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January 8, 2003
How to Swallow Your Pride and Get Your Soul Back

So one day I was sitting in my perfectly nice ad agency in Atlanta, surrounded by perfectly nice people and a good, comfortable life, when I decided that being good and nice wasn't enough.

I wanted to see what being great was like. Oh yeah. I wanted to be at an agency that was "all about the work."

Unfortunately, there were a few obstacles.

Namely, I was making nearly six figures and had an ACD title, a shitty book and a worse reel.

How on earth does that happen? Well, more easily than you think. And in the interest of it not happening to you, I'll share:

I drank the wrong Kool-Aid. I got my self-esteem from the growing salary and the title inflation, instead of the work. The raises and the attaboys came like little bumps of cocaine.

I listened to the opinions around me. I was a creative Bubble Boy. I never took the time to get my work critiqued outside the shop, or by respected creatives around the country. I never got to find out how good or bad I was in the real world.

Instead, I bought the shiny convertible and moved into the expensive apartment with the doorman and the concierge.

And of course,

I bought into the premise that things were going to change - that we were going to be a more creative shop. It just seemed too hard to risk all that salary and comfort by competing on the open market.

When I finally did start looking, I had a body of produced work that wouldn't get me a job as a spray booth cleaner at Grey.

I had two choices: stay on that path forever, or take some risks.

I opted for #2. After seven years, I threw away my whole book. I started doing spec ads. I quit my job. And began freelancing around the South, for the best people I could get in front of.

Admittedly, throwing away the VP/ACD business cards required swallowing more than a little pride. (And, I still miss the convertible.) But after a few months, I started getting some traction. Agencies started asking me back. Better agencies started asking me to come over. Long drives started turning into plane tickets. I started gaining a little respect around town.

Soon enough, I was teaching at Portfolio Center and Creative Circus. I met incredible people while there... I taught them, and in many ways they taught me.

And in the space of eighteen months, I went from having a portfolio that would have been laughed out of many shops to nine job offers, all of which I turned down. How did I know the tenth one was right? Well, I didn't. But at some point you have just have to jump on board and see what you're made of. And that's what the last three years have been like for me at Hill Holliday in Boston.

I picked Hill because it seemed the hardest. I figured if I survived it, I would learn the most there. It was, and I have.

You should know something about this place. It is not for prima donnas who insist on having their opportunities handed to them. In fact, I hesitate to recommend it to juniors, because they tend to eat their young alive in these big shops.

But if you hang tough, the opportunities do come.

Yes, there are great talents here. Yes, they get in the books. But believe me, every name you see on those pages has also willingly taken on some miserable, stinking assignments. I mean, Phew-ee. You take the good with the bad here. But in the end, it makes you a better creative, a smarter one - and a good deal more humble.

All of this to say, no regrets. It hasn't always been fun, but overall, it's been worth it. And I found that if you stay focused on the work, the money does follow... eventually.

I feel lucky to have had work recognized by One Show, Hatch, ShowSouth, Print, CA and others. But more than anything, I feel fortunate to have just gotten off my ass.

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An award-winning copywriter, Stephen has worked at shops around the U.S. He most recently worked at Hill Holliday in Boston working on The Boston Globe, Dunkin Donuts, and the launch of Edison Beer. Stephen has also shaped young advertising minds at the Portfolio Center and Creative Circus. Recently, Stephen left Hill Holliday in search of new adventures. Go get 'em, Stephen.

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