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Why You’ll Lose Friends When You Become an Art Director

Everyone who wins the lottery all give others the same advice; the first thing you should do is change your phone number because every relative and long lost friend will suddenly pop out of nowhere to ask you for money. The same can be said of attaining a position of power.

Once you become an art director or creative director, you will hear from every friend and acquaintance, wanting something from you—usually against your better judgement. If you decide to hire people based on friendship, rather than talent, you have soiled yourself as a professional, and sometimes worse!

It’s Tough At The Top

When I became the art director for a well-known, iconic publication, suddenly I was the most popular guy around. I received letters, emails, phone calls, was stopped in the street by people I had met once and even had someone try to show me their portfolio while I was at a funeral for a dear friend, with the hopeful creative opening his book and placing it on a nearby headstone. The power position certainly opened my eyes.

Sad Man
Image credit: Bigstockphoto

Desperation Drives Weird Behavior

One of the most frequent subjects that came up in my clique of freelance peers was the power struggle of getting work from art directors. There was an ivory tower in which art directors were sequestered, accessible only by dropping off a portfolio one night, and picking it up the next morning, hoping, at best, for a handwritten note of encouraging words. Usually it was a form letter saying your samples would be held for future reference, or nothing at all. Art directors never answered their phones so there was no way to follow up.

When one person in the group got into a publication or agency, the others in the group waited like a pack of rabid dogs expecting a scrap of meat to fall on the floor. It was uncouth to directly ask for an introduction to the art director, but the hunger for scraps of meat is survival driven in the freelance world. Usually, we all blamed the art directors for being unavailable for what we saw as every day professional business.

Jackal Fight
Image credit: Bigstockphoto

When I became the art director for that well-known, global magazine, I swore to myself I would be different. I would see people’s portfolios in person, answer my phone, and dedicate a wall in my office to posting samples of illustrators’ and designers’ samples so I could keep the magazine fresh, and grow the talent pool.

Not long into my new position, I was invited to a dinner of art directors from the Time Warner Publications Group. The invitation came on the same day as the dinner, and dressed for comfort, rather than an important dinner, I grabbed a cab to the posh restaurant where the event was being held.

I stood alone, eating shrimp from a giant bowl in the corner that held, well, every shrimp that the fleet had caught that day while other art directors, dressed in NYC hippery chatted and laughed with each other. One by one, they gravitated to the shrimp bowl and I introduced myself, and handed them a business card.

WOW!” each one said upon reading my card. “I heard you were coming tonight, and wanted to meet you!

I must have seemed quite humble to them as I smiled softly while wondering what was the big deal. I looked at their cards and they were all the big muckity-mucks I had been trying to see for years. Here they were falling over themselves to talk to me now. My first thought was, don’t you recognize my name as the person who dropped off portfolio after portfolio, and sent mailer after mailer for years? They didn’t, and I realized being ignored as a freelancer was nothing personal. It had nothing to do with my work, or me. I was just another freelancer out of too many invading their space.

After the dinner, and promises of getting together for lunch, and personal tours of my workplace, I called several members of my freelancing clique to tell them who I had met, and my amazement at the attention I had received. They were aghast at the names of the dinner guests. They also asked if I was going to still speak to my “old buddies” now that I was “at the top.”

Man in a Maze
Image credit: Bigstockphoto

There was that phrase again—“the top.” What did it mean? What was I facing from my friends who wanted to work for my new employer?

As days went by, I would be called out to the reception area to see a portfolio of someone who showed up and asked to “see the art director.” It quickly became an inconvenience and annoyance. As I lunched with the art directors I had met, they were amazed I would take the time to see people personally.

How many of these people were worth the time and aggravation?” one asked.

I can’t say I’ve met a viable talent… yet!” I answered, defending the practice in hopes of the next great talent being among the crowd.

A drop off policy will save you time,” he replied in a very as-a-matter-of-fact tone as if he was giving me advice on a better laundry detergent.

I was still in the zone of resenting art directors for ignoring my peer group. It didn’t take long to join the “dark side.

Remember Your Friends—Soon to be Your Enemies!

Aside from my clique of friends, most of who knew their work wasn’t right for the publication, I started hearing from other past peers who wanted to work for me. Some said “with” me and some said that they decided they would “let me” use their work.

Turning down some was hard but giving some a chance, which many blew, was harder. To this day, I haven’t spoken to many of them because they were either embarrassed they didn’t do a proper job, or are mad that I thought they didn’t do a proper job.

