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.”

The new, new thing in my tackle box…

I don’t think many kids say to themselves, “When I grow up I want to be in marketing communications.” Things like fireman, astronaut and teacher yes but not copywriter or art director. Even now, in the technology age, I’m betting children don’t comprehend jobs like ours let alone want to do them. Or do they?

When I was a boy I wanted to be a fishing guide. I loved fishing, was obsessed by it. My friends and I would get up at 4AM and march down to Belmont Harbor at Lake Michigan and we’d pull in over a hundred yellow perch before sunrise. The trick was to use meat from crayfish tails as bait (not worms) and to fish off the bottom with a bell sinker (not bobber). Minnows worked but they were a hassle. Floats and worms were for amateurs. We also fished the Lincoln Park lagoons. Believe it or not I once caught a 32-inch Northern Pike in one of them!

Anyway, the hobby (we didn’t think it sport) was everything to me. I joined fishing clubs. Subscribed to the magazines. Owned more outlandish tackle than any 13 year-old needed. Like I said, I was obsessed. One time my old man (who hated fishing) took me down south for bass fishing, with a real guide, using plastic worms like the pros, and I caught a fish my very first cast. I was a Bass Master! And man did I want to be a fishing guide.

When adolescence kicked in, chasing girls and good times became far more interesting than tracking fish. Besides, after drinking beers all night in my friend’s basement getting up at 4AM was not going to happen.

Fade to black. I became an ad guy. And guess what? Finding fish and figuring out how to catch them is as good a definition of marketing communications as any. Looked at this way new media is really just the latest bait, more crazy lures in the tackle box. Whether you’re a copywriter or a guru of social media, you’re fishing guides just like me. Funny, huh?

What about you, Gentle Reader: What did you want to be when you were a child? Is your current position completely the opposite or cannily similar?

“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.

I was born moody…

Are we having fun?

I ask because sometimes I think we take ourselves too seriously. I know I do. I also know it’s often a character defect disguised as something noble, like integrity or being a hard worker.

And while I think everyone could benefit from lightening up, I’m primarily talking about us folks in the advertising business. Obviously, doctors need to take themselves seriously. (I want mine to.) Plenty of other vocations demand a more serious attitude.

But we in Adland are not one of those groups. Nor should we be. First of all, we don’t make anything. Our product is ideas. Each one of us is a creator or a facilitator of creation. Therefore, when we take our craft too seriously we risk playing God. It’s okay to debate whether what we do is art or commerce or both. However, we go too far when we think of marketing ideas as precious. They are not. And despite what your mother told you, you are not either. We may be talented. We are certainly lucky. Said another way: what we do isn’t precious but that we get to do it is.

I’ve always considered my job one of the greatest blessings I’ve ever received, be it through hard work, good luck or likely both. And I’m not just talking about now. I loved my first years at Leo Burnett as much, if not more, than any other time in my life. And that’s saying a lot because I love my current job. Love it.

Advertising (or whatever we’re calling it) has been very, very good to me and to a lot of people. You, I hope. Though our business is changing, perhaps diminishing, it’s still one hell of a gig. I won’t waste space selling the proposition. You know what I mean. Next time you’re at a dinner party or something similar, take note of what the other guests do for a living. We are surrounded by traders, financial advisers, retailers, lawyers, and, sadly, the unemployed or underemployed. High salaries or not, in good times and bad, I wouldn’t trade places with any of them. Would you? (Note: teachers are pretty special; they are an exception. ☺)

That is not to say we should get on high horses. I suggest we count our lucky stars and say a prayer to the Gods of Advertising and to God period that we get to do what we get to do. Those of us still gainfully employed in this ephemeral task should lighten up. If any group should be whistling while they work it’s us!

Special note: I’m unsure of this writing. I wrote it some days ago when my mood was better. Now, I worry it’s more wishful thinking or even magical thinking. Lord knows, there’s plenty to fret and wonder about when it comes to our business. I’m also considering the many creative directors who’ve recently resigned their seemingly wonderful jobs. Why? I’m afraid the answers are in conflict with my above points. What do you think?