CALLING ALL ASPIRING CREATIVES, someone asked me to answer my own questions...
A lovely gentleman called Dinesh from How I got Job contacted me recently.
He asked me to answer the questions I usually ask my own interviewees.
Whilst my story is potentially short, boring and uninspiring. Hopefully, it’s helpful to at least one person alive, to hear about the mistakes I’ve made.
So here goes. My interview, with myself. (How meta).
So… tell me a bit about where you grew up
I grew up in Bristol.
I was quite spoilt, really.
5-minutes in the car in one direction and you were in Bristol city centre.
5-minutes in the other and you were stopping for cows crossing country lanes.
(Bristol wasn’t as cool then, as it is now. But it was still a great city.)
I was very privileged to have grown up there.
My parents weren’t rich, by any means. But I had a fantastic childhood.
Growing up poor can create issues.
Growing up rich can too.
I was super lucky and grew up right in the middle.
Tell me what you studied at school?
I studied all the usuals at school.
But I loved;
-the more ‘creative’ parts of English.
The parts of each of the above I loved, I now use in my job.
Months and months of forced ‘still life’ work made me fall out of love with art. The endless practicing, at least.
I wanted to be doing more creative stuff. Coming up with ideas to provoke thought. Provoke conversation. Make you think hard about life.
(I was a precocious little shit.)
But I can’t complain.
It made me lean hard into writing and I now write for a living. So, I guess I have all those sinfully boring flowers to thank.
I wanted to have some kind of positive impact in the world.
Saving lives. All that stuff.
I convinced myself I’d end up working in charity or for something like The White Helmets.
What was your first real experience with what you do now for living? When you thought — ‘I’d like to do something like that?’
So, I was about 15. I watched a film; What Women Want.
(Note — not a cinema masterpiece).
Mel Gibson plays a clichéd, smarmy tool of a Creative Director in a big New York ad agency.
His agency has Nike as a client and in the movie he pitches them a script.
(The movie is a classic; loveable douchebag realises the error of his ways, type-thing).
I obsessed over the job. I thought:
“It’s in a movie. It must exist? Surely”
Before the film, I don’t know who or what I thought produced adverts, or ideas for adverts. But the thought that I could be paid to do it completely took over me.
I suddenly realised; the right creative idea for a charity would create far more revenue than I ever could by working in their call centre.
I started watching ads incessantly. All the Nike ads. Particularly Guinness ‘Surfer’. On loop, if I’m honest.
I started turning all my art and graphic design projects at school into advertising.
In Graphic design, I was creating my own brands of energy drink.
I designed the packaging. The brand name. The logo. The posters. Everything. (It was all diabolical, looking back).
In art, I was making posters for Mercedes. (I also loved cars growing up).
I remember specifically designing a Mercedes CLK on Need For Speed Underground. (Those were the days).
Then using it as the car in my posters.
Safe to say, at this point, my mind was basically made up.
At A-level I studied;
I almost studied psychology. But the course had a bad reputation at our school. Plus I was very into psychology anyway. So, I knew I’d end up reading up on it, a lot, anyway.
Then, I studied Creative Advertising at Lincoln university.
I’m not sure why I picked there.
It’s one of the best undergraduate, Creative Advertising courses in the country.
But, I didn’t even know that, when I picked it.
I guess, it was how truly engaged the lecturer was.
I visited the Creative Advertising studio on an open day. He just seemed to absolutely love his job.
And I thought: “Well… I’m a student that wants to learn… He certainly seems to be a teacher that wants to teach”.
His name is Gyles and he is a lovely, and rather-impressive man.
It was definitely the right choice.
There were plenty more lecturers where Gyles came from.
They gave Laura (my now, creative partner) and I, a huge boost.
Tell us the the journey from that moment to landing your first, paying job.
So, I studied for 3-years at Lincoln. It was quite the adventure.
I really threw myself into it and they had us do some pretty weird stuff.
I guess they have to. They’re taking 18-year olds who have come through the traditional school system. Which, could be killing creativity.
Then, in the space of three years, they have to turn them into professionals that ad agencies want to employ.
Not an easy job.
So, the result, is that it was quite the journey of self-discovery and self-exploration.
On that journey I met Laura.
Laura is my blindingly brilliant, brilliantly bat-shit, creative partner and art director.
There are a million reasons we teamed up;
-same work ethic
-same preference for working hours (early birds)
But mostly for me, it was Laura’s consistent out-delivery of what was asked of her.
There were a lot of talented people on our degree course.
And I’m sure I’ll upset a few of them saying this.
But, not a single person was working harder than Laura.
That was all I needed to know.
Talent. Skill. Craft. You can learn them all.
But, it’s much rarer that lazy people learn hunger, or grit.
(I also knew that we both got along. We’d spent a few weeks working on a brief for Dignitas- a euthanasia clinic. We had some very lateral and exposing conversations on that brief.)
So, Laura and I teamed up.
Laura, the art-director.
I, the copywriter.
For the 9-or-so months that followed, we worked ourselves into the floor. Both on our portfolio and in pounding the pavements of London touring it around ad agencies.
