Pitch me your story
November 6, 2011 6:01 PM   Subscribe

If you work in advertising (especially digital advertising), how did you wind up in this industry, and specifically in your current position? Was this your intended profession, or was your professional path more circuitous?

I'm looking for professional biographies of people who work in advertising—I'm focusing on digital advertising/marketing, but interested in traditional advertising, too. I'll be sharing these stories with undergraduate students who are interested in the advertising industry.

What I have found is that many people who wind up working in advertising enter the industry through "non-traditional" paths. For instance, print journalists who applied their writing skills to ad copy, or comic book artists who found they had a knack for commercial art direction. I'd like to share a few of these stories to hammer home the concept that sometimes our careers take us in surprising directions. That said, I would love to hear from folks with more traditional advertising backgrounds, too (degree in communications>internship>job).

If you do share, please include a description of your job, what you studied in college, any internships, and anything you can think of that contributed to your current vocation. Thank you!
posted by Lieber Frau to Work & Money (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Job: Chiefly a web developer at very small agency (my own.)
College: Marketing / Business Management, several CS classes.
Internships: stock analyst at an investment advisor and e-mail marketing at a traditional agency.

The analyst internship turned into a job and I became project manager of a retail advice website the company was starting. I somehow ended up at 37signals.com and it blew my mind. After that I was drawn inexorably to web design.
posted by michaelh at 6:10 PM on November 6, 2011

I'm a producer/project manager. I was a copywriter for a large educational company and ended up helping to lead the implementation of a major website redesign while there. I ended up going into project management because it's a lot of people work and I found it interesting and challenging to lead teams with diverse skill sets (programming, design, user experience, writing). I've been doing it for five years now. I've also worked in product development and user experience. In digital you can find a lot of people who've worn more than one hat, especially in smaller shops.
posted by sweetkid at 6:17 PM on November 6, 2011

I'm a freelance marketing copywriter.

Most of my clients are agencies: advertising, integrated marketing, digital/interactive, and/or branding. I do work directly with a few business clients.

I have a BA in Comparative Literature. Right out of school in the mid-80s, I talked my way into a job as a software technical writer, then as a publications manager, managing teams that did print documentation, online help, and training. I was fortunate enough to catch the PC wave and ride it on into the dot-com boom.

After the bubble burst, the bottom pretty much dropped out of the tech writing business. Many staff jobs disappeared, and contractor rates dropped from ~$75/hr to $30 or 40 (where they remain).

In 2003, I caught my second big break: an opportunity to segue out of tech writing (which I was totally bored with by then) and into long-form copywriting. A former colleague was VP of strategy for a fancy downtown branding agency and was willing to take a chance on me. Turned out my ability to talk to nerds and my interest in user-centered design were highly transferable, and I was able to make a second move to a role as a brand strategist.

I worked there for three and a half years, then went out on my own in 2006. Now I mostly do high-tech B2B marketing collateral, with some messaging, naming, interactive, and instructional design. My billing rate is $75-100, and pretty much all of my work comes through referrals. I consider myself extremely fortunate and enjoy my job a lot.
posted by ottereroticist at 6:38 PM on November 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Started off in finance at an internet bank (NetBank- the first one! Hello! I know so many people hated us!), figured out that it was more the "net" and less the "bank" I was interested in. Landed a gig as a PM at a product development company and worked on cameras+software projects (custom C# desktop development). Ended up driving their limited foray into social and owned the website stuff before we all got laid off.

Engaged my ice-sales-to-eskimos skills to get myself a job at a tiny interactive agency/dev shop 2 years ago as a Web Producer, where I basically did all kinds of client facing stuff, handled developers and contractors, and managed all our projects. Just left there for a medium size agency for a more "traditional" PM gig. You find LOTS of PMs who have these odd backgrounds (someone in my shop now used to implement some kind of MS server stuff, which sounds like death on a plate to me), but we end up in these positions at digital agencies because the skills are really transferable (anywhere, honestly, I manage theater stuff too, and it's all the same stuff) and digital agencies house people we like or stuff we're interested in that isn't boring the pants off us at all times.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:08 PM on November 6, 2011

Currently an Associate Director of Advertising Solutions at a top tier search marketing agency (basically the search shop of one of the big holding companies) in Chicago. I manage a team of 8 and oversee about $20M in digital media (mostly paid search, although some display stuff) for Clients in a variety of verticals, although almost all are direct response in some way. Right now I focus on a lot of higher-level digital media strategy, technical tracking solutions, etc.

