Featuring Colleen Delaney: Ads Guru, Advisor & Volunteer

Colleen Delaney has inspired me since the day I knew who she was. We first met in college at the University of Illinois where we were both advertising majors. We ended up being in a lot of the same classes, as well as the same club on campus, which was the American Advertising Federation. Colleen was always the one raising her hand, wanting to learn and get involved. She was an advertising rockstar and everyone knew it. I admired her for her tenacity and work ethic. Through classes and AAF, I became even more acquainted with Colleen and quickly realized how amazing of a person she was. Not only was she undeniably ambitious, she had a heart of gold. Colleen and I have stayed in touch through the years and have seen each other at reunion and networking events put on by our college. We also enjoy meeting up every once in awhile to catch up on life and our careers. She is undoubtedly someone I admire and someone that you need to know.

Since we graduated, Colleen, like me, has worked in advertising in the Chicago area for over seven years. She’s gone from working client side at Discover Financial Services to working at an ad agency where she supervised Target’s paid social media strategy. Today, she works at a large media agency as an associate director, overseeing paid social media strategy. In addition to her day to day work, she loves mentoring young students about the advertising industry and sits on the University of Illinois alumni board, as well as the U of I recruiting board at her agency. When she isn’t immersed in the advertising world, Colleen enjoys running by the lake and will be training for her third Chicago Marathon this year! She is also an active member of the American Alzheimer’s Association (near and dear to my heart), where she sits on the junior board and assists with planning their fundraising gala, Paint the Night Purple, each year. With any free time that remains, Colleen loves traveling and exploring new restaurants around the city.

If you couldn’t already tell, Colleen is an inspiration. The best part about our interview was that I was able to capture how honest and real she is. She’s so transparent about her work, who she is, and what she wants out of life. You’ll see that as you read on in our interview. You won’t be disappointed.

Colleen Delaney stands in front of Chicago River with skyscrapers in the background.

So excited to have you as part of this series, Colleen! Can you share your story and how you got to be where you are today in your career?

When I went to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life or what I wanted to major in. I considered working in public relations or broadcast journalism. I was inspired by Elle Woods (as cheesy as that may be) and thought I could be a great lawyer, but I also had a passion for selling things, which attracted me to marketing. I first discovered that I wanted to work in advertising sitting in an advertising class I had selected as an elective. After the first class, I called my mom and told her that I would be declaring my major as advertising. I don’t know if it was the “sexiness” or the draw of agency life I saw portrayed in the videos that my professor showed us, or the interesting campaigns that we studied, but something about it excited me and I knew I would excel in it. From there, I added more advertising classes to my course load and decided to minor in business and communication as well. I got involved in clubs and with people who were interested in the same career aspirations I had and never looked back.

One night, I attended an AMA (American Marketing Association) career night and met a few people from Discover. I interviewed, continued networking with the people I met, and eventually started working in my dream field after I graduated. Since then, I have had several jobs throughout the industry and have tried to better myself with each move whether that has been trying a new role, advancing to a new title, testing my hand in a new advertising discipline (who’d have thought I would have ended up in media?) or working within a new business vertical. As an account director now, I look back on all that and think about how my career might have been totally different if I hadn’t picked advertising, gone to that AMA meeting, or met the people I did. In the end, I hit my goal of being an account director before I turned 30 and the steps I took (all the way back to that first ADV300 class in college) led me to where I am today. Cheers to the people I met and who helped me along the way!

It’s so funny how things just work out like that! Going back and thinking about your career journey, what would you say has been your best career decision? Has there been any questionable decisions made along the way?

