Steve Taylor’s Great Agency Adventure

Notes on the Advertising Pilgrimage of a Lifetime

IMG_20140306_161943-1Everyone gets that itch once in a while to drop everything and completely change your life: new job, new city, new friends. For most of us, it’s a passing emotion brought on by stress or impulse and quickly laughed-off or ignored. For copywriter and creative Steve Taylor, it’s a way of life.

His ongoing fourteen-month mission The Great Agency Adventure has him packing his bags and heading to a different advertising agency every month, where he swoops in, delivers fresh perspectives and bold work, learns as much as he can, and takes it all with him on the road. Agencies appreciate the model for its injection of new blood into their teams and Steve is having a blast exploring cities across the country. Three months into the escapade, he’s worked on some exciting campaigns, gotten a tattoo, and gained invaluable industry experience he hopes to impart on graduating ad students and new professionals in need of guidance. Oh, and he’s doing it all on an intern’s salary.

ADC: What was the initial spark that made you want to give up the security of a good job in New York and venture out into the unknown?

Steve: I actually lived here for four years and I was working at an ad agency called TMP Worldwide. They’re down at the South Street Seaport. I worked there until April of last year. I chose to go home to Ohio because my mom was sick, so I went back to help with that and after a couple of month’s things evened out. She still wasn’t working but she was feeling well enough that she could do things. Then I thought, ‘what do I do next? Do I go back to New York or do I stay here?’ I didn’t know how I would figure it out because there’re so many places I haven’t been before!

ADC: So it was a personal choice about where you could live and enjoy yourself, not just which cities have the best agencies?

Steve: Yes. I thought, I could go to New York or I could stay here but there’re so many other options. I wouldn’t even know if I’d like them! New York was a big step for me when I came here because I’d never been out of Ohio. That was crazy: I’d never been west of Chicago, and the furthest south I’ve been is Louisville, so much of the country was left unexplored.

I was talking to these guys that I knew at an agency called Recess Creative in Cleveland about it, and someone just said “Maybe you should just go check them out for yourself.” I didn’t think of anything of it at the time, but it dwelled in my head and started spitballing, and I said to myself, ‘Maybe I could do that.’ I went out on a limb and I told them about the idea for the Great Agency Adventure and they were totally onboard, so I put them up on the website. That really helped because it showed that I had secured an agency, so when I was emailing other places they didn’t think this is a scam or something!

I started out by emailing agencies whose work I was a really big fan of. I got a couple of them on the project that way that I’m really excited about, like Boone Oakley in Charlotte and Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners in Philadelphia. Those two in particular, I had hammered with emails when I got out of college, saying I want to work for you. I was really happy to get them on board and then started to branch out to cities where I didn’t have as many contacts. I was just looking for agencies whose work I really loved. So far it’s gone pretty well.

ADC: What do you think the real incentive is for agencies to participate in something like this? Besides the cheap labor.

Steve: Well, as I was talking to people, I thought that was going to be an issue. I was worried about convincing them to do it. Which is why I’m getting paid, but I’m getting paid a little. Just enough to cover the basics, like bills I can’t escape from — my student loans and things like that. I thought that would be the incentive, but it turns out that as I was talking to people, and as I got more agencies on board, a lot of them said “Wow, this is a really cool idea and we want to be a part of it,” regardless of the money. Some people even said, “I wish I had done something like that before I got married and had kids, so I want to support you in this endeavor.” It was really cool that it kept coming about like that.  All these agencies in different cities that probably don’t know each other — they all had the same response in a way.

ADC: Is this as much about soul searching as it is about the professional side of things?

Steve: I love to travel and I’m going to turn 30 this year. At some point I just thought, ‘Man, my twenties flew by!’ There’s three quarters of the country I’ve never explored. Personally, it’s fulfilling because I’m going to go and see these places, but I was also thinking that I can’t be the only one who has ambitions to travel and go see other cities. I’m hoping it helps people that are still in school; I know in college they always pound it in our heads that New York is the Mecca of advertising: New York, New York, New York. That’s fine, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be happy here. I’m hoping maybe if someone is pursing a degree in advertising, they’ll read my blog on Memphis and think, ‘Wow Memphis sounds like where I’d be really happy.’ Then when they look for internships they can focus on Memphis and maybe they’ll find a job there and they’ll absolutely love it rather than go the cities people always think of. There are so many creative places out there that no one talks about.

