Why being fired is really bad then (sometimes) really good
Have you ever been fired? The question also applies if you’ve been made redundant. Employment law pretty much bans actual firing these days, so if you’ve been made redundant, you’ve basically been sacked.
Back in 1997 I was given my marching orders from Y&R (before it had Rainey and Kelly attached), and I can tell you it was one of the least pleasant experiences I’ve ever endured.
To set the scene, my partner Paul and I had fallen straight into a job off our first placement out of Watford. It was a pretty fun time to be in London as we joined around the time of Euro ’96, the peak of Britpop and a strange run of documentaries that made Soho seem a bit cooler than usual.
To be honest, we didn’t exactly set the agency alight with our brilliant ads, but we did OK for a placement/junior team. At the time I remember reading an editorial in Campaign that said a couple of print campaigns a TV ad or two was a pretty decent return for a creative team, so we managed that and thought we were doing well.
Then I think we began to confuse the lines between ‘Advertising is a bit of a lark, Waldie in the pub all day, lunch turning into dinner etc.’ and ‘working so little that you’re both taking the piss and clearly surplus to requirements’. After a decent start the briefs seemed to dry up – not just for us, but for all the younger teams. At one point the traffic dept told us there wasn’t going to be a new brief for at least two weeks, so we tended to spend our afternoons down the pub or at the movies, and, as it seemed as if the whole agency was on a bit of a go-slow, we didn’t feel as if we were taking any more piss than anyone else.
But apparently we were. Some time in October 1997, after maybe 16 months of employment, our CD (they didn’t have ECDs back then), the double-Gold-Pencil winning Mike Cozens popped into our office and closed the door. (I now fear closing doors, and am very careful about closing doors with younger creatives; if I’m not about to sack them I let them know immediately that this is a ‘good news’ door closing, and they have nothing to fear). But that day was a bad news door closing, accompanied by phrases like ‘It’s just not working out’.
Shellshocked, Paul and I went to nearby Regent’s Park to try and absorb it all and think about what to do next. We’d been given a month’s money, but it was a bit close to the industry-wide easing off of Christmas for another hiring, and besides, we didn’t really have a strong enough book to get another junior job. Really, we’d have to start again. That was the biggest kick in the teeth: we’d climbed some really difficult rungs of the ladder only to find ourselves dumped on our arses, scrabbling around for another placement where we’d again earn very little and have to bust our guts inside out to turn that opportunity into a job.
If you want to know what grim is (I know all this is relative and probably not very grim to a Syrian refugee, but you know what I mean), try entering the above situation just before Christmas: no agency parties, no cash for presents, lots of family meetings where you get to discuss your current employment situation… deck the fucking halls. We also enjoyed the beautiful experience of being on the dole and having to explain to a remarkably unimpressed government employee what the hell a ‘copywriter’ did for a living, only to be told to apply for a job at McDonalds. Even worse, I had to walk past AMV BBDO’s offices on my way to the DSS. Looking in the window of Britain’s biggest and best agency to see a beautiful grand piano only seemed to hammer home my utter failure. On the good side I actually signed up for the credit protection insurance before it got a really bad name, so when I lost my job the bank paid my credit card bill and even sent me some more cash on top.
So we got through that time, which also included my birthday, and worked on our book, taking breaks only to watch Neighbours and Petrocelli. We saw headhunters, arranged crits and I fucked up my foot by standing on a plug, leaving me plodding through the snow on crutches. I think it’s fair to say that we had also downgraded our expectations; after all, if we weren’t good enough for a mid-table agency like Y&R, who would employ us? McCann’s? Grey (which was shit in those days)?
Dear reader, I must thank you for sticking so long with my tale of woe. As a reward, this is finally the part where the whole story takes a turn for the better. After blagging a crit with John Hegarty (easier than you’d think) and having him suggest we go and write for Viz, we tightened our book right up and went to see John Gorse and Nick Worthington at the aforementioned AMV BBDO. They were the best team in the world, working in the best agency in the world, so it was a bit of a coup (but also easier than you’d think). And they loved our book, so much so that they dropped it into the office of the CD, Peter Souter, with a note that said ‘This is a thing of beauty’. Which was nice.
