This is the story of how I talked myself into one job and out of another. It was inevitable, actually. You see, my career path was never particularly well defined.
I went to Graduate School at the University of Wisconsin straight out of undergraduate school. That is if you consider flipping a coin to decide between pursuing a Ph.D. rather than going to Law School to be “straight.” But that’s a story unto itself.
At any rate, my plan, such as it was, involved seeking a Master’s degree and ultimately the Ph.D. en route to teaching at the college level (and possibly coaching a little competitive intercollegiate debate as well). After all, a debate scholarship had provided a “full ride” of tuition, room and board through my undergraduate years at the University of Pittsburgh, based on a highly successful High School Debate career. And I’d achieved a similar level of competence and recognition for my four years of competition as a member of the William Pitt Debate Union. With an assortment of partners over the years, I’d won tournaments and individual Speakers trophies, culminating in attaining the Octofinal elimination round at the National Debate Tournament my Senior year. 1
But life does not always turn out the way you plan, even if your planning “process” is really just a haphazard way of rationalizing past decisions. 2
Nevertheless, in this particular set of circumstances, my path was ultimately the result of a combination of two things: (1) a too-good-to-be-true job offer for my wife in Washington, DC (that’s my first and now ex- wife for those of you who are counting), and (2) the growing realization that I really hated facing classrooms full of college kids who were terrified of Public Speaking (and who therefore hated the classes mandated by, for example, the School of Engineering, the Nursing School, and other academic departments at the UW). Certainly I enjoyed teaching the upper level, elective courses, where the students were enrolled because they wanted to be. But the prospect of at least seven years of teaching intro-level courses while I sought tenure at one or more universities was not exactly appealing. These facts were leading me to the conclusion that maybe Academia wasn’t right for me after all. 3
After staying behind in Madison one final semester to fulfill my teaching commitment (I taught and coached the debate team for four and one-half years while a graduate student) and to sell the house my wife and I had purchased, I joined said wife in DC, where she had rented an apartment. Three months of fruitless job search finally resulted in my taking an entry-level position as a copywriter at a Northern Virginia advertising agency for the princely sum of $15,000 – and on probation at that!
Naturally, it was with a great deal of trepidation that after only three months I responded one day to a summons by the Agency’s President, himself a Copywriter of some renown and the individual who had hired me. After all, I had zero advertising experience, and my writing prior to this job was entirely academic in nature. (As an aside, I had essentially BSed my way into the position in the first place by making a great deal of the fact I had studied theories of Argumentation and Persuasion from the Ancient Greeks to the present day. I went so far as to claim that – unlike other candidates for the job – I would base my writing on solid understanding of the human psyche and not on some seat-of-the-pants approach to flying.) Turns out the BS actually had some truth to it.
I had been summoned to hear that, because of difficult economic times, the Agency would have to terminate one of three copywriters then on staff. And although I was the junior member of this group of three, the Agency felt I was making extremely rapid progress and therefore was betting that I had better long-term prospects than did the other two (modesty forces me to admit that I also was a Hell of a lot cheaper to retain, even with a $3,000 raise, effective immediately). Not being too modest, I immediately inquired as to “what was next?” in my future. I was told that I would be evaluated again in another three months and compensated based on my continued progress in learning the “ad game.”
Frankly, no one was more surprised than I to discover that I actually loved advertising, particularly because the Agency primarily served clients in various fields of what was just beginning to be called “high technology.” Organizations involved in selling sophisticated products and services to business and government buyers demanded the ability quickly to understand both complex subject matters and the intricate, often arcane purchase process. And one then had to translate that understanding into clear, compelling reasons to prefer our clients’ products and services to those of competitors. No soap power or corn flakes here!
Because of my enthusiasm for what I was learning and my success in applying what I already knew, I was quite successful in dealing with Agency personnel and clients alike. I quickly was promoted from the sort of Copywriter who stays back at the office in a small cubicle working tirelessly at banging out ad headlines and text to a Copy/Contact person. And the “suits” (sales and account management staff) that typically were leery of allowing their clients to actually interact with the “creatives,” often thought to be too undisciplined and even zany to see the light of day, quickly began requesting that I work on their accounts and take active part in client meetings. I even was allowed to talk!
