It’s ads all the way down

Quick life update: I’m no longer at my staffing job (yay!), have moved to LA (yay?), and am now in advertising (yay!?).

Yes, the function is the same (recruiting), but golly I never noticed until now what a difference a company can make. I always had the impression that work was work, and there was no way to minimize the mundanity. Almost all the jobs I’d held after college — excluding teaching abroad — had an air of austerity with no levity to be had.

That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy them ever, but being “excited to work” seemed like a fairy tale platitude. Is this a love song for advertising? Possibly, but no love is without fault. Consider this my follow-up to thoughts on recruiting at a temp agency.

It has been a five-year foray into the advertising world, yet I am constantly impressed by its madness and unpredictability.

Because business deals have to take place in dimly-lit spaces to count.

I’d always imagined it as a shadowy sect of suits, silently scheming to “subvert expectations” and follow trends to milk all the disposable income out of an unsuspecting consumer.

The ubiquitous banner ads that plague social media are no help. Some heartfelt commercials can be seen here and there, but precedent was set that the emotions were only meant to elicit diamond tears to pay for the next insincere spot.

Sure, the personalized product placements are convenient, but it always freaked me out that they knew I needed a vacuum before I’d even materialized the thought.

With that in mind, we lead into an interview with my first agency. I approached with grim curiosity: I was ready to be pandered to, to be told that everyone was part of the “family,” and that my true potential would be unlocked. I wouldn’t fall for that. This was never in my career plan; it was pure luck I got referred by a friend of a friend.

Two hours later and I was frantically texting the group chat, “there are two plant walls, natural lighting, and dogs in the office, I NEED to be here.”

Imagine this, but with cute puppers. @slidebean

Huge office space, scooters to navigate it, and free meals nearly every day — consider how this felt to someone whose previous office provided $50 to buy Thanksgiving lunch for 10 employees. I was stunned when I arrived to my first holiday party, located on a private hotel rooftop.

The best part? People actually liked their jobs. Or at least, were bribed into complacency with free alcohol and swag.

This was a contrast to my experience with corporate America — a job only served to generate the one essential in life: money.

For many children of immigrants, creative pursuits are scoffed at or completely ignored. When my parents found I changed my major to studio arts, hell was raised and not a day went by without a modicum of ridicule. Successful artists were from rich families that could support them, and the only career descriptors from mine were “starving” and “failed.”

To be fair, my only knowledge of the arts were related to my (still very present) addiction to video games and comics. Imagine my surprise when I discovered there was an industry that blended business and creativity that could result in a financially stable life.

Money is still key in this field, of course. It’s the very basis of advertising: companies spending money to make others spend more money, then using that money to figure out how to make more money.

Thusly, the world goes round.

I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by those that are Brave (quick plug for my agency David&Goliath) and choose the challenge of being kind. There is no shortage of ads made purely for profit, but society has shifted: consumers detect bullsh*t with ease and the rarity of sincerity has cautioned the younger generation to steer clear of disingenuous brands.

If you’ve been, you know what I’m talking about.

Mayhaps I drank the Kool-Aid (or “ridden the SoulCycle™” might be a more timely expression), but I believe there are places that have been able to find the confluence of empathy and marketability. It’s easy to doubt the intention of advertisers, but now that I’ve been part of the process, I urge you to play naive for a moment and imagine how it feels to know some are well-wishing.

The issue is that skepticism is swinging away from “healthy” and rapidly towards “hopelessly severe.” While I can’t speak for all agencies, I can promise that there are people I have met, interviewed, and hired, trying their hardest to make something honest with what they’re given. It isn’t silly that you felt teary-eyed after that Nike ad.

Was it convincing you to buy something? You bet.
Did it amplify a message expressing unity and acceptance? Indeed.

That message didn’t only come from bigwigs trying to make their bottom line. A team came together to make something beautiful and inspirational, whilst helping a bigwig make their bottom line. That process was a weaving of corporate humdrum and capitalism, but also talent, collaboration, and a desire to share something meaningful.

Complex conversations arise when digging deeper into the ethics of certain brands and it is a tall request to ask one to ignore them; instead, I gently suggest one to consider the term praxis (practice, as distinguished from theory).

I have actively seen colleagues operating within the existing systems to effect change. There are still KPIs and ROIs to hit for those B2Bs and B2Cs, alongside all the other corporate jargon we’ve grown accustomed to. What amazes me is how these teams are able to conflate that profit margin with work that inspires.

Teams have convinced clients to give back to the communities that buy from them, to take an accountable stance on social issues, and to challenge themselves to sacrifice for the greater good.

My initial cynicism has been assuaged, and…honestly? It feels kind of nice to be optimistic in a world so dour.

Could be us but you playin’.

So what’s my end goal here? I guess, in a roundabout way, it selfishly ties back to me and mine. Though I hope this resonates with everyone, I especially hope that someone with a similar background (POC/immigrant family) can see this and point out to their parents, “Hey, this guy says there’s not only money, but also integrity in being a creative!”

The dream is to have more likeminded folks participate. There’s a long way to go, and we need those fresh perspectives.

Please make it easier for me to find awesome people in advertising. Ads have a national — even global — audience, and this is a platform to share stories we want to see; maybe those stories are yours.

Self-proclaimed self-proclaimer.

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Josh Huang

Josh Huang

Self-proclaimed self-proclaimer.

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