Prior to that I was Client-side doing B2B lead-gen at a SaaS company, and prior to that I was working on a major beer brand at Digitas. That's where my career in digital was really cemented. Before that I had actually been doing account management at a small traditional agency trying to drag them into the digital era, but they were just too small.

I've also been doing my own consulting over the years and have my own affiliate and ecommerce sites that I work on when time permits.

How did I end up here? Well, I went to art school and my school happened to have a top-tier advertising program which I gravitated into. I originally went to school for video game design, and quickly decided that I had a deep interest in psychology and business, and that advertising was a great combination of the two. During school I managed to land some solid internships at Campbell Mithun and Fallon's London office which pretty much were worth their weight in gold on my resume when it came to getting jobs.

Not sure where you are located or what school this is for, but feel free to PM me if you're interested in discussing further. I always enjoy speaking with younger folks who are thinking about getting into the industry (largely to explain the realities of it) and would be more than happy to schedule a time to present either in person if feasible or over the phone or something.

This industry is hurting for qualified people (as the recent NY Times article noted), but people shouldn't just be rushing in to get a job as otherwise they won't be happy and we'll end up with crappy employees.
posted by Elminster24 at 7:17 PM on November 6, 2011

I ended up an Associate Creative Director at a top-tier digital agency, and have worked for a couple of other top-tier agencies, digital and traditional. (Full disclosure: my current job is not at an ad agency.)

My discipline is interaction design, but I started working on the web before it was a separate discipline -- back then, we were all just "designers". My degree is in sociology, and I came --><>
I interned in graphic design departments, in a government agency, a children's museum, and a magazine. At the magazine, I became friends with the small web team, and it looked like more fun to work with them, so I became the magazine's first web design intern. (Yes, this was back in the dark ages.) I did all my internships during my college years, over summers and instead of classes my senior year.

After college, I had only digital jobs. I was a designer at cnet in the mid- to late-90s, then worked for a couple of start-ups before landing at a design/innovation agency in the early 2000s. At this point in my career, I was still doing a lot of visual design for the web and devices, and there wasn't an interaction design discipline at most agencies.

I went independent for a few years, consulting on design, ID, and some product strategy for a wide variety of companies. It was when I was consulting that I first discovered ad agencies. They appealed to me because they typically work in the consumer space (rather than B to B) and it felt like a place where creativity and innovation were core values, which I found interesting and challenging.

I never intended to work in advertising, and never went to ad school, though I taught at one later. If you went to an ad school, you probably didn't hear much about the role I played, even though I've always been on the creative team, and I might've ended up managing you or leading projects you're on.

To this day I'm amazed at how some ad agencies (and schools) maintain the notion of the "creative pair" and think primarily in terms of TVCs, while the world evolves around them, increasingly prioritizing different screens. Yeah, I've got opinions. Feel free to Memail me if you want to talk more.
posted by nadise at 8:03 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I didn't even finish college (Psych/English while I was in) and my internship was a loose affair in writing/editing with a company in my field. So I'm pretty much a terrible example for your undergrads. (Though they should stay in school because even with all my experience some people still give me the stinkeye for not having the degree. Launched international products across continents in multiple languages? Run email campaigns resulting in tons of revenue? Managed teams spanning the globe? But on the other hand, let's talk about the degree you didn't get a decade ago...)

I got hired on doing writing work just as the dotcom bubble burst, so for three months I lived the life, then I wound up sleeping on a mattress pulled out of the dumpster in a really shady part of town. I spent about 3 years working retail and doing freelance writing before I got my shot handling CS-type gigs at a marketing/outsourcing agency and it was small enough I wound up doing marketing, PR, industry relations, writing/editorial, CS, etc. I got an offer at a huge company (that was probably a little over my head) to work in their marketing department, so I did that for a while, then bounced around doing PR gigs for a while and getting laid off a lot. (I work in an unstable industry so it's completely normal for me). I got back into marketing via a copywriting gig that wound up becoming copywriting, email marketing, product management, and a whole lot more. I wound up doing nothing but product management before my latest layoff. Now, I mainly do freelance PR with a tiny agency and do some writing and marketing consulting on the side.

