Thursday, August 11, 2011

"Was your boss mad, when you said her ideas sucked?"

How I took a stand for what I believed in essentially lost me my job — and landed me a better one!

So I shared something recently with two of my kids that seems worth talking about. It was a lesson about passion and creativity. I hope you'll indulge me a bit.

I recently lost my job of two years as a copywriter for a small business-to-business ad agency in Phoenix, AZ. In this economy that might not be big news, but it was for me. Now as a creative professional (10 years as an Art Director, six years as a graphic designer/illustrator and four years as an advertising copywriter) I have dedicated my entire professional life to being a creative problem solver. It's not just a hobby for me, or my career. It's deeper than that, it's in my DNA. Honestly, it's hard for me to even conceive of a professional position that did not ask me to continuously require that I engage the right side of my brain. So the following scenario should prove to be, at least, an interesting read.

I watched the client roster for the agency I worked for slowly evaporate. The line-up of clients who "paid the bills" dried up like a spilled cup of water on hot summer concrete. Even after 34 years in business, the agency – and it's relationship with it's final remaining client – was on the ropes. The end, it seemed, was inevitable.

Now in all honesty, I tried everything I could – as a creative – to jump-start new business. I proposed email campaigns, direct mail initiatives, new web site direction(s) and design, smart media campaigns and even good old fashioned ads (we were, after all, and ad agency). The (agency) owner was having none of it. She wanted old school (which translates to cheap!), phone calls, solicitation letters and self-promo pieces created more than 15 years ago.

This became the pin pulled from the grenade.

The promo pieces were (among other conceptual train wrecks!), a box of Cracker Jacks™ and a laser printout wrapped around it that said "Cracker Jack Creative". Oh, wait, they get better! Another was a [tin] box of Altoids® that said "Refreshing Creative". Honestly, I can't make this stuff up! If you're thinking to yourself "what does that even mean?" I'm right with you. My daughter (14) and eldest son (13) even turned their noses up at hearing these less-than-stellar promotional ideas.

I was then asked, since there was no work, to consider a new business position, at a 60% cut in pay and no benefits. The job would be to follow up on these promotional efforts and try and drum up new business. I declined. I said there was no way I could follow up on these embarrassingly bad ideas. Not only were they insulting to the recipient (sending a box of breath mints, to me, says you have stinky breath), their was no strategy, no follow-up plan and no creative (all of which are reasons companies look to ad agencies to help strategize and best spend their marketing budgets). My boss was mortified and insulted. After all they were her ideas.

It shouldn't be a huge leap to note that my time as an employee in this place was coming to an end. I managed to keep the conversation professional, on point and about what was in the agency's best interest. Regardless, I needed to start my search for new opportunities. Two weeks later, I got an offer letter from a company who couldn't WAIT to hire me – a larger company with greater opportunities and a little more money. All because of my creative track record.

I told my two oldest kids a high-level version of this story. They were wide-eyed and full of questions. "Were you scared?" "Was your boss mad, when you said her ideas sucked?" "Was that why she fired you?" (Aren't kids great?) Me; "... well, what I told her was not untrue guys. I am a creative professional and when someone asks me to do bad creative work, it's no different than when someone else is asked to do bad work doing something else. You just have to know your do's and don'ts. I won't develop (or follow-up on!) bad creative, even if I think it will loose me my job."

Maybe it's the "Cracker Jack" creative in me folks. Though this discussion centered around conceptual thought and professional integrity, the final take away, for the kids, is that Dad stands by what he believes in. If I end up seeming a bit of a rogue cannon to them, so be it. Because good enough, at least in my world, never is.


  1. Bravo for you Vader!!!...on making the right decision and being the perfect example to your children of integrity and character. Let the Captain (your old boss) go down with her ship...while you sail off into the sunset my friend...:-)

  2. Thank you, Mr. D! while I was at this place, the sinking ship comments were flying around like flies. My Favorite was "... watching our boss was like watching someone re-arrange deck chairs on the Titanic." She paid way too much attention to the wrong things. And that.. is just downright sad.