Maturity. Who knew a career in advertising could lead to this?
By Zaar Taha, Co-VP of Creative at Riley Hayes
As I sift through brief after brief chock-full of segmentation profiles and mandatory personalization variables, my mind longingly wanders to the good old days of advertising. Well, the ones I’m old enough to remember at least. It was a special time for copywriters like me where a single headline spoke to everyone, not just this segment or that segment, and a righteous call-to-action (one, of course, that always included a phone number) was all you needed in order to claim your ad was “effective”. Today, there’s more of a science to it all. Versioning. Analytics. Optimization. Less sexy, more complexity. Without experience and maturity, it’s enough to drive some creatives to tears. Admittedly, I’ve shed my fair share of them.
Click-clacking my way through some client copy edits, the reminiscing continues. The late ‘90s. Fresh out of ad school, foolishly certain I was destined to be the next face of advertising, the one the industry never saw coming. I took a position at Colle McVoy, a reputable yet conservative agency that was looking for an infusion of young talent. It was there I learned the tough lesson that writers are constantly expected to write about what they don’t already know. On day one, I was thrust into the unfamiliar world of agriculture, desperately trying to distinguish between herbicides, fungicides and pesticides, getting lost in the finer points of sorghum yield, and failing to grasp what makes one hog feed better than the next. I used to hate feeling like I was the dumbest person in the room. But over the years, I learned to embrace it. Because that’s where copywriters often have to start, at ground zero.
A year later, after a humbling layoff from Colle McVoy, I landed at Foley Sackett (now Level) for a cup of coffee. Working mainly on a dot-com that’s no longer with us (surprising, right?), I quickly learned that budget limitations don’t necessarily need to translate to creative limitations. For one project, my partner, Wayne Thompson (not that one, the other one) and I created a campaign by writing headlines on dust-covered machines with our fingers, and shooting it with a flip-phone camera. Refreshingly, it was like being in ad school all over again.
In rushes the first part of the century. A century full of new agency experiences, new portfolio pieces, new award opportunities, new delusions of grandeur.
Enter my Carmichael Lynch days (and nights), toiling away on copy for the Harley-Davidson literature, slinging bikes and leather. It’s true, ‘literature’ was just a fancy word for ‘catalogs’, but the books really did afford me a prime opportunity to hone my writing chops. As did the Porsche work, the Formica work, and damn-near all the work in the agency hopper. I wrote for great brands under the tutelage of, and in many cases, with the generous assistance of, great writers like Tom Camp, Jack Supple, Jim Nelson, Steve Casey, Dan Roettger, Eric Sorensen and Sheldon Clay, all local legends in their own right. Sheldon is unabashedly too humble to admit it, but beyond being one of my creative directors, he was a true mentor to me. With patience and grace, it was he who inspired and encouraged me to write beyond just words. He was the one who showed me how to ink soul on paper, how to have a conversation with someone’s gut. If I broke a grammar rule, it was Sheldon who’d talk me off the ledge, then show me how to break it even better, and somehow, more responsibly.
It was also at Carmichael Lynch where I learned that settling for good enough was a sure-fire way into a creative director’s doghouse. There, with every day, every project and every headline came an opportunity—and quite frankly, the expectation—to be great, or at the very least, to be better than you’ve been. The interminable challenge was exhausting, yet thrilling. With every new brief on my desk, I remember the unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach. On the one hand, it ate away at me like an ulcer, but on the other, it reminded me I was still alive and kicking, that the demands of agency life hadn’t yet gotten the best of me. But under so much pressure to outperform myself, I started writing motorcycle headlines, late into the night, months before the literature project ever kicked off. Penning the 50-pager was an arduous process to say the least, but in my eyes, the end result was absolutely marvelous. (More than a decade later, I still proudly keep a copy on my office shelf.) I took it to mean I’d met or exceeded expectations when I was asked to tackle another book the following year. Or perhaps, playing to my own insecurities, I was just being given a second chance.
It really was a wonderful time to be in advertising, or so it seemed from my little corner of it. Back then, concept was king. Ideas and words burrowed deep beneath the surface. Ad layout, design and photography were ever-so-humbly referred to as art. Production budgets almost always covered a beachfront Santa Monica hotel stay and a stop for sushi and stargazing at Nobu. But back then, I also had a semi-full head of hair, so I guess things have a way of changing.
