The Tuesday Rant: Advertising Martyrdom

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Volume 12 In a Series By Felix

When I first entered the ad industry, I did so as a naïve and wide-eyed college grad. I had a book full of great concepts for stupid crap (hole-proof socks was one of the genius fake products my tutor from Saatchi’s had suggested). I had tons of print, outdoor, TV and radio, with not one hint of direct mail or long copy. And I was ready to be taken in by the welcoming arms of the industry, a glamorous business of which so many movies and TV shows had painted a very rosy picture.

To say I came down to Earth with a thud would be like saying the Titanic hit a snow cone. Not only was the industry not welcoming, it was downright rude and arrogant. I remember writing over 100 letters to every agency I could think of. I got 15 interviews. I was offered two jobs (all this took about five months). One job offered low pay at a through-the-line shop. The other offered almost no pay at an above-the-line agency.

Burdened with college loans, the high costs of big-city life, and having a more than humble background, I had to choose the low pay; and kiss goodbye to an entry-level writer’s job in a renowned agency. This, as I found, was the first of many decisions that I would have to chalk up to advertising martyrdom.

A few years later, with some real work in the book, some nice awards and some solid direction from great CDs and senior teams, my AD and I were called upon by a few headhunters. And once again, the choices given to us were diametrically opposed. We could take a massive jump in pay (almost 70%) and go work at one of the largest, and most pedestrian, direct mail shops in the country. Or, we could take a cut in pay and work for a bigger, better agency. Two choices: big pay, dull work. Crappy pay, good work.

My AD and I were young, we had no family ties, so we bit the bullet, took the pay cut and proceeded to work our asses off for substantially less than we had previously been earning. This, in fact, was almost a blessing as we now had no social life to spend any money on anyway. We got to work early. We stayed late. We slept at the agency. Sometimes, we showered there. And as we sat there one night (or should that be early morning) chewing on cold pizza, guzzling warm beer and boarding up work for the fifth big pitch in as many weeks, we comforted ourselves that one day, this would pay off. Lay the foundation, build the career.

After a year at that agency, we were spent. Done. Our bank accounts were in the red; our book was bursting with unused spec work for pitches and lots of “bread and butter” clients. And once again, the headhunters called. Same choices, more or less. Go for the big pay at a shop known for doing mediocre work, or go to a place that did great work but was well-known for being a low-paying sweat shop. We spent days debating it. Could we go through it all again? We decided it was worth it, in the long run. And for another 18 months we were ran into the ground.

It was at this point that we had a serious change of heart. We’d spent several years killing ourselves for the chance to get good work in the book. The agencies we worked for had done very, very well out of us, billing us out at 10-20 times what we were getting paid. We had won awards for them. We had helped them grow. And our reward was no sleep, low pay and a social life you could only describe as moribund. Things had to change.

We hauled the book all over town and talked to friends in the bigger shops. It was the same story everywhere. The agencies that had the premium brands and killer budgets worked people to death, squeezing them like ripe oranges and discarding them when they were out of juice. The agencies that paid you a living wage did work that ranged from “not too bad” to dogshit. Sorry, that’s really the only way to describe #10 mailing packs for credit cards. And even the most senior teams at the big agencies were victims to advertising martyrdom; screw the social life, forget the money; it’s all about the work. It left us wondering, when exactly is the big payoff? When does laying the foundation end?

We jumped ship. We become martyrs of a different kind, sacrificing the job offer from the good agency for an offer from a small, start-up shop that promised good pay, decent hours and the chance at the occasional good client. Our friends in the big shops saw us as sellouts, we saw them as the real martyrs; creating ads day and night to make someone else richer and more successful.

The small shop we worked at grew and grew, and the work got better and better. Strangely, our pay increased at a decent rate, too. For a while, we couldn’t believe our luck. But, of course, as the better clients came along, so did the longer hours. And once again, headhunters offered us the choices we had always been presented with.

Now, with many years under my belt, I have discovered that this is what most creatives go through for most of their careers. And it seems to me like we’re letting people get away with it. Other industries reward hard work; in advertising, you have to pay the price for putting great work in your book. Reject the “life” and you could spend the rest of your career writing real estate brochures or art-directing catalogs for Jake Jabs.

Is this something we can change, people? Or is this simply the nature of the beast? Why should you fear taking a job at a good agency because you know you’re about to become a slave? Why should you have to do poor work to earn a decent living? Did we make the industry what it is, or did the industry make us accept its terms? I know one thing for sure; this is certainly not the glamorous profession it was in the heady days of Mad Men. Maybe now, mad men (and women) would be a more apt description for the crazy nature of creatives and what they sacrifice for a shot at a decent piece of work. Just a thought.


I fear that if any of us are to get to the place we want to be we must rise together and slay this beast that wishes to continue the hate filled spiral of unfulfilled promises made to us.

Yes, Felix, many creatives have the experience you describe. And many don’t. There can be reward if you win National and International awards. Fair or not, this is the truth. Eventually, you work less and make more. If you’re extremely talented, the payoff comes.

Secret: If you’re willing to not sleep at all, you can take on freelance clients that have nothing to do with your agency. Double the ladder climbing, double the fun. Most of the time, anyway :)

From someone on the severely jaded side of advertising, I just don’t think it’s worth it most times. I hear people feeling this awesome rush when they make groundbreaking creative but how many times does that creative get produced? I’ve had so many decent, good and noteworthy ads killed because of opinions from CD’s CEO’s and anyone else who chooses to have a job with an acronym title. True, winning awards might very well pave the way to a better quality of life, but this is by no means a given and you can find yourself in the situation you described where you produce tons of great work, get your agency some business and are rewarded by scraps and pats on the back. I dunno, makes you think quite a bit before committing to an agency if you ask me. Regardless, great post and further evidence that Advertising Sucks quite a lot more than it should.

If God had wanted advertising creatives to be great all the time, he would have made them fine artists.

Though I’m no an ad man myself, I’m curious if it’s possible that the climb up the subordinate ladder described in this post omits the next logical step, or plunge as it may be, in an ambitious advertising career: start your own creative agency. With a strong portfolio, professional network and ability to accrue substantial debt, entrepreneurship opens the possibility to transcend the predicament of seemingly mutually exclusive choices described above: creative freedom or financial security.

Of course when you play to win, you can also lose big, but I imagine that is why your superiors leave you with only a pittance of the client billing price—they contribute something more than sweat and skill, money. This is nothing novel, new, or unique to the advertising industry; those willing to take a calculated risk, are the ones who may see substantial monetary returns.

The question then is not whether to work at an uninspired, well-paying firm, or a progressive sweatshop, but which one will you create?

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