Calling the Covid-19 pandemic anxiety-inducing is an understatement, and a big part of that is due to the uncertainty surrounding the future of our careers in advertising. The sober truth is that nobody really knows how this is going to turn out. But having hope isn’t naive optimism—the advertising business has survived economic downturns before.
To help keep that hope alive, the NYC Advertising bowl recently co-hosted a panel with the Junior Creatives bowl on the subject. We were joined by Tom Christmann & Paul Fix, NYC-based creative directors who’ve lived through a few economic slumps. They survived, worked at some of the top agencies, and are helping other creatives get into top agencies as co-deans and instructors at Adhouse Advertising School.
Here are some takeaways from the panel.
If you get an offer, take the job
Tom Christmann graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in the early 1990’s—right in the midst of a recession. Watching some of his friends get into “hot shops” as he continued working at a grocery store was a source of internal panic. With some effort and a direct-style write up about himself, Tom broke into Ogilvy. Well, Ogilvy Direct, actually. “It wasn’t the job I wanted. It wasn’t the place I was really excited to tell everyone about. But it was a place that was doing advertising and I learned a lot during those 2 years.”
When he was later hired at dream agency Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners, he was explicitly told—by agency namesake Richard Kirshenbaum himself—that he would only be able to work there as a direct writer and should not expect it to become a stepping stone into general market advertising. “I’m sure he’d laugh at it now. I said, ‘Yes thank you sir,’ and walked out of that room mumbling to myself. But I took that job and I ran with it. 3 years later I was in Toronto shooting a Cannes-winning campaign.”
“Just get in,” and for creatives, “work on your book.”
Paul Fix wanted to gain experience working in digital in the late 2000’s, a time when digital was treated as a separate category. Paul got an offer from Atmosphere, a digital agency that had been acquired by BBDO but not yet fully integrated into it at the time. Before his first day, Paul heard from folks at the “cooler” shops that Atmosphere “sucks.” “I felt bad about the job I was going to. But then I start the job and thought, why do I feel bad? We’re doing cool shit!”
Some of Paul’s “favorite and most fun memorizes of advertising” to date were during his time at Atmosphere. His experience working there also landed him a gig working on Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World campaign. “My partner and I got the job because they wanted people who can do TV and also are able to do digital. We were able to say, ‘We were in Atmosphere, that’s where we met!’”
Don’t worry about the detour
When Paul first started his advertising career, he was actually working in the media department with a growing interest in creative. Then the recession hit.
“Every agency in New York was laying people off. I was one of the people laid off and that’s when I started taking some classes at School of Visual Arts.”
Taking classes helped Paul realize he wanted to be a writer, but he desperately needed a job. “I got really scared by the summer. I was someone who really didn’t want to move back in with my parents.”
Paul went to teach at a NYC public school. “It was a great year of learning. I was able to give back to the community and I was able to take a whole lot away.”
Paul would eventually attend The Creative Circus and start his career as a creative, and continues to have zero regrets for his years spent outside of advertising. “Your detours in life can be some of the coolest things you do and can define who you are as a person. I don’t think I would have started teaching at Adhouse had I not taught before and realized I have energy that works well in a classroom.”
“I thought I was never going to put ‘Ogilvy Direct’ on my resume,” says Tom, “Now I just talk about it. It’s a part of the story.”
Every place can suck—and every place can be amazing
“Don’t knock any single place,” Paul advises.
“It’s all about the people and the projects at a place. Every place can suck, and every place can be amazing. It really is up to the effort you sort of put in, and the people that you get under. That’s the way it goes.”
If you’re currently working at a place that isn’t getting you where you want to be, do the best you can as you look elsewhere. “Let’s say you’re thrown on a banner ad project. You might think, ‘Damn, someone I know who graduated college with me just shot a 10-commercial campaign and here I am asked to rewrite a banner ad for the third time.’ Fuck it, make it the best damn banner ad you’ve ever seen.”
“Not every pitch is going to be a home run. If you swing for the fences at each one, at least you will get the reputation as someone who goes for it.”
“Especially if it’s radio or digital,” adds Tom, “Where you can just work with a producer, designer or developer, and get shit done without a lot of people touching it. Those are the ones that you’re going to learn so much from because you’re going to have this little team to work with and get to practice your interpersonal, leadership skills on a small scale.”
