#049 In which our hero enjoys a free lunch.
I got a message on Monday from an employer who found my resume on Monster.com. Now, this is remarkable because I don't even remember putting my resume online. But, then again, I sent out a lot of resumes and did a lot of stuff to try to find a job when I was first laid off. The guy told me it was 18 months old... I'm surprised it wasn't older.
Anyway, the guy is looking for a copywriter - which, in case you haven't been keeping up - is what I do. I called him back, we chatted briefly, I emailed him an updated resume and samples, and that was that. I've been through this dozens of times before, so I knew that if he was interested, he'd call me back.
Well, I got a call the following morning. And, as an aside, if I were my current employer and I heard my end of the conversation, I would have been extremely curious. I took it outside, and I don't think anyone really heard me, other than the people that work directly around me, but I know for a fact that they're all looking for work as well. So no big deal.
But it's odd, the guy is a little dodgy on the phone. Most agency guys talk up their services, say how great their clients are, etc., etc. This guy stressed that they do exclusively direct mail (which I didn't know, but is okay), and it's long, copy-heavy direct mail.
Now, let me step back a moment. When most people hear "direct mail" they think "junk mail." I'm here to tell you there is a difference - a huge difference. Direct mail is mail you are actually happy to see in the mailbox. And the thing is, what usually makes direct mail different from junk mail is timing. Two years ago, if I got a subscription solicitation for Parents magazine, it would be junk mail. Now that I'm a parent, I would look at it, even if I didn't actually subscribe. I wouldn't throw it in the trash without opening it, is what I'm saying. So if you can talk to the right people, and at the right time, your direct mail has meaning, and is well received. If not... well, then it is junk mail.
So I wasn't at all put off by this guy talking about a direct mail position. I wasn't even concerned when he said it was long, sometimes difficult, material. I've done newsletters and catalogues before - long stuff - and I've even written for things I flat out didn't understand. But, that's my job, to digest stuff like that and put it into a readable, easy-to-understand format. And he told me that I would probably never have heard of most of the clients on their client list... again, no big deal. I hadn't heard of most of the clients I write for now.
But the way the guy described his work... strange. He told me he'd email me some PDF samples of things they've done, and if I was still interested, we could talk. However, throughout the entire conversation I got the distinct impression that was he wasn't saying, was "but I wouldn't be surprised if you were not."
When I got home and looked at the stuff, I finally understood.
This company makes junk mail.
Pure, unadulterated, undeniable, undefendable junk mail. Junk mail of the worst sort: sweepstakes, financial investment, medical "breakthroughs;" this stuff was rank. Now, let me just say, that unlike most people, I don't have a problem with junk mail. Sure, it's a waste of resources, but it's not like I get angry about it. I just go through the stack and say "No thank you Mr. Platinum Visa, I don't need you today. And I appreciate the offer for six months of free Field & Stream, but I'll pass." At worst it takes me a moment to toss it, at best it's for something I actually want. And, as previously mentioned, I've written my fair share of direct mail.
I really have to draw the line at stuff like this. These are solicitations directed at people that may not know better, that are what the companies mailing these materials might call "suckers." Now, I'm sure it's not all like that, but one piece I saw claimed that you could increase your $1000 investment by 221% in a week. Call me skeptical, but I'm not buying it.
But, many times I have told co-workers that we work in advertising, not journalism. We're not expected to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A certain amount of hyperbole and blue sky is expected, and allowed. So, I was at least willing to hear what the guy had to say.
So I email him back, say yeah, I'm interested in what you have to say, maybe we can do lunch sometime (his office happens to be close to my current agency). He emails me back and wants to do lunch today.
Well, I'm not really prepared for an interview. I don't have my portfolio with me, and I'm not wearing my lucky socks. I was going to blow him off, then decided what the hell.
I called him back, and he gave me a little more of the "you sure you can do this work and would want to do this work?" stuff, and I assured him, oh yeah, done it before, can do it again. Then he spent a little time on the phone talking about himself... how he got a job right out of college, and his mentor trained him for a year until "there was nothing more he could show me" (I guess he managed to snatch the pebble out of his hand or something) and told him how talented he was, blah, blah, blah. He came across as more than a little arrogant, and told me how he was sure I wasn't at the level I'd need to be to excel at this job, and I'd have to learn from him, and was I willing to take instruction until I could write as well as he does?