The best career decision I ever made was going to work on the client side of advertising right out of college. It was a different path then most other grads were taking seeing as most of my classmates and friends were going to work at advertising agencies. It wasn’t viewed as “typical” and several people questioned my choice. Despite being worried that I might never experience agency life in Chicago, I took the job and was selected as one of sixteen into the Marketing Leadership Program at Discover. I rotated through three areas of marketing in a year and a half and landed in my top choice for a permanent position – E-Business on the social media team. Over time, I started working with agencies and made connections. Eventually, after sharing my desire to work closer to where I lived and my goal of working at an agency, my team was supportive of me making the switch. I worked with the agency connections I had made in my role to help me transition from the client to the agency side. While it wasn’t the typical path, and while I do sometimes miss Discover and the client side, it was one of the best experiences of my career. I learned so much more from it doing it the non-traditional way and it has made me far more marketable. Moral of the story is that when people tell me something can’t be done, I work that much harder to prove to them it can be.

One of the decisions that I have questioned in my career to date was changing jobs and leaving an agency I loved just because we had ended a relationship with one of the clients I was working on. I felt like I was in limbo and that I was getting thrown into a position based on what was open instead of what I was really interested in. Days were slow, I wasn’t feeling challenged, and I knew I was ready for the next step in terms of a position and title. Looking back on it, I wish I would have used the time to focus on myself, my family, and my new relationship vs. focusing on the need to constantly be advancing at work. Sometimes putting yourself first, and taking advantage of slower times at work, can lead you to learning more since you have more time during the day to take trainings and focus on career and personal development.

Pro tip – if you can avoid it, I wouldn’t recommend making a job switch over the holidays. Money and promotions will come down the road and the stress that accompanies working and trying to prove yourself in a new role over the holidays isn’t worth the extra cash.

It’s so good to reflect on your career because I think you really can learn from those good and not so good experiences. Thinking to your current job today, what would you say excites you about it? Is there anything you struggle with?

In advertising, one of the things that I have enjoyed most is the opportunity to present to my clients. I love being able to educate them about social media strategy and how to reach customers in extremely targetable ways. I live for the rush of traveling to the client and jet-setting to meetings. While it’s a lot of work to prepare, the reward of a great client meeting or sponsorship event is something that remains one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career to date.

On the other hand, something that I have always struggled with on the agency side in advertising is feeling like all the teams I have worked on could use double the staff. Agencies care about their bottom lines and if they see they have people on their teams who will give their blood, sweat and tears to clients, they will keep staffing at the current level. That leads to burnout and work that is subpar. If agencies really want to make it longer term, they need to start caring more about their people and coming up with business models that cater more to career growth and development instead of endless hours and client deliverables. While progress has been made, there is still a lot of work to be done.

I totally agree. I had a similar experience in my first job out of school and faced major burnout. Unfortunately, I think everyone experiences it at one point or another in their career. Another thing we all face is this feeling of fear. Have you ever been afraid on the job?

Yes, many times. In media, you’re responsible for spending extremely large budgets on behalf of your clients. When I was more junior in my media career, I was tasked with spending an extremely large sum of money in one night against a live social media execution. It ran across four social platforms and contained over 50 different types of ads. Typically, in a situation like this, you would have an entire team of people in what we call a ‘war room.’ However, I was basically executing alone with the support of only one senior manager. It was scary and I didn’t sleep the night before because I kept thinking about if I had set up everything correctly. Despite being scared that I was going to mess it up, the campaign ended up being one of the most successful moments of my career and lead to a mention in AdWeek.

In the end, the time we waste being afraid or scared in the moment isn’t worth it. It’s easier said than done, and I still walk into work scared frequently. However, while it may seem bad at the time, I try to follow the advice of my Grandma Marge and remember that I am Colleen Delaney and I can do anything! Nothing that’s worth it ever comes easy and the moments that make us most afraid and push us furthest out of our comfort zone are often the ones we look back on as the most positive experiences of our careers. So next time you get scared, remember, “you are (insert your name here), and you can do anything!”

Colleen Delaney stands in front of the Chicago River against the Wrigley Building.

Grandma Marge sure knows her stuff! I’ve always admired you for the amount of success you’ve had, but I know it hasn’t always come easy! Can you tell us what you’d credit your success to?