Those skills will prove to be helpful when you do eventually work on projects that you actually want to be working on.
“What you learn as you grow in this business is that even at a micro level, every assignment is going to have uncomfortable moments, like a lack of time or resources. It can be the beginning of making it better, or sometimes it doesn’t work out. You just keep trying and try to enjoy the process.”
“Opportunities are going to come along,” adds Paul. “There’s a saying, the harder I work, the luckier I get. Nobody really just gets lucky. It doesn’t have to all happen now.”
Go outside your FOMO bubble for perspective
Even in more normal times, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you’re uniquely washed up. Having industry FOMO—fear of missing out—isn’t abnormal when scrolling through other people’s successes on your LinkedIn feed. It also doesn’t help when you consider ageism and the many other ‘isms, such as sexism and racism, that you may also be facing.
Paul has a bone to pick with those “30 under 30” type lists in general. “Many of them you can buy or PR your way into. It gives you a sense, ‘Oh my God, I’m 25, I’m 29, I’m 35, I’m 51… and look at what all these people are doing and they’re more successful.’”
While young success is often celebrated, many success stories involve people later in their lives. “The media feeds it to us with examples like Mark Zuckerberg when there are also people like Colonel Sanders who had multiple failures but made it big later in life with a lasting brand of fried chicken.”
Tom paraphrased what Working Not Working founder Justin Gignac told him once:
“Right now, you’re living a life that someone, somewhere in the world, is wishing and praying for. ‘If I could just live in New York.’ ‘If I could just get a computer.’ ‘If I could just figure out the latest Adobe program.’ There are so many things that we’re so lucky to have. To count your blessings is a trite thing, but you really do have a lot going for you. If you give up, that’s fine, you can give up and do something else. But whatever you do, you will always want to be somewhere else and be further in it. It’s okay to sit in that uncomfortableness.”
Take advantage of what’s out there during this time
As Tom puts it, “There are a lot of good things coming out of this.”
It can sometimes feel like we’re chained to our desks with work, all of the happy hours, panels, and other live events going on virtually. With that said, the abundance of professional resources being made available online this year is undeniable.
“Over the next couple of months, as things change, work on yourself,” says Paul. “And work for other people. Build communities. Build new things. Try to learn new skills. Life is long. You’re going to have time to get into this.”
The pandemic and the lock downs have forced many live events to be remotely accessible. “You can now take Adhouse classes from anywhere in the world,” says Tom. But it’s not just Adhouse making virtual opportunities a reality. “There’s never been more opportunity to connect with the people who you want to work with.”
Organizations have been putting together virtual events and programs. Many of them are free for those in the industry who have lost their jobs as well as those who are trying to break in.
The One Club for Creativity made a COVID-19 job board, organized a free portfolio review for creatives, and transformed their cancelled live Creative Week into a virtual Creative Month, which has been archived as videos.
100 Roses From Concrete is running an 8-week summer program for students and recent grads interested in advertising, marketing, media and public relations.
MAIP, the 4A’s Foundation Multicultural Advertising Intern Program, is still running in 2020 as a virtual engagement program.
We-Are-Next has been running multiple initiatives during the pandemic, including a virtual networking program for all marketing and advertising professionals called Coffee At A Distance.
Working Not Working started a “creative support army” called The United that pairs up people for a 30-minute chat.
UK-based Young Creative Counsel has been organizing and hosting Covid-eo Crits, which are weekly live virtual portfolio reviews.
Microsoft, LinkedIn, and GitHub are offering “free learning paths” for jobs such as project management and graphic design, as well as other career resources.
The Advertising Club at VCU is running a virtual summer camp for students and recent grads who are interested in advertising.
The 3% Conference this year will be held virtually, with tickets completely free for students and recent grads.
Wieden+Kennedy is holding free weekly virtual classes on advertising during the summer. Live sessions are sold out but recordings are planned on being made available later.
Havas NY is running a free open house during the summer for anybody interested in advertising.
Some folks from the /r/Advertising subreddit have organized a free ad school program that acts as a crash course into everything that is involved in agency work. Classes are being archived on YouTube.
