The Young Guns Shoot Blanks: An Ad Industry Tale

By September 8, 2015 Blog, Opinion No Comments

This past year, I’ve been building a freelance contact list that includes former colleagues from multiple agencies across three cities and two decades. Each name that I scrounge up conjures a long-dormant memory of camaraderie, angst, pride, intemperance, panic, inspiration and/or jealousy. Mostly, I find myself remembering mistakes I’ve made—the faux pas, boners, improprieties—and hoping these people remember them differently, if they remember them at all.

That said, I sure seem to enjoy telling a career anecdote whose central theme is my lapse in judgment. Here’s one that goes all the way back to the beginning. It’s worth coming back to, whenever I’m feeling just a little too fond of myself.

Two weeks into our first job, my art director and I were profiled by a trade rag as part of an “Agency of the Year” spread on our new employer, TBWA\Chiat\Day. The piece was titled “Young Guns III.” (“Young Guns I” and “Young Guns II” featured colleagues who were grizzled veterans by comparison.) Mind you, this was 1997, and the spread also included a certain luminary named Lee Clow, a timeline of the agency’s most breakthrough work, and the just-launched “Think Different” campaign for Apple.

Given this context, it probably would have been wise for my partner and me to say something like, “We’re humbled by all the incredible talent surrounding us.”

But no. In lieu of any professional work to speak of, we decided to blow wind about what makes effective advertising (which we hadn’t yet made), our philosophies on awards (which we hadn’t yet won), and how guys like us got jobs at an agency like this (which typically didn’t hire creatives right out of school). A few of my quotes:

“A mistake a lot of students make is they advertise only to themselves.”

“We didn’t want to blend in, so we came up with creative solutions that were different and more intellectual.”

“We did a documentary announcing the arrival of two profoundly unique new talents—us.”

It’s true, we did make such a documentary as a tongue-in-cheek promotional piece. But as we discovered, in a printed quote, it’s hard to tell where your tongue is.

When the spread came out, we were pleased enough to show it to our friends and families, but nervous about how the other creative teams would feel about our getting press that they more rightly deserved. Well, it wasn’t so much the attention itself; it was the things we said that earned us the cold shoulder from people we’d hoped would be our mentors. We came off as entitled know-it-alls. And who’d want to teach the craft to someone who knew it all? We instantly found ourselves on the margins, struggling to be part of the agency’s culture. Many of our colleagues called us “The Guns,” dripping with sarcasm.

Lesson learned, right? Uh, no. At the same time, we misread the agency’s laid-back atmosphere, and thought it looked easy; we didn’t recognize everyone else’s efforts because we weren’t around enough to observe them. We gave ourselves permission to roll in late and leave early. We showed our creative directors what we thought was an acceptable range of ideas, and griped when our ideas weren’t chosen.

Now six months into the job, the man responsible for our employment pulled us aside and explained to us—in very frank terms—how much we were screwing up this opportunity. It was one of the most unpleasant conversations I’ve ever had, at least professionally. I’d dreamed of a job at this agency since I was a sophomore in high school, when Chiat\Day (pre-TBWA) made an appearance on the show “Thirtysomething”; I was dazzled with this place that was more playground than office, where suits, jocks, artists and dogs comingled, and I resolved right then and there to take the job that Michael Steadman, the show’s copywriter protagonist, was being recruited for. So you can imagine my melodrama when it was suggested that if I didn’t shape up, I could say goodbye to the agency and to a career in advertising.

The horror!

The denouement to this story is that we got our asses in gear, produced work, made some friends, earned a modicum of respect, got Lee Clow to remember our names (temporarily) and launched careers that continue to this day. It’s safe to say my work ethic has improved, and on some days, my judgment too. Lesson learned … eventually.

Since going freelance, I’ve resumed contact with lots of people who were at least background characters in my early-days war stories—and gotten some gigs because of them. I guess that means they remember the guy who emerged from these first missteps more clearly than the guy who was stumbling.

The “entitled junior” thing was once the talk of the industry—at least in my conversation circles. As a creative director, I’ve given more than a few young guns my version of the riot act. (Calmer than they one I got, with a deeper voice and fewer F-bombs.) But in the last five years, I’ve seen less of this entitled posture from people coming into the business. Any planner will tell you that millennials disengage if they don’t feel their work has purpose; but I’ve found them to be less reliant on the agency to provide that purpose, perfectly capable of finding it themselves. I still see plenty of anxiety, but less malaise. Loads of talent, minus the arrogance — mock or otherwise.

They must have learned from my mistakes.

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About the Author:

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John Carstens, Freelance ECD+Writer

John Carstens is a seasoned and cured creative director, and copywriter by trade. He’s pitched, preened and written his prose at the likes of SapientNitro, Cramer-Krasselt and TBWA\Chiat\Day, and to show for it, has a plastic crate filled with awards in his basement. He’s currently freelancing nationally while residing in Chicago with his two mildly eccentric children and tolerant wife. Follow him at Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram @carstensible.

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The Young Guns Shoot Blanks: An Ad Industry Tale