It's Not a Pink Slip; It's a Blank Sheet of Paper

Movie About Laid-off Agency People Premiers in Boston

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
About a year ago, the economic maelstrom hit the Boston advertising community, and hundreds of people got laid off from the big shops. You could feel the crisis in the air. E-mails and Twitter posts tallied up the dead. People with jobs felt like they had dodged a bullet. Networking among the jobless took on a frantic and feverish quality.

Amidst all this chaos, we met a talented copywriter named Erik Proulx, who joined PJA as a freelancer for six months. I kept asking our creative directors why we weren't hiring the guy, and they said that he had some other irons in the fire. One of those irons was a website called Please Feed the Animals, a community for people who had lost their jobs. Hmm, noble effort. The other is a remarkable documentary called "Lemonade," which had its premier on Monday night at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

If you work in advertising, you've got to see the movie. It tells the story of a dozen or so people who lost their jobs and transformed their lives, in some cases literally. (One of the characters changes genders.) This collection of amazing people describes the ego blows of losing their jobs in some mind numbingly stupid ways. Every advertising executive should see the movie as a cautionary tale for how not to treat people. Try to avoid lines like, "Hey buddy, can we talk in my office for a few minutes." It's also probably better not to fire people in glass conference rooms.

After the trauma, the movie follows each person as he or she reinvents life -- none returned to the agency world. (Steve Hall, who founded Adrants, tangentially remains in the business, where he can entertain the rest of us with his scathing wit and insights about the industry.)

I'm sitting in the audience with conflicting emotions. I'm blown away by the power of the movie and the personal stories. The characters on screen are a reflection of what I love about the industry: wonderfully smart, funny people, most of whom you would hire in a heartbeat. Pushed out the door, they discover new passions and more satisfying lives than they ever had working at their agency jobs. While I found myself cheering for these life stories, I was also saying, "Hold on, I don't want to be part of a machine that stifles the inner passions of talented people."

Erik Proulx tells a great anecdote in the movie about creative briefs and how they always seem to force you to make a slight shift in what you really want to say. Making Lemonade, he says, for the very first time lets him express himself without compromise. All the people in the movie make a similar point, whether they're describing their artwork or new business ventures. Do you have to compromise integrity, even in the slightest, to run a business? I don't want to.

Almost as inspiring as the movie was watching how the advertising community came together to support the production. In his introduction Erik said, "We never ran out of money because we never had any." The audience roared. I'm guessing some people felt that way about their client budgets. It seemed like every production shop in town had contributed to the movie.

There has also been an outpouring of moral support and word-of-mouth promotion. On his blog creativity_unbound, Edward Boches has been a huge champion of the project. The project has been widely discussed on Twitter. See the hashtag #lemonademovie, and the Facebook page. It has also captured the attention of the mainstream media. CBS was on hand to film the premier and will be airing a segment with Katie Couric.

In the end, what I loved about the whole experience was watching the advertising community rally around one of their own, who had left the industry to make a movie about people who had been unceremoniously dumped, and who then went on to carve out new lives. You couldn't help but root for each of them, and I'm sure a few people left the theatre wondering if they should take the plunge into unknown waters of a new career. It reminded me that there's a lot of heart in this business and that all the talent that drives our agencies is not to be taken lightly, or for granted, regardless of the economy. That talent will always find a place that welcomes and values their creativity.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing, with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter: @philjohnson
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