Receiving 82 rejection letters taught me one thing about success, says MediaCom's global CEO


Facing rejection is hard. Facing it repeatedly is even harder. Yet, sometimes it's just what you need to move forward.

That was the case for Steve Allan, global CEO of MediaCom, who was hit with 82 rejection letters before he even landed his first job.

"You name the company, I got rejected from them," Allan told CNBC Make It, recalling his efforts to break into the British media industry straight out of high school.

While Allan said he "would have been upset" at the time, he now claims to "love those letters" — all of which he kept — because they taught him the one trait he believes is crucial to success: relentlessness.

After receiving that slew of rejections, Allan strove harder to bag his dream career. He got some more work experience under his belt and then wrote back to the naysayers to ask for another shot.

"I kept pushing forward because I had a goal and I knew what I wanted to do," recalled Allan.

Steve Allan, global CEO of MediaCom

That time, the response was quite different and he ultimately accepted a job at what was then The Media Business, now MediaCom.

Allan said that determination is something he's retained throughout his 36 years at the company, from making "pushy" demands for a promotion — he was appointed managing director by the age of 30 — to building the business.

"When we had that goal to be the number one agency in the U.K., we had that lesson in mind," he noted.

The company has since grown into one of the world's largest media agencies, running campaigns for the likes of Mars and the NHS.

However, that kind of scale does not immunize against failure. And so, when MediaCom lost Volkswagen, a key client, amid the automaker's emissions scandal, Allan said he had to reapply that early lesson and launch "project fight back" to prevent further losses. The move took MediaCom from having its worst year in 2016 to having its best year in 2017, scoring new clients including Richemont and Uber.

"Now, when someone asks 'what are the characteristics to be successful in business?' for me, above all else, it comes down to that relentlessness," Allan explained.

The media boss isn't the only proponent of rejection and failure in the journey to success. Other business leaders, from Bill Gates to Mark Cuban, have spoken emphatically about the role failure has had in their building their careers. Even Hollywood stars Will Smith and Sebastian Stan have spun the spotlight on their shortcomings.

3 tips for building your career:

Allan, who started work straight out of high school and in less than three decades progressed to global CEO, outlined his three tips for making it to the top.

1. If you've got a good idea, share it

"Sometimes the cleverest person in the room may not be the most successful," said Allan, noting that you also have to make sure your ideas are heard. "You've got to speak up."

2. Get involved in new projects

Making yourself heard also means putting your hand up for new projects and work that may be outside of your comfort zone. That can help put you on the radar of more senior colleagues and help you progress up the ranks, said Allan.

3. Ask questions

Asking questions not only demonstrates your interest in the work you're doing, but can also help you get to know about other areas of the company and new opportunities for your career.

"I used to ask a lot of questions at school, and I'm not sure I've ever lost that," said Allan.

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