Down and Out in Peachtree Hills

By Alissa Walker

Design by Michelle Clark


After three million dollars in tuition, several thousand airports, one hundred postmodernist reception desks, sixty odd shaped business cards, five metropolitan areas and three months of groveling,

I woke up one morning puking. As I groped my way towards the undulating front door, I surmised this was no flu. At the ER, they put me in a strangely shrinking room to await diagnosis.

But I already knew the truth: interviewing had made me sick.

It Is a Horrible Time

The inner ear virus that eradicated my sense of balance bought me some time. I went home, pulled the sheets over my head and let my mother dote on me. From time to time, I reached over and touched the “Communication Arts” on my nightstand, just to confirm that somewhere out there, people were, indeed, making ads.

And doing it without me.

Please, don’t feel sorry for me. For goodness’ sake, I’m not looking for pity. I’m looking for a job.

The Last Honest Profession

I’ll admit my expectations were lofty coming into this. I had dedicated wit and wallet to becoming an artist. But not a starving one, mind you. I would make art and millions simultaneously. I had no doubt that I would find mad success in advertising.

And why not? When I got my degree in 1998, agencies were giddy with their newest media toy—the web. Airborne gerbils and sock puppets were everywhere. It took only seven pages of the Portfolio Center’s (PC) catalog to convince me to go there. The alumni roster on page seven read like a private party at The One Show. All I had to do was live in Atlanta for two years and think.

As my time on Bennett Street came to a muggy close, the market began to heat up. One particularly sticky day, a friend announced he was leaving school early. Pontificating under a crepe myrtle to a sweating congregation, he told us the iron was hot, the time was right, the internet boom was about to blow the top off the industry. He was heading to San Francisco to work on a $100 million dotcom account.

Soon my cohorts started getting snatched up by fast talking recruiters who lurked outside the quarterly graduation ceremonies. Agencies doubled, tripled in size, doled out Razor scooters and Palm Pilots like Halloween candy. It was a sure thing.

And then all of a sudden it wasn’t.

Hi, Can i Have a Job?

When I graduated from PC in December 2000, signs were already pointing downhill. Agencies had started to shear their flocks, tiny shops were collapsing, and as far as advertisers were concerned, dotcoms never existed. In Chicago for my first “real meeting” at Leo Burnett, I already knew it was over for me. The day before, I had watched the E*Trade monkey wander the abandoned alleys of Tech Town during the 2001 Super Bowl. While my non-industry friends laughed around me, I saw the fate of my not-even-begun career. I was doomed.

I never got that magical first job, that e-mail from Cliff Freeman, that letter from Jeff Goodby. I didn’t get flown anywhere, put up in any hotels, wined or dined, or even called back in most cases.

Instead, I hounded people. When they explained, for the third time, that there were no jobs, I’d beg them to see me, simply to “get feedback.” I’d take people out for beers—because as everyone knows, ad folk are suckers for free alcohol. I nodded a lot and talked about “pushing ideas” and admired the work that adorned their walls. I did everything right.

It was a horribly enlightening time.

I gained an eerie perspective of the industry, interviewing as the glow faded. I couldn’t imagine being welcomed, much less recruited. I sat for hours in a San Francisco waiting room overlooking a sea of darkened iMacs. I helped a writer in Portland pack up his office. I talked to an art director who closed his door while he spoke with me so it looked like he was busy. Some creative directors literally laughed at me when I called.

After the small talk, they’d attempt to sell the agency to me. If they didn’t admit readily to their dismal situation (and the self-deprecating, brooding bunch they were—how fun), they droned on about why their shop was immune to a case of the slumps (obviously—that’s why they lost $50 million last year). But whatever their financial outlook, they made it absolutely clear that there was not, nor would there be anytime in the near future, a place for me there.

I knew that a lot of those people’s own jobs were at stake. I knew some of those places were famous for shrugging off those who come a callin’. But it still hurt.

In the Golden Age, someone with my book, my experience, would have easily secured a place as the up-and-coming underling at any shop. Suddenly, I’m too fresh. Someone just out of school isn’t anywhere as valuable as someone who weathered the sketchy economy. It’s too risky to hire green.

Once, my friend called me about a rumored position at an agency. “Hurry,” he told me. “They haven’t even told people they’re looking yet.” By the time I got there, I had to balance my book upon a black-bricked fort of 60+ portfolios.

And no one even called me back.

Stupid recession.

Wait, It Gets Worse

In August, after eight months of financing my travels with a few freelance gigs, I moved. In Los Angeles at least I could sit on the beach while I waited for people to not call me back. Plus I’d find plenty of company in the other out-of-work creatives who lounged at the juice bar during the day. And while settling in one place limited me geographically, it also energized me. Like everyone else in that town, I was there to make it. And I was going to make it.

I transformed my pitch. If I couldn’t get in simply on my artistic merit, I’d have to convince creative directors that what they really needed was a funny writer with a good work ethic and an oh-so-cheery disposition. I redid my book, added poems and creative writing. Got a few of my Portfolio Center teachers to write me r ecommendations. I hit up every single agency for a peek at the new me. I had a good lead at a good place that actually wanted a junior. I was on a roll.

And then.

On September 12th, I quietly cancelled a meeting at an agency and stashed my portfolio under my bed. If I needed more proof that I should give up, I simply turned on the television. No commercials. For the time being, advertising didn’t even exist. It was time to investigate my options.

I took a job where I wasn’t expected to be clever, talented, witty, verbose, creative, or even funny. I didn’t have to write a word. I worked hard, but continued to fraternize with my agency buddies, read the trades, make phone calls, bribe headhunters. I focused my energy on the one place that had an actual position that they’d need to fill. I sent beer. I sent candy. I sent fake private investigator reports about myself. I got an interview. They liked me. But the day my new-hire paperwork landed on the right person’s desk, they let 30 people go.

But Its Always Sunny In California

I’ve forgotten what I had envisioned my life to be like today, fourteen months out of the Portfolio Center. Even if they had offered “Campaigns For A Depressed Economy” or “International Crises And Your Book,” nothing could have prepared me. I’ve gone through all the stages – feeling cheated, stupid, hurt, livid, unlucky. But then I remember that there are a lot of other people who have lost things, important things, and all that happened to me is I didn’t get my way. There’s a big difference.

And I’m happy. Which is all that really matters, anyway. We creatives, we give ourselves these expectations, the type of shop we’ll work for, the kinds of clients we’ll work with, even the expectation that we’ll get a job—that we deserve one, somehow, for all the work we’ve put in. Sometimes we can do everything right and we still get screwed. And, yeah, it really sucks.

Remember that job I took? I got promoted a few months ago. In the most bizarre twist of fate I could imagine, I’ve become a producer, working with some of the very same people I was busy stalking one short year ago.

Would I go work for them now? Hmmm.

Hey, my job is stable. And, more importantly, I’ve got my health.

Oz The Journal of Creative Disciplines is published bi-monthly by Oz Publishing, Inc. 3100 Briarcliff Rd, Suite 524, Atlanta, GA 30329. Copyright 2002 by Oz Publishing, Inc. (404) 633-1779. All Rights Reserved. Reproductions in whole or in part without express written permission of the publisher is strictly prohibited.

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