You Might Be a Creative, But
You Don't Own Creativity
Kimberly Harrington / WNW Member
Some people get into advertising as a way of doing something creative while subsidizing their real goal of becoming an author or screenwriter or any kind of writer except copywriter. Other people get into advertising because they love advertising so much and then, one day, they somehow end up writing a book. That last one? That’s me. Please don’t punch me.
I always wanted to work in advertising and never saw it as a springboard to anything else, other than more advertising. I’m the kind of dork who showed up for her internship at DDB Needham Los Angeles wearing a pencil skirt and blazer, pantyhose and pumps, carrying a briefcase. I mean. Who does that?
I was called The Intern and A Puppy and all the things you think you’ll be called forever because you are the youngest and obviously will never age. In between photocopying everything and anything that could possibly be photocopied, one day I was tossed a bone—a chance to pitch in names for Victoria’s Secret body wash scents. Swoon.
When it comes to my career, here are the things I didn’t do: go to a portfolio school, enroll in an advertising program at my university, have a plan. Things I did do: Aim high. Offer to do just about any crap job. Come close to selling my blood plasma.
When I spontaneously moved to Portland, Oregon I signed up with an advertising-focused temp agency, told them I would do anything as long as it was at Wieden+Kennedy, and then watched my money run out. On blood plasma donation day, thank god or whoever, they finally called. And I became a temp copy typist and receptionist.
My path has been a long and meandering one, from DDB to W+K to several design studios to freelance. I’ve been an administrative assistant, a production assistant, a project manager, an account person, a creative resources manager, a design studio partner, a design team manager, and eventually a copywriter then creative director. A creative. And now author.
Back when I was eventually hired full time at W+K as a print traffic manager, I had a front row seat to the behavior of Creatives, capital C. During the few mindblowing years I was there, the creative department was comprised of run-of-the-mill copywriters and art directors like Janet Champ, Charlotte Moore, Glenn Cole, John Boiler, Jose Molla, Jeff Kling, Todd Waterbury, Chris Shipman, and some random creative directors you’ve probably never heard of like Jim Riswold, John Jay, Susan Hoffman, and some guy named Dan or Don Wieden I can never remember which.
Mine was an underappreciated and precarious job. I made little money and had zero power. But I was expected to track down creatives and control my desire to choke them on a regular basis. I had to tactfully interrupt important meetings and OH LAWD if there was a typo or a legal clearance missed, I could lose my job. That’s a lot to ask from someone who’s making five dollars a year.
But what that job gave me was real insight into who was generous with creativity and who thought it was a finite resource that needed to be hoarded; something only to be shared with those cool enough to “get it.”
It was obvious back in the day that plenty of creatives thought of me as an unwashed little mouse that scurried around, carrying their precious work from stop to stop. I was not to be seen nor heard, and good lord do *not* dare open my mouth to offer an opinion unless it was praise and even then, who cared? Who was I? I was nobody, obviously.
But there were others, to my everlasting gratitude, who saw something in me—at the very least my need for some help and advice—and didn’t turn away. They veered off their Very Important Paths to give me insight into both my job and theirs, advertising in general, and what it meant to think beyond the position I had found myself in. They would compliment me on my goofy all agency e-mails, share constructive criticism on my (honestly truly horrible in-progress) portfolio, and gave me advice that I still hold close all these years later.
It would be easy to dismiss my perspective as an out-of-date take on agency culture from one of the olds. Except for the fact that, book aside, I’m still a freelance copywriter and creative director. I still see the clique mentality all the time. High school is forever.
If there’s one stellar thing I’ve learned from living in Vermont and working on a book it’s this—working in advertising isn’t nearly as cool as we all think it is. No one is as impressed with us as we are with ourselves. Just like political bubbles, it’s easy to get trapped in our professional ones, both individually and as an industry. Stroking our egos, awarding ourselves, and believing that what we do is of such profound cultural significance that we deserve to be paid many times over what a teacher or firefighter makes is kind of absurd when you get some distance from it.
And refusing to look for potential in those we work alongside is just plain shortsighted. If you haven’t had the experience of a one-time intern or HR assistant turning up in your professional network years later as a creative director or client, trust me, you will.
The truth is just about everyone who works in advertising is there because on some level they are either creative or are inspired by a creatively-focused environment. Creativity isn’t a precious commodity to be protected. My being creative has no impact on your ability to be creative. Me writing a book doesn’t mean you can’t write one too. If anything, creativity is exponential—the more we engage in being creative together, the more creativity there is to go around. And yes, I understand shit needs to get done. We have all lived the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen struggle. I’m not asking you to let the receptionist do your job. But I am asking that if you notice that same receptionist cracking a great joke, sharing a seriously kickass point of view, asking for advice, or showing promise, don’t be so quick to look over his or her or their head.
Because you never know, one day that person might thank you for the spark, the encouragement, the one comment that allowed them to imagine a whole new path.
Kimberly Harrington is a copywriter, creative director, and contributor to McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, and Splitsider. Her first book Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words is out now from Harper Perennial.
Illustration by WNW Member Paul Reid