Honestly, marketing wasn't a field I considered at all, it's just something I fell into, but I still find it a lot of fun and extremely interesting. Kinda wish somebody told me about it sooner.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:07 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

While acting I got a part time job doing quality assurance for an interactive agency named T3Media. This was in 1995? I knew nothing about computers, but became friendly with their Human Factors researcher. When he left the company, he asked me if he could take me with him as his assistant. Later on, when our information architects at the new company quit en masse to go to Sapient I took on the work temporarily. It became a permanent job.

When the bubble burst my company dwindled down to about 12 people, and then they finally let me go too. I managed to find some freelance work doing usability testing, took some classes in educational design at Columbia to make up for never formally having studied usability, and finally lucked out and was hired by IBM. Originally they hired me as an information architect (e.g. interaction designer) but I segued to research. I was the only researcher in my department without a Ph.D.

You've got to understand that almost everyone in my generation "fell into" to advertising because it was basically being reinvented by new media. The internet did not exist in the same way at all when we were younger, so it was basically impossible to foresee working in fields that simply didn't exist back then, and the demand was enormous.

A couple pieces of advice for getting jobs in advertising:

1. Work wherever you want to eventually work for free in the beginning. They'll probably pick you up in 6 months or so. Be an intern.

2. A portfolio is more important by far than a resume. I would rather hire someone with a good portfolio who had no resume and walked in off the street than vice versa. This does not only apply to design, but to writing and research of all kinds. When the bubble burst, I created an enhanced portfolio from projects I offered to do for little money for Columbia (e.g. revamp their website, a plan for automating class sign-up). This was the work that got me the IBM job.

3. Work on your interview "story". At some point in an interview someone will ask you to "tell them about yourself". This is your chance to say a little about your background (in my case I openly say I never intended to be in the profession) and then walk them through your work highlights using your portfolio. It gives you a lot of control over how you present yourself. At the end of the interview, ask them what their issues are and (if you're confident) offer to put together something that could help as an example of your work.

4. Start something for yourself. Make something, like an internet radio station or something interesting that indicates a real interest in the field and will make you stand out. This was totally unnecessary in my day, but I think helps tremendously now.

Good luck to your students. It's a much tougher environment in which to get jobs today then when I was looking. I think the biggest change in terms of alternate paths today is not to wait on finding work, but rather starting something for yourself while looking.
posted by xammerboy at 6:34 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey, these are terrific. Thanks, fellas. I also work in digital advertising and the way I wound up here is somewhat unusual (film school>freelance movie tagline writer>big agency copywriter), so it's pretty interesting to compare experiences. The common thread I'm seeing here is curiosity and a willingness to explore unfamiliar disciplines.
posted by Lieber Frau at 7:54 AM on November 7, 2011

Senior CW, big agency, NYC, been at this for 6 or 7 years now. (Super busy today! Sorry for the grammar—I know, poor form answering as a copywriter and rushing through. No judging, ok?)

I went to a traditional Southern university for creative writing. I was... just ok at it. I knew I wasn't ever going to write the Great American Novel, but really wanted to be a writer. I love words, but even more than that, I love ideas.

Around the end of college (aged 22 or 23), I was screwing around, playing in bands, working as a freelance make-up artist, and hanging around with a bunch of design students from a few local design schools—Portfolio Center, Creative Circus, and SCAD. So naturally, I looked into those schools and found that I would be a great fit. I had an unusual background, was a bit of a career misfit, had wide and varied interests, a metric ton of ADD, and not-too-few insecurities.

So I went to Portfolio Center. Even though I loved it, I didn't find the traditional Ad Department so-super-challenging. We were essentially churning out print ad after print ad, but I wanted more digital. And more brand pieces. Maybe even some packaging.

So I joined the Design Department and worked with the design students instead. It was a great fit. The designers loved having a copywriter, and I got to work on projects that writers weren't generally involved with. I really feel that this equipped me well to, ironically, work in an ad agency.

During school, I landed two rather large freelance gigs. One was ritzcarlton.com and the other was working on the brand redo for InterContinental Hotels. (Why they gave those big projects to a 24-year-old grad student, I'll never know. But I seriously lucked out.)

