The case for waiting to start your ad career.

It’s just a thought, but after my last speaking gig with Mark Jenson’s Advertising Strategy and Creative Development class at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the U of Minnesota, it may have some merit.

Mark uses my book on the creative brief as required reading, so he invited me to speak to his students in 2018. This semester, I added a new suggestion to my presentation, and it turned out to be advice the students responded to, at least judging by the number of emails I received the next day.

In a sentence, it’s this: If you can swing it, delay launching your ad career at least a year and do something entirely different. I know it may not be an option everyone can choose, much less afford. Or have the patience for. But I think it likely will pay huge dividends. And when I thought about it further, it turns out it is advice I followed myself, although unintentionally.

I landed my first full-time copywriter job a month shy of my 30th birthday. I had done a few freelance assignments before, but my portfolio was thin by any measure. Still, it was enough to nudge the CD into his comfort zone and he offered me a position in his small agency in the suburbs north of Milwaukee.

Waiting until you’re 30 may be a bridge too far, but it worked for me. My award shelf is small and I never rose to the level of Luke Sullivan or George Tannenbaum. I will never make it to the Copywriters Hall of Fame, but I had a good career that lasted 26 years. I’ve been a full-time educator for the last dozen years with two critically acclaimed graphic textbooks to my credit. And, to top it off, I’ve been fortunate enough to have interviewed both Luke and George on The Brief Bros., a video podcast I co-host.

I’m not recommending that young people studying or thinking about a career in advertising wait as long as I did. But a year, maybe two, between your last formal study, whether that’s college or a stint at one of the many advertising or portfolio schools, will have advantages.

The most important advantage is the chance to just live. I mean get out of the school environment and play detective/journalist/amateur anthropologist and uncover the stuff of life.

My biggest critique of advertising today is that too many practitioners of our craft lack what I think is the most important credential, and one for which there is no degree program that I know of:


You can read about it. You can talk to others about it. You can think about it. But you can’t acquire it unless you open your eyes and pay attention. And your ears and especially your heart.

Every time I teach one of my creative brief workshops, I say these words: You have to walk in another person’s shoes before you can sell them anything. That requires empathy.

And empathy, like wine or scotch or some good cheeses, requires aging. I may not be the most empathetic person on the planet, but I have tons more empathy today than I did when I was 25 or 30. And I had more empathy at 30 than I did in my early twenties. I know this because I cry a hell of a lot more today than I did back then, and I assure you I don’t feel sorry for myself. On the contrary, I am grateful for the wonderful life I’ve had and been given. And I ain’t even close to being done.

So young people on the path to getting a degree or polishing your portfolio in preparation for impressing the creative director of your dream shop, consider this:

Wait. Take a job doing something you’d least expect. I did. I worked in the front office of a professional soccer club for 18 months. Then I went off to grad school for two years and wrote poetry and studied literary translation. Then I moved to Paris for a semester abroad. And I worked as a stone mason and poured dozens of varieties of bricks for a few months. It was dull and repetitive, but also unexpectedly liberating. It forced a discipline into my bones I’ve never forgotten and appreciate to this day.

Maybe none of these paths is appealing, but I consider them my seasoning. I was as far away from the ad world as I could have imagined. I thought about advertising absolutely never in these years. I think that probably helped. It also meant I had to teach myself how to do this thing we call “concepting.” I did it on the job. But I figured it out.

Whatever you decide, make it not a tangent but a corollary to your career, a job or task that allows you to see the world differently. I love to quote my video podcast co-host Henry Gomez, who is a self-taught strategist and did a few other things before he went into advertising. Now, when he writes a creative brief, he has an empathy I have come to admire. One example is how he describes his process for answering the question on his brief, “Who are we talking to?”

His answer: He writes a description that creates a costume his creatives can put on and see the world through the eyes of the customer.

You can’t do that if you haven’t walked a mile in her shoes. And I think you have to live a bit before you understand what it takes to do it well.

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