Thursday, March 6, 2008

survivor's guide to starting out in the business

Received email from the other side of the planet this morning (don't you love how this blog thing makes us all so we are the world?) Reader says:

I just need to rant this out.

I am a so-called greenhorn copywriter in this ad agency, and I hate my Art Director. Seriously, I have not harboured so much hate in me, and since no one I knows is in this business, I needed an asnwer for this question.

There's this colleague of mine who had this idea of which she actually copied from an ad book for award-winning projects/pieces. She now wanted me to write a copy for her, in the same direction using different words. Or maybe using different ways but still along the line of the original idea from the book. She and this AD somehow managed to convince our boss and here am I..disgruntled and working 'unhappily' to come up with the copy.

Previously I worked as an interning journalist in a newspaper and decided to switch because I felt the advertising field is far more creative but now that I'm here it seems like the creativity is all coming from other people and these people are just improvising. Is it the life advertising field leads to?

I'm just so fucking fed-up, so based on ur experience as a copywriter, does that mean that I dont fit in here?


Btw, I'm 25.

Oh, and I dont see you as an 'agony aunt' to whom anyone can write in to, to ask for advices, but I seriously do not know where else to vent this frustration. Sorry if you find this irritating. *chuckle*

First, thanks for the read and for troubling to write, Reader. I think there are two questions you're asking here.

Short term: should you write copy for the cribbed ad? (Hey, why not tell her to just lift the copy from the book, only kidding.) I wouldn't write for the lifted ad if there is a way to avoid it. If you feel you must, maybe you could pretend to start writing the copy, then in doing so, come up with a fresher approach to the problem and try to sell your AD on presenting it. Or--is there a way to discreetly get to the boss and alert him to the problem? This can be tricky, though, because he might not care that the ad is a ripoff. You'd be surprised how many people in the business don't, who say there are only so many ideas in the world and they've all been used up, so why not use one all over again.

If you encounter this attitude on the part of your boss--or suspect that you would--you're in the wrong place. The shop where you start is very important because in a way, it can actually determine the course of your career. Did you have a tracking system in high school, with some kids on "trades" tracks, others "university"? That's not dissimilar to the way things work in the agency world. If you've "taken the right courses", ie worked at "the right shops", you'll find it much easier to get to places where the creative means something and you can win awards which translates into more money and better jobs at even better places, or at least not worse ones.

Is your shop a good shop, creatively speaking? Is it a place where you can learn from people whose work you admire? If not, start looking around. What shop would you most like to work for? Make contact with the ECD there. When I was in my twenties I found myself briefly at a BDA (hi, George) and made a point of going to an industry luncheon where the ECD of A Great Shop was talking about a subject that was considered groundbreaking at the time: agencies getting computers for the creative department. I went up to meet him after the talk, wrote him a letter (admiring, but not fawning) and was called in for an interview and was working there a month later. The business is actually a small world and it's amazingly easy to find ways to make a personal connection with someone in it you admire. You might wonder why a name in the business would make time for you. But any name in the business who's actually good knows that maintaining creative chops means remaining plugged in and connected with young people. Your age (or lack thereof) is a commodity you can trade on, something you have to offer that his botoxed-up cronies on the golf course don't.

But maybe you don't have the luxury of switching jobs right away. Job market is tight and your rent is the GNP of a small nation. In this case, Scamp has sage words of advice:

Plenty of great teams started in not-so-good agencies. The key is what you do when you get there. You don't settle. You don't sit on your arse. You spend all your spare time working on the one good account they do have. And the rest of your time working on your spec book. When my partner and I were at a rubbish agency, we spent every night working on our book. Not once a week. Every night.

Don't do what your AD did, lift an ad hoping you won't be found out. Eventually (it's a small business, remember?) you will be outed. Which will reverse any progress you managed to make in building creative credence. Study the ads in the book you like. Figure out why you like them, what makes them good. Then, give yourself an assignment. Pick a product the agency has, that no one wants to work on. Do a concept exploratory on it. Take your work to someone in the shop whose creative opinion you respect--there must be someone. Work with this person to make your book better. All the while, be calling around to people working at the shops you want to work at. Don't ask for a job. Ask for a five-minute meeting to get some advice. People in this business love to give advice. They're always trying to give it and no one--especially clients--ever want to listen. . (Look how long you got me to go on, despite the fact I've got a 4 pm deadline!) Speed-meeting will get you networking with the right people and networking is how you get the best jobs which are never advertised on monster or in the backs of trade journals.