My first internship was with a small branding firm. My second internship was for an lifestyle magazine. I figured editorial was something I'd never tried before and it was worth a shot. I didn't end up staying in that field, but I made irreplaceable contacts within that community.

After the two internships and a move to NYC, I started freelancing direct-to-client. I met all kinds of wonderful people who would become mentors, clients, and friends. But I was exhausted from doing all the work myself.

So, I though to myself one day, "I should go corporate for a while. Just to check it out. Relax for a while.*" Within six months, I got a call from my current agency. They didn't interview me. I just showed up the following Monday as a permalancer.

I stayed permalance for a year, and have been on staff for another.


To your attributes of "curiosity" and "willingness to explore," I would add "willingness to jump" and "ability to adapt." You literally have no idea until you leap and try to make it work.

If it doesn't pan out the way you expected or according to plan? Fine. Paralysis by analysis can be a total killer, so try not to over think. Screw expectations and screw "the plan." Just enjoy and try to make amazing things.

*Hahahahaha, relax. That's a good one.
posted by functionequalsform at 11:14 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I left the industry within the last year to go back into the family business, but I worked as a copywriter, content developer and creative director at a variety of interactive studios and ad agencies, from small boutiques to a top 5 agency in NYC.

During college I majored in English with a heavy focus in creative writing, TA'ed a few classes and even published short stories in a couple of reputable journals. I'd always intended in getting an MFA and pursuing an academic path, but never quite got around to it.

After college I moved to DC with a friend and did a few temp jobs while working on a manuscript. I finally got a full-time job writing marketing newsletters for a company that processed tuition payments for martial arts schools. (More specifically, The EFC Talking Newsletter Cassette, which I scripted, narrated, recorded, produced, marketed and distributed -- all for $9/hr!)

I quit that job out of frustration after a year, and finally landed a job in the mid-90's at a fast-growing interactive studio as a communications assistant. The communications director interviewed me because he liked the clips I sent with my resume -- two short stories and a script from the Karate newsletters. (Turned out the communications director had an MFA from Montana.) After 6 months of organizing press clippings and writing team bios, they gave me a crack at writing copy for the Haagen-Dazs website. I killed it and they upgraded me to staff writer, where I eventually became the lead writer on the Kellogg's account, pimping sugar-frosted breakfast cereal to tech-savvy tykes.

From there I got recruited by the big red agency in New York, where I floundered and got laid off during the first dot-com bust. After a few months of eating food-cart lo mein in Chinatown, I got picked up by a financial services boutique agency in the World Trade Center. About a year after 9/11 I'd had enough of New York and fled to the mountains of central Pennsylvania, living as a subsistence freelancer and making just enough money to pay rent, play golf and take up homebrewing.

I got married and from there my wife's job took us to St. Louis, where I freelanced more then parlayed my contacts into a creative director post on a Fortune 10 account at a large marketing services firm. Five years of that was enough to quit me on the entire marcomm thing for good. So I dragged my wife and kid back to Ohio and got back into the family business.

A year later and I haven't looked back. Best career decision I've ever made.
posted by slogger at 6:31 PM on November 7, 2011

Film School -=> Live Entertainment -=> MBA (10 years later) -=> Digital Marketing Manager (includes creation of content, banners ads, etc)
posted by IzzeYum at 7:03 PM on November 7, 2011

FYI, the NY Times article I referenced can be found here for anybody that is interested.
posted by Elminster24 at 7:36 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a Senior Strategist at a small digital agency in NYC. I studied English in college (specifically 18th C. Literature - very practical!). Immediately after graduation, I took a job working at a bookstore, because I needed to pay my rent, and I ended up quickly becoming a manager and staying on there for close to 5 years.

A friend from college was working at one of the large agencies in NYC, and mentioned they were on a hiring tear, and encouraged me to apply because she knew I could string a clear sentence together. I got the job, and started as an Assistant Account Executive. This was just before the web really took over and changed the whole industry. I kept plugging away, and as computers and social media became more central to the industry, being a geek, I was the go to guy in the office for anything "computer" related. From there, I just got more heavily into the digital side of things as it grew, and have been climbing the ladder ever since.

I definitely stumbled into the ad/pr/social media world. I had zero interest in marketing in school, and it was never a career I considered. Once I got my foot n the door, I found that I really love the work and am very happy I took that random gamble on that first job.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 7:54 PM on November 7, 2011

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