Stop Waiting for the Rain and Make Your Own Weather

In Ad-Job Drought, It's Time to Think Outside the Industry

By Published on .

Erik Proulx
Erik Proulx

During sustained droughts, the yellow-bellied slider turtle instinctively relocates toward the direction of the nearest body of water. He doesn't wait in cracked mud for a deluge that will never arrive. He doesn't look at other dying pond dwellers and think, "Well, it may not be raining for them. But I'm different." No, the yellow-bellied slider marches, slowly and deliberately to unfamiliar land in search of water.

Such is the choice facing some 65,000 advertising people who have lost their jobs since this latest recession began 476 days ago (but who's counting?). We hang onto hope against hope that this isn't really happening. Maybe the phone will ring. Maybe so-and-so HR lady will return the e-mail. Maybe it slipped the headhunter's mind that the creative director wanted an interview.

Maybe it will rain.

Those who choose to stay put in their once-upon-a-pond are discovering just how hungry the vultures are getting. Bankruptcies in March rose 41% from a year ago. Foreclosures in the first quarter of 2009 were the highest in recorded history. In other words, it's pretty dry out there.

So, where's the water? In the past month alone, I've spoken to an account manager who is relocating his family from Connecticut to San Francisco, a writer who left Detroit for a job in Seattle, an art director who left an amazing life in Tennessee for a staff position in Pittsburgh, and another who is considering a creative director job in Dubai. Personally, I've moved from Boston to Cleveland to New York and then back to Boston during my own agency-relocation marathon that began during the 2001 recession. All of these anecdotes represent a major lifestyle change for their protagonists, as well as for the left-behind loved ones who can never fully grasp why someone would relocate just to write jingles.

Then again, maybe they have a point. Cross-country (or cross-globe) moves, while sometimes necessary, are only one path to water. As an alternative to packing U-hauls, many out-of-work adfolk are employing a different, but no-less drastic, strategy: skill transfers.

Erik Proulx is a freelance associate creative director/copywriter and writes Please Feed the Animals, a blog for recently unemployed advertising professionals.

Embracing other opportunities
Consider the agency account planner who gets laid off after 10 years of psychographic research and focus-group moderation. Does that mean he is only qualified to look for another advertising position? How many industries are there that need his skills? Actually, I can't think of one that doesn't need the targeted research and insights that planners provide. The same logic applies to laid-off art directors, copywriters, account executives, art buyers, producers, traffic people -- anyone who has honed their skills in our chosen trade.

Yes, advertising is a cool career. "The most fun you can have with your clothes on," as they say. But you know what's not fun? Eviction notices. And if people can learn to embrace an entire universe of opportunities outside of advertising, they might just discover a new love.

I share the example I know best, my own. I've spent the better part of 15 years learning and practicing my craft on both Madison Ave (literally) and Main Street (literally). What skills have I gained, other than the ability to turn a phrase or produce an occasional television spot? Turns out I have a pretty intimate relationship with advertising's innards and a better understanding than most of just how much amazing talent is out on the streets. So, for the time being, I'm repackaging this experience soup into a blog and soon-to-be job site for unemployed advertising talent called Please Feed the Animals.

And I am just one of countless unemployed advertising people who are applying the creativity once reserved for clients to their own lives. Take my friend Amelie Loyot. She's been an art director her entire career, much of it as an associate creative director at Arnold. Now, she just finished designing a book cover for a major publishing company. Then there's Lisa Hickey, who over the course of her 25-year advertising career has won almost every conceivable award as a writer, art director, creative director and agency principal. Today, she is fast becoming one of the country's leading social-media strategists. There's also Matt Lindley, a former agency executive creative director who has repackaged his digital and brand-building expertise as a product manager for the emerging media company LocaModa.

You will survive
Would we all still rather be under the employ of advertising agencies? I can't speak for my friends and former colleagues, but I know I would not have chosen this ordeal. Getting laid off sucks. Networking is a chore. Health insurance is highway robbery. (Any unemployed people not for nationalized health care, raise your hands.) But these are the cards we've been dealt. And with the right perspective, it's a pretty good hand.

In Bill Bryson's must-read book, "A Short History of Nearly Everything," he reminds us that well over a million years ago our newly upright ancestors left Africa, navigated treacherous mountain ranges, and crossed deserts that were far more arid and precarious than they are today. (Can you imagine the appetite on a prehistoric dino-vulture?) "Yet somehow they managed to find their way around every barrier and to thrive in the lands beyond," Bryson said.

Our ability to survive is powerful and instinctive. Unlike our ancient hominid relatives, most of us modern ad geeks can search for water metaphorically. We might find our oasis in a new, big city like New York, or an emerging town like Pittsburgh. Or perhaps, we'll find it in a place we never thought to consider -- our own talent.

Most Popular
In this article: