CCO Jonathan Cude offers advice to ad students in these uncertain times

CCO Jonathan Cude offers advice to ad students in these uncertain times

May 28, 2020

(A version of this article appeared on adweek.com.)

Dear advertising and marketing graduates,

Let’s just say it — this sucks. This is not how you were supposed to wrap up your college careers. No graduation parties, no graduation ceremonies, and…no jobs (or a lot fewer than there were).

When I give talks to students, I often reference a book written by M. Scott Peck. It’s kind of the original self-help psychology book. The first line says, “Life is difficult.”

Damn right.

So, before you force yourself to “find the silver lining” or “see the opportunity in the challenge,” I want you to know that it’s OK to mourn. It’s not only OK to grieve for what you lost, it’s necessary.

But at some point, after that process is done, you’ve got to pick yourself up, look around, and figure out what the hell you’re going to do.

Now I can’t tell you exactly what to do. What do I know? I’m just the CCO of an ad agency. And I’m not saying that out of any sense of false modesty. In the end, we’re all just people trying to find our way. But what I can tell you, and what may give you some hope, is that there is no right time or perfect way to land a job or start a career.

‘But because I’m supposed to be giving some guidance, here’s the tried-and-true 12 Steps to Advertising Success™ program that worked for me:

Step One: I got a great internship at NBC Sports after my junior year. How did I leverage that experience? I didn’t. I didn’t “work the system.” I didn’t network. I didn’t stand out in any way. I blew it. I went back to school in Texas for my senior year beaten down and a little depressed and anxious.

Step Two: After graduation, I went to LA for an alumni “meet and greet” with entertainment executives. And, shockingly, I got offered a job working on a movie. Did I take that job? I did not. Why not? No idea. Maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe I was dumb. I still don’t know which.

Step Three: I moved home. I lived with my parents for a year. I got a job working at the mall. I was a stock boy at a clothing store. They wouldn’t let me actually sell clothes because I had no experience. But it was the only job I could get, so that’s the job I took.

Step Four: After a year working at the mall, my uncle in Atlanta called and offered me a job. Managing his running shoe store. The “new store” was 400 square feet of subleased space in the back of a local bike shop. I took the job. I lived in his basement. I worked there for three and half years. Which is about two and a half years longer than I thought I would.

Step Five: After a year and a half in my uncle’s basement, the shoe store gig made it possible for me to get my first apartment. I still couldn’t find a “real” job. But I could support myself. I purchased a 400-pound TV at an outlet mall. It was heavenly.

Step Six: I started attending a night class on advertising. Each week there was a different guest speaker from the ad business. After one particularly compelling class, I went up and introduced myself to the speaker — the head of broadcast production at a local agency. He invited me to come tour the agency sometime. I called him the next day.

Step Seven: He hired me! To be his secretary. I made $21,000 a year. I answered his phone. I took notes. I got him sweet tea from Chick-fil-A every morning. I was the first male to hold that position in the agency’s 82-year history.

Step Eight: I got offered a promotion (twice) but didn’t take it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a producer. I did love being at the agency though. My boss suggested I give copywriting a shot. I started doing little jobs around the agency and actually sold a couple of things. He told me to go to school.

Step Nine: I started going to ad school while still working part-time. I got fired. So, I went to school full-time. The school? This crazy startup ad school with folding tables and folding chairs in a dumpy building with coffee-stained carpeting. The Creative Circus.

Step Ten: I realized this was the first thing I’d ever done that I liked, that I was good at, and that I could actually see being a path to making money and having a career. I gave it absolutely everything I had.

Step Eleven: I graduated from The Circus and got a job at Wieden+Kennedy. I worked there for almost seven years. It was the job of my dreams. But even at my dream job, I still fought with partners, struck out on big assignments, and got yelled at by clients.

Step Twelve: Thirteen years after getting fired from my first agency job, I became the CCO of McKinney. I’ve done work I’m proud of. I’ve made a good living. I’ve also had to sit across from people I care about and let them go. I’ve put my heart into pitches and lost. I’ve had clients ask me off their business. Always I’m reminded: Life is difficult.

And that, dear graduates, is my 12-step program to reaching the lofty heights of advertising!

Many of you probably have more self-awareness and maturity than I did at your age. In fact, some of you are probably at step 10.5 right now.

All of you are facing something bigger and more challenging than I did.

This is going to be tough. That is true.

But what is also true is that you’re going to make it.

You don’t have to be the most ambitious or the most connected or the most immediately successful.

I wasn’t any of those things. I had to find my own way. And you will, too.

A few things I hope you will discover in the process of developing your own patented career success program:


Your number one job will be to keep learning, to keep honing your craft. Whether that’s writing, design, dev, or finding surprising strategic insights.

No job is beneath you — it’s all good experience. And sometimes it takes a year (or more) in a basement to figure out where you need to go next.

You can use your skills to solve problems for organizations that need support — and add to your portfolio at the same time. You can help them build a social presence, create an app, or launch a virtual fundraising event. Some of them won’t be able to pay you. Do it anyway.

A company’s values are as important as their client roster. When times get tough, those values really matter.

Finding a mentor can change the course of your life. And it doesn’t have to be someone with 25 years of experience. Look for someone a few steps ahead on the path. Ask for their advice. Ask for their help. Ask who they know. Ask them to connect you.

A career in advertising is a roller coaster. Even dream jobs have nightmare days. Even the people at the top sometimes wonder whether they have any business being in this business. Imposter syndrome never really goes away. You just learn to hide it better.

To conclude, congratulations. Good luck. And to once more quote our old friend M. Scott Peck, “If we know exactly where we’re going, exactly how to get there, and exactly what we’ll see along the way, we won’t learn anything.”