Sure, I said.
Now, probably only The Scientist knows this, but when I say "sure," what I really mean is "not really, but I'm willing to play along to keep this conversation going." And every now and again, what it really means is, "okay, fuck you, too."
So, I'm still willing to hear what he has to say, so I go to lunch with him. Another thing about me: there's little I won't do for a free lunch. I mean, come on, FREE LUNCH! Hard to pass up. Besides, what I really want to hear is how much he's paying. If it's less than I make now, I'm not interested. If it's slightly more, then I'm probably still not interested. If it's like 40% more? Well, I've sold my soul for less.
He's younger than I expected, and pretty non-descript. We order and he begins to tell me again what a great writer he is, and how he's a founding partner in the agency, and how they have more work than they can do, etc., etc.
But here's the thing: he's a little greasy. A little shady. Not that there's anything wrong with his business practices, or even with he own morals... but there's something. As he'd going through a stack of samples, he says "... here's one for medical products; here's one to make a million dollars from home in your pajamas, here's one...." He has this strange demeanor, like he's really saying "Y'know, pal, I know these companies are bullshit and rip people off, but they pay their bills on time." I think it's his willingness to look the other way, to actively help these shifty companies rip people off, that makes him seem a little dodgy.
Again, I could be way off base. Maybe I really could increase my investment by 221% by stuffing envelops in my pajamas, I don't know. Maybe these companies aren't as bad as they seem on first pass.
Mr. Junk Mail continues to tell me how there's a huge market with these mid-level companies that live and die by direct mail. That there's not a lot of agencies that can properly serve these guys, and if you can write direct mail like he does, you can make a lot of money. His words: "Learn to write this kind of direct mail right and you can make a lot of money."
And I believe him. The direct mail agency I used to work for wouldn't have touched this stuff with a ten foot pole. But someone has to write it. I get probably six pieces of junk mail a week. Maybe more. These companies are probably spending millions on postage alone... I bet they would pay handsomely for a well-written letter package that actually got results.
But understand, when I say "well written," I mean it's written in that style of direct mail... lots of bold, italics, underlining, pull quotes... all the supposed tricks to get the reader engaged with the message. I've used these techniques myself. I know I could learn to do what this guy does, and do it well. And I have every reason to believe that I cold make "a lot of money" doing it.
It's funny... just this week I was having a conversation with a co-worker where I said I might have made a mistake in choosing my career. That I should have just picked something that I could do for eight hours a day, get off at five, and not think about again until I cashed my paycheck. I could find enjoyment in other aspects of my life, enjoyment at my place of employment wouldn't even be a consideration. It would strictly be something I did 40 hours a week to fund the rest of my life.
And that's the deal with this place. I could excel at what they wanted me to do. And even though he wouldn't give me a hard and fast number, it would probably make more than I'm earning now. Certainly not 40% more, but more. However, it's still a little shady.
And even though I'd be well compensated, and my weekends would be my own, I don't think I'd ever be really proud of my work. I wouldn't be able to hand a letter to someone and say "Hey! I wrote this!"
Moreover, I might be locking myself into the direct mail arena for good. I would become a "direct mail writer," and wouldn't even be considered for anything else. Once I headed down the dark path, there would be no turning back. (Can you hear the Darth Vader breathing noises?)
So, I put the guy off and told him I'd get back to him in the next couple days, but I think my answer is thanks but no thanks.
And thus, my soul is saved.
UPDATE: Mr. Junk Mail said he wanted to send me a writing test... which I hate but have had to deal with on previous interviews. I got it this morning, and it's just him asking me to re-write some of the samples he sent me. And, the final thing is that he wants me to write an ad for a pencil.
Now, that probably means nothing to you, but it's the same bullshit assignment that you get in every Copywriting 101 class. I guess the idea is that if you can write an engaging ad for a pencil, you can write ANYTHING! Well, fuck that. Not only do I find it insulting that he would suggest something gimmicky like that to a writer with a decade of experience, but it shows an amazing lack of creativity on his part. If I wasn't sure about passing on this position before, I am now.
PS: I could write a killer ad for a pencil. I just don't want to.