In the ad biz there's a saying that you can't be very good if you haven't been fired.
I guess that makes me
very, very, very, very good.
It's true that ad people do get canned more than most. It's an industry thing. Nevertheless, four times is a lot and each termination was a painful experience casting mounting doubts about my advertising talent and future. Little did I realize that those firings were directing me on a course that would lead me to the founding of an award-winning Madison Avenue ad agency and a White House honor.
I didn't realize it because after firing number three things were definitely not looking rosey. No one, and I mean no one, would talk to me. Even the headhunters wouldn't return my calls. Being unable to get any interviews with the ad agencies I knew, I began going through the phonebook calling all those I didn't. One day I made 106 calls and got 104 rejections.
One of those 106 calls got me a meeting with an agency exec who told me that he was very impressed with my work and wanted to stay in touch. That positive reaction was not uncommon when I was actually able to get people to see my work. Yet, despite his encouraging and seemingly sincere comment I'd been around long enough to be wary of flattering promises to "call when something comes up." So, when the following weeks turned into months and the call never came I wasn't very surprised.
When my phone rang two years later and it was that guy calling about a project, I was surprised. That call led to a meeting, which led to a collaboration, which resulted in some of the best, most exciting work I'd ever done. Up to that point my career had been a struggle to keep a job. After a few short months of this new collaboration I found myself an integral part of one of the most talked about ad campaigns in the country, for a hot new footwear designer named Kenneth Cole. Awards and press soon followed. So did a smooth-talking, dark-suited business guy who was convinced that he and I had to team up to start the next great NY ad agency. Intrigued, but not convinced, I moved ahead slowly with the new collaboration. It didn't take long to see that the combination of his great salesmanship and my creative talent was a perfect mix. In just a few months we landed a project that we hit out of the park. Within a year we had an agency that was winning clients, major awards and national press.
It was during this time that I independently created one of my best ads ever - an anti-child abuse ad that got my new partner very excited. Determined to find an
organization to run it we managed to get a meeting with people from the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse in Chicago who just happened to be
planning a visit to New York. It was a totally lucky break since without a personal face-to-face meeting our chances of selling our ad were slim to none. However, when the big moment came and we revealed our great ad the NCPCA execs couldn't have been less excited. "Off strategy" they said. But, they respected our smarts, talent, and chutzpah enough to offer us an amazing project: a national TV campaign co-sponsored by the NBA! The NBA would be donating 5 million dollars of TV air time during their playoffs to run the spots we'd create. During the next month I came up with three spots and I'm proud to say that those spots contributed to a 57% increase in child abuse hotline calls. They also got us some nice ad awards and national press. As for the rejected ad, we found a local child abuse prevention organization that loved it and ran it. A month after it ran in a local paper the organization started receiving calls from local schools and social workers who wanted copies. So we turned it into a poster and printed a 1000 of them. The ad and poster went on win a ton of awards including the first ever United Nations Award for Public Service which I was presented at The United Nations.
It was shortly thereafter this great experience that I received a curious envelope with the words, THE WHITE HOUSE as the return address. Considering the many creative job seekers who were now vying for my attention I assumed it was just another gimmicky attempt. But, when I opened the envelope, I realized I was wrong. I was holding an official White House invitation for a gala honoring those select few whose public service contributions had "made a difference." I was awestruck. And, three weeks later, I was escorted through the hallowed halls of The White House as an honored guest. It's an experience I'll never forget.
It's also a story I don't mind sharing. Because if someone had told me that after being fired four times I'd have an award-winning Madison Avenue ad agency and be honored at The White House, I'd have said they were nuts.
As I reflect back on that day when I made 106 calls, I wonder if I'd have the energy to do it again. I'm not sure I would. Maybe I did it back then because I felt I had something to prove... that I really didn't suck. I don't have to prove that anymore. But, today there are different challenges, with business, health, relationships, etc. So, I still have challenges and new things to prove. I suppose that will never change. It's often said that hard things get put in our way, not to stop us, but to call out our courage and strength. Maybe that's true. So, if you're facing a murky road ahead, not knowing if you'll succeed but just knowing you must try, I hope this story helps you do that.
(c) 2004 John Follis. All rights reserved. See more articles like this.