2008 came around and ruined everything. Per diems plummeted. Layoffs skyrocketed. My hairline receded even farther. As clients struggled to stay afloat in the new economy, advertising dollars took one of the top spots on the endangered species list. Lucky for me, I was working at BBDO Mpls whose long-standing client, Hormel, a maker of fine family- and budget-friendly foods, was still in spending mode. But their newfound frugality was quickly becoming apparent. In this new landscape, I found myself less concerned with becoming the next face of advertising and significantly more focused on career survival. With clients demanding more for less than ever, our industry shifted from glamorous to scrappy seemingly overnight. Suddenly, working even harder, faster and later was the key to job security.
Longtime BBDO Mpls writer, Dave Alm, a veritable idea machine, shared this bit of invaluable advice to help me weather the storm. He told me that time and energy spent griping and fighting losing battles with creative directors and clients were ultimately wasted, and that they were far better spent generating more winning ideas. If I could somehow avoid taking the rejection of my ideas personally, if I could somehow uncloud my mind of any negativity and focus on the task at hand, I would see that the well of ideas never dried up, that there would always be another right solution.
In 2011, I decided to jump off the advertising hamster wheel and crawl into a slightly different one. I made the move to FAME as an associate creative director to get a taste of this thing they called “design writing.” There, I spent the bulk of the next two years cranking on acquisition, retention and consumer engagement work (emails, postcards and buckslips, oh my!) for their biggest client at the time, Time Warner Cable. There, I hired my first intern and suddenly found myself responsible for more than just my own writing. There, I got my first real peek into the not-so-neat-and-tidy inner workings of a business. There, I met the best design partner a writer could ever wish for, who just so happens to still be my design partner.
During my short stay at FAME, three things became undeniably clear. 1) Designers and art directors are from different planets. 2) Turns out “design writing” is just writing. 3) I really missed advertising.
Which brings me to the past four and a half years of my career as Co-Creative Director / Co-VP of Creative at Riley Hayes. Many of my friends and former colleagues have sent notes congratulating me on making it big. Though amid all the praise and well wishes, here I am, still learning something new every day, still feeling wholly unaccomplished, still with the same debilitating sense of insecurity I’ve always had. Funny how perceptions work. But there is one area where I feel I’ve grown (and continue to grow), one way I’m a better pro today than I was at Colle McVoy, Carmichael Lynch, BBDO and FAME: maturity. (Those who know me well may snicker, or even throw up a little.) Not surprisingly, I’m a better pro today because of all those past experiences. It’s the kind of career growth, that no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t rush. Maturity takes the time it takes.
Enduring a layoff (or two). Scraping the proverbial bottom of the barrel for opportunities. Not just working hard, but working hard late. Getting sent back to dig deeper again and again and yet again. Making that hamster wheel go. It was all part of my maturing.
I’ve found that maturity means listening and learning, not just talking and teaching. Being thoughtful beyond just thinking. Doing the right thing, not just the award-winning thing. Knowing when to take the lead and when to follow. These are all things I’ve shown glimpses of and am still working to improve upon. Maybe it’s taken me longer to mature than others, and maybe that’s okay. I feel it’s been worth the hair-falling-out, beard-graying wait, not to mention the sometimes-and-sometimes-not-rewarded effort, and that the best me is still yet to come.
When I reflect on my current situation at Riley Hayes, I see just how advantageous it is. I’m lucky to be surrounded by so much maturity—not the dull, no-joking-around, slacks-wearing kind, but the kind that matters; the kind that keeps our current clients coming back and potential clients intrigued. My Co-VP of Creative, Eric Weiss, (my design partner for the past seven years) is both a brilliant designer and an invaluable mentor to our team, always pushing the concept and the story as much as the design details. His vision, leadership and professionalism are traits I both admire and aspire to. Ethan Miller, the other copywriter on our team is as egoless as he is talented, an incalculable industry oddity. Our whip-smart designers, Trent Edwards, Susanna Mennicke and Sarah Lerum, are always pushing and fine-tuning their craft, always picking up new skills, always helping one another be great. Our agency founder, Tom Hayes, isn’t just a shrewd businessman, but a former copywriter and published author, so he knows and respects the creative process. As for me, rather than leveling off in my mid-40s, I’m still working to ascend in my career, passionately trying to deliver the very best creative product while doing my small part to help manage a successful business. Oftentimes those things mix like oil and water. Thankfully, that’s where all those rich past experiences, all those tough lessons, all those bits of wisdom picked up along the way—all those years of maturing—come in real handy.