Being Cool At An Ad Agency Is Bad
By Erik Stinson
I started working as an intern at a major advertising agency in New York City. It’s great and the people are wonderful. I’m getting a substantial opportunity here, and I’m grateful, which is odd considering the hours and pay. However, I have come to realize something that I had always been mistaken about: advertising is not about being cool, having a unique outlook, or being pretentious.
The first day was an indication of things to come.
Immediately my expectations and hopes became a huge impediment to my existence in the workplace. I was in a group of new interns. In advertising, creative teams of one copywriter and one art director work together. I am copywriter. That morning I knew nobody. Some of the other interns knew each other from France and Moscow schools. Not many people were speaking English. That was OK. We got desks, badges, and a brief introduction to the building and our supervisor, who we would not work with directly. She told us to wait for instructions. So we waited. For three hours. Then we waited until the end of the day. Some of the interns were given an assignment. I – along the rest of the copywriters – was not. The day ended. I felt confused. Was this normal? Why was I not working? What did they want from me? I asked some people on Gmail chat. Nobody knew what to tell me. I wanted to start being competitive and making trouble.
In the afternoon I said to someone on Gchat, “If we don’t get an assignment in the next 24 hours I’m going to start bitching.”
We got our assignment in 23 hours. I was spared from making an ass of myself by one hour.
The first day ended and I felt uncertain about how I had done. I spent most of the day on the internet reading obscure blogs. The other interns watched ads or played fantasy sports. I had a positive impression of everyone. I felt that everyone had a neutral or negative impression of me.
I think I started my embryonic career in advertising for typical reasons. I graduated from college with a degree in English Literature and Theory. Before doing so, I had already applied to an advertising portfolio school, and been accepted. My future seemed eventful. I had so much energy and so many intentions, both good and bad. I wanted to use my English degree. I wanted to infect the media I distrusted with simple, honest statements of my own. I wanted to make money. I wanted to help ethical brands thrive and let the unethical ones slowly fade into obscurity. I wanted to travel and sleep around, to some degree. I wanted to find colleagues with similar interests.
The last part is where my plans broke down.
Here is my background. I never watched TV growing up. I had a weirdly feral, overly literate suburban upbringing. I think my parents read to me too much. Their parenting slogan seemed to be “read everything to your kids. And then play NPR constantly.” I spent my teens going to underground punk shows.
Now I live in an ungentrified neighborhood of Brooklyn. I dress way too arty for anyone not involved in high fashion or living off a trust fund. I write too much poetry. My favorite bands are something like Sonic Youth, Too Short, Sade, and The Dead Boys. All this isn’t obscure by ‘blog standards,’ but it starts to seem a little insane when you’re face to face at the water cooler with a guy ten years your senior who wants to talk about the new Arcade Fire Album, in a warm, questioning tone. I’m too cool for school. I know it. I try not to rub it in people’s faces. There are so many faces. So much rubbing can happen.
The second day at the agency I made sure to put the correct foot forward. When you are 6’5″ being overly polite and quiet is better than being talkative and gruff, so I stuck to quiet. I tried to stand up straight. I made no sarcastic comments. I smiled, when I could manage to fake a smile. I fantasized about doing something useful for someone other than myself. I used Twitter.
I worked on things all day at my desk. I had already done an OK job on the first assignment (due that evening) and I was not at all certain what the expectations were.
Advertising is about selling ideas. Selling ideas to clients, but first of all, to creative directors in charge of organizing ideas for a single piece of communication, like a TV ad. That night, all the interns had a meeting at another agency where we were presenting some initial work.
There were some OK ideas presented. I gave my presentation. Intimidated, somewhat, and knowing that in the past I had been accused of not being positive about my own work, I rushed through. I attempted to raise my eyebrows attentively and make eye contact. When I was done, the creative director gave me a sober look and said I was “all over the place” and that he “didn’t see any big ideas.” This meant that a) I had wasted some of the day not working hard enough at concepting “ideas with legs” [the golden gems of advertising that produce compelling stories in a wide range of contexts], b) he had missed some key points because I had actually mumbled in a depressed manner and C) he actually thought I was severely depressed [unfit], and not just mumbling in a detached 60% ironic manner typical of writers and musicians from the west coast under the age of 25. I nodded and tried to gracefully take the direction, asking one question to show that I was engaged, hoping I didn’t sound defensive.
I maintained some kind of composure at the post-class beer swill and was able to make it back to Brooklyn by 11pm. Two days down.
The third day I resolved to spend less time on the computer and play more Foosball with the other interns. Things seemed better. I began to communicate with a potential creative partner [art director]. I made a huge effort to imagine myself communicating my passion for advertising (and yes, there is some passion) with superiors. I was beginning to seem less hopeless.
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