The Madmen series probably drove a lot of interest in careers in advertising. Its hero, if you could call him that, is Don Draper, who dons a variety of drapes to conceal his intentions and proclivities from his wives, colleagues, and himself. But he’s a cool, sharp cookie, drinking hard liquor before noon and sucking Lucky Strikes, ostensibly because they’re toasted, doing chicks on the side, and picking up a French bride because his first one was either too beautiful or called him out for being a cad and lying in general or for other reasons I can’t recall. No matter.
As an advertising creative hopeful, you might be enrolled in an ad program somewhere or hoping to break your way into the business as a copywriter or art director. You peruse the awesome creative to be found in One Show Annuals or CA Ad annuals, and think, wow, I want to do that. You see ads on TV, most of which are awful, and you think, I could do better than that. And I’m sure you could with some training and a decent creative brief and a creative director and an account team who care about creative. And while many agencies do care about creative, many don’t. While they may be in the ad business but they are in the end businesses. And many of them today are part of holding companies run by people who don’t give a fig for creativity unless it brings in money. Sometimes it does, but it’s a lot easier to acquiesce to a client’s moronic ideas and bill the crap out them and call it a day. And heaven forbid you recommend that they don’t need a TV spot or paid post or whatever because those would just be a waste of their money. The account team would gag at the thought of not doing something that would earn the agency money, regardless of ridiculousness the ask. But I digress.
Advertising can be rewarding, fun, and very remunerative. But it can be a crashing bore, relentlessly tedious, and drain you of a personal life, especially when you’re starting out, paying your dues as they say and putting in 60 to 80 hours a week. But if you survive time in the trenches and advance or simply continue being exceedingly good at what you do, sooner or later, there will be a younger version of yourself, eager to do what you do, for half of what you worked your way to earning with practice, diligence, and the usual politicking that comes with any job. Case in point: an agency with which I am somewhat familiar just lost a big account, and through no fault of the creatives, it needed to shed some FTEs, the polite acronym for full-time equivalent, you know actual employees with salaries and benefits. You’d think the shedding would start with the newer hires, those just learning the ropes. But you’d be wrong. Since advertising and creative output are terribly subjective endeavors, no one knows what really works. It’s a big fucking guess whether that clever ad or guerilla tactic will drive sales or build brand equity, whatever the fuck that is. So, the bean counters are like, what the hell. Let those folks who’ve been around and have gotten a steady increase in salary over the years (however modest) go and keep their juniors at half the cost or more. The agency can still claim to provide what clients want, insist they are crazily creative, etc. Of course, doing this is fundamentally stupid, as the seasoned veterans can generate more ideas, more quickly, and arrive at feasible solutions to marketing problems without pursuing ideas that their experience tells them would be a waste of time. Life at the agency goes on, however miserably. Clients continue to get ideas, however mediocre. And a dozen or so people find themselves looking for work. Now you might imagine that when business picked up, those skilled practitioners who were “let go” (like they were kites or something) would be asked to return to the agency they worked hard for, some for many years. But you’d be wrong again. That never happens. Never.
So, my advice is to approach this career choice carefully. The creative part of the business is being overtaken by data whoremongers, so getting products to be sold in front of people who ALREADY have an interest in buying those products. So, the need to stand out, to present attention-getting ideas recedes and just presenting the gizmo and offering a coupon will suffice. A small handful of boutique agencies will continue to do wonderful work. Then they grow, get bought, the principals retire at 50, and the whole business starts again. If you enter the business, plan your second career as you go, you know, the one to fall back on when your agency loses that big account and has to let you go, leaving you to drift in the wind.
This long lament might be true for any number of careers, where older, better paid, yet seasoned professionals find themselves looking for work at age 45 or 50 or later. Somewhere along the way, the relationships between employers and employees became nothing but transactional. A company’s devotion to its people and community and citizenry at large has become a quaint and decidedly nostalgic bit of whimsy laid to rest at the altar of increasing shareholder value, delivering wealth to shareholders who don’t give a flying fart for anything but their returns. McDonald’s is always hiring.
©2020 John Hofmeister. Feel free to forward with appropriate recognition of the guy who wrote this: me.
For other articles in this vein, see https://www.jhofmeister.com/musings/considering-a-career-in-advertising-a-few-warnings
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me.