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September 12, 2009
The Year of Living Anxiously

Last year, when the economy officially began its downward spiral, it may have seemed to many that the sky was falling. Not me, I took it in stride. I’m from Detroit. I’m indigenous to poor economic climates.

I mention this because it helps me to set the backdrop on my first experience interviewing with a major advertising agency. It was the Fall of 2004. I had recently graduated from Michigan State University’s College of Communications with a degree in Advertising, and I was eager to make my mark on the industry.

However, Michigan was well ahead of the recession-curve in 2004. The Big 3, though not nearly as bad off as they are today, were in the midst of dealing with the legacy costs of their employees, sliding market share and growing concerns over the quality of their product. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising when plants began shutting down or decreasing shifts. And as anyone in this industry will tell you, when companies are forced to trim budgets, one of the first things to get cut or mitigated is marketing and advertising. The Detroit communications industry has traditionally been driven by their automotive clients and, suffices to say, there weren’t many agency jobs to be had.

But I was lucky. A friend of mine was a copywriter at a well-known agency and referred me for a traffic position. I was brought in and interviewed by several people, including an SVP. I remember that the job paid $18,000 annually. I can’t put into words how badly I wanted that $18K.

It turns out that I did well in my interview. So well, in fact, that they felt me more worthy of an account position and wanted me to come in to interview for a spot on one of their largest accounts. (This one paid a whopping $24,000. I would be rich!)

I put all my due diligence into preparing for this interview. I felt extremely confident that I could get this job, especially when I found out that (purely by coincidence) I would be interviewing with a fraternity brother’s wife. I remember I picked out what I was going to wear several days in advance and had it hanging on my door, waiting for Go Time.

The morning of the interview, an hour and a half before I was scheduled to arrive, coffee in hand while reviewing my notes, I received a call. “We’re sorry, but we’ll have to reschedule.” I was bummed, but not terribly worried. These were busy people, to be sure.

So I waited.

And waited.

A week passed and I gave the HR contact a call. Voicemail.

Another week passed. I called again. Voicemail.

After a month, I attempted one, final call. Voicemail.

I never received a response, let alone an explanation. I officially gave up and tried to move on with my job search, but to no avail. It was 6 months later when I received a message from the agency’s HR person that I had previously been in contact with. I’ll never forget it because she called me while I was taking the GRE; Grad school had become a novel idea after months of being unemployed. “We have an opening here that I think you would be perfect for. I hope that you are still available to come in to interview.”

It was on a Friday afternoon that she had called. I responded first thing that Monday morning. Voicemail.

I waited several days and called again. Voicemail.

Two weeks later, I called again. Voicemail.

I’ve never heard from her since.

To this day, I wonder if I was being maliciously messed with. I used to imagine the HR person playing my eager voicemails on speakerphone to a cackling and hooting crowd. That probably wasn’t the case, but I have yet to come up with a better explanation.

From time to time I’ll wonder “What if?” It took me another full year before I found employment with an agency. What if I had landed that position back in 2004? It would’ve given me invaluable experience almost immediately out of school, and may have opened many doors that have been closed to me over the years.

But really, I’m glad it happened. In the time that I spent in limbo between school and agency-life, I developed a hunger that has served me well as a professional. When something is denied you for so long, once you get it you only want to make the best of it. Also, I had other experiences during that time, like freelancing on political campaigns, and I wouldn’t trade those escapades for anything.

Most of all, I look back and I am proud that I persevered. I speak with fellow MSU communications alumni from time to time and I remain one the few who actually works in communications. I knew what I was good at, and I knew what I had a passion for. This long, frustrating and anxiety-ridden experience only served to fuel that passion.

To all those just out of school and looking for work in this dismal economy, I implore you to persevere and follow your dreams. After sending you resume/portfolio to every agency in the biz and not receiving a response, there will be times when you’ll wonder if you should give up. You’ll question if working in an industry that isn’t known for generous salaries is worth it. You’ll ponder these notions and more. All I can say to you is that for me, I wouldn’t want to be doing else.

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Justin Celko is a digital communications professional based in Chicago, IL. Follow him on Twitter.

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