Careers can be had in Adland but almost certainly not at the same company. Whether one resides on the client side of marketing or plies his craft at an agency, transiency is a fact of life. People come and people go, some egregiously, but most harmoniously. Such is the ebb and flow between marketing’s coral reefs. Few denizens stick around.

Back in the day, a new employee may have entered into a marketing position, say at Kraft Foods or Leo Burnett, envisioning a full career spent in service to his company. That was during the time of gold anniversary watches and company pension plans. Alas, these and most other markers of solidarity are gone. Long gone.

Looking back I can safely say I was among the last rookie classes that actually believed it possible to stay at one company for an entire career. For a long while it appeared I just might. I remained at the Leo Burnett Company for over 15 years (happily, I might add), entering as a junior copywriter exiting as the Chief Creative Officer of an agency within that agency, LBWorks. During that time I even sat among the company’s board of directors. Heady stuff.

But then I took another job. And then another…

I’ve been in my current position as ECD of gyro, San Francisco for almost two years. If you compare that to my marathon tenure at LBCO, it is but a short sprint. However, compared to my fellow colleagues not only am I not considered new I am probably more tenured that half of them! Said another way, since I began my job a dozen or more folks have joined us and about that many have left.

Reef hopping!

Welcome to Adland, circa 2014. Turnover is commonplace, even normal. Not necessarily indicative of toxicity or any other malady, the myriad species of marketing fish merely change reefs when something shiny distracts them. Why stay? With no equity to be had, or long-term promises to be kept, both employee and employer are part of an ever-changing and fluid ecosystem. Nowadays, and for some time really, we have become so accustomed to transiency that even thinking about a 5-year plan makes us cross eyed.

I don’t believe in reminiscing and I won’t do it here. There are pros and cons to this new world order. But make no mistake it is our reality. Like professional sports, our teams change every season. To remain competitive, one must adapt.

For one thing that means taking it all in stride. Do not look at departures as grave warning signs unless they are part of a mass exodus, which, we must note, are typically referred to as lay-offs. When people do quit, HR still conducts exit interviews, searching for reasons why.

Well here’s one I actually heard: “They offered me a few more bucks and some new things to work on. I figured it might be fun. If it doesn’t work out I’ll come back or try somewhere else.”

How the f**k do you counter that? Why even try? A better move is to thank the man for his great service, sincerely wish him good luck and then offer someone else a few more bucks and some new things to work on. The good news is your mother was right. There are plenty of fish in the sea.


“In the room the women come and go,
Talking of Michaelangelo.”

-T.S. Elliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Although completely irrelevant, I always think of Elliot’s line whenever people come and go in Adland, which happens more than ever these days. Turnover at agencies and other marketing companies is at an all time high. Many of our denizens last only a year or so in their current positions, coming and going with little fanfare. Often of their own volition. Other times not.

Either way, the migratory patterns are erratic, frequent and seemingly inevitable. One day Jack is cranking out a media plan and the next day he’s gone. Granted, the dissolution of company incentives, paired with challenging economic realities, make transience in the work force a reality for many professions. But in few more so than ours. “That’s advertising,” sighs a bewildered colleague upon discovering another cube mate has flown the coop.

“Job hopping” in Adland. Common as crappy stock photography.

Some of us also jump to conclusions, reckoning a few departures denote an exodus, “It’s like a revolving door around here.” We blame the agency, citing a rote list of flaws. We wonder if we should jump ship as well. We “feel” it’s time for change. Use caution, boys and girls. Feelings are not facts.

I especially love it when clients raise their eyebrows at agency turnover, especially given their rampant infidelities, most hardly willing to make agency commitments lasting longer than a few quarters. In addition, it is well documented that CMO’s have among the shortest tenures of any profession.

Ah, but the grass is greener at the agency down the street. Your paycheck might be incrementally greener but often that’s about it. Be wary of seductive new bosses, promises of better assignments and that badass floor plan. The “geographic cure” is a futile one. Two months into a new gig and the job hopper feels as he did before: restless, irritable and discontent. Alas, it has always been easier to change surrounding than one’s self. Ask any alcoholic.

“I’m certain there’s greener grass on other side of the hill!”

Besides, if turnover is necessarily a symptom of agency malignancy then why are even the best agencies in the world rife with it? The headhunter’s siren song compels people out of Goodby same as into it.

Regarding agency culture: It is as ephemeral as a sunny day. A few clouds roll in and it withers. No matter where you are, lose a few pitches and the air gets really hard to breathe really fast. And do not mistake an agency’s credentials for a winning culture. A slick website could be masking a sick job site. Similarly, don’t judge an agency on its best campaigns. For every princess in the castle there are three ugly stepsisters. Alas, even Paris has its ghettoes.

For better or worse, we have become tribal nomads, forever moving and hunting smaller and thinner prey. In this lean and hungry context agency turnover makes complete sense. I suppose it’s bittersweet. The fat and happy lifer is a thing of the past.

There are many more facets to this discussion, variables I have not valued here. While my history is one of staying put, I do not disparage those of you who’s resumes are long. But take heed. Some of the very best decisions I’ve ever made involved saying three words: “No, thank you.”

“You want a sign-on bonus and 6 months severance?
How ’bout I get drunk instead?”

