How to keep on livin’ in advertising.
Junior year in college I was living in a house with four other guys off of South Lamar in Austin. It was one of those houses that gets passed down from person to person through friends. People were always coming and going and you could snag yourself a cool place if your timing was right.
Before I lived there, I had been to the house tons of times for parties and had already identified the room I wanted should it ever become available. It had its own bathroom and access to a little gazebo off the side that was perfect for stepping out to grab a smoke.
I knew the kid who had that room and I knew that his GPA was about half a point away from flunking out, so I kept my eye on the situation. Sure enough, at the end of the fall semester the room was up for grabs. I think Greek and Latin Roots was what finally did him in. He’s a high school principal now.
There was a nice little mom and pop convenience store down the street where we used to buy pretty much everything we needed for survival. Beer. Cigarettes. Toilet paper. That about covered it.
One day, after class I stopped in to pick up supplies. When I pulled into the parking lot there was a whole crew of people working on the outside of the store. They were putting signs in the windows and doing little touch-ups on the paint. It was all very confusing because the signs were retro and they were advertising prices that were way too low to be true. I go in and ask the guy working the register what was up. He said that some director was shooting a scene for a movie that night and they were making the store look like it did in the 70’s.
The scene they were filming turned out to be for a movie called Dazed and Confused.
We all went down to the store that night and watched them shoot. If you know the movie, it’s the scene where they’ve left the bowling alley and taken the freshman kid with them to go pick up some beer and play a little mailbox baseball along the way. When they get to the store, one of the older kids pretends to steal a six-pack to impress his friends. As they’re pulling out of the parking lot, they are confronted by an angry man with a shotgun who accuses them of having vandalized his mailbox.
We didn’t see Mathew McConaughey that night. He wasn’t in that scene. But the burger place where he tells the cute redhead to ditch those geeks she’s with was a place called Top Notch Burger that was just up the street. I liked Top Notch. They had good onion rings.
Somewhere in that movie Mathew McConaughey says his famous line.
“You just gotta keep livin’ man. L-I-V-I-N.”
It’s a good line. It’s one of the moments in that film that manages to transform a movie about a bunch of stoner kids at a high school in Texas, into a uniquely charming coming of age story that’s downright philosophical.
I get asked a lot why I write Kingdom of Failure. I get asked, what’s the point? Mostly by my parents who at times have expressed their concern, but also from friends, colleagues, people I’m connected to, readers and just about anybody who happens to be within earshot of a conversation I’m having in which I happen to mention that I write a blog.
When asked what’s the point, Mathew McConaughey’s line from Dazed and Confused comes to mind as a possible answer.
When I started writing Kingdom of Failure, I was in a pretty bad place. In addition to about six other shitty things that I had going on in my life, I had just gotten fired from a job. Not laid off. Not let go. I’m talking sacked. This was a genuine, good old fashioned, get-the-fuck-out-of-here firing. Mind you, it was over the phone because of Covid, but you get the idea. It wasn’t pleasant.
I had never gotten fired before. I’d been laid off. Everybody gets laid off. That’s just part of working in advertising. But this wasn’t that. These people did not enjoy my presence and they made it quite clear that it would no longer be required. Effective immediately.
I never found out why I got fired. They wouldn’t tell me. I know I didn’t touch anyone because it’s Covid and there’s no one to touch and I’m really just not much of a toucher. I didn’t embezzle any money because I don’t really understand exactly how embezzling works and wouldn’t really know how to do it. Plus, my client loved me and the work I did was continually praised as both creative and effective. So I honestly have no idea.
It’s all water under the bridge. Not because I’ve moved past it. I’ll rue those fuckers until the day I die. But rather because I blew the fucking bridge to smithereens. They say not to do that. They’re right, and I have always followed that sage advice. But this was a really super-duper shitty fucking bridge and I wanted to make double dog sure that I would never cross over it again. It needed to go. You would have done the same thing.
