I was suddenly laid off from my staff job as a Vice President / Associate Creative Director at a San Francisco advertising agency after working in the business for 17 years. I then started keeping a diary of my thoughts to focus my anger, chart my progress, and chronicle my ride on the emotional roller coaster as I dealt with having to pay the mortgages of three condos.
From that experience, I learned that I could make a living as a freelance copywriter, that I was pretty good at marketing myself, and that I had quite a large network of contacts that I started calling “The GilNet.”
The result is this series of articles for Adweek Magazine that ran nationally for two successive weeks. I chose to write under the name of John D. to keep myself anonymous and to let other ad folks across the country better relate to the pain and frustration of losing one’s safety net of a paycheck every two weeks.
I hope you enjoy reading “The Diary of An Unemployed Ad Man”…
Editor’s Note: The ADWEEK Salary Surrey revealed that 14.1% of the nation ‘s advertising employee base was unemployed during the past year. Our editors wanted to know what it’s like to be part of that statistic in today’s advertising world. We located a senior copywriter in a major agency who was laid off sometime in the last year and asked him to chronicle his difficulties in finding work. Let’s call him John D., a pseudonym.
John D. is one of a growing number of ad people who are laid off, merged oat or forced out of a business whose major institutions are constantly changing as shareholders and principals of major agencies seek to cash in on their equity, and clients become ever more fickle about issues of compensation, budgets and agency representation. Here in the first of a two-part series is John D. ‘s own story of the emotional and psychological roller coaster that being unemployed in advertising has become.
Week No. 1. It happened mid-morning on a Wednesday. My creative director walked into my office, closed the door, and dropped The Bomb. He said I was being let go. Basically, it was a budget cut because of decreased billings from a major client. He mentioned some other reasons but I wasn’t listening closely anymore. I was feeling the pain, the waves of nausea, of remorse, of guilt, of fear, of reality. My paycheck was going to stop. My security blanket was disappearing. My whole life was being turned into turmoil because of a financial decision beyond my control.
The next thing I did was stumble into the personnel director’s office to hear about my severance benefits. I got the usual after three years: Two weeks’ pay and a week’s vacation. I could continue my medical benefits. I’d be mailed my profit-sharing check within three months. I told her I would clean out my office that weekend when I could have some time there alone.
Then, I went to lunch and never came back.
But afterwards I felt slighted and cheated. I couldn’t go around, office to office, and say good-bye to my friends.
The first night, I felt the real fear of my situation. My family pledged their undying support. My girlfriend vowed the same, as did several friends.
The next day, I applied for unemployment insurance, read some want ads, and tried to chill out. According to friends who’d been laid off, I knew I’d be out of work for at least a month, possibly six months or more. I had enough in the bank to survive for three months, and thought I could generate enough income through freelance ad writing to stay above water in the weeks ahead.
To end the week, I starting calling my network of friends at agencies all over town, and tried to set up some interviews for the coming week as I updated my resume. The main problem I’d have, I thought, was selling myself aggressively to potential clients and agencies. After 17 years in agencies, and a few dozen awards, I’d suddenly become a commodity that needed marketing and salesmanship.
Week No. 2. I began the week by watching a videotape at a headhunter’s office on interviewing techniques. Although filled with common-sense advice such as, “Don’t lie,” “Don’t bad-mouth your former employer,” etc., it also taught me the basic “Do’s.” I then dropped off my portfolio at an agency where I’d once worked. Even though I’d spent seven years there, this agency had a “drop-off’ policy for portfolios. I hate that. It’s so impersonal.
Anyway, I soon realized that I needed my portfolio back to put together some kind of self-promotion piece to accompany my resume to the dozens of places I was soliciting for work. But my portfolio was stuck at that agency, so I was in limbo all week. After a few calls, I was told that the creative director would see my book on Friday.
- Lesson No. 1: The creative director resigned Friday. He never did see my book, and I lost my first week of time.
- Lesson No. 2: The next night, my girlfriend started to pull away. She said that the “chemistry wasn’t there anymore,” that she wanted to start dating others and gave me other lame excuses. I tried to fight it, but the situation was, “Beyond my control.” I wonder if my new psychological state had affected her, or if she just wanted out. I rationalized: If she can’t stand by me now through this crisis, she’s not worth my time.
Week No. 3. I picked up my portfolio Monday. No one there ever had the time to see it. That really ticked me off, since I’d once worked there for so long.