Good and Evil
Image credit: Bigstockphoto

The problem with power is that you have to make hard decisions some people won’t like. You also have to dash dreams and bear the burden of people hating you even if you’ve done nothing wrong. The maddening thing is that you are bombarded by people with personal agendas, and you are the key, in their minds. If you stop that agenda then you’ve made an enemy, and in the age of the internet, and the ease of “__________ is a dirty bastard” WordPress pages, Google returns may not show a loving picture of you to prospective clients, and employers when it’s time to move from your present position.

There are No Friends in Business!

Persistence without pestering is the key. Would you call a friend every day to ask a favor? When someone would tell me they would call me every week to check if I had work for them, I would reply not to do it. Most art directors will just consider you a pest and ignore your calls and emails if you stalk them. What I liked to see:

  • Space out contacts. No more than once a month for any contact. Don’t use the phone because you will just get voicemail, and it’s just annoying.
  • Use the old system of snail mail. Send a postcard promotion piece or greeting card. Something interesting will get kept or posted on a bulletin board. Once a month can get expensive, depending on your client wish list, but no less than twice a year or it will look like you’re not really interested.
  • Don’t turn down any work! A first time test assignment may not pay as much or seem important but you’re being tested. Pass it and you’re in, fail it and you’re out… for good. Turn it down and you will never have another chance.
  • When you get your break, listen and FOLLOW DIRECTIONS! I have seen too many people blow it on their first try because they didn’t follow directions. One reason it’s so hard to break into a new client is that they want to use the same providers who hit it each and every time.
  • When you have a question, ask the art director. Better to ask a question (and it’s always appreciated and expected with a new vendor) rather than guessing, and getting it wrong.
  • A deadline is a deadline! I’ve always been amazed at people who don’t understand it, and thought I was “too rigid” for demanding on time delivery. When you’re late, the art director has to work longer and harder to make up the lost time. That’s not an endearing mistake.
  • Your relationship with the art director doesn’t matter. You are, in every case, known by the last job you did. Blow one project because you get lazy or careless and even your twin brother/sister will have to fire you.

Be patient! You might be right for the company, but not the project. Eventually something will come up that fits your special talent, but pushing for anything, and right away is just a pain in the arse!

Hand Shake
Image credit: Bigstockphoto

I always appreciated those who would see me outside the office and converse politely, but not beg or be pushy. It showed me they were normal, easy-going, and not the maniacs who couldn’t stop bugging me about when I would have work for them. When an art director is not in the office, don’t make them work!

You’re Never Too Big to Fail

If you are in a position of power, keep your feet on the ground and don’t let your head get bigger than your ego. When I speak to groups of students, I always tell them, among other gems of wisdom, “be kind to those you meet on the way up because you’ll meet them on the way down!” That’s not an original quote. It was Jackie Gleason who said it, and he was known as “The Great One.

In our industry, people shift around, change jobs, get fired or laid off, and your network is one of the most important things in finding work, either staff positions or freelance. You’ll make enemies without even trying, so why make more by exerting selfish effort?

In my freelance days, on one stormy February day, while suffering from the flu, I received a call from a client who told me he needed me to come in to get my next assignment. I asked if he could just email me the information, and we could talk about it over the phone. “No!” he replied and I medicated myself, and set off to his office, which was a harrowing trip as most of the subway lines were closed due to flooding, which only happens once in a blue moon in New York… or when you have a 104 degree temperature, chills, and hallucinations. When I got there, he handed me a slip of paper with a few sentences of instructions written on it.

Why couldn’t you have emailed this to me?” I asked while my bodily functions were shutting down.

If I had to come in today, then everyone has to come in!” he responded.

Years later, while I was searching for an assistant art director, his résumé came across my desk. I heard he had been fired for sexually harassing a female coworker. My first thought was to set up an appointment with him on a stormy day and then not be in the office, but I’m too afraid of bad karma. I just threw away his résumé.

Image credit: Bigstockphoto


Don’t Blame the Art Director/Your Friend
The point is, for most people who are trying to break through, and gain clients, those who stand at the gate between you, and assignments, don’t have anything personal against you, and friendships won’t replace the talent and dedication you need to get your chance. In the end, your friend is responsible for hiring you and if you blow it, they they will take the heat from their superiors. All it takes is one incident of being yelled at by one’s superior to harden the kindest heart of friendship.

People don’t look at your name and decide you don’t deserve to work for them. Your portfolio can show a huge amount of talent, and still you don’t know why you can’t break through. It’s not something you should take personally. Keep up with a professional approach, and THAT is the key – a professional approach, and one day you may get your chance to prove yourself. If that day doesn’t come, shrug your shoulders and move on to the next possibility.

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