20 years in advertising. A look back. Part 1.

April 1992 was the month i first got hired as a copy writer by Ed McCabe, legendary American advertising man.

At the time I was 25 and felt like a bit of a loser. I felt old to be just starting out in a career. And i guess I’ve been racing time ever since.

I’d gotten into media while living in London 3 years earlier, selling airtime for ITV, the UK commercial TV network.

I’d figured out that I liked the overall advertising racket.

I loved the idea of making people do things. And figuring out what makes people tick.

But I was in no way conventionally “creative”, i.e. I had never written, drawn or strummed anything.

I had a degree in marketing from a university in Ireland and I had watched thousands of hours of live snooker.

So the discovery that I wanted to be creative felt like it was happening late in life. You know how it is when you’re 22. You think you’re old suddenly. Time to get on with it man!

But I didn’t want to succumb to societal pressure to just play along and get any old job.

My mother had died suddenly two years previously.

And that jolted me.

I realized that we have no idea how fast the clock is in fact ticking.

While I was in London I’d taken some classes with the D&AD.

Dave Trott was was the guy I (and everyone else) wanted to work for in London.

His style was hard hitting and humo(u)rous.

But alas, Dave was temporarily out of the game at this point.

I found this out when my D&AD class took me to his agency and found out he was no longer there. At least that’s my recollection of it.

The last class of the D&AD course was held at BBH, London, and I had just found out I’d gotten a green card to come to America.

After the class, in the pub down down the road from BBH, I asked the instructors – Will Awdry and Martin Galton – who I should work for in the USA.

They thought about it and pointed out the importance of your first job in advertising.

You either learn good habits or you learn bad habits.

Which made complete sense to me.

And then I asked them the question that defined the next three years of my life.

“Who’s the U.S. version of Dave Trott?”

They answered, “Ed McCabe”.

And I internalized this information like a motherfucker.

So I went to New York, determined to work for this one guy.

And nobody else.

I got a job driving a horse and carriage around Central Park.

And I went to the School of Visual Arts at night and took the legendary Sal DeVito’s hardcore New York ad class. He tossed my first ad out the window of the classroom, but only after searching for a nonexistent lighter with which to set fire to it first. He hated it.

This act enraged me so much that I had the best ad in all subsequent classes and it was these crazed ads that formed the backbone of my portfolio that got me hired by Ed.

I lived in a shithole apartment in Queens that had no air conditioning. And a jackass across the hall was teaching himself the guitar parts to “Appetite For Destruction” on his shitty electric guitar. I actively considered getting a firearm (a small one!) and shooting this fucking jackass. It went on for months. I should also point out that the Korean immigrants living above me had somehow gotten a baby grand piano into their tiny apartment. Their teen daughter very clearly had zero aptitude for the instrument, music, or humanity in general.

Everything was at boiling point, all the time. I was a driven man, to say the least.

And then one day I came home from my furniture moving job to find a message from Ed’s secretary saying that he wanted to meet me.

I nearly fucking died.

This was it!

But it wasn’t.

Ed met me and pointed out that he liked two of my ads, but the rest were kind of crap.

And Ed is the kind of guy you agree with.

So I did. And i wasn’t hired.

Bummer.

So I hit on a plan.

I decided to stalk him.

And I knew where he lived. So I would get on the subway and follow him. I read somewhere that he drank a certain drink so I automatically did a campaign for that drink. A really good one too.

I found out that he had a particular disdain for Kirshenbaum and Bond, then an up and coming NYC ad agency.

So I submitted a really bad portfolio to them just so I could get a rejection letter from them that I used against them in my cover letter. It stated “Dear Ed McCabe, I hope your idea of great advertising isn’t the same as Messrs Kirshenbaum and Bond’s”

I wore him down and he hired me.

And I absorbed the best advertising DNA that ever lived.

Ed was a true wizard. A natural.

It’s kind of been down hill ever since really, to be honest.

But after a few years working in New York, it became apparent to me that Ed’s style was no longer in style.

Not that that mattered to me. I was obsessed with learning from the best.

The over-arching style in the 90s in the USA was :30 TV comedy. And most of it wasn’t really that funny to me.

But I had to deal with that reality.

So I moved to Chicago to work on Bud Light in 1995.

I had always sensed that I would be good at beer advertising.

I had spent my formative years working in a pub in Ireland. A good start!

And it turned out I was good at beer advertising.

The very first beer commercial I wrote was voted best beer spot of the year by Ad Age magazine.

I was home!

10 responses to “20 years in advertising. A look back. Part 1.

  1. It’s much less work stalking people these days. Glad you got your shot! Would love to hear about what you’re working on these days.

  2. Great Story Vinnie, that could be a book.
    I loved the part about the apartment in Queens, I can feel it driving you mad.
    The stifling heat, the whiney guitar, the endless-tuneless piano.
    And I never heard of Sal De Vito, but he sounds great.
    Reminds me of a teacher I had at Pratt called Herschel Levitt (same guy who taught George Lois).
    He set light to ads he didn’t like as well.
    I think we are bothy lucky to have learned in New York.
    There aren’t any teachers with passion like that nowadays.
    But mostly of course, learning from Ed.
    He was always my hero, too.
    Funnily I just wrote for about him for this week’s Campaign website.
    See if you agree..
    http://davetrott.campaignlive.co.uk/2012/04/24/what-does-ed-know-that-we-dont/#comments

    • it was kind of intense. Sal Devito was like an NY version of you Dave. He taught a famously harsh class at SVA in the evenings. Sal was an Italian guy from Brooklyn. He actually idolized Ed. It was while taking his class that everything finally clicked for me.

      I shall check out your blog.

  3. My partner is a graphic design lecturer and the politics of the system does not allow you go off on one. The powers that be are more concerned with detail rather then the substance.

  4. I came across an idea recently that says power used to have to go through a single outlet that controlled what happened; and what didn’t. That reminds me of some of what you remember. Today ideas are not controlled by the few who decide what the rest of us will see, or even think is funny. I think that is really good.

  5. Great story Vinny and happy anniversary!

  6. “Their teen daughter very clearly had zero aptitude for the instrument, music, or humanity in general.”
    If it wasn’t readily apparent before now, this sentence is proof that you have always had a talent for the funny. Well done Vinny; great story.

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