What Surfing Taught Me About Advertising

3 lessons from my life among the swells

I fell in love with surfing almost by accident—when I was in Montauk about seven years ago. I had never really understood beach vacations and generally don't like being stagnant. When I saw a couple of my friends surfing, it sparked something in me.

When I got back to NYC, where I lived at the time, I started taking lessons at Rockaway Beach. Immediately, I was surfing twice a week or more. I couldn't get enough. I now live in Austin, Texas, where access to the waves is a bit more challenging. A couple of weeks ago, I drove seven hours to the Gulf of Mexico to surf for three hours. I'm missing California being a short flight away in pre-pandemic times, but being in the ocean always feels good.

I've found I can draw many parallels between surfing and my work life. Just like waves, no two situations at work are exactly the same. To think we can apply the exact same solution to problems at two points in time is as naive as I was trying to surf a hurricane swell during my first year of surfing. (Sure, I didn't die, but I put myself in a very precarious position that I was lucky to get out of with only a minor head injury.)

Here are three lessons from surfing that I've applied to my career in advertising:

Keep your eyes on where you want to end up. 

Surfing beginners have a tendency to look down at their boards, which causes them to nose-dive or miss the wave completely. You have to keep your head up, focused on where you want to go, and trust that your feet will find the right place.

In a similar vein, it's important to understand the ultimate goal or KPI you're driving toward as an agency leader. If you get distracted by day-to-day developments and lose sight of where you need to go, you won't be able to lead your team effectively. Take, for example, a team working on a project where the main goal is to drive conversions. They fall in love with a particular creative concept, which leads to the campaign becoming a brand awareness play with no CTA. This could have been avoided if they had been more focused on results. 

Have confidence in your abilities while remaining humble. 

In surfing, there's a point of no return. If you go beyond it and hesitate, you'll get crushed by the wave and potentially hurt yourself. You have to commit.

Surfing is also humbling, since consistent improvement is elusive. (It's not like running, where you can go a little bit further or shave a few seconds off your time each time out.) It's often one step forward and two steps back, since the key to advancement is understanding the ocean. And the ocean constantly changes.

Both the confidence and humility I've learned from surfing have served me at work. By coming in with a strong recommendation and POV, I have been able to build trust quickly and effectively, ultimately leading to a better product. 

Learn to read the waves.

Learning to understand the dynamics of the ocean is one of the most difficult yet important parts of surfing. Understanding the swell period, winds and tides can help you make informed decisions and prevent mistakes.

In the context of work, it's important to be a keen observer of people and to "read the room." Everyone in advertising has been in the situation where you're meeting with a potential client and someone on your team starts talking at length about something they consider important, such as budget or creative. This new subject prompts the client to visibly check out, but your colleague unfortunately hasn't noticed.

The bottom line is that to develop successful partnerships and create great work, you have to understand people, their motivations and situational dynamics.

In surfing and at work, my best successes have come when I've married my experience with an understanding of the dynamics in play at specific points in time. I've learned to press a bit harder when I know the moment is ripe—and to have patience when there's a lull and continue to build the foundation. The only way to know if you're capable of something is to commit to taking the wave.

Profile picture for user Jacqueline Thompson
Jacqueline Thompson
Jacqueline Thompson is svp of accounts at Austin-based creative and R&D agency Bakery.

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