When I was 23 years old and living with a high-school friend in Boston’s North End, I saw a television commercial that shaped my life for the next 15 years.
It was a beautiful, black-and-white spot for the United Way. There was a 10-year-old girl donning angel wings and walking through a cemetery. To the camera, she said:
“How do you want to be remembered?
For the car you drove?
As the guy who slid into second with his spikes up?
The woman in the power suit who everyone feared?
The one with the most toys?
Or someone who cared?
Someone who did good?
Someone who, on the day they’re gone
people will say today…there’s a hole in the world?”
It was more than 30-seconds of prose and beautiful imagery. It was art. And right away, I realized someone wrote that.
It was one of the rare moments in a person’s life when they’re given the gift of absolute clarity. So, I went back to school, built a portfolio and cut my teeth at the first agencies that would hire me. Then I spent the next decade and a half trying to achieve the same kind of emotional connection that United Way made with me.
I swung and swung and swung the bat. And in this metaphor, my average was .000. But I counted myself among the resilient ones. Another agency, another city, another recession. I lived by the motto that effort could overcome talent. If I just kept stepping up to the plate, I believed, I could compete in the majors.
There were a few near brushes. Some stuff I was proud of. A couple of meaningless awards. But it’s unlikely anything I did affected a single person emotionally. Not unless someone was moved to tears by a wide-angle SUV shot.
So it’s not without a sense of irony that it took getting laid off three times to finally do the kind of work that motivated me into advertising. The film Lemonade, which I co-created with director Marc Colucci and dozens of ridiculously talented filmmakers, features 16 laid-off ad folks who are finally doing their life’s work.
In other words, sometimes it takes losing your job to find your voice. And for me, there were some very practical reasons why.
Latitude of independence: When you work for yourself, you gain a certain freedom that’s impossible otherwise. I wanted to make a movie, so I made a movie. I didn’t have to run it by my boss, then his boss, then the account team, then planners, then the client, then focus groups. Even if you have the best idea in the history of advertising, by the time it gets deloused of its edge and originality, you’re lucky if it resembles your original thought at all.
It’s incredibly liberating and more than a little frightening to be given the keys to do whatever you want. And with all the tools available to you these days, it’s also more possible. Which brings me to the next reason.
Social media: Without my good friends Twitter and Facebook, we would have never found the stories and resources to make Lemonade. A tweet here, a status update there, and before you know it, I had a producer and some incredible talent. Even Virgin America got in on the act and tweeted an offer to sponsor the travel. It’s a new age of connectivity — one where a laid-off copywriter can communicate directly with the head of marketing for a major global airline. Can you imagine that kind of access from within the walls of a 500-person agency?
Intimacy of subject matter: There’s a reason Dove’s creative directors are women and Jaguar’s are dudes. It’s not sexist to admit that I have a much better grasp on a guy’s attraction to pickup trucks than I do a woman’s connection to Hermes scarves. Despite our insistence that we’re professionals and it’s our job to connect with varied personalities, it’s impossible to know anything as well as we know ourselves.
In hindsight, I had to spend the better part of my career learning one craft so I could transition into another. That’s what reinvention is. And there’s very little I would change.
That said, I want to leave you with the question asked to me by a 10-year-old angel in a United Way commercial — one I wish I could have listened to with more mature ears: “How do you want to be remembered?”
Why wait until you’re laid off to figure it out?
Erik Proulx is the creator of Lemonade and founder of Please Feed the Animals. He can be reached at email@example.com.