Do what you want to be

University grad Xingyi Yan, 21, has taken a placard to the street in a bid to land a job in advertising or marketing. (Credit: MARTA IWANEK / TORONTO STAR)

University grad Xingyi Yan, 21, has taken a placard to the street in a bid to land a job in advertising or marketing. (Credit: MARTA IWANEK / TORONTO STAR)

This past week, I read an item in The Toronto Star about a young university graduate who was finding it difficult to get a job. To highlight her availability, she took to standing outside Union Station, Toronto’s main transit hub, wearing a placard.

She’s hardly alone, unfortunately, and I applaud her moxy for putting herself in the middle of the pedestrian business traffic, but I question how effective her plan will be.

The young woman is interested in a career in marketing and advertising. Unfortunately, her sign suggests she does not have the creative talent for such a job. It’s a white sign with black letters that tells me her problem, not how she’ll solve mine. Even her choice of location tells me she doesn’t understand modern marketing and advertising.

>99% of commuters at Union Station not in a position to hire

>99% of commuters at Union Station not in a position to hire

More than 99% of the people walking past her every day are not interested in her goals and cannot do anything for her. She’d have been much better off jumping online for a couple of minutes to learn the locations of all the major marketing and advertising firms in the city and camping outside their doors.

That’s what I did when I was looking for a job years ago, after completing my M.Sc. studies. I didn’t wear a placard, but I did post “Lab Technician Available” signs around the research wings of the universities and teaching hospitals around Toronto and nearby Hamilton.

And the signs didn’t just announce that I was available. They also listed the laboratory techniques in which I was proficient, and therefore, how I could help your lab.

I got a lot of interviews out of that campaign and landed a couple of job offers.

Just over a decade ago, while working for a couple of science magazines in Washington, DC, my group needed to hire a couple of writers. As one of the hiring managers, I met all of the candidates and routinely participated in the same conversation:

“I’ve always loved writing,” the candidate would gleefully tell me.

“Well, that certainly helps with this job,” I would smile. “What have you published?”

The candidate’s smile would waver.

“Well, nothing,” he or she would hesitate. “But I love writing.”

“Great. Do you have any samples?”

An embarrassed shuffle in the chair.

“Um, no,” the candidate would visibly shrink in the seat. “It’s mostly just personal writing.”

By this point, I would have been willing to look at that.

To a person, I would offer the same advice at the end of our conversation:

“I can’t say how this process will go, but if I can make a recommendation: If you want to write science, write science…for anyone…whether paid or for free. If I can’t see your writing, how do I know you can write?”

If you say that you’re dying to do something, then prove that to prospective employers by actually doing it.

I would never apply for a job as a screenwriter without several screenplays in my pocket. And I’m pretty confident that it is not enough to stand on the corner of Hollywood & Vine in Los Angeles offering my services (at least not screenwriting services).


And when you do the thing you’re dying to do, make sure you do it well.

If my screenplays are shit, why should anyone hire me? If the placard you’re using to market yourself is unimpressive, why would a marketing company hire you?

Your effort doesn’t have to be professional-grade necessarily—what individual had that kind of budget?—but if it’s not exceptional in some manner, why would I make an exception and hire you?

I wish the young student well. She has taken the first step, but has so many more to go before she is likely ready.

Thinking outside the balks


If you’re reading this blog post, then you’re probably something like me—that wasn’t meant as an insult—and you’re looking for opportunities to express your true creative self.

Unfortunately, whenever you visit the Want Ads looking for employment, you are met with hundreds of ads all touting their desire for an outside-of-the-box thinker and yet doing so in the most boring way. Talk about making a bad first impression.

So here is my call to all companies: If you want outside-of-the-box thinkers, don’t approach them from inside the box.

Boxes scare creatives because boxes are scary. In hockey, it’s the penalty box. In mythology, it was Pandora’s box—okay, technically jar, but let’s not dwell on semantics. The Boxer rebellion. Boxing Day shopping. Johann Sebastian Box. You get the idea.

To some extent, I blame Human Resource departments, whose job it is to protect the company from legal repercussions rather than actually identify resourceful humans. But senior managers are also to blame, as the majority of them hold their jobs by propping up the walls of their box—often with the corpses of the peons below them.

Several years ago, as Creative Director of a medical advertising agency, I had the opportunity to hire a medical writer.

Now, I am nuts. And the job of medical copywriter in Canada is nuts, because the regulations in Canada are nuts. And working for me is nuts. So when I wanted to hire someone, I needed candidates who were…well…nuts.

Below is an excerpt from the ad I posted on a variety of web-based job sites to get just the right candidate:

We have needs (many of them in fact). But today our biggest need is for a full-time Scientific and Medical Writer to help us create amazingly compelling advertising for our healthcare clients…. 

What type of person are you?

You’ve always been smart—annoyingly so, if we talk to your siblings. You’re just as comfortable talking to a doctor, as you are an artist. You’re always looking for new ways to do things—especially mundane things. You not only dream up big ideas, you can also figure out how to execute them. You are able to convince others to buy into your ideas. You find yesterday’s successes to be today’s challenges. You don’t like taking “no” for an answer. You really want to re-write this ad and send it back to us. And you’ve never met an acronym you didn’t like, including PAAB, RRR, CME, ASC, BID, PM, PI, and ASAP.
Here are some must-haves:
Science degree (BSc. minimum, but dazzle us if you don’t)
Ability to distill clinical data into amazing copy (other distillation expertise will be considered)
Knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry (aside from your medicine cabinet)
A sense of humour in stressful situations.
Nice-to-haves: Did we mention the sense of humour?

Think your skills meet our needs? Then startle us with your creativity. Forward your resume (boring), 3 writing samples (better), and anything else we may find entertaining (don’t worry, we’re easily entertained) to:

I got some amazingly milquetoast applicants, but I also got some incredibly creative applicants and eventually hired an amazingly brilliant writer—who may be reading this and the Canadian market is too small not to constantly ass-kiss.

Like attracts like. So if it looks like you wrote your job ad with a pencil shoved firmly up your backside, you’re not likely to attract the kinds of candidates who think outside of the box. They’re more likely to be outside of your league.

You need to show that creative thinking already flourishes within your company because damned few creatives are willing to be the first and possibly only person who thinks creatively. Without the right amount and type of bullshit, we wither and die in such environments.

Spare the box, hire the creative genius.


PS The job boards to which I posted included:


(Image is property of Robert Mann Packaging and is used her without permission.)