On Creative Trauma, Wins, And Learnings
Have you ever had a situation with a client or an employer that marred your self-esteem? Something that shook your creative confidence to the core? Life events shape us creatively, for better or for worse, and are at the core binary matters: You either move forward from them or you don’t. Below is an anecdote of an experience that changed everything.
When I moved to Vancouver at age 23…
I did so to be a copywriter at a nutraceutical company in Richmond; I have fond memories of waking up in East Van, catching the sunrise, having my morning Vietnamese coffee, racing down the Knight Street bridge on my Fuji SS, and getting to work.
The poorest I’ve been
The happiest I’ve been
The position I was hired for was more junior in nature and paid next to nothing, but since I was (and still am) a sucker for adventure, I moved from Ontario with a few weeks notice to tackle it head on. With how expensive Vancouver was (and still is) to live in and how little I was making, there was only one logical step for me:
And so I did! I started freelancing as a copywriter for tech companies, small ad agencies, and a few others. The feeling of building a portfolio and working on different projects was invigorating. For a minute, I felt like real hot shit.
Just for a minute.
Fast-forward to a few months later: my ambition ran high: I started reaching out to major ad agencies like Cossette, DDB, Wasserman, and more for freelance opportunities, thinking that I had what it took; thinking that my portfolio and skills were up to par.
There was one agency (a famous one I won’t explicitly name) who I reached out to 4, 5…maybe even 6 times to hire me as a copywriter, or at least to take a meeting with me.
Side bar: You know that feeling when you send out a slew of resumes or emails for interviews or meetings, and then patiently monitor your inbox for the first notification that pops up, hoping that it’s a win? That was me on the 6th time! They got back to me and asked me to come in for an interview.
Awww yeah. I’m gonna nail this.
As I entered the office, the Creative Director greeted me with a smile and brought me into a board room for the interview: oddly enough, he had my portfolio up on a screen already.
Quickly I learned that this wasn’t an interview at all. Quickly, I learned that as far as this position went, I was a no-go. This wasn’t an interview – this was something entirely different.
In fact, he spent the next 45 minutes going through my resume and portfolio and highlighting what was bad about it. I mean, everything that was bad about it. Too much white space here, a headline terribly written there, the structure and form of my case studies needing work, etc. etc. etc.
For 45 minutes I was silent. Not offended or upset, just…silent. Taking it all in, if you will.
After it was done, he told me why he just ripped my portfolio to shreds: because years ago, he was in my shoes.
He told me about how – like me – he accidentally got into copywriting and had friends convince him that he should pitch agencies with ideas. He would scribble copy and design ideas on napkins; he would poorly cobble text and images together in Photoshop for campaign ideas and eventually make an ad book that he would send off to art and creative directors.
He told me about all the agencies he would pitch and the answers he wouldn’t get back, until once agency took a chance on him and worked him to the bone. Early morning, late nights, and lots of hardship in-between.
And he did that for years. And he loved all of it – the good and the bad.
He told me all of this to prepare me for the road ahead, if I decided to really be a copywriter.
I didn’t know it at the time, but he did me one of the biggest favours he could have: he told me the unfiltered truth.
We talked some more and he gave me more advice, like how copywriters should actually use the product they’re writing about, if possible, to see things from the customer standpoint, and gave me a few resources to help me on my journey (Luke Sullivan’s “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!” specifically).
In a final statement, he said this:
“Either you’ll follow this advice and move forward, or you won’t. Choice is yours.”
At the age I was then, I was taken aback by how binary this statement was, only to realize now that the world needs more black and white truth to prosper, especially in an age of information over-saturation.
And that’s just it. Truth from trauma. Any normal person would have considered that a traumatic experience – but I’m not normal and I considered it a blessing. I hit the books, revised my portfolio, and completely changed my approach in writing and advertising.
And it payed off.
I was listening to a podcast recently (I want to say Blair Enns was the guest, or maybe it was a Joe Rogan podcast…) where the interviewer said this:
“In life, there are no failures: you only have wins and learnings. That’s it.”
It’s this type of binary processing – this assertiveness and confidence we need in our choices as creatives – to really move forward and win.
Ask yourself: Are you in or are you out? Are you hustling daily or relaxing when the competition is grinding? Are you giving yourself so many choices that you undergo decision paralysis daily? Or do your choices only leave a forward facing path?
By: Ryan Antooa
*Chris, by some minuscule chance if you’re reading this article – thank you. I owe you a lot. Dead serious.