This holiday weekend was the perfect occasion for some relaxation and reflection.  With a stomach full of turkey and plenty of travel time, I did some thinking about my past jobs.  Looking back over my career thus far, one of the most interesting dichotomies is that of ladder vs. non-ladder positions.

Let me explain.

When I started my career right out of college working in media planning, I was most definitely in a “ladder” career path.  Hired as an Assistant Media Planner, I had to pay my dues and slowly progress up the following path:

  • After one year of making very little money I was eligible for promotion to Media Planner;
  • As a Planner I had between two and three years before I could become eligible for promotion to Media Supervisor;
  • From there it was three to five more years before promotion to Associate Media Director (AMD);
  • Then four to eight more years before promotion to Group Media Director (GMD).

As a 22-year-old, sitting in a cubicle on West 33rd Street, I was looking down a very well-defined career path and I knew exactly what I needed to do over the next 10 – 17 years in order to progress (slowly but steadily) up the corporate ladder.

After four years in media planning (after having achieved the level of Media Supervisor), I changed roles in my agency, leaving the clearly defined media planning career path and diving into a non-ladder role in digital media analytics.

At the time (in 2010/2011), digital media analytics was becoming a very hot topic in the agency world.  Advertisers were becoming increasingly concerned with tracking the value of their digital media investment and were putting increased pressure on agencies to insure media dollars were spent wisely.  In order to stay competitive, my agency needed to launch a digital media analytics competency.

Media analytics, as a discipline, has been around for decades and first became popular during the rise of direct marketing/direct mail in the 70’s and 80’s.  However, digital media brought a lot of new elements to the practice of media analytics.  Digital advertising produced much more data that was easy to collect and more quickly available.  All over the country, ad agencies were pitching digital media analytics to clients as an added service – and I think that most of them, like me, quoted John Wannamaker in their pitch (the quote being, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”) stating that technology has now allowed us to truly know which advertising dollars are wasted.

Leading the digital media analytics competency for my agency was definitely a non-ladder role.  First of all, there were only about four people in the analytics group and they varied widely in skill and experience.  Unlike media planning there was no neatly established progression of titles, there was no established process for completing work, and I didn’t even have a clear idea of what work needed to be done.  It was way outside my comfort zone and filled with ambiguity.  When I made the transition from media planning to media analytics it made me feel very anxious and uneasy – but at the same time alive and excited.  While working in a “ladder” role, I came to work every day knowing exactly what I had to do and how much time I had before I got promoted to the next rung on the ladder.  I always felt like I was doing a good job, I knew exactly how I performed relative to my peers, and I absolutely hated it.  It was comfortable, yet maddening.  No matter what I did, I always knew that I had X more years before getting promoted and no amount of extra work could change that.  In the non-ladder role in media analytics, I controlled my own destiny.  The harder I worked, the faster I progressed and with no defined career path I could take on more responsibility as fast as I wanted to.

By now, I have come to terms with the realities of non-ladder roles.  They’re always ambiguous and challenging.  Usually about 50% of the time I feel like I’m totally failing and the other 50% of the time I feel like I’m doing extremely well.  Non-ladder roles rarely see the glory and recognition that ladder jobs see, but I’ve also found them to be some of the most important and influential roles – and they’re the place where I feel most self-actualized.

I vividly remember, back at my agency, the day of my first big client presentation in my new role leading digital media analytics.  I was quite anxious and shortly before my presentation a fit of nausea sent me to the restroom to splash some cold water on my face.  Looking up in the bathroom mirror I remember smiling, embracing the anxiety and silently deciding that I wanted to work only in non-ladder roles for the rest of my career.

Career Success Through Non-Ladder Paths
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