Do you chase the work or the dollar?
Words by Brendon Guthrie
“Chase the good work, and eventually the money will catch up with you.”
I doubt I was the first aspiring copywriter given that advice and I certainly won’t be the last.
This I know, because it’s still my default answer to the awkward, fidgety question of how much one should expect to be paid for the first few years of cranking out EDMs, living off boardroom catering leftovers and begging for scraps from the CD table.
Get a job at a great agency, work your arse off creating brilliant work for not much more than you were earning as an unpaid intern and you’ll eventually get a first-class ticket on the creative gravy train.
But is it true?
Or more to the point, is the answer that, until now, I’ve given without question as true today as it was back in 1990, when I was all wild ideas, persistent acne and Energizer Bunny enthusiasm?
I’ll begin exploring this by stating the one thing about this business that I know with absolute certainty.
And that is, if you’re a creative who’s in advertising purely for the money, you’re not just in the wrong business; you’re condemning yourself to one of its lowest circles of hell.
This I also know because about fifteen years ago, I made the mistake of taking my by then senior salary and breaking it down according to actual hours worked.
My own breakdown followed shortly thereafter, but it was a purifying catharsis, because it revealed the truth that the captains of the ad industry have always known.
And that is, you can make quite a bit of money by throwing a relatively small portion of it at the casually dressed types who, by the nature of their hard-wiring, will be thinking, writing, art directing or designing for you well before 9 and long after 5.
Yes, we actually dream about this stuff. Sad, but true.
Of course, this is not to say taking a job as a junior in advertising will condemn you to a squalid garret full of beady-eyed rats, hovering in the hope you die of hypothermia before malnutrition melts the meat off your bones.
Nothing of the poetically romantic sort.
You’ll still be earning more per day than around 80% of the world’s population, so there’ll always be money to buy smashed avocado, if not an inner-city flat.
Hell…doing great work in the right place at the right time could make you advertising’s version of famous and earn you, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, a king’s ransom for doing what comes naturally.
But for the most part, if money’s the number one thing in your life, there are numerous occupations that require fewer hours of effort, much less emotional investment and pay a moderate shitload more than advertising does these days. Especially when you’re starting out.
That said, you’d actually have to do one of those jobs.
And for anyone with a persistent creative itch, rinsing-and-repeating the 9 to 5 in a power suit would be a fate worse than…
Well, let’s just say, I’d take my chances with the hungry rats.
If you’re still reading, it’s safe to assume you’re a creative purist dedicated to your craft and not the Tony Montana “You gotta make the money first…” type.
So, my revised, 2019 answer to that awkward, fidgety great work versus money question is this.
Whether or not it ends up being true for you depends on your ability to balance ‘how little money’ and for ‘how long’.
Starting young gives you a distinct advantage.
It’s easier to take a low paid job at a place with a great creative reputation when you have no mouths to feed other than your own, you still live at home or you’re still young enough to share accommodation without going postal over the foetid state of the bathroom on a daily basis.
To those who fall into any of the above categories, you can afford to bide your time and let the salary catch up with your talent.
So grasp the opportunity with both hands, push to do the work that will steadily increase your salary and above all, never forget how lucky you are.
That self-awareness will give you the empathy all good communicators possess, regardless of who they are or where they come from.
For those who are a little older, a little less lucky in the family resource department or who just have a few more balls to keep in the air, the answer is less straightforward.
You literally can’t afford to be selective about the door you jam your foot into.
But that doesn’t mean you’re condemned to labouring in permanent obscurity and never earning the sort of salary your talent deserves.
If you’re someone who’s in the situation I’ve just described, you’ll already know what’s coming.
Success is just going to be harder.
It’s going to take longer.
And you’re going to have to get your hands a bit dirtier, excavating creative opportunities from the unlikeliest of briefs, or moulding them from whatever raw materials you can find.
I don’t think I’ll be alone in urging you to persist, though.
For the advertising creative departments that I still work in need voices like yours more than ever before; voices heard from different places, speaking in unfamiliar accents and which carry the authentic ring of lived experience.
When you finally do make it, we’ll all be richer for your presence.