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Why I left advertising on a quest to invent, only to return years later

Credit: Pixabay

I had been in advertising for a while when I decided to make the type of rash decision that temperamental creatives are mostly known for. I was working as a lowly copywriter when the weight of advertising unfairness became too much for me to bear. Frustrated and irrational, I did what any responsible young man with a wife and a newborn at home would have done...I walked in on a Friday, and I quit my job. Without a backup plan.

That decision, while unadvisable, was powered by hope, not anger. Fueled by inspiration, not exhaustion. I truly believed that something more inventive, more rewarding was out there. And I was determined to find it.

Advertising had lost its luster for me. The reality was that, at the time, the industry didn’t value non-traditional business ideas. Advertising really only valued TV ideas. And for that reason alone, I knew I had to get out. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed writing TV spots and going on productions and eating sushi and staying at Shutters as much as the next person, but I had so many other non-advertising ideas that got me even more excited than the balcony views in Santa Monica.

In my advertising career, I had pitched and had seen my friends pitch so many impressive, revenue generating business ideas that clients had loved (and had gone on to successfully implement), but an ad agency at that time just wanted to know what the accompanying funny TV spot would be. They didn't properly value the concept itself. There were no Titanium Lions.

Our industry was creating a world where there was a significant disconnect between adding value and creating advertising. Obviously, I wasn't the only one who felt this way, because the current decade marks a time when smart business ideas ARE the new TV ideas. We all have efforts like Small Business Saturday, Nike+ and Domino’s Pizza re-invention to thank for that (to name just a few.) Today, it is the groups that blur the lines between business consultant and advertising agency that make the noise. But back in 2002, TV agencies were still setting the standard.

Just as the dot-come bubble burst, I vowed not to let some other wave of irrationally inflated valuations pass me by. I could do better. I could bring more to the table. And, most importantly, my family deserved a better version of me than advertising currently allowed. When the next wave came by, I would be ready to ride. Because I was going to start my own company. And determine my own fate.

Sally Hogshead was to blame for all this. She was probably my favorite copywriter in the business and she had just written an article (and later a book by the same title) proposing what she called “radical careering.” I ate it all up. Every word. Particularly this bit of wisdom: “Radical truth No. 8: Jump, and a net will appear.” So I jumped. And looked for that net to appear.

I quickly realized that if I were to save myself from free fall, I would need to build my own net. So that’s what I did. I took inventory of things that I thought I was good at (namely, thinking up slightly off-kilter ideas and pitching those ideas to prospective clients) and tried to figure out how I could turn those skills into a business. And fast.

I read a lot about potential industries and decided that I would give the role of “inventor” a go. Inventors think up big ideas and sell those ideas to a usually doubting public. I could do that! I would love that!

I teamed up with a friend who had a similar vision for what could be, as well as a bad taste in his mouth from his current job. We named our company 5mississippi (because that's how long we had to count before blitzing when we played backyard football as kids) and set out to invent toys and games that got kids playing outside again. With a name, a logo, business cards and lots and lots of ideas, we were off and running. Our first success was a pool toy that was a clear ball that counted down from 30 seconds and emitted a beeping sound, so kids would throw it in the pool and have 30 seconds to locate it using sound only. The selling point of that toy was a patented variable-depth mechanism that let users turn a knob and have the ball sink to bottom, stay on the top, or hover in the middle of a pool (it was pretty cool.) We named the product Submergency and licensed it into Target and Walmart and others. Take that, advertising!

Well, sort of. See, all of this entrepreneurialism led me to want to help invent a new kind of advertising. An advertising that relished in creating good, smart business ideas and funny TV spots. If I could build a company in a completely new industry based on the belief that smart ideas and constant invention– not just good advertising –would fuel good business, then I could get excited about helping to bring that model back to the industry formerly known as advertising. I re-entered the adworld via McKinney, and as much as I loved my time there, I knew that I would never be truly happy until I tried something different. So I began The Variable several years ago with a like-minded business partner.

In case you're curious, 5mississippi continues to receive royalties on the toys we licensed [best business model ever], and every once and a while we get a wild hare and invent a new toy (we currently have lots of inventory of a great game we invented called Hookum...Google it and buy 10 for all your friends!)

While my exploits outside of advertising were short-lived, they were most definitely well lived. I returned to advertising with a completely different outlook. I knew what advertising used to be, and importantly, what it could be. I decided to return to the crazy, whirlwind, exciting, sometimes infuriating world of advertising – not because I had to, but because this time, I felt I had something meaningful to add...and plenty of rash advertising decisions left to make.

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable

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