I Tripled My Salary in 4 Years—Here's How
MyDomaine's new career series, Raise the Bar, invites women to open up about a topic that's still considered taboo: salary. In an honest, anonymous discussion, women with years of industry experience pen a timeline showing how their salary has changed and the biggest lessons they have learned with each pay increase or setback. Here are the tactics that actually work, the common pitfalls to avoid, and the steps to be paid what you're worth.
First up, we chat with a 27-year-old advertising director who tripled her salary in just four years.
When Darwin* scored her first job as a Junior Strategist at a major advertising firm, she admits negotiating wasn't top-of-mind. "As I told my mum a couple months in, I’d have paid them to let me do this," she says. While she was instructed that money wasn't up for discussion—the three-year fellowship had a fixed starting salary of U.S. $40,000—research suggests most women don't negotiate when they receive their first job offer. Carnegie Mellon University found that just 7% of female graduates try to negotiate salary, compared to a whopping 57% of men.
When the fellowship ended, she had her first opportunity to ask for a raise—a move that bumped her salary from U.S. $50,000 to U.S. $120,000, thanks to a counter-offer. Now, a Strategy Director at a top-tier firm, she believes it's more important than ever to open up about pay. "The fact that I’ve been actively discouraged from communicating my salary to co-workers is one of the reasons it’s important to do so," she tells MyDomaine. "It’s nothing more than a way for a business to pay you less than you’re worth."
Here's how one woman tripled her salary in four years—and the most valuable lessons she's learned along the way.
Darwin's first industry experience was as an intern at a branding and marketing company. "It was after my third year of college and I was just desperate for work experience," she admits. "I literally Googled and emailed places that were advertising or advertising adjacent." When they invited her to interview for a three-month internship, she jumped at the chance. It was unpaid, although the company gave her U.S. $150 a week to cover travel expenses. "To be honest I was thrilled to get anything since the only job I’d had before that was at a clothing chain, where my mum made me get a job to teach me the value of a dollar," she says.
2012: JUNIOR STRATEGIST
Salary: U.S. $40,000
"I’d so fallen in love with advertising over my three-month internship, and was shocked to be given a spot on this Willy Wonka of an advertising program," she says of her first job, a fellowship program that involved working in a new country and across a different discipline every year for three years. "Compensation was the last thing on my mind."
The terms were clearly set out: "There is no negotiation—it’s fixed for every fellow and they’re pretty strict about no bonuses," she says. "There’s usually a pretty substantial bump in salary after you find a permanent role within the company, though."
2013: MEDIA STRATEGIST
Salary: U.S. $45,000
The fellowship followed a standard salary progression, so Darwin felt it was out of her control. "It had a base rate of $40,000 that goes up by $5,000 each year during the three-year rotation," she says. While she wasn't able to negotiate, she says it taught her the importance of choosing a career based on passion, rather than pay. "I do think there’s value in finding something you love so much you’d be willing to do it for free. You'll be so passionate and dedicated that the money will come."
2015: SENIOR PLANNER
Salary: U.S. $50,000
During the third year of the program, Darwin was faced with a decision: End the fellowship in Asia, where she was stationed, and finally receive a pay bump to transition to a new role within the company, or extend the fellowship by a year and relocate to the U.S. as part of the rotation. "I decided the experience of another year on the program was more valuable than getting to the pay bump early," she says.
"It’s also notoriously harder to get the ‘right’ permanent home after the fellowship if you’re not living in the market. Honestly, I was living with my fiancé at the time so between the two of us bringing home a pretty decent wage, it wasn’t too much of a concern."
2016: SENIOR STRATEGIST
Salary: U.S. $120,000
When the fellowship ended, she was in an ideal position to negotiate. "The company asked me to stay and presented me with an offer letter of $120,000 and a Director role," she says. The offer was higher than she'd expected, thanks to the work of a mentor who advocated on her behalf. "When [they] reached out to him, $120,000 was the amount he put forward—likely far higher than I would have advocated for on my behalf," she says. The most powerful lesson she learned from this exchange? "If you know the range of a salary don’t assume you should ask for the mid-range. Men don’t."
While the salary offer was tempting, she didn't accept. "The role I really wanted was at [another firm] but they weren’t prepared to offer me a Director title. Their original salary offer was about $100,000," she recalls. So, she used the original offer as leverage: "I told them, ‘This is the job I really want, but as much as I love this role and this agency, it’s tricky to agree to both a lower title and a lower salary." she asked them to match the salary offer, knowing that they wouldn't budge on the title. "They came back within a couple days with $120,000."
The takehome? "I think its psychologically easier to point to what someone else is offering you than to push for it yourself," she says. "I’m not saying this is a good thing but it can be a helpful temporary device until there are more transparency and a higher comfort level with negotiations."
2018: STRATEGY DIRECTOR
Salary: U.S. $120,000
"Currently, I’ve been given a promotion in name only, and have been told to wait until ‘July/August at the earliest’ before even beginning to talk about [money]," she says of her new role. While her manager is supportive, she notes that no one else has raised the topic of salary.
"This is really the first time I’ll be faced with a salary negotiation where it will be frowned upon to have come with counter-offer from somewhere else," she says. "But whispers are that a counter letter is the only way to get a raise because it puts you on a ‘different’ list that has its own pot of money associated with it." So, the question is, now what?
Her top advice to others is particularly poignant, given her current situation. "Negotiate for yourself like you would if you were having to fight for the salary of a colleague you really respect," she says. "It's like that Harvey Specter quote: 'Ever loved someone so much you would do anything for them? Yeah, well, make that someone yourself and do whatever the hell you want.'"
How has your salary changed over the course of your career? Let us know if the comments if you'd like to share your story in our next installment of Raise the Bar.
* Names have been changed.