As promised last week, here’s the story of my career trajectory – how I embarked upon the path that led me to prominent positions in the world of advertising, why and how I left the path, the process of discovering a new one, and the trajectory that’s led me to success in Washington as a life consultant / career coach / psychotherapist. It vividly illustrates numerous principles that need to be kept in mind to maximize career success and fulfillment.
In my senior year at Wesleyan University, where I was majoring in the interesting but not obviously career oriented field of political science (with a minor in Romance languages), I needed to choose an area of graduate school study. I don’t think going into the workplace immediately after was ever seriously considered by me – I loved learning plus my parents could afford the tuition for an advanced degree. The problem was deciding whether to go to law school (the logical next step for a political science major) or business school (the other relatively surefire path to a remunerative career, medicine being something in which I didn’t have a great deal of interest). Business school won out simply because my father was a businessman, and Harvard won out because it was Harvard.
I particularly enjoyed my first year marketing class – mainly because of the charismatic professor, Steve Starr. So I decided to concentrate in marketing in my second year, and in the second semester applied for full time positions at two advertising agencies, two consumer product companies, and a movie studio. I turned down S.C. Johnson because it was in Racine, WI (it was my “safety”), and Vick Chemical because I wasn’t impressed with their headquarters; I was beaten out of the Columbia Pictures job by a female classmate (a rarity in those days), and finally the Benton and Bowles (B&B) ad agency won out because I liked the account executive who “chaperoned” me during my day at the agency better than I liked the people that I met at Grey (another “top ten” ad agency”).
My career flourished quickly at B&B. My first assignment was on Proctor and Gamble’s Dawn dishwashing liquid, which was just entering test market in Salt Lake City and Atlanta. On my own initiative I decided to do a demographic analysis of the two markets (which, although I was then unaware, I’m sure P&G had done very, very thoroughly). This initiative marked me as a “go-getter,” and after only five months I was moved onto the agency’s premier account, Crest toothpaste, as assistant account executive. Seven months later I got promoted to full account executive on Prell shampoo, and at the time of my promotion I got a letter of congratulations from the Crest brand manager, Bill Connell, who had been impressed with my work on the little projects I was assigned. He was to be very influential in my later advertising career.
To make a long story short after seven years at B&B I was fed up, having to report to a tyrannical boss named Roy Bostock (who later became Chairman of Yahoo and who was later involved in a prominently reported scandal because he fired the CEO over the phone). After a four month stint at another leading agency which turned out to have lied to me about promotion possibilities, and two years at a small “boutique'” shop, Waring and La Rosa, I was wooed by the very glamorous and hot Wells, Rich, and Greene agency, the first agency founded by a woman and the creator of all those classic Alka Seltzer ads – “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” – the hugely successful Benson and Hedges 100s introductory campaign, and “Flick your Bic”, to name just a few. I joined as senior vice president on the Sure deodorant account as well as Prell shampoo (which B&B had lost a year earlier). Interestingly, the senior P&G executive responsible for those brands was the same Bill Connell I’d worked with on Crest 8 years earlier – and who, I’m sure, was instrumental in my getting the offer.
I loved the fast-paced ad business, and thrived, becoming the youngest Executive Vice-President in the agency’s history. I was clearly heading towards running the agency when tragedy struck and my partner of 11 years very unexpectedly died of AIDS. It shattered me, and I simply lost the drive and that had heretofore propelled me. Selling Pringle’s, Purina Dog Chow, Gain detergent, Folger’s, and Chex cereals (some of the accounts I was responsible for) had lost all of its appeal.
I decided to leave the now painful memories of New York behind me and made a dramatic change in my life by moving to Los Angeles, accepting a job as Director of Account Management for Chiat/Day, probably the hottest agency in the country at the time, and creator of the iconic Apple 1984 commercial. But the “fire in the belly” had gone out, and two years later in the 1991 recession I was “downsized’ – a temporarily devastating development, because advertising was all I’d known as a businessperson and no agency was hiring outside top executives at that economically challenging time. Fortunately for me, as it turned out.