Now I could start putting together something to hook potential interviewers, to mail to possible freelance clients, and to link my name with some of my work. It took all week, but I finally got a four-color promotional piece put together and had color copies made to send to the masses.
I also had my first four in-person interviews. They were all informational. No job openings,
no job offers. But the very first interview, with an old friend, becomes the most important one I’ll have over these months. He gave me great feedback. He told me, “You won’t have any trouble getting a job. It’s just a matter of time.” These were very reassuring words to hear after what I’d been through so far.
The week ended with a mailing blitz of my promo piece and resume. It worked instantly! I got a call late Friday to see a marketing company on Monday for a freelance writing assignment.
Week No. 4. Finally, things were beginning to happen. My first freelance job was a quick turnaround ad –– headlines in a few hours on Monday, and body copy by Wednesday. Despite the pressure, it felt great to focus my thinking on my craft with a real deadline facing me rather than the open-ended self-imposed deadline of being re-employed.
I had three interviews Tuesday, all in the morning, and one each on Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, I finally got back to the first agency where no one had had the time to see my book, and got a promise someone would review it by Monday morning. Just a promise from an anonymous voice, but it’s an emotional victory equal to any I’ve had so far.
“My girlfriend dumped me. The emotional roller coaster is way down!”
Week No. 5. 1 began my second month of unemployment with a freelance capabilities presentation for a small bank account. The lead came through an art director who’s a 10-year friend. He’s even generously set up a desk and phone for me to use in his small, but growing agency. He’s been laid off a few times and is doing quite well now. And having an office to go to daily makes it easier to deal with my situation. It also gets me out of the house and into town to make calls on the agencies.
We pitched the account. It went very well. We may get the business. The emotional roller coaster is up!
That night, I had dinner with my girlfriend. She officially dumped me. We agreed to “remain friends.” That means I can call her if I want to, but I’d just be bothering her. She was so wonderful when I was working. Now she acts like I have the plague. The emotional roller coaster is down! Way down!
Four more interviews and a follow-up meeting on the service account closed out the week. I’ve found that I’m now able to focus all my energy on both the search for a full-time job and freelance work. I don’t feel like socializing anyway.
Footnote: My ex-agency hired a junior’ copywriter right out of college. Another person who showed promise as a writer was also promoted. With all this, this agency still saved money over my old salary.
I even had the unusual experience of actually turning down a job offer with an agency –– they loved my work, but were offering a salary about one-third lower than I had been making. Though it was two-thirds more than what I’m making now (virtually nothing), it really wasn’t enough to pay all my bills and the mortgages on my three condos. But I told them I’d like to negotiate if they’re still interested.
Week No. 6. A few more interviews, many calls to ads in trade magazines, and four small freelance assignments kept me very busy.
I’ve realized that I’m starting to make a living doing this. I can at least support myself now, eventually make some real money at it, and it’s really been just about a month that I’ve been out there. In any community, there’s a freelance network and a finite number of clients. The secret is carving out a niche in the area and working it.
As I straddle the fence between the freelance world and the agency world, I look down and see that the grass is green on both sides. I know I’d still prefer the security, regular salary, and social life of the agency side. After all, it’s been all I’ve known for 17 years. But until that happens, I’ve got to walk the fence and pick up work from the freelance side to pay the bills.
The week ends with my friend and me landing the bank account. It’s ironic. When I worked in agencies and a new account would come in, I’d think of what I could create for the agency, the client and my portfolio. Now, I think both of how many mortgage payments I can make with this account as well as what I can do to help their business.
Week No 7. What a depressing weekend! I paid out thousands of dollars for my three mortgages, credit cards, etc. –– with no money coming in yet and the severance money having run out.
Only four working days because of a holiday, but eight interviews. The highlight of the week was not getting a freelance assignment from a possible client, but having her ask me out on a date!
The lowlight of the week, and the entire unemployment period, was having my car towed during an interview. I only blamed myself. A $110 mistake in judgment. I tried to park at a meter in a commercial truck zone, instead of paying a few bucks to park in a garage.
We also presented the concepts for our bank ad account. The client received them very well. It’s a model account. We’re dealing directly with the president of the company; he’s open-minded and bright. A rare find in the client world after all the turkeys I’ve worked with.