While I still have a lot of room to grow, I’d credit the majority of success that I’ve had in the ad industry to date because I never stop pushing myself to be better. Got hired – great! What’s next? Got the promotion – great! What’s next? It’s key to remember to never stop learning or growing. You won’t get to the next big thing if you are consistently happy with where you are. Yes, it will take work and it may not be easy. But believe me, having an internal competition with myself has lead to some of the best moves of my career thus far.

On the flip side of that, I know that if I ever find myself in a situation I’m unhappy in, I can take steps to determine my next move or actively work towards making the situation better. While it’s not an easy task, I recommend making an effort to not get overwhelmed as you determine those next steps. Don’t try to solve all your issues in your current situation in one day or expect the answers to come to you as fast as you might like. Break off “determining your next move” in steps and try to do one or two small things every day that help you get there. This could mean reaching out to an old friend from school you haven’t touched base with in a while, reading a new book on something you are passionate about, watching an educational video, or grabbing coffee with an old coworker to chat about the industry.

I’d also say that knowing how to network has undoubtedly helped me along the way. And no, by networking I don’t mean attending a few happy hours, talking only to people you know, and then only reaching out to the same people when you need a job. I’m talking about the art of relationship building and maintaining connections with people who have mentored you, have similar interests as you, or believe in the same causes you do when you aren’t looking for a role. Keeping in contact with people you have worked with, who have helped you grow, or who gave you their time in the past is a key part of establishing yourself in your industry. I’d like to believe that is part of why I have come as far as I have as well – due to my network and having help and support along the way. You know who you are and thanks!

That is so true about networking. I think a lot of people think that that only comes into play when you’re looking for a job. But you hit the nail on the head – we should always be connecting and networking with people. Speaking of, can you shed some light into your involvement in your community outside of your job?

As you grow in your career, it’s important that you stay passionate about your day to day work. Often times though, you may not be able to find that in the job you currently are in. That’s why it’s important to always have a passion project or “side hustle” (as some might say) to keep you motivated. For me, I have always looked to volunteering as a way to keep me motivated and feeling like I’m giving back to something greater than myself. I got involved with causes that were personally relevant to me whether based on where I went to school or ones that had impacted my family’s health and well-being. Just be careful about the amount of boards and causes you get involved in; if you’re like me you might try to take on more than you can chew and forget to spend time with those still living with the disease you are trying to raise money for or you may not have enough time for self care that’s needed to keep doing all the great things that you’re working to achieve!

I so admire how passionate you are about helping others in their career and supporting causes you believe in. You clearly have a lot going on! How do you balance life and work responsibilities?

In the spirit of full transparency, I really struggle with this work life balance concept and always have. In advertising, no matter how many times one might hear, “please go home soon” or “the work will be there in the morning,” the desire to prove yourself, keep up with other people at your level, and the requirements of clients who may expect you to provide white glove service and be “always on” can easily lead to 12 hour days no matter how much we tell ourselves we are going to avoid them. That doesn’t leave much time for “balance” if you are eating dinner at 9pm and barely getting ready for bed because you accidentally fell asleep in your work clothes and then woke up at 3am. But heck, maybe I’m the only one in the city that struggles with that! In the past six months, I have been put to the test in this area more than I ever have been and it’s been what could be considered one of those “rough patches.” At the end of the day, I don’t really think it’s a balance but more of a work/life merge (for me at least). It’s me trying to determine how to focus on myself and leave the office at a normal time while continuing to get projects out the door.

