How I Got My First Professional Writing Job

Image for postCartoon by John Emmerling

At age 22, my stars lined up.

I was a Michigan grad and my six months of active duty army service were behind me. As a result of some pre-graduation interviews I had standing offers from two big ad agencies. Chicago’s Leo Burnett wanted me to be a media trainee. New York City’s Benton & Bowles would start me in the traffic department.

But I wanted to be a copywriter. And to live in San Francisco. So I headed west with $300 in my pocket and a suitcase full of cock-eyed optimism.

Upon arrval in San Francisco, those stars broke ranks — no more lining up.

In 1961 the Golden City by the bay was caught up in a dull-gray recession. I knocked on the door of every agency in town— Sorry, not hiring. I was really hoping for a spot at the SF office of the international ad agency juggernaut, Young & Rubicam. Sorry, not hiring. By then three weeks had gone by. Nothing but turndowns. Short of cash, and with rent coming due, I widened my search to include sales trainee positions. Del Monte was hiring — they offered “$400 a month plus a car.”

As I was about to accept that job I got a call back from Y&R.

Lesson #1: Get foot in the door

“John, we just got an opening in the mail room— it pays $60 a week plus overtime. Are you interested?

“When can I start?” (Sounds like a cliché, but those were my exact words.)

Sure, this was not a job to join the creative department. But wouldn’t the mailroom give me an inside perch to see my dream position up close?

Answer: yes.

I jumped in with both feet. While delivering mail around the office, I got to know the shop’s two dozen creative pros. This gaggle of writers and art directors seemed to be being paid (and paid well) to make jokes, have fun, goof off, drink coffee, and create great ad campaigns.

Lesson #2: Find your mentor

How could I join them? Clearly, the answer was the ebullient creative director who sat in the big corner office. Hanley Norins was in his early fifties, a Boston native, and given to unconventional dress styles. He sported a Groucho-Marx mustache, wore colorful bow ties, and his everyday hat was a black Parisian beret. (Historical detail: all other agency creative directors during the 1960s-70s “Mad Men era” looked like Don Draper. Clean-shaven, white shirt, striped tie, and a proper gray fedora from Brooks Brothers.)

Most of all Hanley was a cheerleader for BIG ideas. If someone came up with even a just-pretty-good idea—Hanley would bellow in his South Boston accent: “That’s a great idear!” Then he’d ask for more idears.

I had never met anyone like him.

Lesson #3: Show your old stuff

During my first week on the job, I kept mum in Hanley’s towering presence. The second week I asked if he’d look at my ersatz portfolio of past creative work? It was a jumble of stuff from college. Some snarky Hallmark greeting cards (explained I’d done some freelance gag writing). And a dozen of my cartoons that had been published in Gargoyle, the campus humor magazine. But not a single advertising idea. That glaring omission didn’t bother Hanley. He roared out with whoops of approval and called in a few of the writers and art directors to have a look. And—wow!—they liked my stuff, too. Their comments were warm, friendly, and supportive. I began to feel (almost) like one of them.

Lesson #4: Be alert for creative opportunities

During my second month, Hanley invited the entire office to a Sunday afternoon party. The hoopla would take place at his large home in Tiburon. Everyone came — about a hundred staff members, dates, and spouses. The weather was perfect, warm and sunny with a cobalt blue sky. As we crowded together on the spacious wooden deck surrounding the swimming pool, Hanley welcomed everyone. He kicked off the party by announcing a fun creative contest. There were dozens of round paper plates thumbtacked to the pool’s wood-slat fence. Each plate had a little number written at bottom.

“I’m passing out black marking pens,” Hanley said, “so go over to the fence and pick a plate. Draw or write anything—let your imagination go wild. Be funny. Do a doodle. Draw a crazy cartoon. But DON’T sign your name—just remember your plate’s number. Later this afternoon our judges will walk around and vote on all the entries. Then I’ll announce the top three winners — and give out some great prizes.”

True fact: Every big ad agency is a beehive of internal competition. All the writers and art directors had to be thinking: Hmm. Better come up with a good idea—this contest is Hanley’s baby!