The week ended with an excellent interview at an agency that I first spoke to in January, three months before the fateful day. Another agency also showed interest in me for a full-time position. Both would let me know within a few weeks. It looks like if I’m meant to be fully employed again soon, it will happen this month. If not, I feel more confident freelancing.
Week No. 8. No interviews this week. I’ve had about 30 so far, and have hit virtually every agency in town. Now, it’s a matter of waiting for the shoe to drop somewhere. Monday and Tuesday, I did two freelance quickies. During the rest of the week, I worked with my art director friend on our account. It’s a fun campaign that will be both visible and successful for our client.
Late in the week, I take another roller coaster ride on the Emotion Express. Thursday, I found out some friends were laid off at one agency that had shown promise as a place for me to go to work. Scratch that one. But Friday, I was told by another friend that I’d be called back for the second round at another agency. Up and down she goes, where she stops, no one knows.
“The week ends on another ironic note –– my first big freelance check bounces.”
Week No. 9. The second month of going it alone began with finishing the big project for our bank account. I still pursued new leads in the freelance market, and got two calls on Thursday for possible projects. One will be an industrial video and accompanying brochure; the budget is quite generous and once completed, would pay all my bills for one month! Freelancing pays well if the clients are big enough. But the work is still very sporadic.
The follow-up interview came on Friday. I know this agency likes low-key people, which fits my personality. I came off confident, but not cocky. The good news: The interview went well and I seemed to click with the interviewer, my possible art director. The bad news: An offer has already been made to another writer. If it isn’t accepted, I’ll be called back again. More good news, though: The agency held onto my portfolio to show it to someone else there.
This interview was typical of most. Whether it’s informational or a possible job offer, the tone is always set by the interviewer. If he/she is rushed and just wants to glance quickly through my book, I rush them through it. If not, I’ll take my time and explain the strategies behind each print campaign, TV spot, and my radio reel. In reality, all interviews become a stage for exposing one’s self to someone’s eyes. The week ends on another ironic note –– my first big freelance check bounces.
Week No. 10. This week went pretty quickly. The first few days were spent overseeing the final touches of the bank account that breaks next week. I also had a few meetings with freelance clients that could be the tips of two icebergs. One company has a pool of freelance writers it relies on, but I seem to be well-suited to one of their food clients. If they like what I deliver next week, I might do a lot of business with them.
The second client was a department in a large agency that hires freelancers for its writing assignments. The art director asked me to work with him on one project. And the account manager/department head said the magic words to me that all freelancers love to hear: “monthly retainer.”
A follow-up call to an agency that had showed interest received the standard reply: “We’ve hired a writer who doesn’t have your amount of experience, but we think he/she can do the job.” This seems to be the latest trend. Agencies are hiring younger, less expensive writers to fill their openings, and save money. So Destiny is dealing me a freelance hand to play. I’m playing it pretty well now, but still think that the offer from an agency will happen any day. I still have two possibilities in the works.
Week No. 11. This week was busy, but uneventful. There were no interviews, since I’ve now exhausted my immediate possibilities and am still waiting for feedback from several other possibilities.
However, I attended the grand opening for my bank account and the 12 huge posters we created. I also took a factory tour for the video script I’m about to write, did some conceptual work for a new product with my art director friend, and worked at home one day.
“If I can sell my condo, my debt will be erased-the roller coaster is up!”
Week No. 12. At the end of three months of freelancing, it now seems that this is where I’m destined to be. Or at least until one of the agencies I’m talking to makes up its mind to include me in its plans.
Unemployment does have at least one advantage, though. The silver lining in this cloud that’s been hanging over me is that it may help me get rid of a condo in a city where I once worked. I’ve had a negative cash flow of $500 monthly between my mortgage and the rent for the past three years. Now, I may be able to sell the property at its current devalued rate, have the mortgage insurance pay off the difference, have the renter buy the place, and erase a big monthly debt –– all in one fell swoop.
“It looks like my luck is definitely on the rise. The roller coaster is up, temporarily.”
Week No. 13. This week was a prolific one – busy with writing projects. It started with an input meeting for more bank work. Writing the second wave of ads and brochures consumed the next few days.
Midweek, I met with another client to review the industrial video outline with the chairman of the company. The rest of the time was spent writing the 8-minute script.