I had zero idea what my next move should be. I started making lists but I stopped fairly quickly because it just felt way too rational and smart. I didn’t want rational and smart. I am always reasonable, but I find rational a bit constricting at times. And smart? Not my favorite word. It’s too judgmental.
I was hurt. I was angry. I felt betrayed. I felt powerless. I needed to do something about it. I didn’t know what, but I knew if I didn’t do something I would be letting down Mathew McConaughey. No one wants to disappoint Wooderson.
I realized pretty quickly that the only damned thing I knew how to do was write. That’s all I’d done for the past 25 years. I make blank pages go away. That’s what I do every fucking day. And when I looked around me, all I saw was one giant blank page.
So, I started writing.
I had always admired people like George Tannenbaum, Rich Siegel, Ernie Schenck and other such folks who write these wonderful blogs about working in advertising, their thoughts on the state of the business and their wildly funny stories and observations of day to day life. Rich is especially good at those.
But I immediately saw two potential barriers. First, what George and Rich and all those great writers do looked like a lot of work. I tend to shy away from things that involve a lot of work. Secondly, those guys are really good. Rich Siegel’s campaign for ABC is one of the most famous print campaigns of all time. Ernie Schenck is a perennial creative powerhouse of legendary proportions. And George Tannenbaum writes the most respected and widely read blog in the industry. The man is a genius.
Me? I ain’t shit.
I’ve never been an advertising rock star. I’ve won a few awards here and there but not enough of the really good ones to brag about. I’ve done a few good pieces but nothing too famous. I’ve worked for some decent agencies, but I never got a job at Chiat or Wieden or Goodby or anything like that.
So, I’ve always had a major inferiority complex about my career. I’ve always so badly wanted to be one of the cool kids who win all the awards and get awesome jobs and can go on LinkedIn anytime they want to post about something fabulously successful that they’re a part of. I couldn’t do that. I just didn’t have the work to back it up.
That’s how I realized that the only option I really had was to embrace all of my short-comings and somehow turn them into something that could actually help me instead of holding me back. And that’s when I came up with Kingdom of Failure.
If everyone else out there was talking about their strengths, then I would write just as passionately about my weaknesses. I would see the thrill of their victory and raise them the agony of my defeat. While they wowed the world with their success, I would do the same with my failure.
What did Bob Dylan say?
“When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
I was really hoping Bob was right about that.
And let this be a lesson to you. Don't ever doubt Dylan because here’s what happened. The writing started to resonate. Which kinda freaked me out to be completely honest. And then what happened next totally freaked me out because some of the cool kids started talking to me. And the cool kids really are cool because they were all so supportive. They encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing. They told me to keep writing.
Do you realize how much it means to a writer when someone tells them to keep writing?
They called me up. They sent me emails. They offered to connect me with the people they knew. They lifted my spirits and that gave me confidence. For the first time in my professional life, my work was not only going out into the world with nobody’s fingers on it but mine, but people were digging it. Which resulted in a lot more freaking out but I eventually got a tiny bit better at managing it.
I still didn’t know what to do about the job situation but something inside me said that if I kept writing something would happen. Nothing inside of me ever says that something good will happen. It just says something will happen. I’ve learned with to live with the ambiguity.
Which is good because more stuff started to happen. I wrote more posts and they got more traction. One day, a really nice person who happened to own a really nice agency reached out and said some really nice things about a piece I had written and that his agency needed some writer help.
Holy shit. The blog got me a job. How fucking crazy is that?
Well, it turns out that it wasn’t so crazy because a few weeks later the same thing happened again with a different person at a different agency who read a different post and liked it. What a coincidence, I thought. But it wasn’t a coincidence because I kept getting more calls from more people who read something I wrote on the blog and then wanted to employ me.
Which is when I realized—and yes, it took me a while because I’m not really that smart about this kind of stuff— but what I had accidentally somehow managed to do, was create a pull mechanism.
