I’ve never met my art director*
–Cooper Bowman, Copywriter
McKinney Copywriter Cooper Bowman on what it’s been like starting his first job in advertising during a pandemic.
In fact, for the entirety of my (admittedly very short) copywriting career, I’ve never worked in person with anyone. I’ve never put an idea on a wall, or sat at a conference table, or had a little too much to drink at the all-agency holiday party. And yeah, I’ve never even met my partner. My entire advertising existence consists of opening and closing this laptop.
For the most part, it’s worked. Ten months and counting.
And yet, article after article, conversation after conversation, thought leaders (my least favorite term ever) in this industry opine: “things will never be the same” and “what we’ve learned will undoubtedly continue to blah blah blah.” And I have no doubt that they’re right. But I also think that kind of comparative thinking (the two extremes of how things were about a year ago and how things are right now) misses the bigger, but smaller, yet enormous picture: I’ve never met my art director.
Let me explain.
I spent three years in an ad program practicing to work in an office. We printed out ideas to put on the wall, got used to standing up and giving presentations, and were told that shaking hands is the name of the game (I know, imagine shaking a hand). Agency culture was built around going out for drinks and hitting up award shows and playing mediocre team sports together. But two months before we (my class) were ready to jump right in, that all changed (shocker).
Internships were canceled, recruiters were unresponsive, and a deep freeze settled over hiring at agencies everywhere. I’d love to pause here and give a big shoutout to my agency McKinney, who did none of those things. Thank you. Seriously (and this includes all agencies that took the leap of faith and kept hiring).
But after hiding in a deep dark cave for a couple months, most agencies found their footing and started to figure things out. This industry isn’t Tetris. There aren’t clear cut corners or shapes that just won’t fit. What’s become abundantly clear is that we don’t do things because that’s the only way they can be done. We do them because that’s what we’re used to. And at this point, we’re getting used to…well, anything.
My mind resurrects that passage in Hey Whipple that returns again and again to the same picture of staring at the bottom of your partner’s sneakers. Because that’s how ideating works, right? You sit at adjoining desks, occasionally writing down horrible ideas until they stop being horrible. But I’ve never seen my partner’s sneakers, and our desks are miles apart (for eight months, on opposite coasts). I have to bounce ideas off of this weird Baby Yoda sticker someone gave me and I can’t get rid of. He seems to enjoy it.
Even the bare minimum of being part of a team was uncharted territory. Every way that we know how to create community has an in-Zoom effectiveness of 0–1% (100% not a made up stat). And that made us all nimbler, more adaptable, more community-conscious people. Because let’s face it, buying someone a drink is easier than creating memorable shared experiences when you’re all little torso-boxes. But we made it happen. So that after a bit of time, and an overwhelming amount of decks, we learned to function (almost) just as well as any real-life in-person team with tape, a wall, and a bunch of printouts. Nobody predicted that it would work this well. Truth is, nobody can really predict what’s going to happen next, either.
But to me, that’s the beauty of it.
The big takeaway from “these unprecedented times” that have become “the new normal” isn’t some revelation about what it’ll be like “once this is all over.” Our big takeaway should be that no matter what, we’ll make it work. Let’s not go back to “normal.”. We’ve all demonstrated together that working from anywhere…kind of works. Don’t get me wrong, I’m chomping at the get-me-back-in-the-office bit as much as your next extrovert, but that doesn’t mean we need to by and large go back to what we had before. COVID wiped the slate clean for us, and that means we have the opportunity to rewrite what it looks like to work in the ad industry. With chalk. Because if there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that trying new things out is not just okay, it’s good. If something doesn’t work, we should be able to wipe the slate clean again. And again. In other words, it shouldn’t take a worldwide pandemic for us to think outside the box. It’s kind of…our job.
So what’s outside my box, you ask?
Let’s start with the big dreamy stuff. I want a remote office-y location that’s on a ski slope where I can wake up, hit some runs, and then work online the rest of the day. Boom. In fact, agencies should have their own archipelago of cool office spaces where employees could work from all over the country (or even the world for that matter). The suckiest part of working from home is the banality of it all. Same thing, day after day, over and over. Nothing new, nothing exciting. I don’t want to work from any-old-where. I want to work from somewhere awesome. So now that we know what a video call is, don’t fly me to random client meetings. Fly me to —insert radical location — to work for a couple weeks.
On the more practical side of things, let’s stop thinking so hard about days and hours, and instead start thinking about what makes sense. New mothers (and fathers) shouldn’t have to come back to the office until, well, they want to. There’s no reason they can’t just work from home until they’re ready. Same thing goes for the ebbs and flows. If I don’t have much going on, I’m better served to stay home and recharge. The office should be a place where we interact with each other, bounce ideas off of real humans (not Baby Yoda stickers) and, honestly, just have fun. It should be vibrant and energizing — why would I commute to an office to sit at a desk with headphones on when I could just sit at home where it’s already quiet and I don’t have to wear pants? Yeah. Exactly.
But I’m not here to prescribe solutions.
Because if we’re reimagining an industry, each of us should get to be part of the imagining. We’ve all had to figure things out this year — there’s no such thing as experts when it comes to running an agency during a global pandemic. Nobody had it together, we were all just doing our best. Which is the best.
So yeah, it’s been a no good, horrible, but very awesome year for advertising. We’ve learned a ton, and unlearned even more. Whatever comes next, I have no doubt that we’ll figure it out. There is no blocker too big, or process too precious. And if I had a crystal ball, I’m pretty sure that it would show me an ad world that continues to evolve into the most flexible, scrappy, and grit-your-teeth-and-get-it-done-y set of people you can find anywhere. How can I be so sure?
Well, I haven’t even met my art director.
*Since writing this article, we got the chance to meet in person. So everything you just read was a lie. Sort of.