by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Fellow Aspiring Mogul…
“In this very real world, good doesn’t drive out evil. Evil doesn’t drive out good. But the energetic displaces the passive.” — Bill Bernbach, advertising legend
I recently spoke about media careers to college students at the National Broadcasting Society AERho Convention. We were in the heart of the Disneyland Resort, amidst thousands of tourists wearing Mickey Mouse ears and celebrating America’s greatest media brand. It was the perfect place to discuss the future of media and how these aspiring young professionals could rule it. It also was a great demo of the difference between old school and new school mentalities…
The panel included myself and a couple of senior execs from traditional ad agencies. Both were successful older men with really nice ties. (Yes, I was tie-less.) One seemed like the kind of guy I’d love to work with — cheerful and encouraging. The other harumphed about his agency’s internship program, the importance of dressing correctly in a job interview, and how arriving too early was just as bad as coming late…
Way to excite the kids there, pops! And thanks for reminding me why I started my own business.
Yes, I know, all that noise about proper attire and punctuality perfectly “suited” the the aspiring middle managers in the audience. If you need a job in corporate media, follow the rules of decorum. (Then again, when I wore a suit to my interview at MCA Records eons ago, I was ridiculed by my future boss, and MCA was the most corporate label in history. And if you’re a designer or writer and show up to an ad agency in your Brooks Brothers finest, you better have one hell of a creative portfolio.)
What grumpy exec myopically ignored was the fact that many media success stories today don’t even involve a single job interview. And that the corporate media jobs he so proudly promoted are becoming fewer and fewer and fewer…
Welcome to the New Media World Order
Today, an aspiring media professional has two choices: Your traditional corporate gig, for which it certainly helps to have other traditional corporations like MCA Records on your resume. Or your century 21.0 media gigs, which care primarily about you and your talent.
To illustrate, I mentioned to the students that I would be meeting that afternoon with a brilliant comic book artist I found online. (That’s his illustration atop this post.) I didn’t know where he went to school. In fact, I didn’t even know his full name, since he simply goes by “Barzak.” I just dug his work, and that he took the initiative to promote his killer talent on CreativeHotlist.com and a few eye-wrangling websites. He and I had spoken on the phone, and he seemed like a nice guy. And did I mention that I dug his work?
Indeed, after we met that afternoon, we decided to work together. And neither of us wore a tie. In fact, Barzak’s cool goatee seemed the more fitting accessory.
Another example is multi-talented film director Dane Boedigheimer. I stumbled across his clever online videos, which featured impressive low-budget special effects. Although he graduated from film school, he let his videos on various sites do the talking. One day he came up with an idea for a talking piece of citrus fruit, the resulting video exploded online, and eventually evolved into the hit YouTube and Cartoon Network series The Annoying Orange.
Of course, what I’m describing won’t fit everyone.
This approach works for Barzak and Dane because they have immense talent and relentless drive. Everyone else works for corporations. But note: corporate media giants are hiring fewer people than ever. Just try getting a job at any big city newspaper.
Indeed, even in the fat old days, corporate media didn’t hand out a lot of glamorous jobs, even to those who schlepped coffee and distributed mail for years in so-called “internships.” Most corporate media gigs serve the resume, not the soul.
And today, more and more media companies rely on independent contractors with the talent and the reliability to get the job done. That’s how Hollywood has produced movies since the old studio system collapsed. Actors, writers, directors, even most below-the-line pros go from gig to gig, and have to promote themselves or, if they’re lucky, have an agent promote them.
Internships? You don’t need no stinkin’ internships. Hundreds of Web 2.0 companies give away their server space to help you promote yourself. True, it’s not easy and there’s no guarantee of success — but this business has never been easy and there’s never been any guarantee of success. (Want guaranteed income? Become a car mechanic.) Today you simply have more freedom to be yourself and let your talent do the talking — you just have to buy your own health insurance.
(Update: I just learned about The Freelancers Union, which provides health insurance to freelancers.)
So what about those damn tips?
Nearly 900 words ago, I advertised tips for breaking into the media biz, so here they are:
1. Become an expert in one area, good in two: I received this great advice from David Carter, a business professor at USC who made his expertise sports, and now has a thriving consultancy as well as the teaching gig. He’s also frequently interviewed by journalists. I made my expertise marketing, which led to a teaching gig and my own agency and the occasional interview. Your expertise can be a subject matter or a skill, but learn everything you can about it — and stay on top of trends and theories. Never stop reading or learning!