When you’re a freelancer or you’re a creative looking for a job, I had always been told that you have to work your network as much as possible. Which is true. And I advise all who read this to do exactly that. Also, I had always been told that when you’re unemployed or looking for a job that you’ve got to wake up every day and do something—anything—even if it’s just firing off a single email to a potential lead. Which is also true. And again, I advise all who read this to heed that advice.
But all of that is push.
You’re pushing yourself and your work out there every day, knocking on any door you can find and asking if there’s anything available or making it crystal fucking clear that you’re looking. It’s a lot of work. A lot of rejection. And a lot of algorithms that can get in your way if you try to do it through the job boards.
But—and this is where I want all you advertising kids out there to pay attention— if you can somehow develop a pull mechanism that brings people to you or at least keeps you relevant and on people’s radars without having to reach out directly to them, it’s a whole different ballgame.
It certainly doesn’t need to be a blog. It might be a self-promotion campaign that you do on social. It could be a stunt like that brilliant kid who sent the guy at Highdive a Venmo request for a full year’s salary. It could be taking pieces from your portfolio and putting them in interesting and unexpected places. Anything, really. As long as it grabs people’s attention and keeps your name in their heads. It also grows your network. More connections equals more opportunities.
And if there’s anyone out there right now reading this and doubting they can do it themselves, consider this: if I can do it with failure, then anyone can do it.
So to answer the question, the reason I write Kingdom of Failure is because it gets me work. Plain and simple. It feeds my kids. It covers my rent. And it allows me to feel like I’ve got just a little, tiny, minuscule amount of control over my career. It showed me I didn’t necessarily have to live totally at the mercy of the agencies (who are themselves at the mercy of their holding companies).
It's a huge shift in the way I approach my career. The key, for me, was to stop thinking of myself as an employee or someone who wants a job. Employees get laid off. People who want jobs get rejected. I did that for 25 years and I had plenty, thank you. Now, I think of myself as a small business owner. My product is creativity and my clients are agencies.
That makes me feel empowered. I don’t feel like a cog anymore at the mercy of a CFO’s balance sheet. For 25 years I worked at agencies and every single morning I walked through the front door I knew there was always a chance I’d be leaving early that day and carrying a box with all my shit in it. (Another tip: Never allow yourself to accumulate more stuff in your office than you can fit into a single box. Trust me.)
Now, because of freelance, wfh and the experience required to properly manage my workload— at times I have multiple clients. Which means I have multiple revenue streams. And because of that I’ve finally been able to achieve (knock on wood) a tiny sliver of security in this way-too-volatile-to-depend-on business.
What’s even better, it feels like a damn good deal for everyone involved. Whether it be ageism or the razor thin profit margins agencies operate under, there comes a time in many people’s advertising careers when agencies simply can’t afford them anymore. So they lay us off and it hurts both parties. They don’t get our talent and we don’t get their money. But with freelance, everybody wins. I can balance earning less from one employer because I have the opportunity (at times) to get paid by more than one employer. So when it’s all working smoothly, I get to make what I’m worth and they get to offer up work that isn’t done by a 22 year-old.
It sure beats working at that crappy place that fired me. A few weeks after I got canned people started quitting left and right. And word had gotten out about how they operated, so they started having serious trouble hiring new people. They even brought in a consultant to try and stop the bleeding and somehow convince people to work there. She must have not had much luck because she called me up after a few weeks on the job and offered me a bunch of stuff to stop writing the blog.
“I can get you an interview with this person. I can get you an interview with that person. Do you want Michael to call you up and personally apologize? I can make that happen. Come on, Jeff. Help me out here.”
I told her no deal and that’s the last I heard of that. Sometimes when things get slow as they do for all freelancers and, to be honest, as they are for me at the moment, I kick myself a little. Maybe I should have taken her up on a few of those interviews.
But fuck it, man. Things will pick up. And if you’re a writer out there and you’re maybe down on your luck or wondering what to do or like me got canned from some stupid agency, always remember that the pen is mightier than the axe.
Pick yours up.
Make the blank pages go away.
And just keep livin’, man. L-I-V-I-N.
Thanks for reading. I'll see you again soon.