From ad-agency darlings to the unemployment line: The heady days enjoyed by last year’s grads are over

The ad-school graduates of 2000 occupy a unique, if not exactly enviable position. During their first year in the business they’ve experienced the peak of a historic marketing and technology explosion and the sudden freefall of an advertising recession. For give them if they sometimes seem dazed. Like their Gen-X counterparts, they grew up breathing the air of entitlement in a heady atmosphere where opportunities and achievements were a given. Now some are nagged by a “quarter-life crisis,” a phrase recently coined by two young authors. It’s an angst-ridden world of too many options, too many expectations and, inevitably, too many disappointments.

In April 2000, we wrote about five graduates of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Adcenter, plus one Florida grad who had already given up on advertising. At the time, ad schools were reporting nearly 100 percent job placement, and the most talented job seekers could call their own shots. The group of young creatives and planners we talked to generally believed they deserved a staff job in a cool city with mentors, stimulating assignments and a welcoming atmosphere.

A little more than a year after the excitement of selecting the best creative shops to launch their careers, four of the five VCU grads woke up one day with no job (in two cases, they didn’t even have an agency). Some of the newbies are competing for freelance work to help pay the bills. So much for being a hot commodity.

Here’s a look at what some of last year’s brightest stars are up to now.

TODD LAMB

Todd Lamb’s not getting much sleep.

Most days—including weekends—he toils from about 10 a.m. to midnight at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco on print ads for eBay and other clients. The 25-year-old art director and skateboarder landed his job last September in a roundabout way.

Lamb paid his own way to the Bay Area after graduation to meet with people at Leagas Delaney and Butler, Shine & Stern. A Butler staffer sent him to meet a former colleague at Goodby. Walking in the door, Lamb says, “it felt a lot like Wieden + Kennedy in Portland,” where he had interned the previous summer and fallen in love with agency life. “Goodby was the right size for me, it had some structure to it, and the work seemed to be crafted better than other places.”

But a job didn’t materialize, despite some promising conversations. So Lamb, who grew up in Chicago but was set on the West Coast, went to Los Angeles to stay with family. He secured freelance work at Ground Zero in Marina del Rey, and the shop put him up in a nearby Marriott for a few months, eventually offering him a position. But before he could accept, Goodby execs invited him back with a plane ticket and hotel reservations for more interviews. A job was secured.

Finding an apartment in San Francisco during the dot-com hysteria was another matter, and the second-rate place he ended up with only encouraged him to spend more time at the office. Lamb’s first assignment was for RealNetworks, a Web software and content provider, but thanks to the souring economy, his concepts never saw the light of day. Nor did his outdoor work for the Joe Isuzu campaign, which didn’t get final approval to run. Finally came the assignment for eBay Motors, the client’s auto-auction division. The first ads are now running in car publications, and the campaign may eventually expand into other magazines.

So far, Lamb has actually benefited from the downturn, which has lowered rents in San Francisco and allowed him to move into more comfortable digs. He sometimes worries about job security, but reassures himself that he’d be able to get by on freelance work, which seems abundant. When work slows a little at Goodby, he does some freelancing for hot local skateboard companies, “working for the guys that I’ve worshipped,” says the onetime Deadhead. He also manages to squeeze in time to teach a class on layout once a week at the Miami Ad School’s San Francisco campus.

“What would it mean to me if things were more stable?” he asks with a shrug. “Just that I’d have a bookcase instead of putting my books on the floor.”

MARCEL JENNINGS

Only four days after he landed in New York in July 2000, 24-year-old Marcel Jennings got an offer from Fallon and started working. In no time he was contributing to campaigns for clients such as ABC Sports, Time magazine and Starbucks, all under the guidance of executive creative director and Wie den + Kennedy vet Jamie Barrett. It was a young graduate’s dream.

