Guestwords: The Unemployed 1 Percent

By Hy Abady

   I have been a writer of advertising for a little over 44 years. I have won awards, I have been fired. I have worked at the most exalted, the most creative agencies that ever existed. I have spent time freelancing, working a month, or a year, or a week at a place on a brand. I started my career on an industry-changing account at a transformative agency. I worked at places that did nothing more than sell out for a buck. I have been acclaimed and forgotten. I have been given a voice I never dreamed I would have, reached heights, in a tuxedo, in my younger days, accepting trophies from mentors. I have been mired in a depression, taking a leave, wondering if I would ever be able to write another headline again.

    I have spent the last 14 years at an agency that is well known, working on a product from the largest household products company in the universe.

    Some months ago, that agency let me go. I am 64 years old.

    Bitter? A bit. It still feels fairly recent. But I am almost over it. In the end, unemployed, uncertain of the future — no one will feel particularly sorry for me. I was told that once, when I was fired at 35, in an Armani suit, let go for a reason I can’t remember now, then rehired that same afternoon. A week later, I quit for a better job. Two years after that, I got fired again. That time, it stuck. I went to Key West, licked my wounds, came back in a month to another job for more money.

    What is a career? I can’t speak for other careers, I can only speak for an advertising copywriter career. My own. Uniquely my own, but I am sure there are other writers with similar careers though perhaps not as long as mine.

    I never reached the heights of agency partner, name on the door, never higher than senior vice president, never earning more than $300,000 a year (no one will feel sorry for me), never on a board of directors, never a part of an executive meeting with discussions of staffing or strategic shifts or logo design or anything other than a million meetings with a zillion account executives to discuss the next commercial or print ad needed and when it would be due.

    Forty-four years of this. Of sitting in an office with an art director and kicking around ideas and talking about what we did the night before and complaining about management and kicking around ideas some more until someone turns on a computer or opens a pad or looks for a photograph or jots down a phrase, a line, a script. It was the same in 1968 when I first started. It was the same the day before I got let go.

    I love the advertising business.

    I hate the advertising business.

    I have been on lists, optional and expendable. Been discussed and been revered. Been knocked down in negotiating salaries, been handed an unexpected bonus. I don’t know any other career, any other 9-to-5 life, any other way to make a living. I don’t know what it’s like to dress up for work every day; I’ve worn flip-flops and shorts, I’ve chain-smoked in client meetings, had three-martini lunches. I’ve been called down to H.R., considered aggressive, thought to be difficult. I’ve been called into offices, given a fat raise, told how talented and valuable the agency higher-ups thought I was. I’ve sat in an office next to the leaders of the business, watched them write and art-direct campaigns that have made the industry a joy to work in. I have presented work to my bosses — people who were geniuses and giants, hacks and hangers-on. And now, mostly forgotten.

    The best campaigns I’ve been involved in for over four decades — the work that inspired me, made me want to do better, that I’ve been involved with, that I’ve been jealous of, that I hadn’t­ necessarily inaugurated but carried the torch of, the stuff of legend — does anyone really remember? Most of those advertising bigwigs I quaked in front of, if they’re not dead, are over with. A name on LinkedIn, maybe. A consultant. Or in real estate. Also people who have sold their agencies for millions, moved to Palm Beach and East Hampton and Mustique, merged and acquired and shook their heads as they walked out the door remarking how much the business has changed. How the business is no longer fun. How the business is headed by unimaginative clients who are fearful and insistent on focus groups and test results to predict some kind of success in a business in which it is ultimately impossible to predict what works and what doesn’t.

    But, happy to say, I’ve worked for the geniuses. And, sad to say, I’ve also worked for people who merely have a genius for keeping their jobs. No 50-50 split, the odds are now in the camp of the latter. Since the mid-1980s, I saw the shift from great work to something else. Focus groups took over. Research. Holding companies, one even known for making wire hangers, bought agencies, gobbled them up because they seemed like such large profit centers. The upkeep, the overhead, lay solely inside the heads of the employees (expendable all, replaceable all). Plus a few copiers, some fax machines, and, later, laptops. No widgets to sell, no inventory whatsoever to go stale or out of date. Just the minds of the people. Minds that get used, used up, and then tossed out. Like an IBM Selectric typewriter. Like even an Apple computer, those blue-and-orange ones reminiscent of a retro television set, traded in for a sleek MacBook Air. And then, just leased. To be replaced anew when a thinner, sleeker, cheaper model comes on the scene.

    Like copywriters and art directors. Obsolete. “Next!”

    Today’s advertising business is basically run by the men and women who rise to high levels because they play the game, put on the right faces, “global” people who go to the endless meetings in China and London, suck up to the people above them, ignore the people below. The business of advertising has grinded on around me for ages since the creative revolution of the 1960s, the “Mad Men” era when advertising was indeed an art form. Before the M.B.A.s and the B.F.A.s and research and planners and levels and layers of people who found they could be successful just by showing up and pretending to know what they are talking about. The people who give their clients exactly what they think they want. Not creating. Not stretching. Just spewing back. This is how advertising is now.

    But advertising then? Heaven. Filled with people with big ideas and conviction and enthusiasm. Wanting to make a name for themselves, wanting to be proud of the work. Wanting their clients to make a name for themselves and be proud of the work. To be talked about. To succeed. These are the names that hired me and have resounded in my memory throughout my career, made my career happen, gave me a beach house, a wonderfully rich life and a voice and even offered a platform, the confidence for me to build a further career as a writer. Names like Bill Bernbach and Mary Wells and Ed McCabe and Carl Ally and Jerry Della Femina and Jay Chiat. Names like David Ogilvy and Rosser Reeves before them. Like Roy Grace and Helmut Krone after. The people who have made the advertising business the business I wanted to be a part of. The people who have put Volkswagen and Federal Express and Apple and Perdue and Alka-Seltzer and Braniff and Volvo and Hathaway Shirts and American Express and Avis and others on the map. With work that wasn’t tested or dissected or thought to death or rewritten by assistant brand managers or anybody else, but work that was presented with pride as the clients responded enthusiastically: “Let’s run with it!”

    One of my favorite ads, done at Doyle Dane Bernbach in the ’60s, where (and when) I began my career, was done for American Airlines. It was rumored in the industry, a much smaller industry back then, that American Airlines was unhappy and looking to replace the agency. Doyle Dane ran an ad, a full-page ad in The New York Times. A cartoon, much like the ones that ran in The New Yorker by a cartoonist named Saxon.

    The drawing was of the chairman of American Airlines, standing up, fists propped up on his desk, talking to co-workers. The caption/headline read: “We are not looking for another ad agency. We can barely stand the one we have.”

    Is there a client today willing to be this clever and irreverent?

    Is there an ad agency today willing to be this risky and even show an ad like this?

    You watch television. You look at magazines. You tell me.

    Hy Abady is the author of “Back in The Star Again: True Stories From the East End.” He lives part time in Amagansett.