Let’s just say it: This sucks. This is not how you were supposed to wrap up your college careers. No graduation parties, no graduation ceremonies and no jobs (or a lot fewer than there were). I often reference a book written by M. Scott Peck. It’s kind of the original self-help psychology book. The first line says, “Life is difficult.”
I want you to know that it’s OK to mourn. It’s not only OK but necessary to grieve for what you lost. But at some point after that process is done, you’ve got to pick yourself up, look around and figure out what the hell you’re going to do.
I can’t tell you exactly what to do. What do I know? I’m just the CCO of an ad agency. And I’m not saying that out of any sense of false modesty. But what I can tell you and what may give you some hope is that there is no right time or perfect way to land a job or start a career.
But here is the process to advertising success that worked for me:
I got a great internship at NBC Sports after my junior year. I didn’t work the system, didn’t network, didn’t stand out in any way. I blew it. I went back to school in Texas for my senior year beaten down, a little depressed and anxious.
After graduation, I went to Los Angeles for an alumni meet and greet with entertainment executives. And, shockingly, I got offered a job working on a movie. Did I take that job? I did not. Why not? No idea. Maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe I was dumb. I still don’t know. I then lived with my parents for a year and got a job working at the mall as a stock boy at a clothing store. They wouldn’t let me actually sell clothes because I had no experience, but it ws the only job I could get.
After a year working at the mall, my uncle in Atlanta called and offered me a job managing his running shoe store. The new store was 400-square-feet of subleased space in the back of a local bike shop. I took the job and lived in his basement for three and half years, which is about two and a half years longer than expected.
After a year and a half in my uncle’s basement, the shoe store gig made it possible for me to get my first apartment. I still couldn’t find a “real” job, but I could support myself.
I started attending a night class on advertising. Each week, there was a different guest speaker from the ad business. After one particularly compelling class, I went up and introduced myself to the speaker, who was the head of broadcast production at a local agency. He invited me to tour the agency sometime, so I called him the next day. And he hired me to be his assistant. I made $21,000 a year, answered his phone, took notes, got him sweet tea from Chick-Fil-A every morning. I was the first man to hold that position in the agency’s 82-year history.
I got offered a promotion (twice) but didn’t take it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a producer. I did love being at the agency, though. My boss suggested I give copywriting a shot, so I started doing little jobs around the agency and actually sold a couple of things.
He told me to go to school, so I started going to ad school while still working part time. I got fired so I went to school full-time at this wild startup ad school with folding tables and folding chairs in a dumpy building with coffee-stained carpeting called The Creative Circus.
This was the first thing I’d ever done that I liked, that I was good at and could actually see a path to making money and having a career. I gave it absolutely everything I had.
I graduated from The Circus and got a job at Wieden & Kennedy. I worked there for almost seven years, but even at my dream job, I still fought with partners, struck out on big assignments and got yelled at by clients. Now 13 years after getting fired from my first agency job, I’m the CCO of McKinney.
I’ve done work I’m proud of and made a good living. I’ve also had to sit across from people I care about and let them go. I’ve put my heart into pitches and lost. I’ve had clients ask me off their business. Always I’m reminded that life is difficult.
This is going to be tough, that is true, but what is also true is that you’re going to make it. You don’t have to be the most ambitious, the most connected or the most immediately successful. I wasn’t any of those things; I had to find my own way, and you will, too.
Your primary job will be to keep learning and honing your craft. No job is beneath you; it’s all good experience. And sometimes it takes a year (or more) in a basement to figure out where you need to go next.
You can use your skills to solve problems for organizations that need support and add to your portfolio at the same time. You can help them build a social presence, create an app or launch a virtual fundraising event. Some of them won’t be able to pay you but do it anyway.
A career in advertising is a rollercoaster. Even dream jobs have nightmare days and even the people at the top sometimes wonder whether they have any business being in this business. Imposter syndrome never really goes away; you just learn to hide it better.
Good luck. And to once more quote our old friend M. Scott Peck: “If we know exactly where we’re going, exactly how to get there, and exactly what we’ll see along the way, we won’t learn anything.”