But by the end of April the economy caught up to the once-charmed junior copywriter, who lost his job during the shop’s second round of layoffs. Jennings’ live-in girlfriend paid the bills while he hit the pavement, sending his materials to shops all over New York. He snagged interviews with Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, Cliff Freeman and Partners and McCann-Erickson. Then came a lull when all he could do was wait for the phone to ring. Eventually, it did.

It was his old boss Barrett. While judging an awards show, Barrett had mentioned Jennings to David Apicella, a creative director at Ogilvy & Mather. Barrett told Jennings that Apicella wanted to meet him. The two hit it off, and Jennings was hired in early July, just before the shop won the giant AT&T account.

His enthusiasm is mixed with a tinge of nervousness. Ogilvy has 15 floors in its New York office, compared with Fallon’s two floors. Jennings is putting in long days and adjusting as fast as he can. Within his first two weeks he worked on a pro bono TV and radio campaign breaking this month for the NCAA scholarship program.

“All the changes have happened so fast,” Jennings says of himself and his Adcenter pals. “We’ve had all these experiences in just a year. Now it’s time for us to weather the storm.” No one he knows has yet become disheartened enough to give up on advertising. “The feeling seems to be that this might suck, but we’ve got to keep on going.”

PRUDENCE ROBERTS

All it took was a five-second introduction at last year’s One Show to steer Prudence Roberts from her home in Richmond, Va., to Chicago. Once there she was wowed by the city and the lively little creative shop that had invited her, Arian Lowe & Travis. Her husband secured a tech-support job at Reuters, and in July the couple moved to a $1,100-a-month apartment that they found in a few days.

Just seven months later, Roberts’ cherished account planning job evaporated when the 25-person agency lost its biggest client, Compuware, and was forced to close. “Shocked, yes,” she says. “But I have no regrets.”

She appreciated her mentors and agencywide access, and is proud of the research she did for an Illinois anti-smoking campaign. Working with a panel of teens, Roberts and her colleagues came up with a strategy that encouraged kids to make their own decisions about smoking.

Finding another staff position has been rough, however. After six months of looking, Roberts, 28, is tired of bumping against a wall of hiring freezes. Freelance assignments from friends helped fill the gap for a while, and she also spent a couple of months traveling to California and Colorado, mostly for fun. Now she and her husband are looking to move to the Eastern seaboard to be closer to her family in Virginia.

The job crunch has unleashed her independent streak, which is what got her out of financial services and into advertising in the first place. She has added nonadvertising positions to her career search, including consulting and trend research jobs where she can ply her planning skills.

“Project work is teaching me all the different ways my planning abilities can be applied,” she says.

With the disappointments have come a degree of wisdom. “Things were so crazy in the industry for a few years, during the boom times. It was excessive,” she says. “Now I’m a little nervous. But I’m lucky to have a spouse who can move around, and I’m willing to go with the flow.”

JOE NIO

Joe Nio first heard the name Dweck! when agency CEO Michael Dweck came prowling for talent at VCU’s Ad center last spring. By graduation the fledgling account planner had a job. The chance to join a small, quirky shop where he could have an influential role persuaded Nio to postpone plans to work in San Francisco or Minneapolis and instead move to New York. A former rock musician, he especially loved the young, casual environment, where he was allowed to keep his guitars and dabble on the office keyboard.

He put aside an offer from a bigger creative shop “until I had more to offer,” he says. At his new job, Nio contributed to new-business pitches, a few doomed dot-com campaigns and project work for UPN’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. But this June, he was stunned when Dweck unexpectedly shut down his 14-person shop. Doors were locked and everything was moved out of the office within a few days.

Though he tries to hide it, 30-year-old Nio seems startled. He hadn’t picked up enough hints to start putting feelers out for other jobs before the boom came down. Some staffers eyed the closure as a chance to take a needed vacation. But Nio started hustling for work right away. “I don’t have a trust fund,” he says.

