White Collar Reset: Into the frying pan

You know things are bad in advertising when the out-of-work creative directors are thinking about switching careers into magazines.

At first, I thought it was a joke, but then the creative director in question assured me that, no, it was one of the options he'd seriously considered as he cast around for what to do next, now that the field he's spent the last 23 years ascending has essentially disappeared out from under him. "I figured, What do I do? I write. I come up with creative ways of communicating ideas. What about magazines?"

This bizarre moment occurred last week on a phone call with Kram Nehoc,* a former senior creative director at a large New York City-based advertising agency. It was like that Seinfeld episode in which Jerry, George and Kramer run into their alter egos "Bizarro Jerry" and his uncannily George- and Kramer-like friends. I'd called Nehoc, a top creative talent who's run print and direct-mail campaigns for dozens of Fortune 100 companies, because a mutual friend had suggested he could be a good resource to help me figure out how to parlay my 20 years of magazine writing and editing experience into some type of advertising career. Such a move, I figured, had to make more sense than continuing to perseverate over the slim pickings in the ever-dwindling media ranks. After all, what do I do? I write. I come up with creative ways of communicating ideas. What about working for an ad agency?

I guess the joke was on both of us.

Once we finished laughing (ha ha ha), Nehoc tried to open my eyes a bit more to what life is really like these days over on his side of the funhouse mirror. "Editorial people always think about the decline in ad budgets in terms of the number of pages they're down," he pointed out. "But inside the agencies, the impact is much more direct. The first thing that happens is the bodies start flying."

Nehoc lost his job in July, after his firm's clients shaved millions of dollars from their second- and third-quarter budgets. In all, the "Ad Agency Layoff Counter" on BNET.com estimates that 37,415 jobs have been eliminated at agencies and other ad-oriented employers since the recession began. The cutbacks have been so pervasive that one out-of-work New York copywriter recently co-produced and starred in a documentary soon to be released on the web about laid-off advertising professionals. (View the trailer here.)

It's not even the layoffs, though, that have people like Nehoc feeling so shell-shocked. Advertising has withstood downturns before. This time, however, there's a sense that -- as with journalists, photographers, producers, book authors and agents -- technology has fundamentally devalued the very core of what they do.

"It used to be people would pay ad agencies to do things they found mysterious," said Nehoc. "You see it on Mad Menevery week, and for 50 years that's really the way it was. Clients from other parts of the country would come to New York and pay us to come up with 'clever ideas' and 'take pictures.' All these things that were kind of weird and outside their usual business.

"Now clients think they can do all that themselves, and in a way they're not wrong. My sister threw my nephew a birthday party recently, and he shot the video of the party himself. He grabbed the soundtrack off of iTunes and edited the whole thing on their Mac. It was quite professionally done. He's seven. To their credit, clients don't want to pay a premium anymore for something they think any seven year old can do."

The prevailing mantra in agencies now, said Nehoc, is "search," or getting a client's content to pop to the top of the screen during the 23-and-a-half hours a day consumers spend online. Of course, to get the search engines to rank the content high enough for that to happen, the client needs lots and lots of it. Brands do enlist agencies to help them develop that content, but the dynamic of the relationship and the value attached to it has flipped 180 degrees. "No one ever actually reads the content or reads it very closely," said Nehoc. "So the agencies have all these kids a year or two out of college churning out pages and pages of the stuff. This has shifted the salaries for everyone. It used to be a creative director at a New York agency could count on making $200,000 a year. Now they have these kids churning out this stuff at $50 an hour, and a few years later they make some of them creative directors at $130,000 a year. The only people really making money are the people in 'analytics,' running the spreadsheets on the search data. I guess because that still seems mysterious."

I asked Nehoc where that leaves him. Similar to how I respond when people put the question to me, he really didn't have a good answer. With magazines (and advertising) pretty much crossed off our lists, we bounced a few other half-baked ideas back and forth across the line. I asked whether he and his wife still had any equity left in their apartment on the Upper West Side. He said they did, and I shared the fantasy I've been having more and more lately of flying away from the Creative Capital once and for all.

Nehoc confessed to having the same thought, but then he told me a story. A friend of his, a fellow creative director who'd also been laid off, recently received a job offer from an agency in a small city in the Heartland that will go nameless for obvious reasons. At first this friend wasn't sure he should accept the job and take himself out of the New York ad market, but Nehoc helped talk him into it. "I was like, 'Why? There are no jobs here anyway. It's a chance to run your own department and make a New York salary in this dinky little city. Think of it like going to grad school. You can go do it for a few years and maybe things will get better and you can come back.'"

And everything Nehoc said has turned out to be true. "He's, like, rich now," said Nehoc. There's just one problem, which Nehoc's friend failed to discover until he'd been on the job for a few days: all of the principles, and virtually everyone who works for the firm except Nehoc's friend, is a born-again Christian.

"Literally, in meetings they'll be going over a new piece of potential business, and someone will say, 'Well, the numbers look good, and it could raise our profile. But is it good for Jesus?'

"Now my friend is freaking out because they don't know he's not a born-again, too. He keeps running out to the parking lot to call me on his cell phone. 'What am I going to do? They're going to find out. I don't know how much longer I can keep this up. I swear my office phone is bugged.' It's like something out of the John Grisham novel The Firm."

Or a Seinfeld episode.

*Name has been changed to protect the jobless -- and play up the "Bizarro" reference.

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