One of the greatest minds of the past 100 years once said:
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” — Ferris Bueller
Ferris was — as usual — absolutely right. One of the side effects of “stopping to look around” is remembering how you got where you are today — and all the people to whom you owe thanks.
I can’t possibly thank everyone who has helped me along the way, but I’ve narrowed it down a bit. These individuals helped me make crucial life decisions, taught me valuable lessons, and/or paid me money to sit at a computer, typing slightly clever words destined to be edited in a soul-crushing manner.
A longtime family friend, Bruce, is a co-founder and creative director at a mid-size agency. For four straight summers (during college), I interned at his shop — bouncing from creative to PR to traffic and production. THAT, my friends, is how you start learning about the business.
The first thing I ever did there was for the PR department. Our client, a restaurant chain, was opening new locations — and my job was to call those cities and seek out charities for possible partnerships.
Friends, this was before the Internet was easily accessed by average Joes like me. And we didn’t have phone books for these places. So I basically started with a zip code, calling Information multiple times to get numbers for the chamber of commerce, local chapters of national/international charities, etc. And eventually I compiled a list of relevant organizations for my grateful boss.
I did all the requisite intern stuff — picking up lunch, sending faxes, sorting/delivering mail, filing job jackets, distributing memos, etc. (Yes, I know that at least three of those things are obsolete.) And I read the agency’s copies of Ad Age and Adweek, analyzed all the tissue paper mechanicals I was delivering or filing, and tried to figure out if I belonged.
Turns out I did. Thanks, Bruce.
The College Gig
As an undergrad, I was stupidly/lazily/unwillingly late in searching for a job on campus. Wanting to make money, I ended up with a bag of giant trashbags and a long poker with a sharp metal end on it. And for two gloriously awful weekends, I picked up all the post-party litter around my assigned territory of fraternity and sorority houses.
(Don’t get me wrong; it was honest work in the great outdoors. But I was hoping for something related to my career path. And some might say that did help me prepare for a life in advertising. But I digress. Again.)
I cannot remember who suggested it, but I ended up visiting the basement office of College Communications. The administrative assistant — one of the sweetest ladies I’ve ever met — told me cheerfully that yes, they did use student writers and that Sally (the director) would meet with me.
After a nice interview and my submittal of a brilliant press release (announcing my own hiring...GET IT?!?), Sally gave me a job. And under her tutelage, I cranked out press releases about everything happening on campus — from the annual “Handel’s Messiah” performance to the latest donations to the school’s art museum.
I even had the privilege of taking a journalism class with Sally, who had extensive experience in the field. One of the most powerful assignments I ever had in school was in that class — writing your own obituary. Kinda morbid, but you not only learned how to write a good obit, you learned a lot about what you wanted out of life.
Sally was a great boss, an influential teacher, and a wonderful woman. I’m sad that she passed away last year, but I’ll always be grateful for all she taught me.
The Guy Who Actually Meant “Keep in Touch”
After college, I had no job. Seven different resume versions (for advertising, PR, journalism, etc.), but no job.
I started grad school, then found my first full-time job five months later. Suit-and-tie, technical PR writing. Not sure I’ve ever truly awakened from that particular Matrix. (Although I did complete several editions of the “Fiber & Fabric Finishings” newsletter.)
But during my tenure at that first job, I always held out hope that I’d cross over to the ad side. And my sole connection to that world was Tom, a creative director at a small ad agency where I had interviewed before getting the PR job.
He didn’t have an opening at the time, but he liked me (my “I write good stuff” cover letter intro had stuck with him) and had told me to keep in touch. Because this was before email was so widespread (SO last century), we corresponded a few times via “snail mail.”
And 10 months into my PR gig, Tom called to tell me they had an opening for a copywriter. Had me put together some spec stuff (‘cause I didn’t have a real portfolio), another interview, and I was in.
Heaven knows where I’d be if Tom hadn’t been kind enough to keep in touch. That’s why I will always take the time to do so, if I’m ever in that position.
(NOTE: After getting hired, I’d soon learn that Tom also happened to be a great boss, creative director and mentor. So although I owe him for more than keeping in touch and hiring me, those were his greatest gifts.)
Although I’ve worked at agencies of various sizes, some of the smaller-to-midsize agencies allow you to really grow as a professional. And the five-plus years I spent at a 30-ish person, mostly B2B agency were really formative for me.
One of the most important lessons I learned during my time there was the power (and fun) of give-and-take brainstorming. I got to work with a variety of art directors there, each of whom had their own particular strengths, talents and experiences.
bottle of whiskey cup of coffee and stealing away to the “brainstorming room” or conference room or even on the picnic bench behind the office, bouncing ideas off each other and working together to solve our clients’ marketing challenges — is a necessary process and can even be exhilarating.
Thanks to Bob, Dave, Denis, Kathy, Kim, Todd, and Tommy, I learned that art directors can do great headlines, copywriters can create visual-driven concepts, and that even “terrible” ideas can lead you to great ones.
The Ability to Adapt
This one would be complete butt-kissing, but because I’m shrouding my current boss’ identity in first-name-only anonymity, it’s not. (Hooray for Lori!)
After my last foray on the client side, I was lucky enough to land a position at a digital marketing agency. And although I’d done a fair amount of interactive work, diving into the all-pixel creative world was still a big change.
I already knew the importance of writing web content and emails in what I like to call “digestible chunks” (also a great band name). But when you think about the size limitations of teeny-tiny display ads and mobile banners, Facebook ads with 25-character headlines and 90-character text areas, and even Twitter’s 140-character limit (but sticking to 110-120, allowing/hoping for retweets), there’s something you always have to do as a copywriter...something that Lori crystallized in one phrase:
“Shorten that sh**.”
Now, she didn’t say that in a nasty or derogatory way. It was an earnest request to make things easier for our art directors and web developers, not to mention the people who’d be actually viewing it.
And it’s become one of my mantras in this golden age of digital. I’m sure it would please all my advertising, creative writing and fiction writing professors to know that the whole “edit, edit, edit” philosophy has finally sunk into my brain — given that this particular blog entry is as long-winded as I used to be with all my writing.
Anyway, Lori’s directive — now abbreviated, appropriately, as “STS” — has become one of my professional mantras. (I’m confident my wife would like me to follow this principle at home as well.)
So thanks, Lori, for telling me to “shut up and get to the point faster” in the nicest way possible. I’m working on it.
With 20+ years of experience — both at agencies and "on the client side" — Harley David Rubin has enjoyed many challenges and opportunities in his career. He's currently freelancing, with an eye toward starting his own creative communications company. And he loves to share the stories and "wisdom" he's accumulated over the years. (Because what writer doesn't love talking about himself?) He's truly thankful for the opportunity to write for TalentZoo.com, and he's happy to connect via LinkedIn or even on Twitter at @hdrubin.