envisage life beyond next week, so concepts like ‘planning for a rainy day’ don’t strike a chord. One of the challenges facing the insurance industry or financial services like mutual funds is to get youngsters to sign up. While logic says that if you start saving early you are likely to have a large corpus over time, many don’t get the importance of such concepts early on in life.

One can relate to this concept with sustainable consumption or even being aware of the negative effects of social media addiction and limiting its use.

4. Invest and build genuine relationships

A common trait among the handful of highly accomplished senior executives I have worked with is their nature to invest and build in relationships. And they do it in genuinely — not in a ‘give and take’ transactional manner. They display keen interest in people and care for their well-being. It could be a junior executive at work, a client or domestic staff. I have seen it play beyond ‘old boys network’ and enrich lives over the years. I have very poor skills in this area and convince myself that I am an introvert and hence do not invest in relationships. Don’t make that mistake. Get to know your colleague, your domestic help, your client — genuinely care for them and make an effort to build a relationship.

5. Focus on the duty, not results

I had this pinned to my soft board at work for many years. I find it truly inspirational and a simple answer to not just career woes but at a personal level too: do your best and focus only on that.

Very often we define success as beating the competition or completing a task on time etc. There’s nothing inherently wrong in setting such goals, but these run the risk of missing out on the real objective — doing a damn good job of the task at hand and not worrying about the results. In my view, Samsung’s obsession with beating Apple or at the very least going one up on them is an example of such thinking. In their desire to outrun Apple with a smart watch, Samsung launched Samsung Gear way ahead of the Apple Watch. In contrast, Apple’s focus is not to be the first but being the best. They took their time to launch the Apple Watch and did not bother about not being the first. In their minds, they did their best in putting out a good product and the fruits of labour followed: in 2017, Apple sold more watches than Rolex, Swatch, and the rest of the Swiss watch industry combined and nearly half of all smart watch sales.

The writer blogs about advertising, branding and marketing strategy at and tweets @bhatnaturally