If you want to make it in advertising, you’ll have to go through this guy – Dan Balser. But, don’t worry… even if you didn’t go to ad school, and you want to become a copywriter or art director, Dan Balser has a few of tips on how to land the perfect advertising job.
Dan Balser is a freelance copywriter and advertising department head at The Creative Circus in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s also the host of “Don’t Get Me Started,” a podcast featuring some of the biggest names in advertising such as, the great Luke Sullivan, Stan Richards with the Richard Group, Dan Wieden with Wieden + Kennedy and many, many more.
I talked with Dan about his podcast, why he quit the agency world to become a teacher, and tips on how to land the perfect advertising job.
If you’re coming out of advertising school, what’s the best way to get a job?
If you’re an undergrad, be very careful what you present in your portfolio. Show one or two things that are really great. Because, you’re going to be judged on your worst piece.
1. Find out which agency is doing the work that you like – which is not that hard to do. Just Google “Sonic advertising agency” and it will tell you the agency of record.
2. Find the copywriter or art director. They’re much more flattered to get an email from you, than the executive creative director. Send an email that says, “I just graduated from the University of Colorado. I think the Sonic ads are hilarious. I would like to show you my work. Can we arrange a time to talk?” Don’t send an email that says, “Let me know what you think.” The less you can send the better. The less you can show, the better. It’s gotta be all buttoned up.
What if you didn’t go to ad school?
When you go to ad school, you’re already two years into the business – as far as agencies are concerned. You’ll have better opportunities and you kinda leapfrog that junior status. You can get there without going to ad school but you need to be strategic and tactical about it.
I really recommend going to Modern Copywriter and see what you’re up against. Go to The Creative Circus website and look at the student portfolios. If you are able to demonstrate that you can think and solve the problems, you don’t need to go to ad school.
I wonder, what’s the average career span of someone in advertising?
I think it depends on whether you burn hot or you burn long. A former classmate of mine has had the same job for 22 years, at Publicis. To me, advertising is made up of two different types of people. One type are the rich, college educated kids who have the luxury of going to ad school.
Then, you’ve got a huge group of soldiers. These kids have blue collar parents and some how figure out a way to pay for school. They are the ones that are there for the new business pitches. They never question why, and they never push back at their bosses. They have incremental raises and have long slow arching careers. Twenty years down the road, they are very comfortable.
Can you have a family and still be in the business?
I’d love to ask everybody that question. There’s a lot of people that say it’s really hard. There are a lot of people that tell me they make it a priority. For me, it was a priority – possibly to a fault. I put so much emphasis on spending time with my daughter that I think it distracted me.
I think you can have a family. My advice would be to wait until you’re senior enough to be able to leave the office at 6:00 and go home and be with your kid. It helps to have a supportive spouse. That’s the one thing in my 21 year marriage that has never been an issue. If I have to work late or have to work on the weekend, we both know what it’s all about. I also know of a lot of marriages that have ended, because advertising is a very selfish mistress.
You have many former students return on your podcast. Is it easy to spot a future superstar in your class?
Superstars are no brainers. My biggest challenge as a teacher is not to be perceived as showing favoritism. It’s so obvious to me who the awesome ones are that I don’t want the ones who are in the middle or in the bottom to think that I’m giving preferential treatment. But you do. It’s just human nature. You’re attracted to the ones that are glowing.
“The majority of people in advertising are just slogging it out.”
What about the students that are just ok?
We got an email from a former student wanting to come and speak at The Creative Circus forum. He said, “I’ve had 3 jobs. I’ve been laid off. I’ve struggled. I’ll come down and tell them what it’s really all about.”
Part of me wants to do a podcast with people who aren’t really that successful. It’s great to have superstars but what about that kid who is really unhappy because he doesn’t know how to switch jobs? The majority of people in advertising are just slogging it out.
The Brandon Pierce episode was really interesting because you saw a lot of potential in him – potential he didn’t even know he had.
Brandon is one of my heros. I think he’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. I don’t know if he knew it or not. In class, he had this “I’ll get around to it” sort of attitude. I’ve only had to have that talk with a few people where I had to bring them into my office and say, “Two years goes by quick. You better buckle down.” To me it was so obvious that he was so smart, but he wasn’t bringing it.
We’re now in this digital world and the culture is completely different.
I have a feeling that copywriters and art directors are going to have to become more like the digital guys. How are you preparing your students for the digital advertising revolution?
I hope that by teaching students the basic craft of copywriting and art direction that it translates into digital. If I can teach art directors and copywriters to come up with really cool memorable campaign concepts – the digital extension of those will feel organic and natural.
We teach digital trends classes and interactive design. We teach the basics of thinking in those media – but all of those media have to serve a bigger purpose. They have to support the brand promise. We haven’t changed a lot other than adding interactive designers to the creative teams.
“If I didn’t come to work one day, it wouldn’t have made any difference.”
Talk to me about your time at Ogilvy.
I came into this big agency, in New York, where it just kind of felt like I didn’t have any control or ownership over the projects. Starting my career in such a big agency was rough. At Ogilvy, there was a 250 person creative department split into something like 10 groups of 25 creatives each. If I didn’t come to work one day, it wouldn’t have made any difference because there were just too many people working on a project.
It was the perfect formula to destroy creative morale.
After Ogilvy, I made a move to Anderson & Lembke. It was the best agency job. Everyone who ever worked there called it “creative nirvana.” The creatives had ownership of every project. We all got to present our own work, sit down with the clients and devise the creative strategy. It was really wonderful.
How would you describe your work as a copywriter.
My writing style is to twist the strategy into some compelling persuasion.
I think copywriting is not really writing. It’s just stating a thought that no one else would have thought to say. My writing has always been about connecting to the reader. I like to use the word “you” in a headline. I like to acknowledge the reader.
You mentioned once in your podcast that you never had a mentor really push you.
I didn’t take a printout of my lines to anyone’s office and ask for help. I had this illusion that I was going to get a job and someone was going to take me under their wing. I think you have to climb under someone’s wing. You have to ask for help. I didn’t do that. I’m not blaming any of my former bosses for not giving me that. I take a lot of responsibility for not having looked for it.
“When you’re always worrying about getting a raise, you’re probably not doing the job you want to do.”
What was it like when you decided to leave the agency world to become a teacher?
I think what happened with me was that I started realizing that I didn’t like all the secondary and tertiary things that I had to deal with in an agency. My love of the craft was just coming up with ideas and working on the creative writing. That’s such a small part of the job. Instead, you end up doing a lot of production and a lot of tedious rewrites. Then there’s all the waiting, testing and presenting.
I took a huge pay cut, almost 60%, to become a teacher. I never think about how much I’m making. I did a podcast with Rich Silverstein and he said, “I don’t even know how much I make.” He doesn’t even look at his paycheck. He does it for the work. I’m sure he doesn’t need the money. The money part of ends up working out. When you’re always worrying about getting a raise, you’re probably not doing the job you want to do.