AdForum‘s PHNX Tribute is a one-off advertising award show with no entry fee, as many awards budgets have been cut or outright suspended for the year.
Bouncing Back is a podcast hosted by Matthew Low, ACD at BBDO NY, that provides laid off advertising professionals a platform to sell themselves to their future employers.
WFH Freelancer has a list of resources that may be helpful for aspiring and seasoned advertising professionals alike.
As mentioned before, Adhouse‘s classes are now accessible to anyone worldwide (as long as 7ish PM EST isn’t an ungodly hour for you).
And of course, there’s Fishbowl. In addition to other panels like these and the Junior Creatives “face to face” portfolio reviews, Fishbowl’s anonymous, transparent conversations can enable mentoring and advice that is missing in the industry.
“Often times you’re going to get really honest answers from people who understand that there are some people who don’t know what the ‘traffic department’ does because they just stepped into the agency,” says Paul. “Nobody teaches this stuff anymore.”
“The mentorship in this business used to be a thing,” Tom elaborates. “I think somewhere along the way the industry decided that it’s something to cut because of money. We’ve watched young people struggling to make their way and they don’t know what to do. Fishbowl fills that void, and we’re trying to fill that as well with Adhouse.”
One thing that’s clear from the pandemic is that people are losing their patience for shitty attitudes.
“It’s all about your reputation right now,” Tom elaborates. “Whatever you do right now, if you don’t come through for people, if you say you’re going to do something and don’t, or if you run away from responsibility now, people will remember that.”
Kindness is simply a good long-term strategy. Pandemic, or not.
“There’s an old saying,” Paul brings up, “Be careful who you screw over on the way up, because you may meet them on the way down. Even anonymously, be careful who you say shit about in this business. It’s a small fucking business and you’re going to run into the same people again. This is a business where I have worked for some of my own students. I’ve had times where old bosses of mine reached out to partner with me.”
As Tom puts it, “All the assholes are the ones who are really frightened right now.”
The industry will survive this
There will always be industry naysayers ready to declare that the ad industry is dead. 2020 has been an excellent year for them so far.
“I’ve heard it every time the business dips,” says Paul. “‘You’ll never see TV commercials made like that again.’ ‘You’ll never have a Super Bowl again.’ ‘You’ll never have millions of people watching your spot again.’ ‘Nobody will ever listen to radio anymore.’”
Paul heard all of that when the dot-com bubble burst, and again when he was laid off in 2009. Both times, the business eventually began returning to some sort of normalcy. “Everyone who talks about the ‘ups and downs’ will remember the ‘downs,’ but quickly forget the ‘ups.’”
But even during the “ups,” the naysayers have plenty to say.
“When we sent The Most Interesting Man in the World to space, it was supposedly the harbinger of the end of days like that—’There aren’t going to be campaigns anymore where people know the catchphrase.’ Three years later, people at the bar are saying ‘DILLY DILLY,’ so fuck you!”
“You can still have a good time in this business. You can still learn amazing things. You can still get to make really cool impacts on the world. You can still have campaigns that people repeat. They found ads in Roman Ruins. It’s not going away.”
You will survive this
“You’ll always hear these stories where this business isn’t what it once was. And to a degree, they’re absolutely right, it isn’t what it once was,” Paul concedes.
“But it’s a lot of things more than what it was, also. This business is going to be around for a long time. It’s going to be different—it’ll always be different. Be part of the new different. Make the new different.”
What if things end up too different, leaving you behind?
“There’s always going to be something to worry about,” says Tom. “There’s always going to be something you don’t have in your book, there’s always going to be something ‘wrong’ with you—like you ‘don’t have enough digital,’ or you ‘have too much digital,’ or you ‘don’t have enough TV,’ or you ‘have too much TV.’”
Relaxing when things are absolutely brutal is understandably easier said than done. But worrying and venturing into full panic mode isn’t going to help. There are only a few things you actually have control over today. Everything else, such as hiring scopes and client budgets, are beyond your control.
“Keep doing stuff. Keep being excited about every day and what you got going on and go at it. Don’t sit there worrying, because it does nothing.”
We don’t know when things may pick up again. But based on what Tom and Paul have experienced when the economy sucked before, things eventually will.
“It’s going to be okay.”