The image below is a new business pitch idea I had for The Shops at Columbus Circle, when they were first opening in The Time Warner Center. I didn’t only design web sites. I was eventually invited to come up with creative campaign ideas, umbrella concepts, which could be executed across channels. My idea was to show all the things one could do, any time, at the shops. My idea worked for subways, taxicabs, and booklet covers. The focus is time…saving time by shopping at The Circle…just in time. I figured they could run with the tag of "just in time" during their initial launch. I didn’t have a copywriter assigned to work with me, so I wrote all the copy and chose all the artwork. No, I did not draw those illustrations. I also made each of the copy points specific to New York, considering "New Yorkers who are accustomed to getting the best" was our target audience. And I wanted to steer away from "shopping" because they didn’t want to be seen as "a mall," which is exactly what it is. So I focused on experiences, and the fact that you could do so much, save so much time, by doing it all in one place. Our creative director never showed this to the client… he said because he, um, couldn’t open it on his computer. WTF? I’ve seen the actual advertising the client has gone with, and it’s not nearly as hip, fun, or I’m sure, effective. And this happens all the time in advertising. The good ideas never get a chance. But you know that going in.
Advertising was easy for me, in part, because no one ever gave me grief if I rolled into work at 11:15, or even 11:30 am. I’d watch Regis & Kelly, then half of Ellen, sometimes the whole thing. Then I’d grab a cab, knowing I should have motivated earlier for the subway. Occasionally, but not enough to ever make a difference, some higher-up would tap his watch and shoot me a disapproving glance, but on the whole, as long as everyone was satisfied with my work, and I didn’t miss any meetings, it was all good. Advertising was picnic because a lot of the time it consisted of image searches, just combing through photography in search of a gesture or color to make something feel finished. It was art, really, finding balance and paying attention to the edges and negative space of things. It wasn’t always glamorous, designing buttons and tabs, working with information architects to resolve problems. But it was a hell of a lot easier than standing on my feet all day, greeting customers as they passed through the glass doors of Banana Republic. That was work. Retail sucks if you’re fat. Not only do you have zero desire to spend your day imagining how you’ll spend your next paycheck as you sort through the newest arrivals, but you can only listen to size six women complain about how the flat-front trousers make her crotch look "bulky." And even when the store is barren of customers, you’re still not permitted to sit, even if you’re in the dressing room, folding rejected merino blends. And there were always the really nice, but still kinda sketchy, dudes who worked in the stock room, who because you were fat, seemed to think you’d want to date them and their chains, pagers, and goatees.
What I loved most about working at Wunderman, the direct marketing subsidiary of Young & Rubicam, was the people. I am still in touch with many of them. Well, twelve of them, really. Maybe more. It was also easy because there was a Fourbucks downstairs. And my job consisted of searching the internet for clean designs, keeping up with the new technologies. There were uninspired status meetings, sure, but even then, it was a chance not only to learn what everyone else was up to, but it was an opportunity to get the hell out of my chair. It forced me to socialize.
I loved listening to music all day, singing. One night,quite late–there were perhaps six people left in the building–I decided to listen to R.E.M through my headphones to keep me company as I finished my design. I’d regularly bust into song without really knowing it. Dave would sometimes tap me on the shoulder and start to laugh, but he’d gone home hours earlier. When "Everybody Hurts" chimed in, I raised the volume. Before long, I began to belt it. "NO, NO, NO, YOU’RE NOT ALONE!"
"NEITHER ARE YOU!" someone in a cubicle outside my office yelled back. And instead of being dreadfully embarrassed, I thought, "That’s exactly why I work here. I love this shit."
And now I miss it, some of it anyway, listening to David say, "Hey, check it out," as he encouraged me to look as his latest design, or photo, or some crank calls web site he found. Or when I shared an office with Steve Henderson, and we quoted lines from movies all day. Or when I bunked with Kerri in another office, the two of us laughing and wheeling in late. We had fun. And work, while it was just that, never felt like it really. Even when we had to work on the weekends, or stay until midnight, even then, I liked what I was doing, so it was never that bad. But deep down, I didn’t feel like I belonged. I didn’t feel completely fulfilled. I sometimes cried in the bathroom (I love how this post ends… that it was written when I started this blog. Gives me chills).
When I’d first started in advertising, back in 1997, I mostly designed banners and insufferable interstitials and pop-ups. Then I’d work on campaigns, got involved with testing and focus groups. Switched over to marketing for a while, performing competitive audits for my clients, studied click-through rates, and learned what worked and what didn’t. Tested copy, offer, and creative. Put together Powerpoint decks. Then I switched back to creative, with a firm grasp on what Forrester/Jupiter Research had to say about web performance, driving traffic, etc. I always wore both hats and was easily able to balance design with what had to get done from a marketing perspective. Actually, it wasn’t exactly always "easily."
At a certain point my boss called me into her office and said, "This ain’t gonna cut it." She meant my straddling both worlds. I had to choose, and if I was going to design, I had to make shit look good. I couldn’t walk into a meeting with a piece of creative and support it with research. I saw it as an opportunity to grow. Others might have dug their heels in and argued that what I did was what more designers should have. Know the research, know what works. But what would have been the point?
In the weeks that followed, I worked on new business campaigns while also attending to my regulars. And my boss pulled me aside and said, "Stephanie, these are just beautiful. I can tell you took what I said seriously. Really, just lovely." And they were smart, too. And she was a good boos. Because it seems we don’t hear enough of that these days. Both of us, the talkers and the listeners. The talkers tend to focus on what we’re doing wrong, and as a listener, as much as they might include something positive, we cling to the negative. But my boss paid attention and didn’t have to tell me that she noticed a drastic change. But she did, and it was encouraging. It made me want to take it further. To do better. I work very well under direction, especially when it’s laced with encouragement.
I loved the energy there, even when the most creative ideas weren’t given a chance to breathe. I loved David and his sweet nature, how he’d try to keep up with Gary when we made a run at night to Trailer Park for Patron shots. Loved Gary and the way he’d strut through the office, one clip of his shirt hanging beneath the excess leather of his belt. He’d ask me to whisper because it was too early for "a Klein story… but later, Sweetpea, once I get my coffee going." Then he’d return later in the afternoon. He wouldn’t say a word, just pulled up a chair and waited with his hands in his lap.
"Come on, Steph, spill it." He’s the only one who I never corrected when he’d call me "Steph." I don’t know why; it was the way he said it. I miss our small tribe, our brainstorms, and drawings, and the jokes, and the Thursday nights, where we’d stay late drinking in the office, playing Cranium in Joani’s office. And when we moved to the Madison Avenue location, and I began to report to Jane Walsh, I was even happier. I was given more responsibility, and I remember her instructing others to look at my work, "keep it in her style. Have Stephanie show you." And I felt proud.
And that’s what made it so hard for me to leave. I really did like my job, and saw it as that, a job. Not a career. A job. But once the NBC deal went through, on top of the books, I felt in over my head, like I was straddling again. So I didn’t see it as quitting my job as much as starting my writing career.
While in advertising, I began this blog. I posted to it almost daily from my office, never writing about work or co-workers in fear of losing my job. I posted between meetings, during a bit of downtime. And then I wrote my book proposal during working hours. Because I could. It was the kind of job that allowed for it. As long as I handed in a design the client loved by our scheduled meeting time, no one cared when I’d done it. Only that I had.
I sometimes think of returning to the world of advertising, wondering which side I’d end up on, copy or design. But in reality, I’ve got a whole lot more writing to do before I can think about that. But if I had to, it would be design. I do miss it. But that’s what scrapbooking is for.