Something really funny happened in my life in 1990: I fell into the advertising business. Advertising was not something that I had gone to college for, and it was certainly not a career that I had dreamed of since I was a child, as my wife had done with her career in interior design. Chris had known that she wanted to be an interior designer ever since she was a little girl.
While I wouldn’t call it a career aspiration, I had always wanted to be a running back. Football was the only sport that I wanted to play, but my mom said it was too dangerous (thanks, mom — it turns out you were right about that). Growing up as a kid in Syracuse, New York, I idolized the Heisman Trophy star running backs that had played for Syracuse University. I didn’t have enough interest in sports other than football, so I didn’t try out for any teams. So instead, throughout my school years, I was an academic nerd.
In high school, a couple of meetings with my guidance counselor pointed me in the direction of becoming an architect, and I had also taken mechanical drawing and architecture classes. While I found architecture fascinating, I couldn’t conceive of working in that field for my entire professional career. As an eighteen-year-old kid, I didn’t feel that I had enough creativity to be an architect. In hindsight, I find that notion to be laughable since I’m now a writer.
And so, without a clearly defined goal for my career, in college I pursued a business administration major. I had always been just a little bit too smart for my own good, and learning had always come much too easily for me. I always scored very well on IQ tests and standardized achievement tests, and so I was put into a gifted and talented program, and started honors classes a year early. None of this “fast forward” approach to learning challenged me enough, and I found that I was bored throughout my school years. Without enough career motivation, I only went to college for two years, at a community college located near Syracuse.
While I was in college, I needed some gas money for my car. I had a good friend that worked for a furniture retailer, which had a large single-store location. He got me a part-time job there, and I unloaded trucks from the warehouse, organized the stock rooms, swept the sidewalks, and changed light bulbs. Not exactly exciting stuff.
In time, management began to realize my potential, and I was promoted to the merchandising team. Once I was on that team, I became a furniture buyer, traveling to the furniture market in High Point, North Carolina twice a year. I was a furniture buyer for a couple of years, and during that time, the VP of sales decided to leave the company. His sudden departure also created a vacancy in another department: advertising. That furniture company, Dunk and Bright, was so large that it had its own in-house advertising agency. The departing VP of sales wore many hats, because he was also the advertising director of that ad agency, and that position became an opportunity that I sought out.
While I didn’t know much about advertising at the time, I was very interested in learning more about it. I knew that creating and managing budgets was involved, and I had always been nearly a savant with numbers, ever since I was a young child. Those mathematical skills had served me well as a furniture buyer, as I had to ensure that the product lines I was responsible for would always have the correct mark-up percentage. Those math skills would also come in handy as the ad director.
The company’s owner agreed to let me try the ad director job on a part-time basis, as long as I kept up with my merchandising responsibilities. I was now the head of the in-house advertising agency, and supervised a creative director, a copywriter, and a graphic artist. This was my first supervisory experience, and it was exhilarating!
As far as my media buying responsibilities, buying newspaper space was straightforward. The company had a bulk advertising contract with the local newspaper group, and we ran so many quarter page, full page, and double-truck ads over the course of the year that we always outperformed our contract.
However, buying TV and radio commercials was not so simple, and I was naïve enough at the time to think that this part of the job was going to be a piece of cake, but I was wrong. Learning about GRPs, ratings, HUTs, and shares became my first education about the science and methodology behind buying airtime.
I was humbled in my very first meeting with our CBS affiliate sales rep when he asked me how many GRPs I was planning to buy over the next couple of months. Even though I was embarrassed that I didn’t know what a GRP was, I sheepishly admitted that to him. The sales rep smiled kindly, and patiently began to explain to me how Nielsen ratings worked. And the mathematical nerd inside of me sprang to life! Then he showed me a Nielsen ratings book from the most recent sweeps period, and that was even more exciting. Over time, I learned about Arbitron ratings too, and I learned to become very proficient at reading the survey books. It’s so funny to think about all of this now in hindsight, but that was some serious on-the-job training that I had to go through!
After a year of being the director of the in-house ad agency, I realized I had unintentionally begun a career in advertising. It was a complete and total accident that I had started down that career path, and it was also a stepping stone into the agency business, which eventually became a twenty-five-year professional journey.
Scott G. Howard worked in the advertising agency business as a media buyer and media director for nearly twenty-five years. He is now an author, storyteller, and freelance writer, and writes from his unique perspective on relationships and life. Scott was born in Syracuse, NY and resides in Charlotte, NC, where he has lived for almost twenty years.