Advertising was a good career for me, a profession that mixes creativity and salesmanship like a cocktail. For an English major wanting a salary, it was more lucrative than poetry and more fun than Wall Street. My peers headed to MFA programs and law school. I wanted Madison Avenue.
I started in 1992 as a secretary at FCB/Leber Katz Partners, riding the wave of a big business win to nab junior copywriter. After four years there and my first layoff, I moved around among firms big, medium and small, earning every title and modifier from associate and director to executive, global and even chief. Short, gay, Jewish from the New Jersey suburbs, I made it work and by many standards, made it big. I did some right things (e.g. getting into digital very early) and several wrong things (e.g., lying to a boss), was occasionally bold, sometimes lame—but always tried to have fun.
Now after 28 years in advertising, digital marketing and management consulting, I’m fascinated by how our careers shape us and what we glean along the way. I’ve been in a cubicle and the board room. I’ve been on the stage at Cannes and on the unemployment line. I’ve worked with mentors, monsters and morons. Every entry on a resumé has a lesson if you look for it.
My research started with others. In 2012, director David Gaddie, producer Andrea Leminske and I created Hindsight, a video series capturing lessons from creative leaders such as Brian Collins, Matt Eastwood, George Lois, Judy Wellfare and others. It was a hit, and the Art Directors Club luckily became a sponsor to keep it going. I’ve also published pieces on this topic, including analyzing the paths of 100s of creative and account peers which surprised me in how many stuck to what they knew, despite wanting to try something different.
But it was in 2014 after a truly thankless gig in an agency culture that I didn’t belong and exhausted by a routine as a creative director I no longer wanted that I finally started to consider how I might shift my own career. What did I want to do with my years left?
Looking for insight from the past, I began to binge-write chapters of my career from the beginning, stumbling onto lessons from each job. It was addictive, so much that I couldn’t stop. It’s turned into a book. If you’re craving an epiphany and are too cheap to pay for therapy, I recommend the exercise. Here are seven reasons why:
1. Thank those who mentored you. Sharing what others did for you is a way to honor them. On Rising, a podcast I currently co-host about marketing careers, we have a segment called “Thank You Notes.” The guest shares a thank you to someone in his/her/their past. Many are to folks who helped them make choices, others highlight a connector who opened a door, and a few go back to a coach who provided indelible advice. To whom would you send a thank you note? Why haven’t you?
2. Each story unlocks another story. Memory is tricky and we retell the same stories but behind each one is a precursor that led to it. For example, if I hadn’t written about my early days doing radio ads for AT&T, I wouldn’t have remembered my entrepreneurial gimmick calling public libraries during the recording session on speakerphone so the actress and I could accurately copy the accent.
3. See the adjacencies that influenced you. While the focus was on full-time and freelance jobs, I drifted into side hustles and projects. I realized working on the side for an early online service, writing for the local paper, not to mention creating Hindsight, shaped who I am today.
4. Re-learn what you learned. Time goes by and we can accidentally grow up. I had to re-learn my capacity for bold ideas and even some of the crazier antics. We’re hired to be strategic and bold, and over time, we sometimes need to be reminded to be both.
5. Others are watching. As you became a more visible leader, you’ll notice how staff at all levels witness the terrific and terrible decisions those of us in management make. They are hunting for role models so, being a little narcissistic, you will influence those looking for their own roadmap.
6. Others have reasons. Writing about the past can help you better understand confusing choices and suspicious motivations in others. My caution is not to blame them (bad form, not to mention risking libel) but to see yourself as the naive one and the intention is to shine a light on blind spots. Plus, no one wants WPP coming after them.
7. It’s easy. Whether you go the agent/publisher or self-publishing route, whether it’s an essay, a speech or a book, there are amazing tools and resources out there. The only thing in your way is, well you.