I was just a few years out of wearing nothing but Ramones T-shirts and dyeing my hair all manner of colors when I landed my first job writing at an ad agency. Not in New York or Chicago, mind you, but in Memphis. Yeah — the place better known for Elvis Presley Blvd than Madison Ave.
I had done stints writing and voicing radio spots at WVNA radio in Muscle Shoals, AL and then penning copy for a camshaft company up Highway 72 in Memphis. While both were great learning experiences, they chose me as opposed to me choosing them.
While working at the camshaft company, I subscribed to Communication Arts for the first time. The job paid the bills, but I didn’t want to spend my career at a place where the order of the day was “tire-shredding torque.” Thus I began looking for an agency that would be a good fit for me.
At the time, there were several agencies around Memphis, and I reached out to each of them with some self-promotional ideas that I’m so embarrassed about I won’t share them here. Eventually, two of the agencies got back to me, and I was granted an interview at both.
At the first place, the people were nice enough — but it felt very stuffy and corporate, with plastic plants everywhere and a giant pastel painting of the founder in the conference room. In addition, the creative director kept describing my work as “cute” and talking about how he was “results focused.” After spending a couple of hours with them, I was interested, but less than thrilled. That said, they offered me a job on the spot. I told them I needed a few days to think about it.
The next day I went to interview at the second place. It could not have been more different. For starters, when I arrived in the lobby I was greeted first not by a reception person but by mannequins. Not creepy ones; cool ones that were dressed in replicas of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper uniforms. Next up was the fact that they had work they had done hanging everywhere. It was fun, cool, and smart stuff.
Then I met the owner, and it got even more interesting. He was a funny, eccentric, and a little crazy (in a good way) guy who you could tell was all about the work. Unlike the first place, he didn’t grill me about my college GPA and, in fact, told me he didn’t even care if I’d gone to college as long as I could write. We talked for a bit, and then he gave me a tour of the office and introduced me to the ladies (both art directors) I’d be working with should I pass a tryout.
At the conclusion of the interview, he gave me an ad for a carpet company that only had a headline but needed body copy. He said to me: “I need copy for this by tomorrow, and if you don’t f*!k it up, I’ll give you a job.”
With that, I took the comp home with me. I knew that this was the place I wanted to work. I pored over Communication Arts and studied how writers I liked structured their copy. Then I began to write.
In all, I wrote 11 versions. I then called a writer friend of mine who was already established in the business, and we pared it down to three versions.
The next day, I called the agency and was told to bring my copy samples to Ardent Recording Studios in Memphis, the same studio that gave birth to the band Big Star and where everyone from ZZ Top to the The Allman Brothers had recorded.
When I arrived at the studio, I met with the owner and the two ladies I’d met the day before. We all sat down and they quietly reviewed my copy. I just watched, all nerves. After a few minutes, the owner talked quietly with them, then turned to me and said…
“Well, Dave…you’re hired.”
He and I ironed out the details standing on the front steps of the studio and I started the next week. I spent the next few years working at the agency, which was then called Humphreys Ink, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had in the business.
The owner believed advertising should be engaging and fun. Every single day was like being in a sitcom. In between concept sessions, there were practical jokes, moments when the owner would climb onto the art tables and break out into song, and various other hijinks. It didn’t feel like a job, not even when we all got in a car to go downtown and bail a college intern guy we all really liked out of jail for getting a DUI the night before.
All the while, I learned a lot. I learned how to build campaigns, how to present, how not to present, and how not to be boring. I learned how to make scripts time out and how to produce TV and radio. I also learned, from having two female bosses who kept my 22-year-old ass in line, how to work well with women. I still stay in touch with all of these people today.
I’ve done plenty of wrong things in my career, but my first ad agency experience was not one of them. I chose the job I wanted, and things turned out well. All I had to do was listen to my gut…and follow the mannequins.
With more than 20 years working in the advertising business, Dave Smith has written copy for BBDO, Hill Holliday, Boone Oakley and Ogilvy. His industry awards include Communication Arts, The One Show, and D&AD. Dave is now a freelance writer/creative director based in Nashville, TN. His website is davewordsmith.com