Thursday, 15 November 2007

Star Stories: Dave Birss

Taking a break from the frantic pace of application/wait until the date agencies said they'd get back to you/wait some more/post on Facebook asking if anyone else has heard/wait some more and so on, we've got a really inspiring star story from Dave Birss.

Dave will take up the role of creative director at Poke London in December and has won a London International gold, a D&AD silver nomination and a bunch of other awards for Fingerskilz. He's worked ATL, BTL and on the line (or online) in equal measure and has been a copywriter and an art director. He also tells us that he can't dance.

Dave's blog is here.


By Dave Birss

I guess I should start at the beginning before advertising entered my life. And before male pattern baldness finally got the better of my mullet. I went through a few jobs. So many I can’t actually remember them all. A brief summary would include: farm labourer, veterinary assistant, dishwasher, busker, university lecturer, radio traffic bulletin broadcaster, guitar teacher, session musician, recording engineer, stand-up comedian, nude model, marketing manager and complaints line operator. None of them stuck. I augmented these with a degree in computer programming and advanced mathematics, a postgraduate in marketing, a certificate in lawnmower maintenance and a diploma in typography. And then I was kind of awestruck when someone told me that people got paid to write ads for a living. I was dumbfounded. It was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. And I wanted to do it.

But I didn’t have a portfolio. I didn’t know you needed one. And I hadn’t a clue how to get into the industry. Then one day my mother saw an advertisement in a Glasgow newspaper with the headline “Advertising Creatives Wanted”. I’ve never seen such a thing since. I applied by sending them a congratulations card, a cassette of my application song, an introductory letter etched on a wooden spoon and some biscuits by way of bribery. They thought this was just so ridiculous that they had to see who had sent it. They liked me and - even although I didn’t have a portfolio of concepts – they set me a test brief and ended up giving me the job. I liked to think it was because I dazzled them - but I look back now and realise that it’s because I was young, cheap and willing to write crappy recruitment ads in their basement. I had made it onto the first rung of the advertising ladder. Woohoo!

Nine months later I fell off.

Redundancy is cruel. But – as I’ve found a couple of times since - it was the best thing. To be honest with you, even although I’d moved upstairs to the ‘proper’ ‘advertising’ ‘department’, I still didn’t have the remotest idea about the job. But I had a few bits of work and I knew that I wanted to stay in this industry.

I hawked my portfolio around the other agencies in Glasgow. Creative Directors took the time to see me, looked through my portfolio, smiled politely and said they’d call if anything came up. Then I went to see a Creative Director who told me the truth.

“It’s crap. There’s nothing decent in there. You need a whole new portfolio that actually has concepts in it. Come back to me when you’ve got one.”

So I swatted up on every award annual that I’d stolen out of the agency to try to work out what a concept was. Nobody had told me. I started building my portfolio, painstakingly drawing every visual and hand-rendering every headline. Then, with my head held high, I made a return visit to the Creative Director.

“It’s still crap. You’ve got it all wrong. You need to find a proposition and make sure you communicate it clearly in your ad. That’s the whole point of doing an ad, after all.” He took the time to go through every piece of work and tell me very specifically why it didn’t work and how I could have done it better. I thanked him and returned home.

I immediately took his advice, ripped everything out of my portfolio and started again. I refused to give up and returned again and again and again. To cut a long story short, he eventually gave me a placement. That meant that I worked for absolutely nothing except travel expenses.

After my first month, he called me into his office and told me that I’d have to go. He had mistakenly thought that I’d had potential but I’d failed to show it. I told him that I didn’t want to leave. I had it in me. Just give me another month. He reluctantly agreed.

After the second month, he called me into his office, told me that he was still disappointed and asked me to go. This time I begged him to let me stay for another month and even more reluctantly he caved in.

I was determined to show him how wrong he was. I worked until after midnight every night. I worked weekends. And at the end of the third month, I went into his office and told him that I’d found a job that was willing to pay me more than travel expenses. And this time he asked me not to go. I’d proved myself and had come up with my first batch of decent ads. So I left and went where the money was.

After 3 weeks in my new paid job, I got an even better offer. Not financially better, creatively better. I was now doing several radio ads a week, a couple of TV ads a month and a load of press and poster ads. This is what I wanted.

I was an Art Director at this time and my Copywriter left. I then decided that I’d give Copywriting a bash and recruited a supposedly hotshot Art Director to work with me. He was a wanker. He said “no” to everything I suggested until I couldn’t suggest anything any more. I started to hate my job. Then something wonderful happened: I was fired.

I was thrown out of the office in the morning and was touting my portfolio about in the afternoon. That’s when I picked up my first proper freelance gig. I found out that I could still come up with ideas and started to build a decent freelance business.

I then threw this in and came to work in London. Since then I’ve worked for countless ad agencies, DM agencies and a handful of digital places. Now, fifteen years after I started, I’m about to start at one of the most exciting and creative agencies in London as a Creative Director.

And I still can’t believe that people get paid to do this stuff!


Anonymous said...

I believe even stronger now that i can do as well, thank you for this story.

Jonny said...

It's like a slow car crash - working for free and still getting repetitively fired. At some point you did at least realise that you are neither a art director or copy writer much to the relief of those you were working with as a freelancer.