Soon, I began to acquire an increasing load of actual account management tasks of my own. Not only was I doing all of the writing, I also began to create the marketing strategies and tactics, based on research I did myself, and then presented results to the clients without any “filtering” by the suits. Along the way, I continued to receive raises on a scale averaging well over $1,000 per month, and soon was earning more than many people higher in the Agency pecking order. This was 1982-84, mind you.
I’ll reluctantly admit to becoming more than a little cocky about my self-perceived importance and role in the Agency’s growth (from eighteen employees billing some $12 million per year to over fifty employees billing in excess of $100 million per year in a five year period). I essentially demanded and received promotions to Assistant Account Executive, Account Executive, Account Manager, and, eventually, Vice President/Account Supervisor. I was responsible for the Agency’s second largest account and account load (read revenues and profits), and soon I had a six-figure income to go along with the titles. All this, mind you, in less than four years!
This rather lengthy (and I hope, not too boring) history is presented as background to the real story. In the mid-eighties, public relations and advertising agencies began to face the need to explore, learn, and adopt the emerging tools of “desktop publishing” and personal computing in general. Suddenly, it seemed, highly specialized tasks such as typesetting and mechanical “paste up” of “camera-ready” art materials could be accomplished by anyone with a desktop computer, a monitor, and a mouse. Or at least that’s what some clients proclaimed as they sought either to bring projects in-house or at least get our work for less money.
Naturally, that meant we had to learn to be better, faster AND cheaper in a hurry.
Because of my direct experience in selling Apple Computer products to the Federal Government on behalf of one client, I was well aware of the potential of these emerging technologies. I soon became intimately involved in helping the Agency to evaluate various options and to acquire and learn to use these tools in the creation and production of marketing materials. Many late nights and weekends were spent in setting up new computers (hardware and software) and then stringing cables for nascent computer networks within the Agency.
Soon we were hiring Systems Administrators instead of more Creative personnel, and the Agency began to see that computer-assisted writing, design, and production were inevitable parts of our future. And that brings me to the real point of the story. About the time I became truly successful in my chosen niche, I found myself talking my way out of that job and into a job as the Agency’s first Chief Information Officer. Or, as the title I selected for myself and sold to the Agency’s senior partners – Chief Knowledge Officer. (I’d read an article in Fortune magazine about the first such position in an Advertising Agency, and it sounded much more impressive and integral to the Agency’s future success than CIO.) After all, lots of people have lots of information, but the truly effective and important in the business world are the ones who can interpret the information and create knowledge as the basis for action.
Why do I say, “be careful what you wish for”?
Probably has something to do with the 80-hour workweeks involved in building the Agency’s infrastructure and dealing with the incredibly rapid pace of change that dominated the end of the Twentieth Century and the beginning of the Twenty-First (don’t forget, it was in 1994 that a little thing called the WorldWide Web was invented, requiring its own set of technological adjustments to business as usual). All that necessitated hours spent in super-chilled server rooms rather than interacting with people … including my own family. Believe me, that’s the biggest regret of all.
1. That’s “Sweet Sixteen” or Pre Quarter-finals for you March Madness fans. Losing in this round means, essentially, tying for the fifth place finish with the other three teams eliminated at this point of the tournament.
2. John Lennon is perhaps the most famous enunciator of this principle in the lyrics to his song Beautiful Boy: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
3. Oh sure, I told myself I could finish my Dissertation anywhere. After all, the Prospectus outlining the field of research/study had already been accepted by my Advisory Committee and the approach mapped out. What could go wrong? Other than a decision that if I wasn’t going to be seeking academic employment there was no rush. And the pressures of actually finding a job for myself in DC at precisely the wrong time. You see, the transition from the Carter Administration to the Reagan Administration was just getting underway, and literally thousands of people with valuable Administration or other Capitol Hill experience also were competing with a 26-year old from South Carolina via Pittsburgh and Madison. But that, too, is another story.