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May 1, 2008
When Weird Works

Is anyone ever qualified to work in advertising?

I’ve been writing this column for 6 years. But I’m still not sure if I’m qualified to write it.

Such is life in an industry like advertising, where no one, and everyone, is qualified for the job they hold.

It’s no secret that the ad industry is full of misfits. Smart, yes; passionate, yes; but misfits nonetheless. We all belong because we don’t belong. To work in advertising, you don’t need a college degree. And you certainly don’t need some sort of board certification. Imagine if you will, a test to become a board certified AE, copywriter, or media buyer. What on earth would that test consist of?

I bring this up because I’ve been reading more stories, disguised as agency puff pieces, of new hires that have fallen into agency life from some other unconnected job: folks who were stand-up comedians, blues musicians, cruise ship bartenders, roadies, etc. Whatever it is they were doing before, they’re now supposedly ideal for positions in ad agencies.

Our industry embraces a certain degree of weirdness. In America, at least, advertising seems to attract the type of people who want white-collar jobs but eschew typical professions, such as medicine, law or finance. And some of us are would-be artists who sell out to the commercial arts. Consequently, you won’t find too many 1st generation Americans in advertising—doting parents tend to push their high-achieving children to pursue something more respectable.

So it’s not a new idea that advertising professionals have oddball experiences in their backgrounds. What is new is that more and more, agencies are touting those experiences as legitimate qualifications, or even badges of honor, that give outsiders credibility as they become agency insiders. It’s rare to find a profession that embraces people who’ve likely never given it much thought before they landed in it.

Can you truly be born to go into advertising? Can you practice it as a kid? Other commercial arts can engage young people. Take Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino. Both of them, even as small kids, were students of film. They lived it from an early age. Can future ad people do that?

I do believe there are ways to prepare oneself for a career in advertising. But the path isn’t always linear. I graduated from a 4-year university with an advertising degree, and it didn’t help me one bit for the reality of day-to-day advertising agency life. Had I studied more Psychology and Anthropology I’d have been better prepared. Plus a class or two in Animal Husbandry for the days I’ve spent polishing turds.

Why should anyone bother actively pursuing advertising as a career? After all, it’s commonly said of advertising, “Anyone can do it.”

Yes, anyone can do it. And anyone is doing it. Corporations give us millions of dollars to spend, and we turn around and let people who don’t know the first thing about a client spend it.

I’ve seen too many ad people who don’t care much about, or for, their clients. Conversely, I’m especially amazed how few clients know the people who actually do their work. I mean the people who write and art direct the ads, program the websites, and resize the brochures. Maybe advertising is like sausage—you’re better off not knowing how it’s made.

But I wonder if there’s going to come a day when marketers, and ad agencies, start deciding there’s no room for dreamers who do whacked-out work but can’t solve business problems. In an era of shareholder pressure, it seems that no corporation has the leeway to waste a penny—with the exception of CEO pay, of course.

Hopefully, the makeup of this industry will remain somewhat iconoclastic. It makes life more interesting. And that’s why we work in the business. The late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

For ad pros, it seems, weirdness may be the only qualification that’s needed.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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