One thing that’s been helpful for me lately, is that I now treat my workouts like meetings. When it’s getting close to the time of my workout class, I literally say, “I’m sorry I have something I need to get to. However, I can try to hop back on later or here’s my cell if you need to text me.” If we don’t learn to set limits, we could easily be “always on” and reachable by email, text, and calls all the time. While it hasn’t been easy for me with the volume of work I have, I have had to learn how to let the little things go, accept work that is done, but not perfect, and set reminders to eat. Here are a few tips that help me get through the week:

  • Meal prep – I spend 3 hours doing this on Sunday or else there are days I don’t eat due to my schedule. It sucks and eats into my weekend time, but it’s worth it on busy mornings.
  • Schedule workouts and workout classes in advance – Even if you don’t go to a gym where there are classes you need to sign up for, block your calendar and get to the gym as if they are going to charge you if you don’t. You only get one body and you need to take care of it!
  • Get ready for bed before sitting down when you get home – On the late nights (because there will still be some), get ready for bed as soon as you get home. That way, you are comfortable, clean and there’s no harm if you fall asleep after you sit down. P.S. set your alarm too!
  • Schedule time for you – Sad we have to schedule this, huh? But seriously, on the weekend, know your limits. If you’re exhausted, skip the drinking and partying and chill at home with Netflix and tea.

Your honesty is so refreshing, Col! I love how real you are being. Knowing you live such an incredibly busy lifestyle, what keeps you motivated through all of this?

This is a tough one. I’m going to be real again here for a minute – there are days when I’m not motivated at all, the days where it seems like the world is ending. There are days when I even question why I got into advertising in the first place. However, I think my desire to “make it on my own” and be completely responsible for taking care of myself has always kept me motivated. If you know you have to pay your bills, provide your own healthcare and somehow pay for the lifestyle you want to live, you know that no matter how bad your job or career may seem at the time, that you should be thankful for how far you have come and for the opportunities you have had. In the end, what may seem like the end of the world today might not be that big of an issue in the grand scheme of things.

I have also started journaling and writing down at least three things that I’m grateful for each day. While I was very skeptical of it at first, I have found that it actually does help keep things in perspective even when skies are gray. While I try to do it every day, it sometimes is once a week, but heck doing it at all is progress and that’s all we can aim for! Steps in the right direction are better than no steps at all!

The final thing is always giving yourself something to look forward to. This is especially important if you don’t like the current job you are in. This could be something as small as dinner with your girlfriends or as big as planning a trip to Europe!

Journaling is so good for the soul! So happy to hear you are doing that and it’s working for you. I know we already touched on your struggles in your current job, but what would you say has been the biggest challenge in your life and how did you push through it?

When taking a step back, relative to the world’s problems and challenges, all the ones I have faced seem small. Walking on Michigan Avenue after work and seeing homeless people on the bridge often reminds me how fortunate I am and helps keep things in perspective. Remembering those things, in and of themselves, helps me push through my own personal challenges. In turn, I try to help others in their plights as much as I can, like taking leftover vendor food with me on my way out the door and giving it to the homeless as I pass by after work.

However, no matter how small or large, we all face our own personal challenges and life can get rough. That said, one thing that I have been working to get over for years is caring too much about what others think of me. To be honest, this matters to me a lot more than it should, especially in the workplace. I am still learning how to continue on my own path and keep doing what I know aligns with who I am regardless of the judgment or criticism I may face from coworkers or peers. It’s hard at times and there are days when I sit back and realize I wasted at least an hour caring about what someone thought about what I said in the meeting, how someone may have took something I said the wrong way or even something as stupid as why I didn’t get as many likes on my content as someone else on social media. To help me push through this, I often ask myself why I am putting so much merit into what a particular person thinks? These few questions usually help keep me on track and pull myself back in if I get too far down the “over analyzing what someone else thinks about me” path:

  • Will this matter in a day, month, year?
  • Why do I care what this person thinks of me?
    • Is this person a family member?
    • Are they responsible for my success at work?
    • Are they a close friend?
      • Can I see myself being close friends with them?
    • Am I trying to make a good impression on a date or in a relationship?
      • Could I see myself being in a relationship with them?

