IN 1990 I WAS ABOUT AS LOW on the advertising food chain as you can get … writing owners’ manuals for Whirlpool washers and dryers, while living in a Michigan beach town. The lifestyle was great, but being the best writer in a service bureau that really didn’t need writers was getting me down.
One day an older exec from Chicago named Jerry Hossli thought I might like a look at a portfolio from an East Coast business-to-business agency. I was blown away. Smart, sophisticated, clever and audaciously honest at the same time. Wow! And here I was doing endless rewrites about the perils of sticking your hand into an active wash cycle.
Oh, how I ached to write copy like that.
A Wish Changes Nothing ... A Decision Changes Everything
Digging through my grandmother’s basement, I found a little 1962 Pan Am Airlines wine bottle with a nice cork. I emptied and washed it, then glued on a label: Found on the Shores of Lake Michigan. Inside went a crumpled parchment scrap with a message, shakily written in brown with an eyebrow pencil. A lost copywriter yearned to find his way to brighter shores, promising follow-up samples … if he could find another bottle.
Off it went to the agency chairman, Steve Trygg.
In a fever I hurriedly made a follow-up: Four sheets of paper about myself, in a homemade folder. I knew that sending samples would be a mistake, because all I could show them was mutual fund leaflets and Kenmore hangtags. I felt embarrassed, but I plunged the package into the mailbox and crossed my fingers.
Imagine my shock when they called me three weeks later for an interview. Then I went home with a copy of “The Anderson & Lembke Copy Test,” which required me to tackle these and other challenges:
Write an ad marketing Playboy to women
Explain how a bicycle worked to an educated person of the Middle Ages
Raise money with a fundraising letter on behalf of “Friends of the Wasp”
It went well. They said if I could wait a few months, they might use me.
Naturally I also got a call around that same time from Sears, the cradle of old-school copywriter training. They wanted me to come in soon for an interview. That had been a dream job for me once. But I would have to go immediately.
Those few days were pretty rough. Two dreams diverging, neither assured. But I sent my regrets to Sears and gambled on the sexy B2B outfit. Six months later, Sears pulled the plug on its in-house creative department. By then I was in New York.
The Tough Get Going
Traveling 660 miles east with a car, a cashier's check and no address, I was too insecure to ask the agency for relocation help. I slept in my Dodge Aries at the aptly named Vince Lombardi Park & Lock on the New Jersey Turnpike. It was pretty miserable, but I gutted it out and eventually subleased a Jersey City room from three frat boys just graduated from Seton Hall.
For a long time, I didn't really fit in. It was a struggle to catch up to the standards of the slick creatives around me, and the agency really didn't know what to do with this guy the boss had hired on one of his whims. But I stuck with it, and it turned out that the agency's biggest account was Dow Plastics back in Michigan. They came to like my familiar Midwestern ways.
Fast-forward three years later. The agency was planning its first overseas office in Amsterdam. Dow had a European operation that could offer us some business, so the boss called me in and asked if I wanted to go. Soon I was traveling east again, moving 3,600 miles to help get Anderson & Lembke, BV off the ground.
Just like that, I was living in a European canal house instead of a Dodge.
Thus began my international career, serving B2B clients in Zurich, Stockholm, London, Antwerp, Amsterdam and a half-dozen other places. A long way to go in a bottle, and maybe the most treasured time of my life.
Advertising, as it turns out, really can get results ... when you write as if your life depends on it. | DC |