How I Got My Job: Senior Associate at a Public Relations Firm
by Hillary LP Eason
Part of a series about other people’s jobs.
What’s your name?
And how old are you?
What’s your job?
I work in digital analytics at a large public relations firm in Washington.
What’s your title for that job?
Senior Associate, Global Analytics.
What do you do when you go into the office?
I help our clients. And those could be agency clients that actually pay the agency to do PR, or potential clients that we’re trying to convince should pay the agency to do PR. I help them understand how best to use digital data to accomplish whatever it is that they’re looking for. That could take the form of social media data, or it can take the form of website analytics. Basically, if it’s online, and can be analyzed and sliced and diced to tell a story about what people are interested in about a particular brand, I probably have my fingers in it.
Do they give you the data or do you find it from other sources?
Well, it depends on the project. Sometimes we go out and find the data, and sometimes the data is given to us by the client. Sometimes we fight the client and they do eventually give us access to the data. Those are not so fun, the fight projects.
So, to make sure I understand: You are trying to help your client, which is probably a corporate client of some sort, understand their audience better. And to do that, you look at the available audience information and try to get a story out of it.
And that can take the form of, “How is this campaign doing?” or “What do we need to be saying to get people to believe our message?” Often, we work with market research and we say, “We know what the market research says. Now, how can we change the way that people think, feel, do, buy when it comes to our products?” Some of them, like you said, are corporate clients. Our agency is in Washington, and we do a lot of what’s called public affairs work, which can be for an issues-based campaign. I haven’t worked on a lot of those, but I’ve worked on a handful of them. Changing someone’s opinion on an issue is roughly the same as changing their opinion on what kind of toothpaste to buy.
I’m going to guess that you must have studied marketing in undergrad. Is that correct?
That’s not correct.
Did you study some sort of really data-heavy field like economics or stats?
I was a double major at a small liberal arts college in political science and economics. I knew going into college that I wanted to study political science. I did not know that I wanted to study economics, but economics had a lot of theories that you could test and play out with a graph. It was a different way of thinking than I’d ever been presented with. So I became a political science and economics major. As part of that, I had to take econometrics and learn a program called STATA that nobody learns anymore. I didn’t learn SPSS, which is more used in the social sciences. It was terrible. My econometrics class was God-awful. And sometimes when I’m manipulating data, I think back to that class and go (frustrated hand gesture).
But I also had to take statistics, which was one of the best classes I took in college. A big lecture class. I didn’t expect to like it, but it gave you the chance to look at what people were saying and say, “That’s not true. That’s not accurate.” And, truth be told, that’s kind of what I spent the first few years of my career doing. I graduated with this degree in heavy social sciences, and I had an opportunity to go work in an advertising agency in its strategy department when I finished.
Go back for a second. When you say that you graduated and you “had the opportunity,” did you know that you wanted to go into marketing? How much did you know about that world?
To be fair, I knew a lot about it — people in my family work in that sphere, so I was exposed to it from a very young age. However, when I graduated college, I thought that I wanted to go into political polling. So I got on a plane and I flew down to D.C. during my spring break, actually, and I applied for a job at a PR firm because I thought it was similar to polling, and I didn’t get it. I took a writing test and they told me that I didn’t fail the test, but that I also didn’t pass the test. I’m pretty sure I actually told them, “I don’t understand what that means.”
SO. I didn’t have a job when I graduated, and my mom encouraged me to talk to a contact of hers whose wife had worked with the Clinton White House and was now working in PR. She figured I could talk to this guy and talk to his wife and figure something out.
It was your mom’s contact? What does your mom do?
My mom is the head of account planning at a large ad agency in New York City.
Oh. So she’s in marketing.
Well, she works in advertising specifically. Anyway. So I came down to D.C. a few days after I graduated, and I talked to this guy that my mother had said I should talk to. What I didn’t know was that in the interim between setting up what was, in my mind, an informational interview and actually going down there, they had a job open. So I ended up not just talking to the contact, but also to three members of the team, and they offered me a job. That was a pleasant surprise.
And for all of those people who are concerned about talking to someone because they know someone: later on I asked the guy who actually hired me, who had been my boss, if he knew who my mom was during the interview, and he said that he hadn’t. He said that when the president of the company, who was my mother’s contact, says, “I’m talking to this person and I think she’s intelligent,” you pay extra attention. But then when the door closes, you have to interview. You have to get the job of your own accord. So I believe in using your connections to have as many conversations as possible. You should take every meeting. Because you never know who’s going to have a job open up over the weekend. That’s a lot of how I got my job. I was in the right place at the right time, and I already had an appointment on the calendar.
So that’s how the opportunity arose to work in account planning. if you think about advertising from the Mad Men model, you have the account people whose job it is to make the client happy, and you have creative who makes the pretty pictures and the pretty words and the television. But what’s not portrayed is that there’s someone whose job it is to actually sort of serve as a go-between and give information about the product, about the market, about who’s buying, to creative, so they can actually do their job.
So you were sort of unifying, looking at the big picture.