A few days later Peter called me up (interrupting Neighbours, FFS) and invited us in to begin a placement at the BEST AGENCY IN THE WORLD, which was also nice. Over the next few months we converted that placement into a job, showed work to David Abbott, went to lots of award shows, worked in Miami and the South of France and generally experienced a level of enjoyment that was diametrically opposed to the misery of Christmas 1997. Going to industry parties and having people ask what we were up to was a delightful buzz. Up till then AMV had taken on two placement teams in their entire history. I was now their youngest copywriter.
So that was the really good part, but to get to it we had to go through the really bad part. I know lots of people who have experienced the soul-destroying horror of being unexpectedly given the heave-ho, and almost all of them seemed to find themselves in a better position at their next place. For me and Paul it was a kick up the arse to do some bloody work, and when we did we ended up in our dream job. I don’t know what would have happened if we’d stayed at Y&R, but I doubt it would have been quite as fun as that first year at AMV.
Oh, and around that time Arsenal won the double, playing some remarkable football. Good old 1998.
Anyway, what about you? Have you been given the old Spanish Archer? If so, how did it turn out?
I got sacked. It was fine. Just freelanced afterwards. Travelled the world. Didn’t have to go to meetings. Didn’t have to put up with anyone’s shit.
Anyhoo look at this. A car ad with an idea in it. And funny.
Didn’t someone (I keep thinking Paul Arden but I’m not certain it was) say something like you’re no good until you’ve been sacked at least twice?
Anyway, whichever luminary it was I think it holds true. I was sacked/made redundant a few times after/around 2008 when the arse dropped out of everything and each time it whipped/frightened me into raising my game. More than that though it forced me to really think about what kind of “creative” I wanted to be rather than just complacently holding out for some Land of Milk & Honey position where I could keep my down in and get fat.
I think being reminded of how precarious our positions are is invaluable. I also think everyone should at some point be forced to work on shit they don’t like, or might even hate themselves for. In a somewhat nebulous, often inward-looking industry, we could all do to have the Reality Shark bite us on the arse once in a while.
Having said that, being sacked is fucking horrible and I wouldn’t wish it on anyway. Quitting on the other hand can be a mind-expanding free-fall into new pastures. I recommend it.
I agree. Getting the boot reminded me that it’s a two-way street. I became very mercenary because I had to. You have to keep yourself marketable at all times. Omnicom will never fall in love with you.
Keep my head down in, I meant to say.
FUCK! I was being complacent wasn’t I.
I got fired on ‘gross misconduct’ over a matter of principle.
It didn’t turn out too badly. I very much miss being a part of the agency I was part of, but then it barely exists any more, so I would have missed that anyway.
I’ve had a few jobs since then, and a lot of freelance gigs. I’ve been to a lot of new places, and met a lot of people. I suppose I *must* have grown as a person as a result.
But I wouldn’t claim it to be a great thing or a bad thing. It’s been an alright thing.
I’d do it again, of course. But I wouldn’t pretend that it was anything other than what it was.
Just happened to me, completely out of the blue, without any fault on my part. Soooo….yeah. Anyone looking for a creative team?
That’s a fucker.
It just happened to us at Christmas. (Why is it always at Christmas?) It was horrible (new employment laws just make the whole thing worse in my opinion). And scary.
And, especially when you’re in your fifties, you wonder if anyone is ever going to employ you again.
But yes, life does go on, and we have been freelancing since, currently at a better agency with nicer people, who seem to think we still have something to offer…
I think it’s always Christmas because of year-end figures and new people starting in the new year.
Doesn’t make it any less harsh, but good to know you’re in a better position freelancing.
If you want to write a post about life as a creative in your 50s I’d gladly put it up (no fee, unfortunately).
Good to hear Phil. Makes my situation a bit less miserable.