I’ve always had a little something on the side.
And before you start clutching your pearls—I mean I’ve never had just one job.
Even in high school, working part time for the local news weekly, the Iroquois Post, I wrote reviews and roundup pieces for a radical librarian’s magazine in Toronto (It was the 70s). I would on occasion, on the way to my first post-university job in publishing, stop in at Fran’s to eat waffles doused in raspberry syrup with a friend who was an editor with a women’s magazine in Winnipeg—and walk away with paying assignments.
When I worked in advertising and was morally bound not to work for competitors, I did magazine pieces. And while working client side, I’d pick up freelance copywriting gigs from former colleagues who liked my style and knew my reputation for getting things done well and on time.
When I’m at my day job, it gets my full attention. But the rest of my hours belong to me—as is how I choose to use them.
Side gigs are now seen as a collection of part-time jobs that millennials have to string together to survive. I’ve viewed mine as a continuum, modular components that formed the building blocks of a more varied and interesting (and yes, more lucrative) career. My work “on the side” is also my “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” insurance against the whims of the job market and it’s been a good way to stay connected to the broader communications industry while I’ve spent years enjoying a regular paycheque writing for a very niche sector.
I’m not the only one. Variety makes one stretch, ultimately making talent shine brighter. Kurt Vonnegut did PR for General Electric and wrote for Sports Illustrated. Toni Morrison spent her daylight hours as a textbook editor. And my personal hero, Jane Trahey, ran her own successful Madison Avenue ad agency while designing greeting cards for a major retailer, writing a bushel of books and getting her plays produced on Broadway.
Clearly I’m in good company. And I feel lucky to have a naturally mobile ability. Isn’t that a prime component of the “new” economy? Job security in the form of transferable skills?
I guess I was just ahead of my time.
According to my mother, when I was quite young, I would cut photos of detergent or face powder or toys out of magazines and catalogues, paste them to a piece of paper, write a story about why they were good things to have and make a presentation to the dolls and stuffed toys I had assembled around my kiddy table. When I watched “Bewitched,” it wasn’t Samantha and her magic family that interested me, it was Darren’s work at McMann and Tate that held my attention.
These were obviously signs of things to come.
Despite what the writers of Mad Men would have you believe, little girls who wanted to be advertising creatives (and when I look around at agency biz events, I’m thinking there were more of us than one would have expected) had our role models. There was Shirley Polykoff, creator of the famous “Does she…or doesn’t she?” campaign. There was Mary Lawrence Wells, who took the idea of branded content to new levels when her agency not only did a campaign for Braniff Airlines, but also decided on the décor of the planes and the outfits for the flight attendants. And there was my personal fav, Jane Trahey, who set a new standard for fashion content in the years when she was a force in Neiman-Marcus’ advertising and later opened her own New York shop where she won clients like Elizabeth Arden and created the famous Blackglama Furs campaign. In addition, she wrote plays and a handful of books, one being On Women & Power, that was pretty much an early roadmap on how women could get and keep high-powered jobs. I’ve given a half dozen copies away to women I thought could use the moral support—and I continue to seek out copies in used bookstores.
These days I’m reading people like George Lois, Lee Clow and others—plus the content “specialists” like Joe Pulizzi or David Meerman Scott (whom I liked even more when I found his book World Wide Rave free on Kobo. How generous.)
Perhaps some of you didn’t start planning your career while preparing for first grade, but I’m thinking if they would have made a line of collectible cards featuring advertising executives (the kind that used to come with that stick of pink powdery gum with the consistency of Bristol board), I would have collected the whole set.
Hummm…there’s a product idea.
Everyone needs a hero. And whether you get ideas or the courage or the strength to stay focused from someone writing about the industry or elsewhere, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you make an effort to find the motivation that keeps you raising your personal bar and going after what you want.