On your longer term question: are you in the right business? Rest assured that everyone--me and anyone who reads this --has questioned their career choice at one time or another. Advertising, as you know, isn't like it is in the movies. True, it's a lot more creative than most businesses (like journalism) are, but bottom line, it's a business, it's not doing art. That's why commercials are, well, called commercials. People outside the business assume ad agencies are zany hothouses full of crazy creatives, but sadly it seems there is less and less room for right brain thinking in these days of earnings reports and holding companies and management teams driven by fear of stockholders. But I still think it's the most fun you can have making money.

Best of luck to you. Hope something here helps. Perhaps others have thoughts they'll share with you in the comments.


Anonymous said...

The best piece of advice I ever received was: work at the best agency you can.

It's a lot easier to get people to talk to you if you can say "I was at Crispin when Bogusky was there" or something like that.

That said, an even better piece of advice is: do the very best work you can. Then, like Bogusky, you may not even need to leave your agency because you will make the agency.

And that, friends, is my pipe dream.

Anonymous said...

Sound advice, Ad Broad. And Daily Biz is correct. Start out at a bad place and you're at the back of the pack for consideration at the agency you may want to try for. Best piece of advice I would give? Go into journalism. I wish I was spending my life doing something that mattered a bit more than pushing computers, deodorant and insurance products. I don't know what it's like on that side of the fence, however. May be the same set of problems. Gotta talk to a journalist, as well.

Alan Wolk said...

@DB: I received similar advice. Something to the effect of "there's an Ivy League in advertising and if you work at one of those shops, you'll be able to ride that out for the rest of your career." If nothing else, I've found, your co-workers continue to wind up at better shops where they are in a position to get your hired as well.

@Auntie: Be glad you're in advertising. This is the worst time ever to be in journalism- newspapers and magazines are shedding staff left and right and it's not like someone else is picking up the slack.

Without going into my whole theory of why blogging became popular because mainstream journalism dropped the ball, suffice it to say that my friends who are journos are not feeling real secure these days.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

I agree, DB. Even if you have to take lower pay to start out at a good place, it will probably net you much more in the end.

Auntie C-I agree with Toad on the journalism thing. Most journos aren't foreign correspondents, they're hacks on metro beats, writing on, say, industries pushing computers, deoderants and insurance. Which sort of puts us in the same boat, doesn't it? Except we earn more.

Toad--interesting theory of why blogosphere combusted, hope you'll post on this.

Anonymous said...

Ever go on sites like Ads of the World and see how many commentors say things like, "Well, the concept's been done before, but it's still a good ad.'

WTF??? I've had the good fortune to work at several top agencies, and if I'd ever, EVER cribbed work, I'd have been out on my arse in ten seconds.

I've actually heard young creatives state that there's a "statute of limitations" on concepts in award books.

I'm not THAT old, but I guess some things have passed me by. Such as the concept of thou shalt not steal.

Joker said...

My take on it. Some places love to copy work and as long as they have an award to show to a client, they don't care how you got it. Yes, the shit does get that dirty. As for your relationship with your director, acquiescing will have you in the hotseat and if this bitch is nice enough to purposely tell you she lifted an ad, she's also more than willing to pin the blame on you. As stated by the above comments, it's a big world and a small industry, if you fuck up big enough, it'll be hard to escape that reputation.

About working at the best places or the whole good shop VS bad shop... If you work at a great shop yet are still a newbie, odds are you will get shit work and be overworked or maybe I'm just projecting my experience. The other thing hinted at in the various comments is that you should work on your book and that you definitely should because like it or not, your best work is more than likely never to get published, unless you luck out or convince your way into at least one publishing of your ad.

it's never easy to work with someone you can't stand and much less when you're getting pestered into doing something that feels wrongs, smells wrong as is wrong. Let her bitch and moan and if she's too bothersome, you might get confronted by a CD asking why you haven't made the ad and your reply might go on the lines of "it reminds me too much of an ad and I'm not sure it's something we should do. Moreover, I thought it through and we can also do these two options." If the art director gets too feisty, say that you'd love to not care if she cribbed something and did damage to her rep, but seeing as you're the other half of her duo, you have to watch out for the interest of both.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

Statute of limitations? I hadn't heard that one before, Anonymous.

Joker, excellent advice, thanks. Coincidentally, this reader emailed again today, I'll tell her to re-check comments here for further enlightenment.