2. Develop unique talents: A lot of low-level media jobs are going overseas, particularly in design and programming. So don’t just be a designer — become an artist with a distinct sense of style. Don’t just be a programmer — become a engineer with a vision. I personally endorse creative writing skills, because replacing an American writer with a foreigner. And unless you enjoy staying late at the office coding, don’t bother learning HTML. Focus on the creative skills that will differentiate you in a crowded global job market.
3. Learn sales: That’s one mandatory skill they didn’t teach me in business school. Even if you’re not selling something for money, you still need to sell your ideas to a client, to your boss, even to your teammates. Businesses always need sales (“business development”) professionals, regardless of the economy. For recent grads and industry newbies, sales gigs are easier to land than creative positions. Plus, if you become a company’s “rainmaker,” they would never lay you off.
4. Network before you need anything: Most of my business comes from referrals by various connections, friends, and former co-workers. I can only imagine how much business I’d have now had I focused on making connections in college. As a photographer on my college newspaper, I never bothered to meet the chief editor, and he now happens to be the President & CEO of NBC Universal. (Hey, Jeff Zucker, I don’t suppose you remember me, the geek in the photo department…) So if you’re in college now, get to know your classmates and your professors, hook up on LinkedIn, and stay connected.
5. Exploit Web 2.0: When I got out of college, there was no such thing as the Web. To gain exposure, I had to physically mail dozens of resumes. Now, aspiring media moguls have too many options to promote themselves:
• LinkedIn for basic networking — no need to pay for it; the free service provides most of what you need.
• Creative Hotlist for your design or writing portfolio.
• YouTube for your video sizzle reel.
• Finally, BLOG. Write every week about the subject of your expertise — not a personal diary. If you can’t write, bribe a writer friend. (Most young writers are broke and will work for pizza.) Keep producing articles that attract search engines, reporters, and corporate execs who troll the web for people talking about their companies.
6. Get household names on your resume. The business world loves name dropping, so aim to work with Fortune 500 execs, celebrities, or, yes, established corporations. Obviously, you can intern with them. Or you can find a small company that does work for big names. Even small magazines offer opportunities to reach out to big names for interviews or promotions.
7. Collect stories. Don’t just talk about your skills or responsibilities at various jobs. You need to accumulate stories that describe what you did and learned . These stories will regale people in your cover letters, interviews, or business pitches. While most should focus on your successes, you can also describe what you learned from failures. I often tell clients what NOT to do based on my dotcom misadventures.
8. Score press. Want to work in media? Show that you know how to work the media. Don’t do anything drastic that could get you arrested. Do enter contests in your creative practice, get to know journalists at local and trade publications, and contact bloggers in your field. A little spotlight can go a long way. I once helped a video go viral by discussing it on a college bulletin board; that eventually led to the director appearing on Letterman’s show.
9. Work for a startup. Sure, startups don’t offer brand value for your resume, and some appear to have the lifespan of a gnat, but startups do offer more responsibility than an internship. You’ll still get stuck with coffee duty, but you’ll share it with the CEO. In addition, startups are often launched by serial entrepreneurs who know other serial entrepreneurs, so if your company flops, you could find yourself at another in no time. The key: get that vital experience in a startup, build a killer portfolio or reel, then hop to a company with a bigger name. Several of my colleagues have recently landed jobs with Hollywood studios after brief flirtations with Web 2.0 startups.
10. Go beyond the call of duty. My buddy XDL, whose career as an independent director is taking off, once mentioned to me that L.A. is filled with talent… that spends most of its time partying. Media success stories don’t always feature the most talented people, but the people who do the most with their talent. They collaborate with other ambitious people to make short films. They connect with others at business events. They befriend bloggers and journalists. And once they get the gig, they put in extra time to prepare for the job, prove easy to work with, and even give their employers more than what’s expected. Hence the quote that begins this article: it’s truly the energetic who displace the passive.
Wrapping it Up
So that’s my perspective based on my career experience. For more advice, read Career Warfare by David D’Alessandro. He’s not a media guy, but he knows branding and workplace success. More importantly, he’s not some academic speculating on what it takes to succeed based on multivariate analysis; he actually did it. I can only imagine the time and effort I would have saved in my career had I read this book when I was younger.
Finally, I close with my obligatory Steve Jobs quote. My regular readers know that I’m a Jobs worshiper. That’s because he didn’t accept the way things are done — he set out to change them. He personified the saying, if you want to rule the waves, you gotta waive the rules:
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Like that? Click this: Comic Relief: Dan Pink Takes On The Crappy-Job Blues