Thursday, May 6, 2010

Losing your Big Job in Advertising

It’s not nice for anyone, but if you’re a parent with young kids (ie me) the primal thought that floods the mind when you hear that awful ‘We’re sorry…’ from upper management is How am I going to make sure the kids have shelter? Big picture stuff.
So for what it’s worth, if you’re living under the fear of that, or maybe already in the reality of it, here are my Guaranteed Tips to Surviving the Apocalypse™.

1. Be scared. 
Absolutely, for now. You are disrupting the ingrained patterns of a career, possibly a professional lifetime, and that doesn’t happen any animal without a natural degree of terror. The panic is the adjustment period. It is intense, but it will pass, and while it is present know that it is not wrong or counter-productive. It will be followed by a sense of shame, by the way, with a dollop of inadequacy and a sprinkling of hundreds and thousands of humiliations. Ignore all those. Trust me, there is life after the R word.

2. There was no safety net. 
I woke up and stared with sickening dread into the maw of blackness, I will admit, where once no darkness had been. But enough of the poetics. Just because you had it good for a while, and got lulled by the consistency of a rather nice monthly pay cheque, don’t assume that that is a norm for anyone in this line of work. It actually never was. For a while I pined after that security, the blank-minded ability to trust in someone higher up the food chain. There is no security, not in an advertising agency. And once you get used to that idea (it happens sooner than you’d think) it can feel quite liberating. This is you and your wits, and soon enough it will make you see opportunities that you didn’t even consider before.

3. Use the raw materials around you at this moment.
When you've been made redundant you'll usually still have a couple of weeks or even a month with the support system of an office. Use every second to plan what happens next. Use the backup of having a photocopier, free broadband, a list of email contacts, production facilities, paper clips. Within reason, your soon-to-be ex boss will be pliable on these issues. My entire company folded. I had no idea what I would do next for work, but I used the opportunity and a precious chunk of redundancy money to make them an offer for furniture. I got kitting the home office out with some great desks, lockers, storage cabinets and chairs for a tenth of the price it would otherwise have cost. It felt odd. But only for three seconds. After that it felt like the beginnings of a plan.

4. Think short term solutions. 
Not what happens next month, or next year. Baby steps now. Strategise. See point 2 above? Sign on the dole, and set yourself an early exit date. Redundancy money in an ad agency will net you a pathetic max of €1,200 for each year of your employment. You'll whizz through that pretty quickly.
Meanwhile, have you put your portfolio together? If you’re a creative you absolutely have no excuse. Get it together, and when you're at it knock up a few creative ways to get your foot in the next door, stud. You are now your own next brief. The Clio Award is dinner. If you’re in Client Service or Planning or Media, get your CV together. Got case studies you’re proud of? Awards that you can even tangentially lay claim to? Keep notes of all your advantages and write, and rewrite, your CV until you are happy. Then tear it up and write it again in a way that would make an interviewer happy. Give it to recruitment agencies. Don’t bullshit. That worked once upon a time, but our industry is much more picky now.

5. Network your sweet ass off.
There will be a small window when there is a reservoir of good will amongst people towards you and your plight. This will pass because everyone is in the firing line in trad media just now, and also because people can only remember tragedy for so long and then there’s lunch. Use the moment well, let as many people as possible know that you are ‘entering the workforce of the employable’ and ask them to keep eyes, ears and email open for you. Do not be fussy. If someone needs cover for a receptionist or if there’s an art director on holiday for a fortnight, jump in there if you’re lucky enough. Make the biggest impression you can while there. No, that doesn’t include sleeping with the boss.
Everything is networking. Are you on Linkedin? Get there if you're not, and if you are don't just sit there.There are several excellent groups with advertising/marketing content, free networking events and potential short-term contract work. Meet-ups, tweet-ups, web awards, happenings… they are all being attended by adventurers in new media, and like it or lump it, this is where you should be heading. Are you using Twitter to keep an eye on the industry? Does every email you send have your contact points all over the bottom of it? Have you printed your business card? It’ll take €15 or less to design your own and you will need them. I spent a month fooling myself that I worked mainly online now and didn’t - pschaw! – need a business card. I was a fucking idiot.

6. Professional bodies. Join them.
IAPI, the Marketing Institute, ICAD etc etc. This is also networking, and being seen is much more important for you when you don’t have the umbrella of a large organisation to stand under.

7. What is your core talent and how can you show that expertise to the world?
There are a lot of ways to get yourself positive media attention. Set up a YouTube channel offering free advice on direct marketing. Show someone the process of making a radio ad. Set up a blog (you’re reading the one that I set up to cope with redundancy right now) that offers some content that’s relevant to the people you are targetting. Write for business journals that are relevant to your area of smarts. Speak at open events like Ignite. Organise an event of your own if there’s a dearth of happenings in Planning or Media or Copywriting or whatever. Spice it with fun. Fun matters. It also makes you more memorable. Do not expect to get paid for any of these activities.

