The End of an Era
I left my corporate career slowly, then suddenly, then very gradually.
The slowly – a golden age
For the first fifteen years, the end seemed pretty remote.
Whilst there were hard days, they were put in the shadow by a lot of golden times. My story may have lasted fifteen long years, but really that was six distinct, lively chapters, with compelling recurring characters, exciting scene changes and one or two massive rug pulls. There was a lot of joy.
From the wild west of Vizeum, to the steepling growth and innovation of the USA and Jumptank, to the fierce camaraderie of Carat, even to some moments in the final act, every new stage felt like an adventure.
The medium of that adventure was the choppy ocean of a complex, chaotic organisation: a weird cocktail of autonomy and constraint, of fraternity and politics, of sense and nonsense.
For a young guy with a curious mind, ambition, and a fair amount of sometimes misplaced confidence, it gave me all the fuel I wanted for the energy I needed.
And for the introspective people-watcher in me, it gave me infinitely fascinating material, and not a few moments of laughter.
The slowly – the tide turns
Eventually, that energy started to mutate, as the context changed, and I changed at the same time.
Lots of this was a simple corporate story – a change of ownership, a change in the market, a change of strategy, a change of priorities. But how I experienced that was a loss of clarity, a loss of momentum, a loss of trust, a loss of faith. A creeping realisation that the cocktail had gone bad.
The fortitude of fifteen years and a cadre of great colleagues maintained the momentum through various waves of anarchic leadership and brutal decision making. But each little moment of making a pitch promise that probably couldn’t be kept, of standing behind a decision that couldn’t be justified, of seeing a great team missing out on a golden opportunity, took a little piece of me away.
The sane thing, of course, would have been to walk away and get a different job. There were a variety of fascinating opportunities that I followed half-heartedly, whilst sighing deeply…and doubling down again. But repeatedly, I made the same decision – whether from loyalty or a need for security – to stay and ‘fix it’.
The suddenly – crisis
The situation came to a productive crisis, as it does for many, around my fortieth birthday.
Whilst I was still going at top speed, throwing myself at full force at massive global pitches, restructures and the like, emotionally I was done with the status quo.
The only thing that wasn’t clear was the next destination. This can be a problem for many when you get used to working within a system – it’s relatively easy to see the routes up or across (I’ve rarely seen anyone pull off ‘down’, though honestly for some it would be the best option). And it’s also particularly a problem if you’ve hurtled through the early stages of your career at an accelerated pace, without much thought of a destination.
I was profoundly conflicted – one last Dentsu Aegis adventure, a great leap sideways to another agency, or most likely to a client, or the open road?
With a disappointing lack of strategic clarity, I found myself pursuing all of these options with varying levels of commitment…to the level you can get to without really having decided to commit.
But then came the moment, when the door opened. The natural time to part ways…emerged. It’s safe to say it provided remarkable clarity. Now that I actually had to make a decision, it was obvious what I wanted to do.
I wanted to be myself.
The suddenly – self-recognition
The readers of this are likely to be my friends, partners, clients and ex-colleagues, so I’ll spare you the angst of also becoming my therapists. But really in the moment, two suppressed drivers came to the fore and took the reins.
- My upbringing. My CV is straight from the text book of how to get ahead in advertising in the early 21stcentury – London public school, University of Cambridge, fifteen years of increasingly serious-looking jobs. But my roots look very little like that. I am only the second person in my family to go to university, and formal education or employment were a very small part of my family origins. I grew up with self-driven parents, and a family household run on sole trader enterprises. The value of entrepreneurialism and autonomy is deep in my bones, and in my earliest assumptions about the world.
- My talent. Everyone has to look after what they have. What is that for me? I’m pretty good with numbers, good with people most of the time, creative on a good day, quite good at multi-tasking, adaptable, generally determined. But none of those is really a specific skill. My skill has always been clarity of thinking – being able to find it myself, and being able to help other people to find clarity too. Now the thing about clarity is that a whole bunch of things can take it away from you – pressure, boredom, politics, illness. And I felt I was losing mine – and that I could only find it again by clearing the decks.
It was time to get out of the frying pan, but stay well out of the fire too.
From here, the ‘suddenly’ of leaving fell quickly into place.
Like political careers, it’s almost impossible for employment to end well. It’s tempting to mythologise it, but the relationship between a human being and an imagined commercial institution is always like to lack mutuality. In any case the organisation was like Theseus’ Ship, or if you prefer more everyday cultural references, Trigger’s Broom – it simply wasn’t the same organisation (and for that matter I didn’t feel like the same person.)
But for all that, I wanted it to end neatly, without animus on either side over the process. Apart from a few people who had to know, I was discreet to the point of theatricality. Things appeared to continue as normal, though I listened to an unusual amount of nostalgic Bruce Springsteen songs on the journey to and from work.
Then, seventeen years of adventures managed to neatly resolve into 48 hours between announcing that I was leaving and handing in my badge and my gun. A very good buddy was leaving at pretty much the same so we pulled off a leaving party that rolled back the years.
Neat, sudden, done.
The biggest part of what happened next was about starting up, about building something new, and I’m going to write about that next. But the truth is that psychologically, starting up was easy. It was fun.
It’s the letting go that was harder than it seemed.
Seventeen years is an extraordinarily long period of time. It was at that time longer than the relationship with my wife (no longer thankfully!) It was more than 40% of my life (now less.)
And if you put a large amount of your time and emotion and cognitive energy into your job, and I certainly did, it occupies a fair amount of both your conscious and unconscious mind.
So, the mental habits took a long time to fade. I submerged them, first in a strong gardening-leave dose of swimming, walking, writing and childcare, then in the whirl of startup energy. I challenged them, by taking on projects and disciplines that forced me to work in a different way, on different things, to a different rhythm.
But it’s only really in the last year that my default settings have started to switch. Increasingly, it doesn’t feel like a different time, but like a different life. I’m happy to report that I’m happier, fitter and more productive than ever.
Though even then, I find myself regularly in a dream state where I am running a pitch, or an agency, or a strategy team. Well, old habits die hard. And never say never.
The leaving – a postscript
This might read like a rehab exercise, and whilst it’s easy to bash the big, complex, conflicted company, I’m just finishing this up on a day where I’ve seen five ex-colleagues, all now in different walks of life (apart from one, who remains resolutely in the same seat where I left him.) They are now clients, collaborators, mentees and mentors.
A company – especially an advertising company – is a crossroads. It’s a place where you meet people, and where you learn. It’s a pretty trivial thing, in the broader context of the world. It can be a cold, hostile thing if you’re not in the right frame of mind.
Overall, I’m glad of the path I walked, and the time I walked it. When people ask me if they should work for one of these companies – or whether they should leave – the answer can only be ‘it depends’.
But one thing is for sure – you can’t really start getting somewhere new, until you leave.