Working Your Way Across America’s Creative Agencies

It was a big undertaking from the beginning: work as a writer for hire at 14 creative agencies in 14 cities over 14 months. When he first started planning The Great Agency Adventure, copywriter Steve Taylor had never even been west of Chicago. “I always have crazy ideas, but I never follow through on them – but this was the one I decided to do,” he says.

Heading into the final months of his adventure, Taylor is older and wiser. After spending November in Portland, he’s in San Francisco for the month of December and Los Angeles in January before flying home to Cleveland on January 31, 2015. What would he do differently next time? A lot of stuff.

Steve Taylor; creative agencies

Steve Taylor of The Great Agency Adventure

Here’s Taylor’s career advice to anyone planning a similar adventure:

Get your gigs confirmed in writing.

Taylor started planning his adventure in August 2013, but didn’t have all of his agencies booked until February 2014. “I think one of the smartest things I did was get all of the agencies to put their commitment to the project in writing,” Taylor says. “It saved me from a big disaster halfway through the trip, and it’s also the reason I ended up going to Seattle instead of Vancouver as originally planned.”

Don’t book everything up front.

Planning ahead is essential, but it is possible to overdo it. “I was so worried about knowing where I’d be staying and how I was going to get there that I got a little overzealous,” Taylor says. “I didn’t realize Airbnb would charge me right away, and after I booked everything up front I woke up one morning with $14,000 on my credit card.”

So if he were to do it again, he’d book his travel and housing as the trip unfolded.

Graffiti spotted in Minneapolis, MN.; creative agencies

Graffiti spotted in Minneapolis, MN.

Know your worth.

The credit card problem was compounded by the fact that Taylor undersold himself. “I was so worried about getting agencies on board that I really lowballed my rate,” he says. He felt like he needed the value proposition to be very high for the agencies, especially if they hadn’t been planning to bring on a copywriter. “I calculated the bare minimum I could live off of, which was $12 an hour. Some agencies paid $15, some paid daily rates, some paid a little more.” But many of the cities he worked in have very high costs of living. For comparison, a copywriter with more than five years of experience earns on average $37 to $52 an hour, according to The Creative Group’s 2015 Salary Guide.

With relationships, value quality over quantity.

He hasn’t gotten as many Twitter followers as he’d hoped. But the connections he’s made offline have been deep. “It’s a project that succeeds on a very individual level,” he says. “In my head I feel like people see that and think the project isn’t successful. But it’s successful because I’m connecting with lots of people.”

The Great Agency Adventure; creative agencies

Taylor spent November in Portland, OR.

Keep your mind open.

The biggest surprise for Taylor was personal: that meeting people gets easier with practice. “Before I left on this trip, I wasn’t the most social person, and I think I’ve really busted out of my shell along the way,” Taylor says. “I’ve discovered that the more you engage others, the easier it gets when meeting new people and thinking of the right words to say.”

He’s made a point to get drinks or dinner with as many people as possible when he’s in a new city — making connections with local representatives of the Art Directors Club, Egotist, CreativeMornings and The Creative Group.

“I’d also recommend reaching out to as many people as possible before arriving in a city. I didn’t start doing that until I was a few months in, and I missed out on meeting a lot of cool people and attending a lot of great events because of it,” Taylor says.

Cleveland Whiskey sponsored The Great Agency Adventure, creative agencies, donating bottles of booze as gifts for Taylor's host agencies.

Cleveland Whiskey sponsored The Great Agency Adventure, donating bottles of booze as gifts for Taylor’s host agencies.

Pack light.

He initially packed a huge suitcase to he be prepared for any scenario, but as his adventure progressed, he whittled down his belongings to one tiny suitcase. Any time he accumulates souvenirs, he mails a box home to his parents (so when he gets home in January, it’ll be a second Christmas). The one luxury item he brought that he probably could have left at home is a tablet — “I keep it for when an Airbnb doesn’t have a TV.”

Be engaged, wherever you are.

The best guarantee of success is to “be 110 percent engaged in everything you do,” Taylor says. “When you’re in an agency, always work as if there’s a job on the line. Put in the hours, look for extra work, and socialize with your team.” A few of his final agencies were booked through connections from some of the first agencies he worked for. “You never know where doing your best might help you in unexpected ways.”

The Great Agency Adventure: Boston

Foggy Boston, one of the first stops on The Great Agency Adventure.

Maybe 14 months was too long.

A year probably would have sufficed instead of 14 months, Taylor admits. But he couldn’t help but want the project dates to go from 2013 to 2015. It was a long time for him to be away from home, and he didn’t build in any visits to Cleveland. “I fly home on January 31. The next night, I’m throwing myself a welcome home party with all my friends, since I haven’t seen them in so long,” he says. Then it’s back to square one, job-wise. “So, after a week of relaxation, I’m diving headfirst into job hunting. I don’t like to dillydally, so I’m hoping to find a permanent job as soon as humanly possible. Where that will be, anyone’s guess is as good as mine.”

Do you want a seat at the table of decision-makers? In HOW Design University’s Creative Strategy and the Business of Design, you’ll get a feel for how creatives fit into the business model – and why your seat at the table is a critical one.