We went to London about 20 times and saw 5–6 agencies per trip.
So we think we did about 100-or-so portfolio critiques with agency creatives (like we are now).
And that was just to get our 1st placement.
We stopped counting at that point. But the crits continued.
Towards the end of our degree course, we knew the agencies we liked and why.
We knew the people at those agencies that we respected and that wanted to help us. And we pestered them, incessantly.
There was a time when we were seeing them on a weekly basis.
With a brand new portfolio of work, every week.
We finished our course. Did the usual degree shows etc. But nothing came of them, job wise.
I moved to London. Laura moved back home to Bishop’s Stortford.
Then, came the most depressing month of my life.
Finishing the degree course was frenetic and chaotic. Exhibiting our work at D&AD New Blood. Moving to London.
It was all so exciting. So many places to be. So many things to do.
Anything could lead somewhere. To a meeting. To a job. You never know.
But, it didn’t. Then, before I knew it, I was jobless, living in a dusty flat in East London.
I couldn’t afford to have the flat cleaned. Or buy things to clean it with.
So it was really dirty and dusty. And I’m borderline OCD. So, that was a problem.
It was such a slump. Like going from 120mph to a standing stop in seconds.
My two flatmates started a placement as soon as we moved to London. (They were a creative team).
Honestly, at this point, I’d never wanted a job more.
I’d cycle to Spitalfields market every day and meet Laura and we’d work on our portfolio.
We did this for a month and kept seeing agencies.
Every day, my flatmates would come home and tell me how amazing being on placement was. And I’d tell them about a new, strange person that had kept trying to talk to Laura and I all day, whilst we tried to work.
After a very long, depressing month, we started our first placement. That didn’t convert into a job.
While we were on it, we kept re-working our book and secured a second placement. That also, didn’t convert into a job.
Whilst on the second placement, we secured a third.
A super lovely and so-brilliant-it-makes-me-angry team called Aidan and Laurent at adam&eve gave us a shot. (They’re now ECD’s at BBC Creative).
They said that our portfolio wasn’t really good enough yet. But that they’d give us a go, on hunger alone. (Told you they were lovely).
adam&eve was a very interesting place to be at the time.
They had just merged with DDB and it all went right over our heads, but in hindsight, there was a lot of fallout.
Despite that, we knew amazing things were going to be coming out of that merger, very, very soon.
We worked harder than ever before. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.
Near Christmas, they told us that they were big fans of us...
But, that they were completely overstaffed after the merger.
Plus, they had promised another placement team a January start date.
It was about two weeks until everything broke up for Christmas.
We were exhausted. (I personally, had lost about a stone in weight at this point. Quite healthy weight to be honest. The kind you probably shouldn’t lose.)
We went for a cup of tea somewhere in the building and asked ourselves;
-”Do we coast now until Christmas. Go home for Christmas and come back in the new year and try and get another placement.” Very tempting.
“Having been told that agencies are very slow places at the start of the year…
Knowing that Elliott probably can’t afford to pay his rent in January without a placement…
Knowing that we have two weeks off for Christmas, to recuperate…
Do we dip into our reserve tank and go for one last push?”
We went for the final push.
We worked 14–16 hour days, straight, for 10 days.
Doing our placement stuff. But also getting a whole new book ready and trying to organise portfolio crits. We hit it hard.
But agencies are quiet places near Christmas.
A lot of people, especially CD’s and ECD’s (who make the hiring decisions) finish early in the month.
So, a lot of fishing, but no fish.
We were super deflated at that point.
When an email came into our inbox.
It was a Creative Director at Leo Burnett London. Adam Tucker. Very lovely man with a very impressive career history.
Ben and Emer, the ECD’s at adam&eve, had recommended us, to Adam.
He asked to see our portfolio.
Luckily, we had just completely re-worked it.
(We neglected it, the whole time we were at adam&eve and it was truly terrible.
Maybe he didn’t really need to see our portfolio.
Maybe he would have given us a placement, purely on B&E’s recommendation.
But, I honestly think if he had seen our portfolio in its previous guise, it might have killed the opportunity.)
Before we knew it, we were starting a placement at Leo Burnett London.
I have to say, adam&eve was where all the young talent wanted to be.
But within days of being at Leo Burnett, we felt like people wanted us there. Not us, specifically, but young talent.
We looked around and felt so ignorant. Some of the industry’s best talent were all in that building, desperate to help us. And we hadn’t even considered Leo Burnett as somewhere we would want to work.
We eventually converted the placement at Leo Burnett into a job.
Exactly why Justin (our ECD) kindly gave it to us, we’ll never know.
But, we were the first in the office, every morning.
Usually the last out.
We stole every brief we found laying around on printers. Even though we hadn’t been asked to work on it.
We created our own briefs and took pro-active ideas to our Creative Directors.
We did extra work on the briefs we were given, beyond the scope of the brief. Activations on banner ad briefs. Partnership ideas on TV briefs. The works.
We even stole briefs off of the desks of the senior teams when everyone had gone home and worked on them.
We also said hello to everyone on day 1. Almost 400 people. (Exhausting).