I tried to. I did a lot of market research, asking, over and over again, “Who are these people?” Every time someone wants to sell you something, they’re thinking about who you are or who you could be.
And while you were working at this job, how did you figure out your living situation? Did they pay you enough that you could afford rent in D.C.?
After I got the job, I knew that two of my good friends from college would be coming down to D.C. as well. Two of us had jobs, letters in hand, and one of us didn’t. So the two of us who had jobs did summer sublets and decided to get a house when the third one could join us. I did the math, did some Craigslist research to figure out what was a good price for a room. I knew a little bit about it, because I had done an internship in D.C. during undergrad. When our other friend came down, then, we started looking for a place. I was also fortunate that my boyfriend, whom I had met in college, had moved down. And even though we lived separately, we were able to sort of experiment with what it is like to live in a place, when you’re new and you have to meet people. We were able to sort of see how people figure all this stuff out. And some do, and some don’t.
I also had savings. I had worked at different times, in high school and during the summers in college, which helped. I paid my rent and my sublet and moved in with my friends. The places where I lived didn’t need a guarantor, but I was also lucky in that my parents said they would serve as one if I needed it. They paid me enough, gave me great benefits. I was very lucky to graduate and get a salary that I thought was fair for an entry level job.
What was the salary range for that job?
How did you make the decision to go from that job to the next job?
Well, in two years working at a job you can learn a lot. I graduated in 2008, and shortly after, Lehman Brothers collapsed, which obviously led to a lot of problems in the global economy. Including people buying things — which sort of stopped happening. So I went through about half a dozen round of layoffs. They had grown quickly in a way that was not super sustainable and they laid off a bunch of people. At one point, I just realized that I was going to have had had four bosses in two years. That seemed like a lot. Also, something was happening — and I imagine that it happens to other people too. I call it punching above your weight class, and it happens when you keep showing up and enough people like what you do that they keep asking you to do it in more and more senior places. For a company, that’s what you want, because you have someone young and excited to do the work…and you don’t have to pay them much. So I had a lot of conversations with family and with friends about whether or not I could ever really get ahead in this job.
And the truth of the matter is that if you punch above your weight class they’re never going to promote you to what you’re worth. Because they know they can throw you little bits. They will always get more out of you than you are being compensated for. It’s the way of the world. I’m not saying I have a problem with it. But it got me thinking about what I wanted to do.
My rule, though, was that I wouldn’t start thinking about what I wanted to do next after a really bad day. My theory is that 20% of every job is shit. Not to say that you can only be 80% happy, but you will always have status meetings and timesheets and things that are not fun for you. But if, on four out of five days per week you aren’t doing things like that, that’s pretty good. So I tried to tell myself that on good days — when I started looking for a new job, I said to myself, “What did I do today that made me happy? How can I do that?”
So I decided that I wanted to learn digital, and since I was doing a lot of market research and a lot of data analysis and talking about what information meant, I decided that those were the two things that I wanted to do. I had a lot of conversations, a lot of interviews. I turned down a job that I didn’t feel was right. Which was scary.
And your work didn’t know you were looking.
They didn’t know. I had friends who were colleagues and former managers who were willing to serve as references, and also from different jobs. So I ended up applying to jobs online. I sent my resume to someone who read my email and liked it. Sometimes people do write back to emails you send for job postings. I’m a big believer in the idea of getting your meeting and not being ashamed if you take a meeting from someone that you know, but that said, sometimes people do write back to emails that you send to job postings. I’m living proof. So I took a job in a small firm that did digital strategy for nonprofit clients. I went over there to — well, I wasn’t sure, really, what I was going to do, but it seemed like an exciting challenge.
And what DID you do there?
I ended up spending about a quarter of my time doing some digital project management, which involved site management, back end, database management type stuff, and a quarter working on this data-based product that they wanted to sell to clients. And the other half of my time I ended up doing a lot of campaigns, a lot of outreach campaigns for nonprofits. I just basically got to really get my hands dirty with the kind of data that you get with these online-only campaigns. I say that the job evolved every six months; by the end of it, I was mostly doing a lot of this data management and analysis, and I could say, “This is what’s actually happening based on the data.”
How much did you make there?
It was a raise. The range for that position is probably $43-$48K.
How did you get from there to here?
I think the best way to describe it would be to say that my personality and the personalities of the people in charge didn’t mesh. Fit is very important in a job, you know? And we were very different in terms of speed, style, attitude.
But you had prior validation because you had worked with people before who had spoken positively of your work and who had seen the results.
I did. And I acknowledged that I had a lot of places to grow, so I approached these differences from a professional development perspective. But eventually I had to acknowledge that no matter what efforts I made, the situation wasn’t really working.
So I started looking. And that’s a really rough position to be in, too. But I just started talking to people, went through my network. I reached out to my mom and said, “I think I want to go back to the agency world.” She connected me to someone, sent my resume to someone at the place I’m working now, and they were hiring.
