I never really liked living in the big city but had to because I was always partial to eating, and small town advertising copywriters have a disturbing tendency to starve to death.
After working for a couple years at a really good small agency in Los Angeles, and then for a few more months at the biggest agency in town, I gradually came to realize that I was just not cut out for life in the big city. I decided to explore possibilities in smaller markets, and my first thought was Phoenix.
So I took a few days off from my job, packed my portfolio and my suitcase, and drove six hours across the desert to the the Valley of the Sun.
The whole trip was, I admit, a bit haphazard. Planning ahead was not my forte in those days. I hadn’t bothered to set up any appointments in advance. I figured I’d just show up and doors would magically open for me. Truth be told, I didn’t have enough experience to know I didn’t know how to interview for a new job.
I brought along a list of the largest ad agencies in Phoenix and started at the top. I found a phone booth, poked in a dime, dialed the number of the Owens Agency, and asked the receptionist if I could speak to the creative director. He answered on the first ring.
Loren: Loren Markus.
Jim: Hi, Loren. I’m a copywriter and I’d like to show you my portfolio.
Loren: You’re a copywriter? Where have you worked?
Jim: In Los Angeles.
Loren: At ad agencies?
Jim: DJMC and Clinton E Frank.
Loren: You mean you’re a real copywriter?
Loren: You’ve worked at real agencies and written real copy for real clients?
Jim: Well, yeah, sure. What do you mean?
Loren: I haven’t seen a real portfolio in a couple years. The last guy who called me and told me he was a copywriter was working at a pizza parlor. Can you come over and see me right now?
This is odd, I thought, but immediately hopped in my car and drove a few blocks to the Owens office. Loren greeted me in the lobby with a big smile on his face. He was short and stocky and his face was accented with a pair of thick horn rim glasses and topped with a mop of curly brown hair. We went to his office and had a delightful time as he reviewed my work. He was a very funny, very warm, very quirky guy.
After Loren finished reviewing my portfolio he looked at me very seriously and said, “I love your work, but don’t have an opening for a copywriter. How would you like to be creative director instead?”
I was dumbfounded by the question. I was still a rookie, a beginner, I had barely gotten started in the business.
Jim: I don’t understand. Aren’t you the creative director?
Loren: Not for long. I hate this town. I gotta get back to Los Angeles.
Jim: But I don’t have enough experience to be a creative director. I don’t even know how to produce a TV commercial.
Loren: Neither does anyone else in this town. I’ll stay on for a month or so and teach you everything you need to know.
This was clearly the craziest idea ever presented to me. I was terrified by the concept of a future filled with faking it every day.
”No way, Loren. It’s impossible. I can’t do it.”
”Go home and think it over for a couple days. You’d get paid a lot of money and I think you could pull it off.”
I went home. I thought it over. I bounced the idea off my girlfriend. I spoke to other trusted friends. They all agreed that this sounded like a plot line for a bad sitcom and that nothing this crazy could possibly work in real life. I called Loren and turned him down. He was very disappointed. We said goodbye. And then we dropped off each other’s radar.
Five years flew by. My career was progressing nicely. I had achieved my goal of getting out of Los Angeles and with a few more years experience had become creative director at a very good little ad agency in Orange County. But one day I saw a Help Wanted ad in the AdWeek classified ads. An agency in Honolulu was looking for a freelance copywriter to work on a huge freelance project. In Honolulu. I made an appointment and met with the owner of the agency at a hotel in Beverly Hills to show him my work. We immediately hit it off. I took a week’s vacation from the Orange County agency. The Honolulu agency flew me to paradise and put me up in a fancy beachfront hotel. “I’m bringing in a bunch of people to work on this project,” the owner told me. “I’m going to team you up with another Los Angeles copywriter who relocated to Honolulu a couple years ago. I think you guys will be a good fit.”
The agency had beautiful offices on Honolulu’s Pier 9 right next to the Aloha Tower. But we worked so hard for the next week that I never got closer to the ocean than the agency’s lobby. True to his word, the owner of the agency teamed me up with a brilliant, quirky writer. He was short and stocky and his face was accented with a pair of thick horn rim glasses and topped with a mop of curly brown hair. The word simpatico comes to mind. The getting to know each other phase lasted about five minutes and then it was as if we’d known each other forever. The week was filled with a lot of laughs and crazy stories and we churned out a ton of good work. The agency got more than its money’s worth.
But from the moment we met the other copywriter and I kept giving each other quizzical looks and taking turns saying, “I know you from somewhere.” We had both worked at agencies in Los Angeles and knew a lot of the same people, but the best we could come up with was that we looked familiar to each other.
Finally, about three days into our five day project he mentioned something about having once lived in Phoenix. The proverbial light went on over my head. I said, “Were you ever creative director at an agency in Phoenix?”
I didn’t even need to go any further. It all clicked for Loren, too. “Oh, my god,” he laughed. “you were the kid I tried to hire to replace me as creative director.”
I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed any harder. I don’t know if two people have ever laughed any harder together. It was a great moment and cemented a friendship that lasted for years.
Loren was famous among his agency friends for expressing his advertising philosophy in six simple words:
“Run the risk of being noticed.”
To which I guess I would add, “The only thing better than being noticed is being remembered.”
Loren passed away a few years ago, but I can assure you that he was noticed by many and remembered by all whose lives he touched. He was a true character. A mad genius. A free spirit. A lovable oddball. A maverick. An eccentric.
But, seriously, that thing about me replacing him as creative director in Phoenix was the worst idea he ever had. It would have been a complete disaster.