(I’ll also add, that one of our pro-active, cause-led ideas involved soft-core porn. That brought a lot of people over to our desk. Once at our desk, we would tell them the idea, which most people liked. Always a bonus.)
We spent three years at Leo’s.
Then moved to Fallon for a year.
Now we’re at Drum.
Where did the drive or the confidence come from to do that?
No confidence really.
Just blind ignorance to any reality in which I would not get a job in advertising.
Plus, I’d obsessed over the job since I was about 15-years old and really had no idea what else I wanted to do.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven 18-year old trying to get into your field?
Read my article; The Pareto Placement.
Read all of the ‘How To Get A Job As An Advertising Creative’ chapters on Want A Creative Job.
And if you can afford it, definitely do a creative course. (Uni was a lot cheaper when I went.)
Look at ad agency websites and scrutinise them as a normal person in 2018.
Don’t look at them as someone who wants to get into advertising.
Look at them as someone who potentially, exlusively watches Netflix and Prime. Who has ad-block installed and who maybe doesn’t read magazines.
Then only bother with the agencies that fill you envious rage. At least 50% of their work should have this affect on you. Otherwise, don’t bother.
What is bad advice you hear being given about your job or your industry? What advice should people ignore?
“Just take a job anywhere”.
Advice is just opinions.
So, my opinion, is, that it’s really, really hard getting into the industry. Regardless of the actual agency you get into.
Why do all of that work, only to end up in an agency, that two years later, you’re bored of (or worse, hate) working at?
Besides, getting your second job is potentially harder. Particularly, if you don’t start out at a good agency.
It’s tempting to just take something, if it’s offered.
You have bills to pay etc. But you’re only going to be ‘getting in’ once.
So, do it right.
Tell me about a time in your career that you felt lost. Or an obstacle that you wish someone had warned you about?
Quite recently actually.
But I wish I’d heard it sooner.
Alan Watts also touches upon it, in this video.
And that is…
Not to look for, or try to find my identity, or any part of it, in my ‘career’ or professional ‘achievements’. Also, not to associate my professional failures with my identity.
Sounds very pretentious. But knowing and practicing this would certainly have saved me some torment in the past.
Because there’s a reality to any creative job. Any job, in fact.
The quality of your personal, professional product isn’t always completely within your control.
Nor, is whether it comes to fruition or not.
And the projects come thick and fast.
Some fail miserably, at the very last second. They fail for the most lateral, unexpected, uncontrollable and absolutely absurd reasons.
The ones that survive, may or may not go on to acclaim. But again, this is out of your control.
And even if they do. It’s only a matter of days before the next project lands on your desk, that you may, or may not, completely mess up.
I’m not suggesting that people be dis-engaged. Certainly not.
I’m no less passionate now, than before I learned this lesson.
But now, I don’t look for my identity, or any part of it, in my career or my professional achievements.
I know who I am.
I like coming up with ideas.
I try to come up with good ones.
Ideas that genuinely solve problems.
Sometimes, those ideas happen.
Sometimes all of the things we can’t control, are actually on our side… The wind blows in the right direction, so to speak.
When they do, that’s great. But it doesn’t make me a better person, than I was prior.
When they don’t, that’s a shame. But it doesn’t make me a worse person, than I was prior.
Tell me about someone who massively helped you, or had a huge impact on you, but has no idea.
I believe in ‘not being a passenger in life’.
So whenever I read, see, hear or experience something that has an affect on me, I tend to reach out to its creator.
I listen to Alan Watts on a daily basis.
I’d actually love to reach out to him. But, sadly, he’s no longer with us.
What’s your personal approach for making proactive projects happen and choosing what to focus on?
This grid. Set as my Macbook wallpaper.
I create a folder for every project I’m working on.
Briefed or self-initiated.
And the folder sits in the relevant rectangle.
'Fill Ins' are fast, necessary things. Time sheets. Send that email to X about Y. Reat article etc. I try to knock these over if a meeting is late starting, by the end of the day, or, failing that, the end of the the week.
Quick wins are fast, easy projects that could pay off big. It might just be a tweet you have to write for a particular client. But you know them well, they trust you, you know they have a creative appetite and you think you’ve got a chance of getting them to say yes to a tweet-that-contains-an-idea-much-bigger-than-a-tweet.
Major projects are usually proactive/ SIP’s (self-initiated projects), passion projects and agency briefs in that are awesome but involve a lot of people, serious smarts or serious tech.
Time Vampires are exactly what they say on the tin. Technically, they can be 'Everything Vampires' in that they can also suck your energy, enthusiasm and happiness. It really depends on the individual project. These are the things you try very hard to avoid and if you must, you do them quickly so you can focus on the real opportunity. (There’s a great analogy about why lions hunt antelopes and not field mice).
I use Apple’s colour labels to label these folders. Green means there is something I need to do. Within the folder I usually keep a word doc called 'Actions' or something equally lame, which is, unsurprisingly, actions I need to take.
Amber means I’m waiting. Waiting for a client to make a decision. Waiting on information. Waiting on someone to come back from holiday. Waiting, basically. If this is the case my 'action' is usually to chase that person.