Last week I was approached by a lovely man. He has essentially been out of work for two years. He is in his early fifties. I have watched his career since the early 1990’s, when he was in his thirties. He is smart, strategic, entrepreneurial and he is a good advertising person. At one point he was making almost $300,000 a year. What happened to him? Why can’t he get work?
In his case, he never had a mainstream career. He didn’t work for one of the big name agencies. While he worked on a few well known accounts, those jobs were primarily at smaller, relatively unknown agencies. He even had his own shop for a while, but, while it produced significant revenue for him, it never cut through to achieve notoriety within the business. It has become his biggest impediment as he looked for a job. The big agencies rejected him because they did not understand what he had to offer. Smaller agencies felt he did not offer enough.
When I suggested to him that he consider a career plan “B”, he stopped returning my emails. He just didn't want to hear it.
For the most part, the large agencies look for other big agency experience. That is because they all understand each other. And when they are interested in someone from a small agency, then it has to be a known entity or, at the very least, where its accounts are is immediately recognized and the advertising well known. It goes back to my constant rant about companies hiring résumés rather than people. Unfortunately, ad agencies, mostly, don’t hire out of the box, especially senior executives.
By the very definition of a career and the nature of all business, most people will reach a point where they become aware that they have reached a dead end. You can, like my friend who I wrote about below, forestall the inevitable and move to another similar job. But eventually the reality will hit home. The truth is, your career has to both make sense and be identifiable in terms of what you have done and achieved. In that way, a new company knows exactly what you have done and what can be expected of you if they hire you. Someone who is an expert in one field, say pharma or high tech, will probably be able to find work, even if they have to take a salary cut. But for the average generalist, finding work after twenty or thirty years in the business is hard.
I am constantly hearing from candidates that they will take a cut in title or salary in order to get work. Unfortunately, that rarely works. Generally, a person cannot work for someone who should really be working for them. Just last week I had an assignment which required a specific number of years in the business. The HR director articulated that it couldn’t be more or it would threaten the hiring manager and it couldn’t be less because it would threaten the more junior people.
So I always advise people that when they are in their forties, no matter how successful they are, it is time to start thinking about a career “Plan B”. You don’t have to leave the business – in fact you may never leave the business, but it doesn’t hurt to think about the future.
A really wonderful friend of mine worked at one of the big agencies. He was making close to $200,000. His title was account director. About every three years he was cut from his job. Not because he lacked anything or wasn’t good, but because he was simply vulnerable to staff cutbacks. Finally, after about the fifth time, he followed his dream. He sold his house in Fairfield County and moved to one of the Carolinas where he bought a house on a golf course. He opened up a book store and used all the marketing knowledge he had learned over the years to build his business. Ironically, within about three years he was doing better than he ever did in the agency business. And he was having more fun, working fewer hours and playing golf multiple times a week. He had a “Plan B”.
Another friend of mine was a successful EVP at a major agency. When he was cut back for the third time he didn’t hesitate to follow his dream – he opened up a cooking store in Westchester and his been doing it successfully for many years. The point is, you have to have an idea of what comes next. I believe that is true of all businesses, not just advertising.
It is never too early to think about a second career. That doesn’t mean you lack commitment to what you are doing now. It simply means that you are realistic and have a direction in your life. I know tons of college professors, high school teachers and even a couple of doctors and lawyers whose second careers have far exceeded their first careers.
That includes me. But you got to have a dream and then a plan.