A lot of you seemed to appreciate my last post about creative people and ignorance when it comes to employment contracts. I’m grateful my advice was helpful. I sympathize if it came too late. I’m also appreciative for the smart discussion that followed in the comments section. Veteran creative bigwig, Tom Messner and executive recruiter, Anne Ross covered territory I had neglected…

For instance, there is help for us. But we often avoid it. Leery creatives tend to view lawyers and headhunters with trepidation, thinking them an unnecessary expense or worse, sharks. That is not a prudent valuation of their worth. A good go-between allows you, the prospective employee, to remain clear of potentially difficult conversations that need to take place in order for you to get the best possible deal. For mid-level or senior creatives such advocacy can be a huge advantage. Actually, it helps both parties. You get an aggressive negotiator. They get a learned one. It’s fallacy to perceive them as costly distraction. They are often the opposite. Sure, in a perfect world the company comes at you with all the goodies but this is an imperfect world, especially in Adland, especially now.

A second matter I washed over is severance. In our ignorance (or is it arrogance?), creatives like to think they are incapable of failure. “Just give me the damn brief!” But bad things happen to good people. More likely the agency simply changes from the one that hired you. Your boss quits or gets axed; where does that leave you? If it happens higher up it might be a “change of control.” In either event protective measures may exist for you…

Reality check: I know many jobs posted on Linkedin and Monster are “as is.” But if you’re talking to a company about a leadership position in their creative department, it probably wasn’t from a job posting.

This brings me to my final point: we must be deserving of attention in order to receive it. You need to be good and able to prove it. If there isn’t evidence on the table, or enough of it, then you’ll need to demonstrate your potential upside to the company. How one does this is topic for another post. Suffice to say, none of the information above is relevant for amateurs, journeymen or sons-of-bitches. Well, maybe the last group gets lucky once in a while.

An artist staring at the truth...

Johnking1956, The Man who would be King is a new blog worthy of our attention. Without breaking his anonymity, John King is the pseudonym of an AD/Creative Director, who used to work at a big ad agency in Chicago before getting laid off and moving to Reno to ply his trade at a resort casino. That alone makes for an interesting tale, right? I mean the creative department of a casino sounds more like the set a reality TV show than a job.

But then the recession hit, clobbering the real estate and gaming industry, nowhere worse than second tier markets like Reno. King found himself out of work. Again. Adding injury to insult, severe back problems, first encountered while working in Hong Kong, came back with a vengeance, filling King’s days with debilitating pain and copious amounts of morphine. He wears a plastic girdle-like brace to keep his spine true and may have to install a morphine pump into his body.

It’s not pretty or easy being King. However, he is still determined to find work. His blog is about that journey, a journey that begins each morning with more pain than you and I, God forbid, will ever know. What makes the story utterly compelling in the man’s bracing optimism in the face of these hardships.

This is one of those stories that breaks your heart but can lift your spirit as well. King’s tale reminds me of Mickey Rourke’s Oscar winning turn in The Wrestler. It’s that painful. That poignant. That good. You cringe but endlessly root for him.

King is talented and deserves another shot. But he is a hard hit man in a hard hit industry and place. Recovery for him or it is far from certain.

And yet, he’s chosen to blog about it.

Not to sound like a film trailer, but if you need to be reminded of the strength of the human spirit this holiday season, consider The Man who would be King:

I just returned from my stint at Portfolio Night –the 6th annual meet and critique for advertising students set up by IHaveAnIdea. In a format not unlike speed dating, old “pros” like myself review aspiring creative persons and their books, one after another, for about three hours. The event takes place every year in various cities around the world. For the second year in a row DDB served as host in Chicago.

First: Kudos to DDB.

Hosting Portfolio Night is a costly, time-consuming distraction for a busy ad agency -especially one that has weathered such difficult times. As with a lot of Chicago agencies, business has not been booming. More devastatingly, just months ago, DDB’s Chief Creative Officer, Paul Tilley committed suicide. Last year, that same man stood before a similar group welcoming us to Portfolio Night.

How easy it would have been for DDB to beg off. Justifiable too. But the show must go on. In the end it was affirming seeing all these young faces, their lives still in front of them. Yes, one creative light had gone out. But now countless others were looking for a spark.

Unfortunate then, the mean-spiritedness I discovered online. One blogger deemed Portfolio Night an excuse for leering, lechery and drinking. Not true. Not fair. Not good. If any cynics were present, DDB’s Worldwide Chief Creative Officer, Bob Scarpelli offered simple marching orders. In a video address, he asked we professionals to remember who’d helped us when we were green and vulnerable.

On a more professional note, I have to comment on the work. Not so much on the quality (a mixed bag) but on the content itself. Of the eight people I reviewed, I saw virtually no integrated campaigns. Just about every portfolio consisted of posters and print ads. One or two had a banner ad or a piece of guerrilla work. But I saw no DM, promotional work or interactive materials. None. Where were the tricked out microsites and new media? Where was the “branded content” and multimedia designs? Hell, where was the TV?

2008 and these were the newest generation of adults -the so-called “millennials.”  Yet, in some cases, I might as well have been looking at turn-of-the-century circus posters! Now I happen to love print and posters. But I’m old school. For me, that’s familiar media. That’s what my spec book looked like. Indeed, I dug into these beginners with gusto: This is a good headline. Did you try putting the product here? And so on…

It wasn’t until the cab ride home I realized how old-fashioned their books were. Made me smile. If, according to just about everyone, the advertising business is in the midst of a sea change then why wasn’t it evident in any of the books I looked at? It’s easy (though often incorrect) to point at big agencies and say we don’t get it. What about the Facebook generation? If they don’t get it, who does?