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The Lessons I learned going from Wendy the Waitress to Wendy the Copywriter

Posted on August 20, 2014

I’ve wanted to be an actress on Broadway since I was four years old. So after spending two years in London at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and another four getting a BA in English at Temple University (my parents supported my theatrical ambitions but insisted that I also get a college degree), I moved to New York to break into “Show Business.”

Like many would-be actresses before me, I found that the best job to have while pursing acting gigs was waiting table. It left my days free for auditions and acting classes, the money was pretty good plus you could eat all the hamburgers and salad you wanted for free.

I worked at a restaurant located in the heart of Broadway and frequented by actors, producers and agents as well as theater goers. One night an older guy in a suit sat at my table. Ever mindful of tips, I was my usual charming self when he asked if I was an actress, I wisecracked, “Are you kidding? Every waitress, busboy, and cabdriver in this city is an actor!” He then gave me his card and told me to call him.He was the head of commercial casting at William Morris – the world’s largest talent agency.

How to Blow Your Big Break

The next day I went to see him and he told me that he thought I was perfect for Proctor & Gamble commercials. He wanted to present me to them as soon as possible but was flying to LA the next day. I was supposed to call him in a week. I called three months later.

This time he told me he was serious about representing me but, explained, “You have to come in to see me every day. That’s the system. You stop in, check in with me. If I have anything you’d be right for, I’ll send you out for it. You do that every day until you land a role.” I never went back.

I realized that I had just blown my big break. I also realized that I didn’t want to do commercials and I probably didn’t want to be an actress. I loved acting but I HATED show business. Too unstable. Too crazy. I wanted other things like a husband, family, and steady paycheck.(Although not necessarily in that order.) Since I was working nights and all my friends and potential suitors were working days, I decided to get an office job and found a position as a receptionist in an ad agency.

Think Peggy in “Madmen”

I knew nothing about advertising except that I didn’t want to act in commercials.But all I had to do at the reception desk was answer phones, hang up the coats of visiting clients, and read magazines. That was fun for about half a day. Then I got bored. So I roamed around the floor asking the secretaries if I could help them with their typing. I only typed 13 words a minute but I figured it was better than re-reading Life Magazine for the 14th time.

About six months later the creative department secretary left for lunch just when one of the writers needed a piece of copy typed. He was working on another piece against a deadline so he didn’t have time to retype it himself or wait for her. Knowing that I had helped out before, he asked me if I would give him a hand. I readily agreed and promptly started asking him questions about the format so I would get it right. He not only patiently answered my questions, he seemed pleased when I understood his answers. That’s when I first learned what a headline, subheads and body copy were for.

How to Drive HR Crazy

A week later the creative secretary went out to lunch again, this time to celebrate her promotion to junior copywriter. The writer I had helped the week before suggested that the Creative Director ask me to be her replacement. The HR people went ballistic. I still typed only 13 words a minute and the job was working for six writers including the Creative Director and two vice presidents. The internal recruiters had a list of secretaries with college degrees in advertising who typed 80 wpm and who had been waiting to transfer into the creative department for years. “Never mind,” said the writer to HR, “she asked questions and she understood the answers. She’ll learn to type faster. Give her the job.”

Decisions, Decisions

Two weeks after I became the creative department secretary I realized that I could do the writer’s job.Or maybe the art director’s job since I loved drawing and  painting almost as much as acting. Having no idea how to transition from being a secretary to one of the creative staff, I decided to go to the top for advice. Although I was officially working for the writer, a vice president, I decided to go directly to his boss, the Senior VP, Creative Director. (If you watch “MadMen” this was the equivalent of Don Draper). I figured “Don” controlled the budget and was the ultimate decision maker anyway. Of course, I told my immediate boss, the writer, of my intention and got his blessing before I tried this move.

I knocked on “Don’s” door, ducked my head in, and asked if I could take him to lunch the next day. He was so shocked by the question he said yes. During lunch I showed him my paintings and essays. After seeing my art work he suggested I try to sell my paintings and offered to introduce me to his wife and father, both nationally-known artists and well-connected to the NYC art scene. I said, "thanks, but no." I figured being a freelance painter wouldn’t be any more secure than being a freelance actor. When I expressed this belief, he said, “In that case, become a copywriter. You don’t need as much technical education as an art director and you’ll make more money.” Sounded good to me! Then he offered to pay for my copywriting classes at the best school in town. He also picked up the lunch check.

Nine months later I was promoted to junior copywriter. I had been taking classes and ghostwriting ads for some of the other writers for months. So by the time my promotion came through I already had about 20 ads running in Playboy, Cosmopolitan and the New York Times. (Mind you, I was never paid for this work since it was done on my own time, but I had the start of a great portfolio.)

Job Search in a New Town

Eventually though, I was part of a downsizing at the agency (my first, but by no means my last such experience). At that point I had met and was engaged to my soon-to-be-husband and we decided to move back to my hometown, Philadelphia. Preparing for the move, I wrote to the creative directors of ten agencies in Philly, telling them I would be town in a week and asking for a chance to show them my portfolio. All ten agreed to see me although only one agency had an opening. That agency hired me the day after I interviewed. A few months later I got a job offer from another agency and a third one called me about a year after that. They still remembered me from my interview.

Twelve lessons I learned from these experiences are summarized below.

I've shared these with young writers at different time and thought that they might help you too:

1. Know what you want to do and what you don’t want to do. If you’re now doing something you don’t want to do – stop doing it.

2. Realize that every job comes with a certain lifestyle. If the lifestyle is a bad fit for you than the job probably is too.

3. Life is too short to waste it being bored. Don’t be afraid to try something new. You might like it.

4. Look for ways to contribute even if they are not in your official job description. It’s the surest way to EXCEED expectations not just meet them.

5. Ask questions. Read. Watch the action around you. Enroll in classes. Take advantage of every educational opportunity you can. Knowledge is power and always will be.

6. If people like you they’ll be willing to make allowances for what you don’t know as long as you show you’re willing to learn.

7. Cut to the chase. Go to the decision maker if you want to know what it takes to get ahead.

8. Remember the people who helped you and try to repay the favor as soon - and as often - as you can.

9. Don’t be afraid to give more than you get. Altruism is inevitably a gift to yourself because helping others gives you a sense of power - even when you seem to have none.

10. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. The worst thing that can happen is someone says no. And the chances are at least fifty-fifty that they’ll say yes.

11. Be proactive about your job search. Don’t wait until the company you want to work for advertises an opening. Introduce yourself to them before they need you and you could end up being first in line when a job opens up.

12. Ask people for help. It boosts their egos and makes them feel good. Just make sure the favor you’re asking for is easy for them to deliver on. (I just asked “Don” for information. The paid-for class and free lunch were his idea.)

 Good luck in all your endeavors. Hope this helps you along the way.



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