8. What about the company’s clients?
Have you approached them? Obviously, if you’ve been made redundant and your company is a going concern this is not an option. But if your company is going glug glug don’t waste the opportunity. There might be a continuity gap that needs plugging amongst some of those clients, and your experience may well gain you a critical few weeks of contract work there. Another trick I missed, and it took me quite a while to forgive myself, but that’s a different story.

9. Shyness. Get over it quickly.
Throughout much of my working life I sat at the end of the production line and did what I was told. Suddenly one day there was nobody to tell me. Except me. All the things that I had shied away from, all the awkward ‘I’ll have to justify this’ moments with clients were suddenly either going to have to involve me or not happen. And my kids still needed a roof, so they were going to have to happen.

10. Consider a new departure.
(Breathe in deeply. This is a biggie.) The model of advertising is in a state of flux. Despite the diehard opinion of a few in our old school, change is inevitable. Online communications are growing. Trad media budgets and options are shrinking. A few will be able to continue in the outdated fashion, in the same way that a few manufacturers will still produce those thermal fax paper rolls. Just not very many.

I looked long and hard at advertising and at my role within it when my company went down. I had 18 years of copywriting by that stage, and more big brand experience than I knew what to do with. I wasn’t a leading light in the firmament, I worked a lot of retail trench warfare, but I was steady hands. Given the recession, and the pinch that every agency was starting to feel, I was frankly unemployable and I knew it. If I was about to become a freelancer, in a city with more than enough tradvertising freelancers, I knew I’d need to start learning what was required for me to write to a new audience.

For a copywriter it’s different in some respects, but ultimately it’s the same. Good communication is the same in a banner ad, in a blog post, in online video, on a home page, as it is on a tv or radio ad or a 48 sheet or a DM piece. The gatekeepers happen to be younger agencies, and the topography of the possible is significantly wider, but it is eminently learnable, even by a dino like me. The only enemy is stasis. Let me repeat: THE ONLY ENEMY IS STASIS. 

If you’re overwhelmed about where to start, particularly if you’ve had little or no exposure to online marketing, do not worry. We’re all learning. Pick a spot and begin. Get online. Start cruising relevant industry websites. Follow some local blogs. There is an army of them running down the right hand side of this post, all of them carrying info relevant to what’s going on in the Irish online marketing community. Refine these to what’s most relevant to your own skills base, because you will never keep up with all the content that’s coming at you. Learn to filter it. Find out what Google Reader is. Discover the joys of RSS. Start to discern between the myriad logos out there. It is important in advertising now, for instance, to know what the truly schizophrenic Facebook is up to at any given moment. No, not because of your skiing photos. Because your former clients will want to know how to advertise on it.

Here’s the secret I have been telling everyone for a couple of years now. I learned it by observation of both old and new ad agencies. There is a gap between the models. It is not the chasm it once was. There is a bridge over that gap. It is a one-way bridge. Oddly, digital agency people don’t want to cross from their side to the one where you just lost your job. But you can cross to theirs. And if you know enough to know that you have much to learn about their world, and if you can package all the experience that you now have in a way that allows the digital marketing community to use that precious knowledge, then you aren’t just a makeweight but a very valuable resource. Brand info is always valuable, whether you work as a suit or a creative. But you need to restructure your lego set if you want to continue in marketing.
Don't be scared by any of this for more than two, max three sleepless nights. Frankly, our shallow little world has never been more full of excitement and possibility. And because it's worth repeating twice, stasis is the only enemy. 


  1. Nice post. While you've obviously written it from a particular industry standpoint I suspect a lot of your points could be "ported" to pretty much any profession

  2. Thanks Michele. That comment has come through from a few people in different disciplines. If anybody wants to plunder and add to it, make it more specific to their own area, then have at it.

  3. The Maharishi of re-birth marketing! xx

  4. Thanks for your post. It was a well thought-out and structured approach to the 'What if...' scenario we all face. I also like your image of the bridge from old to new media and how new media is not willing to step back across. At times I would hope we could all meet in the middle and learn from both sides.

  5. It'd be nice to think we could meet halfway, Finian, but the wind seems to be with the new model right now. They have their own upskilling to do nonetheless. Applying trad savvy to new media opps is too attractive not to be pursued.

  6. Great post! I imagine a lot of the points you have made can be applied to many individuals who find themselves facing the R word.

  7. Thanks T. Nothing like Total Immersion Therapy to make you see things in a particularly intense way. Took quite a while for all that to come into focus, curiously enough.

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