Nio is putting off freelance work in hopes of landing a staff job. Each week he contacts about five agency executives and also searches for a new apartment in Brooklyn now that rent hikes have made his current home there unaffordable. He’s committed to staying in New York for at least another year, mainly for personal reasons. “I’m still working to understand what it is that shops want,” he says.

Nio puts a positive spin on his situation. “After school I only talked to three agencies before taking a job,” he says. “This is a chance to look around and assess who I really am.”

Are he and his former colleagues insecure after their unexpected shift in fortune? “Hardly,” he says. “This is the nature of the business—we are going through a transition time.” When it comes down to it, “we are pretty adaptable.”

JACOB BAAS

“I can’t believe we had to let him go,” laments Sasquatch creative director Greg Eiden. The tiny 5-year-old shop in Portland, Ore., hired award-winning grad Jacob Baas as a copywriter last summer after he and an art director friend took a West Coast job-shopping road trip. And then, in May, Sasquatch laid him off after its top clients slashed spending.

Baas, 29, is from Kalamazoo, Mich., but his love of fly-fishing and skiing led him to Montana for a while before he attended the Ad center. After graduation, he met with 30 shops and felt he clicked most with the outdoorsy Sasquatch team. The shop’s small size (11 people), the staff’s upbeat attitude and the “cool” client list, including Pacific Trail outerwear, were among the enticements. He and his friend freelanced there for a month before accepting full-time spots.

Among the various print ads that Baas wrote for outdoor-equipment and videogame companies, his favorite was the Black Dot Snowboarding brand campaign, on which he says the creative team was given free rein.

“A creative like Jacob is golden,” says Eiden. “Besides talent and humor, he has this great work ethic. It’s a unique combination.”

But after less than a year on the job, and despite his boss’s reluctance to see him go, Baas was back to freelancing and facing a relocation. But first things first. He went to Montana for two weeks to fish with his father. “A fun time, really beautiful,” he says.

In June, a headhunter found Baas a freelance gig with another boutique, G&M Plumbing in Los Angeles, co-founded a few years ago by TBWA\Chiat\Day’s Mickey Taylor. Since then, Baas has been working full-time on print and TV ads for videogame company THQ and other clients. He hasn’t given up his place in Portland and still shuttles back and forth on his own dime. He’s keeping his options open in Oregon, L.A. or anywhere else, for that matter.

Baas is optimistic that by fall’s end he’ll get a job at one of the small to midsized shops he met with this summer.

“Shops have generally been receptive,” he says. “They want to see my work and offer feedback. They are thinking about new accounts they hope to win.”

GARY ABRAMSON

Advertising will not see the return of Gary Abramson anytime soon. It was just one of several paths the 30-year-old explored before settling on a career goal. Abramson majored in finance at the University of Florida, intending to be an investment banker; pursued a dream to become an Air Force pilot (an ear problem got in the way); and trained for the ad business by interning at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., agency Harris Drury Cohen and attending the Miami Ad School. He graduated with a burning desire to avoid agency jobs and break into film directing.

Abramson moved to Los Angeles after a whirlwind side trip to the Sundance Film Festival in January. Now he’s living on savings from his once-burgeoning graphics business. Film editing, directing and acting classes anchor his schedule. In between, he writes scripts, watches movies and tries to unravel the intricacies of the entertainment industry. He’s had a busy summer. He started developing a documentary-style feature film and wrote two short scripts, all of which he plans to direct within a year. In the meantime, he says, he is “slowly starting to meet people higher and higher up the food chain.”

For extra money, Abramson spends about four hours a week doing design work. His hub of operations is his $925-a-month apartment near Hollywood.

“I want to make films that make people question their perception of reality, that are not just 90-minute escapes from life,” he says, adding that, at the same time, he intends to make “commercially viable products.” In the near term, directing TV commercials would be just fine.

For now, he has no intention to fall back on his financial or ad-business training. “It makes me nauseous to think about not directing,” he says without a trace of irony. “I’m willing to live in squalor to do this.”