Lessons from a life in marketing

I have survived over 36 years in the advertising and marketing industry.  Even now I can still remember vividly the smell of ink and bromide as I walked to my desk on my first day as a packaging designer for an international household product company.  (This was when things were still created by hand on a drawing board, long before the advent of the Apple Mac!)

This job was not my first choice but the advertising industry was experiencing one of its downward cycles and it was difficult for a freshly graduated designer to get into the game with no experience.

After a couple of years designing floor polish, heartburn medication, deodorant and air freshener packaging I began to lose the will to live. I wanted to create impressive ad campaigns for heaven’s sake!  Only years later did I truly appreciate the valuable skills and lessons I learned as a packaging designer.  It’s all about the detail, detail, detail!

With working in a big ad agency still an elusive dream, I decided to start my own design studio with a few other out-of-work artist friends.  It’s easy when you have nothing to lose!  I would set off in the morning from my small apartment in the city to find work and then return back in the evening to start creating – often working through the night to deliver designs the next day.  Jobs included spray painting a Willy’s Jeep in pink camouflage, designing and airbrushing surfboards and producing the occasional ad for a local bar or swimming pool manufacturer.

Fast forward a few years and I have joined forces with two other ad agencies to become known as the best little “creative hot shop” in town.  It is during this time I truly started honing my skills as a creative director by collaborating with some very talented copywriters, artists, and brand strategists.  After a few more years’ experience we started landing the big international clients which then resulted in the big budget TV and radio commercials, the glossy double page magazine spreads and spending weeks on glamorous location shoots.  Finally, I was now living in the world of my dreams from all those years ago!

We eventually sold our not-so-little-anymore “creative hot shop” to the mighty Young & Rubicam in the early 90s and thus started another chapter.  By now I had assumed a client-facing brand strategy role, or as it was fondly referred to, I became a “suit”.  It’s still fairly rare to bridge the gap between the strategic marketing and creative worlds but it has worked for me and I am proud to have had some of the world’s leading names among my clients over the years. These include Moet et Chandon, Hennessey Cognac, Baileys Irish Cream, KPMG, Porsche, DuPont, Remington, Cuna, Chevron and New York Life.

So, what have I learned these past three and a bit decades and are there any pieces of wisdom I wish to impart?  There is nothing new I can tell anyone they may not already know, but here is my process when it comes to branding, marketing, and the creative process.


  • Identify and have clear business objectives.
  • Talk to your members, clients, and suppliers. Ask them how you are doing and if there are things you can do to improve the relationship.
  • Compile a detailed marketing strategy plan as your foundation on which you build your brand’s positioning, proposition, and creative execution. I’m a fan of Young & Rubicam’s Brand Asset Valuator model which has four key pillars – differentiation and relevance that relate to brand strength and esteem and knowledge that relate to brand stature.  I still use that formula to shape and position brands.  

Identify your story:

  • Only once a clear strategy is in place and the key propositions have been identified should you engage the creative process.  
  • I always start with the copy first which is typically the most difficult code to crack!  Don’t settle for the first cute headline you come up with – explore, search for ways to capture someone’s imagination.   
  • Tell a story.  Listening to and telling stories are part of our DNA and go all the way back to cave paintings and tribal dancing. Stories make us feel something, not just hear it.  The most successful brands anchor their stories to a powerful purpose, normally underpinned by finding the truth in your brand.  Whatever your brand story, believe in it – tell the truth and make people care.
  • Remember a brand develops like any personal relationship.  You enjoy being around someone because you share common values. Over time both parties demonstrate their loyalty and mutual trust and a bond develops.   
  • The business guru Peter Drucker said: “The purpose of business is to create and maintain a customer.”  This is a powerful statement if you think about it for a minute. Everything you do in business, in any sector or industry, relates to this sentence.  It’s not about making a profit in business – that will naturally happen when you get the first bit right – but creating a customer!  

The creative look and feel:

  • Half the creative job is done when you have identified a story to tell and the copy is simple and compelling.
  • Simplicity is key in the creative process.  Distil the proposition down to its pure essence so your message is crystal clear.
  • Find a visual theme that can support the story narrative. Do not automatically rush to find some inspirational images in photo libraries.  Steer clear of those happy office workers, handshakes, rowers or mountain climbers that depict team work.  Puzzle pieces and butterflies are also a few of my pet hates. Stand out and be different.  
  • There is a great quote on my office wall by Seth Godin: “How dare you settle for less when the world has made it so easy for you to be remarkable.”
  • Any communication piece, be it a social media post, a newspaper ad or a direct mail flyer, should capture the reader’s attention and imagination, compelling them to respond.
  • Your quest is to find the emotional triggers in the story you want people to believe and feel about your brand.       

In simple terms good marketing is about finding the truth in your brand and delivering a compelling story. And trying to have some fun along the way!

Terry Van Ryhn

Terry Van Ryhn

Terry has over 30 years’ international experience in marketing communications, delivering top-calibre solutions to major clients across the globe via agencies in Detroit, Cape Town, London and the Isle of ... Web: www.ashgrovemarketing.com Details