Five former agency execs on starting over
With the advertising industry continuing to lose jobs and those still employed working overtime to meet demand, it’s no surprise that many folks are fantasizing about what comes next. But who turns daydreams into reality? Meet five agency staffers who made a clean break, often using skills they learned in the business. Some left at the top with a portfolio full of saved-up bonus money; others left with more ideas than cash. The common denominator? No one’s looking back.
Former life: Evp, client services, Leo Burnett, Chicago
New identity: Innkeeper, Adair Country Inn, Bethlehem, N.H.
Five years ago, Bill Whitman, a self-described “suit” with more than 25 years’ experience in client services at Burnett, handed in his resignation. With his kids grown, he and his wife traded in their Evanston, Ill., home for a historic New England inn on 200 acres. The risk-—besides the fact that neither had worked in hospitality before-—was that they’d be working together 24 hours a day, a big test for even the happiest couples. “This is the Bill and Judy show,” he says. “We have a staff, but they leave at 4. We start working when we get up at 6 and don’t stop until 10 or 11 at night.” But he says he doesn’t mind the 80-hour workweeks. “You don’t get rich in the B&B business. But this is a lifestyle decision, and we love it.”
Former life: Evp, TBWA, New York
New identity: Actor, HBO’s The Wire
Back when he was an evp in account management, John Doman kept his passion for acting a secret from everyone except his assistant. Each night, he’d leave the agency and head to an acting class or to perform in an off-off-Broadway show. “I always thought I’d get out of the business by the time I was 45. It was not without some grinding of teeth and some nights waking up with cold sweats, but I was out at 46 in 1991,” he says. “Everyone thought I was a lunatic.”
Within weeks, he landed an AT&T spot, and over the years he has appeared in more than 25 movies and on Law & Order, The Practice and Judging Amy. Doman now has a regular role on The Wire. The biggest adjustment after leaving the ad business, he says, was that “it took me a couple of years to get all that residual tension out of my body.”
Former life: Media supervisor, Carlson and Partners, New York
New identity: Founder, Mountain Mutts Dog Training, Burlington, Vt.
Zynnia Seidita loved her job as a media supervisor at Carlson and Partners but found the workload exhausting. “I just got burned out on it too young, working too hard and too many hours,” she says. By the time she was 28, she had an escape plan in place, apprenticing herself to a dog trainer in Brooklyn, teaching group obedience classes. When she was ready to start her own business, she and her husband decided to leave the city. “We wanted to think about buying a house, maybe starting a family,” she says. “We didn’t like Long Island, and Westchester was too expensive. Plus, with me starting my business, we had to be able to live on one salary.”
Last month the couple moved to Burlington, where she started Mountain Mutts Dog Training. “It’s a lot easier selling someone else’s products than it is selling myself,” she admits.
Former life: Director, account planning, Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago
New identity: Co-owner, Pulp Invitations
Cheri Balan, 45, had a sweet deal at FCB. For 12 years she worked a part-time schedule as a director of account planning, which left her plenty of time to spend with her family. Then her younger sister, a wedding-invitation designer who’d been successful at the retail level, invited her to join the business. Since February, Balan has helped the company expand to wholesale suppliers around the country. “I kind of consider it my midlife career change,” she says. She still works part time in her new gig, and her hours are still flexible. But within two years, she believes, the financial payoff will be bigger. “This is a chance to make my own future, to make what I want of it,” she says. “It’s very different being an entrepreneur, and it’s a risk, but I was really ready to take that leap. Here, it’s all up to me—that’s very exciting.”
Former life: Chairman, client services, Young & Rubicam Inc.
New identity: Middle-school math teacher, the Bronx
Few advertising careers are as dynamic as Mitch Kurz’s was: With an M.B.A. from Harvard (George W. Bush was a classmate), he joined Y&R in 1975 as a summer intern and, for the next 23 years, moved up the account management ranks. By 1998, he had a vice chairman’s title, and the agency’s initial public offering made him richer than he’d ever thought possible. He was ready to go.
He formed a consulting company called Kurz & Friends in 1999 to work with nonprofits, including Teach for America, which was in the midst of trying to bring midcareer professionals into public schools. “I realized I was the marketing epicenter,” he says. “A man with a master’s degree who could teach math to middle schoolers.”
Now almost done with his second year as a math teacher at Middle School 118 in the Tremont section of the Bronx, Kurz loves his work, despite the challenges. The school was designed for 800 and holds 1,300 kids—all of them poor. “Unbelievably, unimaginably poor,” he says. “And most come from one-parent or one-guardian homes. And yet they’re just kids, like any other kids.”
The pay cut was dramatic. Kurz now earns $39,500 a year. “About 5 percent of what I used to make,” he says. To say he’s operating at a loss is an understatement—it costs him about $43,000 a year just to send his own two children to New York’s tony Horace Mann School, “which is about a mile and a half and four light-years away from where I teach.” When the subway delivers him back to the Upper East Side each day, “I just have to blink hard: It’s two different worlds.”
Five former agency execs on starting over