I went in and interviewed with three people on the digital strategy team. I didn’t hear anything for a while, and when I followed up, I discovered that I happened to be too junior for that position. But then I reached back out, and there was another opportunity that had opened in digital analytics. It was a new team, and there was one person and a half of another person, and they wanted someone else to come on. So I interviewed for that too. I went to New York to talk to the person who would be my boss, and I had this amazing conversation and we just clicked. I was about to say that we hit the ground running. But then I had to wait. And wait and wait and wait.
So instead of hitting the ground running, you hit the ground for a game of “Mother May I.”
It was terrible, the waiting. But it was worth it. Because now I’m in a place where I’m very happy. And that’s not to say that I’m 100% happy all the time. I still think that 20% of every job is shit. But my job has evolved, the team has evolved, the work has evolved. A few things haven’t been my cup of tea, but I’ve had the opportunity to develop products. I’m punching above my weight class again, I know that. It’s very different to be in this sort of mid-level position, or at least higher than I was. I’m someone’s boss now. I’ve had a lot of bosses, so I know a lot about bosses. Anyway, our steps are CSA, associate, and senior associate, and I got hired as an associate. I am now a senior associate.
And how long did it take you to get there?
Ten months. I got promoted out of cycle, which was really amazing. My boss led it, and the moral of that story is to find someone who will fight for you. It’s the Sheryl Sandberg thing — you don’t just need mentors; you need champions as well. I had a boss who was getting on people’s cases, saying, “I want to hire this person.” “I want to promote this person.” “I want her to work on these projects. I don’t want her to have to work on these other things.” Chances are you’re not going to get that relationship, but look for it, and look for opportunities to turn a relationship into that sort of relationship. You’ll know it when you see it.
Also, clearly state what you’re looking for. I had breakfast with my boss, and she had said, “I want to talk to you about your career.” I wrote notes that said I’ve been performing at this level, and I had very clear points. You can find all this information online about how to get a promotion. And you know what, I was still super awkward when I asked. But it worked. She advocated for me.
How much do you make now?
Okay, so I’m a senior at a state school in the Midwest. I think your job sounds super cool, and I love Mad Men, but I’m doing my thesis on James Joyce and no one in my family has ever left my town. Do I have to move to New York or D.C.? What if I want to be there?
Well, if you want to be, find someone who’s there. It doesn’t have to be someone you know. It doesn’t have to be someone who went to your school. Find them. And do NOT ask if you can get coffee and pick their brain. Ask if you can sit and get advice on some career decisions.
Wait, why can’t I ask them that?
Because if I’m the one you’re asking that to: I hate to say this, but I’m busy. I may or may not know what you’re asking for, and I may or may not have the ability to provide it.
So does asking for advice give more clear guidance?
Yes. You want people, when you call them up or email them, to think, “Is there something specific I can do?” so that they then go and do it. For example, when I was interviewing candidates for entry-level jobs, one guy — who didn’t have the skills for the job, so we didn’t hire him — reached out later and kept asking me for advice. Which is good, except that he didn’t really have specific advice to ask for, and there wasn’t much I could do.
So what’s the kind of question that you want to hear?
I want to hear, “I’ve applied to your company’s intern program. This is who I am and this is what I’m interested in. Can I ask you to provide me a reference?” I know. It seems brazen.
If I’m not comfortable with that, can I ask them about my resume?
Absolutely, ask how you can improve your resume. If you know someone who lives in a city, you can say, “Is there anyone you recommend that I talk to?” What you want is to condense the steps between you and the job you want to the smallest number possible. So if I’m going to talk to person A who went to my college and has a job that sounds cool, I can say, “You know, you work in an advertising agency, I am a senior at your alma mater, I love writing, I love words, etc. I want to be a creative.” And you can ask if they’ll put you in touch with their HR director. And then, follow up, because people are busy. And start by looking at what’s available to you — people, places, that are closer. If you’re in Iowa, maybe look in Chicago. It turns out everyone is connected in a lot of different ways, but you do have to talk to them. Generally, when people say, “Can I put you in touch with someone?” they don’t mind if you actually ask them to do it. But you have to ask.
Well, I like the idea of advice. But I’ve read all this stuff about how I’m supposed to brand myself. Don’t I want to come in as an appealing property? And pitch myself, instead of asking for help?
If you’re 21 you don’t know anything. You can have the best brand for yourself —
But I started my own NGO!
I don’t care what you did. If you’re 21, you don’t know anything. You don’t know what it’s like to read through resumes. Your brand is nothing but flash.
That’s not to say, though, that you don’t have a story. If you’re that person writing about James Joyce and you don’t have a great story explaining the connection between that and working at an ad agency, you’re not going to get what you’re looking for. I initially had to tweak my story, because it was aimed at polling, but it was basically that I’d studied social science, and that I was interested in why people do what they do and how I get them to do what I want them to do. I told that story a lot, and the fact is that it’s still true. I’m still interested in that. And the longer I’ve gone on in my career, the more I’ve been able to refine my story. I’m interested in why people do what they do, and now I have information that can tell me something in relation to what I would like them to do, which is to buy something or to do something or think something. So tell your story. It’s more important than being a brand.
Want to talk to Hillary about how you got your job? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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