How I Found Advertising

January 26, 2016

By Lila Wallrich

Some kids are scared of the dark. Others, broccoli. For me, the most terrifying thing was a question:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The closer I got to high school graduation, the worse it got. It’s not that I didn’t have interests. I had lots. I thought it might be interesting to be a veterinarian. Or an architect. Or a doctor, trial lawyer or helicopter pilot. But it’s not like you can try them all and see which fits best, I obsessed. The satisfaction of choosing one path was eclipsed by the terror I would be ruling out an infinite number of potentially better choices.

Plus, I just didn’t know how to evaluate jobs aside from ones portrayed on TV. This was the 80s. I assumed there were tons of great careers outside of being a mustachioed private investigator in Hawaii or the cruise director on a Love Boat. I just didn’t know what they were, and the Internet was still many years away.

College approached. Paralyzed by indecision, I warily chose “structural engineering” as a major because it was kind of like architecture, which was not an offering of the school that accepted me. After a couple years of academic flailing and mediocre performance, I switched to the one major that seemed in line with my skills and interests—a funny little hybrid they called lit/writing.

But as soon as my diploma was framed, I was more interested in seeing the world than figuring out how I’d make a living in it. So I spent my early 20s teaching conversational English in South Korea and then Japan. No experience required other than a bachelor’s degree, native speaking ability, and a face. It was an exciting adventure, and I saw much of Asia while at it, but I knew coming home meant facing the same question I’d long deferred.

Back stateside, I landed somewhat randomly in the Bay Area, where I spent the rest of my 20s teaching software and professional tech classes. I collected Microsoft certifications like merit badges and earned a decent living, but felt I was still drifting without purpose.

That ended when I met a girl. We got engaged. She got into grad school. We moved to Michigan, where there were no software classes to be taught. None. (“What, does Michigan have no computers?” I wondered.) I had to do something fast.

A college buddy of mine said, “You were always a good writer. My friend is a client of a local ad agency. Maybe you should check them out.” So I applied, but without a portfolio or relevant experience, they did their best not to laugh. I had just one gambit to play.

“I’ll work for free.”

And I did. I was a 30-year-old intern, and I loved it. Mostly I contributed headlines to the pool of options generated by two other experienced copywriters. And when a client picked my headline over theirs, seeing it in layout was pure adrenaline. Eventually, the agency began paying me a pittance, which was nice. After a while, they even paid me decently.

Finally, my occupational Odysseus had found his Ithaca. This is how I found my career in advertising.

When grad school was over, my wife and I moved back to California and dropped anchor in Sacramento where we’ve been—for better or worse, for richer or poorer—ever since. Today, I feel lucky to have a second family here at Wallrich. They’re smart, creative, resilient and weird. My kind of people.

And I can assure them, there will be no second career. One lifetime of searching was plenty.

How I Found Advertising

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