There was no response this week to any full-time jobs I’ve been pursuing, but some friends referred a headhunter to me about a possible position in a large company’s in-house creative department. Though they’re offering less money than I wanted, I’m getting to the point now after almost three months of work to take the best offer I can get. On the other hand, if I wait for the “right job” (since I know it’s just a matter of time), I can possibly make a lot more. And be a lot happier.
A positive step towards selling my condo in another city: My renter seems interested in buying the condo, but at its current devalued price. He said he’d know for sure in a few months.
Week No. 14. My three-month freelance anniversary is this week. To date, my mental attitude has improved tremendously.
My outlook is still positive. My work load is picking up. My checking account balance is holding steady. And my social life is on the upswing. I still think something will shake out soon.
Monday, I called two agencies I’ve been pursuing. Both creative directors are away for two weeks.
Tuesday, I got a lead through a headhunter for a writing job. Ironically, it was the one I turned down two months ago because the salary was too low.
Week No. 15. This was my best week yet. It began with a long interview for a writing position. Halfway through it, my interviewer brought in a higher authority to discuss a possible position in another group. When they both told me that many members of their creative staff had started as freelancers there, it opened an option I hadn’t considered. If I could start on a part-time basis and get a good feel for the people and the company, it could very well lead to a full-time job. We spoke a few days later about a monthly fee and an arrangement that would allow me to continue with other projects while still working for them. It will be decided next week.
The next day, I met with an entrepreneur about writing a catalog for her new company. Though other writers were going to be considered, I won the job after showing my portfolio –– another boost to my confidence level and wounded ego.
Week No. 16. The two creative directors I’ve been pursuing returned to their offices. One can’t be reached. The other tells me very disappointing news; he’s hired someone else. It was a long shot, but I’m still upset. It was an account and an agency I wanted to work for. Oh, well, que sara sara!
Anyway, I’ve now shifted gears and become higher tech. Though I’m computer literate, I wasn’t on a Macintosh. So I took a lesson and rented one for a month to complete two big projects that will be produced on the Mac. It’s an incredibly easy and more user-friendly tool to work with than others.
I worked at home all week on the Mac. In fact, I’m now writing two projects at once, working about 6 hours a day on the computer –– a lot more writing than one would do in a typical agency.
Weeks No. 17 and 18. 1 worked these two weeks in the large in-house ad agency I’d spoken to earlier. It was flattering to be called in as a hired gun for my broadcast expertise and creative input. In this situation, there seemed to be a refreshing absence of agency politics.
“I’ve never worked so hard or so much. I love it! It keeps my sanity in check.”
I basically camped out in the agency’s offices for the whole two weeks. The art director and I created a full campaign with radio, TV and print ads.
At night, I continued to work another few hours to complete some other freelance projects. I’ve never worked so hard or so much. I love it! It keeps my sanity in check.
Big dilemma –– they like me enough to want me full-time. But now, I’m getting used to the freedom of freelance, and may not want to give it up. I would like to freelance for them, though. Am I crazy, or what?
As my fourth month ends, here are my thoughts… I’m more comfortable than ever. I keep pursuing full-time jobs, but can now better accept the daily rejection and disappointment that follows each interview.
I’ve made enough money to meet my monthly financial commitments for now. I have a new girlfriend who’s very supportive, giving and sweet.
I’ve adjusted to this uneasy world of professional uncertainty-with only a one-week window on my future projects. But I still would prefer a full-time job somewhere.
Postscript. Since this diary was submitted, I’ve experienced “an inner calm.” I’ve worked for two agencies on site freelancing for two weeks each, so I spend less time pursuing assignments and more time doing them.
I was not able to sell my condo.
As lucrative as my current work may be, it’s still not equal to earning a regular salary with benefits. But a few opportunities for full-time jobs are on the horizon.
One of the agencies I’ve freelanced for is now talking about a full-time position and another job offer is in the works.
When I accept an offer from either of these, my roller-coaster ride on the Emotion Express will finally end. But these months have been the most trying transitional period of both my career and my life.
FOOTNOTE: In 2017, looking back at my first experience as a full-time freelance copywriter with 20/20 vision, it laid the groundwork for the second –– and better half of my career.
I was able to get a full-time job about 13 months after I was first laid off, after freelancing for some friends for two weeks. That job lasted 2 1/2 years, I freelanced for the second time for 9 months, then took another agency job for 9 months. At that time, after three layoffs in six years, I went full-time freelance. And that was 22 years ago!