I surveyed the walls of blank plates. They sure looked tempting. My date and I got drinks from the bar. Then my creative gremlin whispered an idea:

Draw the cow jumping over the moon. And—floating nearby in space—draw a stunned astronaut with his eyes bugging out.

I went to the fence and scribbled that cartoon on plate #21.

Image for postPaper plate by author

My date thought it was pretty funny so that seemed good enough. We returned to the party and grabbed another margarita. But an hour later there were still some blank plates on the fence—and I had another idea.

I said to my date, “I might draw another one.”

Her face wrinkled a bit: “Didn’t Hanley say one entry each?”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t think he actually prohibited two entries.”

So I sidled over to blank plate #83. A quick scribble converted the plate into the porthole of a cruise ship. Outside I drew the rippling sea and a fishhook dangling from a cabin on the deck above. The hook was baited with a note: PARTY UPSTAIRS.

Image for post2nd paper plate by author

Two hours later Hanley called for attention.

“Thanks to everyone who entered our contest,” he said. “We had eighty-five entries—and there are some wonderful plates on our fence! But we had to pick our top three so our judges voted and . . . (PAUSE FOR DRAMATIC EFFECT) . . . the winner of third-place is plate number twenty-one! The one with the surprised astronaut watching a cow jump over the moon.

“Who drew plate number twenty-one?”

I felt a little embarrassed. I had actually won a prize among this intimidating group of advertising pros. After a moment’s hesitation I put up my hand.

“Uhm, right here, Hanley . . . ”

He broke into a big grin: “How about that everybody, our new mail boy John Emmerling wins third place!”

My prize was a pair of tickets to a hot San Francisco show.

After he’d presented my tickets, Hanley moved on to announce the second-place winner. “Okay—who drew plate number fourteen?” The crowd cheered when a popular art director revealed himself and ran up to claim his prize.

Then Hanley called for a drumroll.

“And now for FIRST place—the mystery winner will go home with this antique schoolhouse globe.” He held up a charming little globe supported by three pewter legs. It had probably spent its early years on a schoolteacher’s desk, right next to a polished apple.

“So who’s going to win this little beauty?” Hanley teased the crowd.

“Okay, here we go,” he said, unfolding a slip of paper. “The judges picked plate number eighty-three for first place. Who drew the porthole with its fishhook and the ‘party upstairs’ note? Who’s our lucky shipboard artist?”

No one said anything.

Not a peep.

“Don’t be shy!” Hanley bellowed. “Who drew number eighty-three?”

People were now looking around, scanning the crowd for who was going to claim the antique globe?

And I was churning inside—dare I admit to stacking the deck in my own favor?

My gremlin whispered: I really like that globe.

“Uhm, Hanley,” I said awkwardly, “actually I did two plates. That one’s mine, too.”

Hanley broke out in a big mustache-bobbling laugh—and the crowd hooted with approval. The new kid had scored a double!

Hanley handed me the globe. And no hint of a reprimand (after all, wasn’t it creative to “bend” the rules a tad?)

Lesson #5: Follow up—press your advantage

The following Monday I stopped by Hanley’s office and asked if I could try a writing assignment in my spare time. He shuffled through some folders then said:

“Take this file — and write some funny radio spots for Kaiser.”

A big account for the agency was Kaiser aluminum foil. The TV campaign used the celebrated humorist Stan Freberg as voiceover. I wrote several radio spots in the comedian’s style and Hanley loved them. By the end of that month he promoted me out of the mailroom—I was now an official junior copywriter. This came with a $10 bump in salary—I’d be making $70 a week. (To put this in perspective, one of my roommates was a Michigan fraternity brother. He had a temporary gig as a waiter on Fisherman’s Wharf—and made $200 a week.)

But I had accomplished my goal — I was a full-time professional writer. My written words would now pay my share of the rent.

  1. Get your foot in the door (pay no attention to the bucks).
  2. Find your mentor (the gatekeeper who can make your goal happen).
  3. Show your old stuff (establish your chops; show samples of past creative gems).
  4. Be alert for creative opportunities (cook up fre

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