If the answer to any of the questions above is no, let it go. Put your time and thought into people who you need to “wow” to advance, be yourself and focus on the people that care about you based on who you are. Don’t change or question yourself to gain the approval of others. As someone who has – it’s not worth it and in the end, you can lose who you are and cause yourself immense pain along the way.

You are SPOT ON when it comes to this. Women need to stop the compare game and stop caring about what other people think – especially people who don’t matter. I think a lot of people are going to be able to relate to what you are saying here. In terms of those who do matter, who would you say has inspired you over the years?

Oprah – ‘nough said. No, but seriously, that woman never stops pushing herself. No matter what success she achieved or obstacle she faced, she always wanted more and didn’t stop until she got there. She always pushes herself to be better. I love that she also helps people out based on her success, all while doing it in that ever so classy but “Oprah flashy” way (i.e. “and you get a car and you get a car”). This inspires me daily and I often find myself reading the latest book from her book club or watching her touching videos on OWN.

Yes, girl! Oprah is an icon. Thinking to women today and the struggles they sometimes face in the workplace (including inequalities), how do you think women can break the glass ceiling moving forward?

In a lot of ways, I think women already have made vast progress. In advertising, if you look at how male dominated the industry used to be and what woman had to do to be seen (think Mad Men), it’s important to remember we have come a long way. However, by no means does that mean that there is no longer room for growth or more work to be done. In the end, I would advise women to keep doing the best job they can in their profession, finding mentors (both male and female) who inspire and encourage them, and remember that if they don’t feel they are in a good situation or aren’t being treated fairly, to seek out their next opportunity, no matter how scary it might seem. Never settle and trust your gut.

Colleen Delaney stands in front of Chicago River with skyscrapers in the background.

Never settle. I couldn’t agree more. Do you have any additional pieces of advice for the fellow career women out there?

Stay true to yourself. There will be people that don’t like you and who don’t think you are capable, and that’s okay. As long as you know who you are and believe in yourself and your abilities, you can accomplish anything.

I’ve already touched on this a bit, but always push yourself to experience growth in your career and in life. There are some habits I’ve learned and implemented over the years that I definitely recommend:

  • Try to learn a new skill for at least 5-10 minutes a day
  • Meet up with old co-workers for coffee or a drink to catch up
  • Attend panels about your industry and force yourself to sit with someone you don’t know
  • When you aren’t feeling motivated, volunteer for an event or panel that will make you feel like your advice/thoughts on industry topics are extremely valuable and/or could help provide you with some fresh perspectives
  • Remember to always look towards what’s next
  • If you aren’t happy in a role, what steps are you taking to determine what you want to do next?
  • Give back and pay it forward – thank people who have helped you in the past and provide advice to those who maybe looking for it now; you never know what either could lead to.

Those are some great habits to partake in. I may have to take you up on some of these! We’re getting to the end of the interview, so I wanted to ask if you have any parting thoughts or advice?

Find your tribe and surround yourself with people who share similar interests. At work, and in your personal life, find the people that like you and accept you for who YOU are. It sounds so cliche and you are likely thinking, “Yeah, ok I’ve heard this before. It’s easy and I know who my friends are”. Seriously though, do you know who your tribe really is? By tribe I mean the people that text you not just because you have texted them, the ones who invite you over for a random dinner on Sunday and cook for you, ones who support you in all your successful endeavors as well as your hard times/failures. As we grow up and have more responsibilities, time becomes very precious. While it’s great to have a million friends and post pictures doing things with all of them, I have learned over the last few years it’s more important to have a tribe of a few really great friends you can rely on through thick and thin vs. a ton of surface level friends who may not love you for who you really are. Find your version of Samantha, Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda and stick with the tribe that accepts you despite your differences.

I can always get behind a Sex & the City reference, girl! I’m seeing more and more out there about finding your tribe of people, so I love that you brought that up! Thank you so much for your time, Colleen! If you’d like to connect with Colleen, you can find her on LinkedIn.

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