What I Learned About The Ad Industry By Leaving It

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Dear Younger Emily,

You know what professions should be tough to do? Medicine. The Federal Bureau of Investigations. SEAL Team Six (you don’t know what that is yet, but trust me—they’re good).

Advertising should not be so hard.

You’ll leave Advertising on accident pretty soon—the job you find in San Francisco will broaden your horizons past copywriting and you won’t look back. You’ll have opportunities to go back, and each time it comes up, you’ll feel like Princess Jasmine in that final second before the sand engulfs her. You’ll remember all the jealous put-downs of other people’s work, the disrespect from recruiters, the windowless cubicles, and you’ll wonder why you felt like such a strong person for putting up with it.

Advertising is not the Marine Corps. You shouldn’t have to be tough-as-nails to do it—sure, you should get used to good ideas going nowhere because that’s just what happens as a creative person, but you shouldn’t have to be a certain caliber of toughness, you should just have to be a creative person with good ideas, and the place you work should do the rest to make sure those ideas happen.

You shouldn’t be desperate for attention. You shouldn’t have your emails ignored. You shouldn’t believe your next job will happen as soon as this one gets around to firing you. If your ideas aren’t getting produced but your ideas are good, someone should be wondering what they aren’t giving you, not waiting for the perfect opportunity to get rid of you.

You also shouldn’t be concerned about middle age while you’re in your twenties. If ad agencies want to show respect to their more experienced employees who have put decades of hard work into the company, they could send those people to conferences and classes and help them learn the changing space of Advertising, not work them to the bone to the very end and then fire them.

And for Christ’s sake, if all their employees are asking for a fridge, they should buy a goddamn fridge.

If you feel whiny or entitled for saying any of this, just remember that if the ad industry wants happy, creative people, they should foster happiness and creativity, not fear and self-doubt. Once you’re in tech, you’ll have to retrain yourself to notice bad experiences. When something is buggy or broken, you can’t just refresh or ignore it anymore, you’ll be expected to report the bug and help make the experience better for others. You’ll have meetings where your manager asks you what they can do to make your experience at the company better, and how they can help foster your creativity. Phrases like “just keep your head down and keep working” will no longer serve as acceptable words of encouragement.

Certainly ad agencies don’t need to spend tech-level money to keep their employees happy. I’m not talking indoor slides and swimming pools. I’m just saying: you deserve to be happy at your job, and you should demand more from your employer.

But right now, you’re still putting up with it. And why? To make cat food coupons? No. It’s because, tiny baby Emily, you’re still clinging onto the glimmer of hope that one day you’ll make a good ad—you’ll make “1984” or you’ll teach the world to sing or you’ll meet Jon Hamm. The thing is, spending years being miserable isn’t worth it. It might mean you won’t get laid off this year, but I make no guarantees. Advertising doesn’t value its employees, because there are a dozen other people waiting to take your place—more people, like you, who want mild fame without having to move to LA. So your employers don’t really care how they can help you get better, they’d rather just wait for you to mess up.

Maybe it’s only like this at the “dinosaur agencies” employing you. Maybe the newer, hipper ones have more respect for the people who keep their company running. But the main problem seems to be widespread: negativity is everywhere in that business, because everyone is worried that they’ll never make a good ad again and be laid off, and they’d rather put down other people’s work than admit their own jealousy and fear.

You don’t have to stay. You don’t have to come home crying because some misogynistic ad agency (the one who encouraged men to take back the power from women by wearing khakis) is making you write a sexist ad about cleaning supplies—they’re not making you do anything, because you are in control of your life.

You thought you would like advertising a lot more, and you just don’t. That doesn’t mean your measly years have been wasted—you’ve still learned a lot. You’ve learned about work ethic, about concise writing, about presenting your ideas. So now take that and go where you’re appreciated. Go where you can do something that matters. Go where you aren’t in constant fear for your job, despite all the work you do. Go and make things you can be proud of.

I want to thank this Slate article about women programmers for inspiring my post today. The man who wrote it said this: “One trite retort is ‘Well, your friend should’ve been tougher and not given up so easily. If she wanted it badly enough, she should’ve tried again, even knowing that she might face resistance.’ These sorts of remarks aggravate me. Writing code for a living isn’t like being a Navy SEAL sharpshooter. Programming is seriously not that demanding, so you shouldn’t need to be a tough-as-nails superhero to enter this profession.” Which is a different point than the one I’m making, but still an awesome one.

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