ADC: How would you respond to the potential criticism that a month isn’t enough time to develop any real skills at an agency or that this project reveals a lack of commitment?

Steve:  I actually had someone tell me that! My retort to them was that it takes a lot of commitment to stick to a fourteen-month project, travelling a month at a time.  I don’t have a problem with commitment. I was at TMP for almost three years and I would have stayed there if it wasn’t for my family emergency. I loved it there. I loved the people there and I probably would have been there a long, long time. But when I was reflecting on it, I knew if I was ever going to do something like this it’s got to be now because I’ve always said that I’m probably going to get married in my thirties. And once that happens, I don’t think my wife’s going to let me go travel for a year.

I found that people in agencies love whiskey and there are a lot of Nerf guns around.

ADC: What have been the biggest similarities or the biggest differences between your two agency experiences so far?

Steve: I actually found a lot more similarities between the two than I would have thought.  On the surface, and this might go for every agency, I found that people in agencies love whiskey and there are a lot of Nerf guns around. Those are the two things on the surface. They were also similar in their way of thinking and the way they balance work and fun. At the end of the day, while they take their work seriously, they don’t take themselves too seriously. I found a lot of commonalities in that regard. The people in both places were just super nice to me. I was just a stranger coming in, but they let me in and worked with me without treating me like an outsider. I hope I find that in the rest of places I go.

ADC: What kinds of things have you worked on so far?

Steve: When I was in Boston it worked out well because they had a project come in at the beginning of January that was due at the end of January, so it was perfect timing. I worked mainly on that project for the whole month and I was there from the beginning to the end of the project.

In Cleveland I’d actually been working there part-time before the project started and then I went to fulltime for the month.  They were the ones that I knew who helped spark this idea. More so than I would have thought, they wanted more brainstorming ideas from me. I am a writer but I love brainstorming. My favorite thing to do is just sit down and think of ideas. It was really cool that they put me to the test in that way. I had writing work throughout the day, but there would be a couple of days where they said “We just want you to sit down for the day and hash out ideas.” I think that works to their benefit, too, because when they had a full team on a client and they’d been working on that client day in and day out, I was like an outsider’s perspective. So I could maybe come up with ideas they wouldn’t see because they’d been knee-deep in it for so long.

ADC:  Are you attracted enough to having that outsider’s perspective that you think you’d consider becoming a consultant after this? Or conversely, do you think about what would happen if you love a place so much you wanted to stay on full-time?

Steve: First and foremost I’m committed to finishing this.  Even if I went to St Louis and I absolutely loved the place there, I’d hope that maybe if it works out at the end of the project they’d still want me there. But I’m in it for the long haul.

I am happy that I’m making contacts and meeting new people and expanding my network but that’s not my main goal at the moment. I don’t know if that’s going to be a downfall when it’s over but I’m trying to play it by ear and make everything feel natural. I don’t want to go in to an agency and have them feel like this guy is just looking for a job somewhere.

ADCWe see the grilled cheese tattoo you got to commemorate your month in Cleveland. We heard you’re getting a tattoo for each city?

Steve: I was.

ADC: Not enough space?

Steve: Well, I got my first one in Cleveland and what I didn’t think about was how expensive tattoos are! Which is weird because I’d gotten so many of them.

ADC: You are on a budget.

Steve: Yes, so I’m just stuck with my Cleveland one right now, and I think I’ll probably get one or two along the way but I should have thought that out more!

ADC: What would you say to any young creatives out there who might not be able to start their own Great Agency Adventure, but are looking for the same kind of re-energizing of their career, mindset, or creative potential?

Steve: Look in the cities that aren’t necessarily top of mind. Like I said, there’s New York and LA, and those are two of the big cities on everyone’s mind, but there are secondary cities like Charlotte and Memphis and Minneapolis that have great agencies, and I don’t think people think about them enough. It’s always good to explore other places that you wouldn’t normally think of.

I’d also say that if you have an idea, don’t sit and dwell on it: actually pursue it. In my wildest dreams I never though this project was going to go anywhere or that people would want to be involved. It blew my mind. How many ideas have I had over the years that I discarded because I assumed they wouldn’t work, and I moved on to the next thing — and that idea could’ve worked and I never would have known! I think the biggest piece of advice I would give is if you have an idea, follow through on it, because you never know.