Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When Is It Time For A "Plan B" In Your Career?

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.


  1. Thank you for writing this. I'm only in my 30s and I'm starting to have this internal dialog in my head about my own path.

    You mentioned that you have had a great second career. What was your first?

  2. A couple of thoughts for those who sent me direct emails and for anonymous. My first career was in ad agency account management.

    For those who dare, opening up your own business is very much a second career. Working for people is the first step. It takes a lot of gumption to open up your own firm.

  3. That is the exact advice you gave me over 20 years ago. Plan B has been terrific and rewarding on a number of levels. Just so you know, it is time to start considering Plan C which I envision to be even more exciting. Wonderful advise, great blog entry. All who are over 30 in advertising should pay very close attention to the wisdom of Mr. Gumbinner. He pointed me in the right direction and I will be forever indebted.

    Bill Bergman
    Bergman Group

  4. Hi Paul,
    Super advice! Loved the idea, the support for it, along with the stories. I hope lots of folks get/take this excellent advice.

  5. I wish I had seen this 20 years ago. Very late (but better late than never} I'm heading in the direction of my first dream - the international art world. I had forgotten how much I like it and was totally unaware of how good I am at it (pardon the self-praise, been under professor influence lately).

  6. I don't know what I was thinking not having a plan B. It's not like I didn't see enough senior people forced out over the years. And, I even remember an Account Director who went on to open a greeting card store.

    My first attempt at reinvention, which involved going into sales, didn't work out. And it probably didn't help that we were in the middle of a recession when I tried it.

    Lucky for me, my second attempt was more successful, and I am now happily teaching at NYU and have just written a book.

    Net, net it's better to go out on your own terms. So, I'll start planning my next chapter now.

  7. Dear Paul...
    Spot on! After 24 years of holding account management and client marketing roles across a variety of great agencies and companies I can attest to the hardship of appropriately transferring those 'generalist' skills into a Chapter 2 career. Thankfully, with good career coaching, support by sages like you and the wisdom imparted by Herminia Ibarra, "Working Identity" (Harvard Business School Press, © 2003) I made a successful transition from employee to entrepreneur -- and I love it! Moreover, I remain closely associated with all the terrific people I met along the way. A win-win. Thanks for shining your spotlight on this important subject. And please know I am happy to share my experience (both the good and the bad) with anyone who may be in a similar situation. Very best regards, Charlie
    Charles D. MacLachlan
    Agent, New York Life Insurance Company

  8. My comment is about your candidate who was a talented liar. I know someone like this, who lies for no reason. So I "googled" personality disorders on the web, and found that a person who habitually lies has a narcissistic/manipulative personality disorder. These people lie to get attention.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Again, another insightful post, Paul. As the movie "Titanic" showed, it's not easy to realize the ship is sinking, especially when it's unsinkable. It's also difficult when the "Plan B" waters are dark and frigid. What would make interesting reading is to hear from more folks who've successfully made that transition, and how they did it.

    1. John: Nice idea. Unfortunately, all too many people never make a plan "B". But I would love to hear from those who were able to do it successfully. In my case, I could have continued to be an account guy, but I chose not to. Little did I know then that 25+ years later I would still be recruiting - and loving it.

    2. And what's extra impressive is that you're still able to make a living at it.

      I can relate. I went from the big agency world, to a hot agency partnership, to my current digital model. How it all happened is another story. But, guess that makes me needing to start prepping for "Plan D."

  11. The smartest career move I ever made was from "general" advertising to healthcare. I was a fairly well-known creative in her early 40s who'd won all of the usual national and international awards. When I decided to get into healthcare advertising, all of my friends and colleagues thought I was crazy. A decade later, I'm doing better than ever, while most of them have been laid off from their general agencies. Healthcare (pharma, medical devices, diagnostics) isn't for everyone, that's for sure. But with a little upfront learning and training, a former "generalist" can REALLY stand out from the pack, creatively. And not only extend a career, but thrive in a new one. Plus, if I were ever laid off, I could easily get another job at the same or better pay, even at my "advanced" age. Really excellent creatives are rare on healthcare advertising, and highly sought out, no matter how old they may be.

    1. What a nice comment. Thanks for sharing your story. It should be taken to heart by a lot of people.


I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

Creative Commons License