I had just been fired from the agency that brought me and my wife to Charlotte 18 months before. I was told that I was “too fiery.” And maybe I was. I was a new copywriter, after all, and had a way of beating the hell out of ideas in order to test whether they could hold water. In some ad agencies this would be fine, but in a conservative one like mine, it was a little too intense. This despite killing everything that came across my desk, selling product, making clients happy, and winning the agency’s first-ever awards along the way.
It’s pretty scary being fired. Never mind that I was a new father with a new mortgage in a fairly new place. I had talent, but no job. So I did what any sane copywriter would do, and started my own business. But instead of a brick-and-mortar shop, I wanted to work with people from everywhere–so I started a “virtual” ad agency. It was 2001, so this was a new concept. As such, business development was cumbersome.
Then one day I received an email from a guy in Winston-Salem, NC, asking for a meeting. He wasn’t specific about the type of work, only that it would be worth my while to meet him. The next week he drove down to Charlotte and we had coffee at a place with outdoor seating.
He was a nice guy. Well dressed. Younger, and with a great smile. And he was a smoker, like me. Although, where I was ashamed of my addiction and hid in the shadows to partake, he was blatant about his love of tobacco and lit up right there during our meeting.
As it turned out, big tobacco was his employer. He was a marketing director and the reason he wanted a meeting was to propose that we work together on some new campaigns. “You have obvious talent, Jim. I think I could make you pretty happy in terms of money.” he said between drags. “And you wouldn’t have to move. You could stay right here in Charlotte. I think that this whole ‘virtual’ thing might have some merit. Something other agencies might well emulate down the road.”
It turned out that because of federal regulations making advertising tobacco tougher, they needed to be more tactical and succinct in their messaging. My style of driving a point home quickly appealed to him. “We could keep you busy for a very long time.” he said.
He finished his coffee and shook my hand, “We can go over all the details once you make your decision. I can’t wait to start working with you, Jim.” Then he left, but as he did I heard the same smoker’s cough that gripped me.
I immediately phoned my wife and filled her in. We needed the money, that was for sure. But working for big tobacco felt like selling out to darkness. I know, it sounds dramatic, but that’s how my mind works. Wrong and right are pretty clear adversaries in my heart.
But my head had other ideas. As usual.
The next couple days were pretty tough. Lots of things swirled around–namely money and the idea of security.
Who cares whether I write for them? If not me, someone else will. What does it matter? My family could be set with money for a while and all I had to do was use my talent to do what comes naturally.
Ultimately, I knew I couldn’t do it. I hated smoking. I hated the taste of it. Hated how it made my clothes smell. Hated that I had to take medicines to ward off the constant threat of respiratory problems and that with a new baby, it put my health in constant and potentially fatal jeopardy. But mostly I hated smoking because it had me by the balls. I was powerless to it. And helping big tobacco advance their mission just wasn’t something I was willing to do. I wouldn’t wish that prison on any unsuspecting punk kid trying to look cool.
So I emailed the man from Winston-Salem three days after our meeting to tell him of my decision. He replied with a price tag. It was very generous. But I couldn’t. In fact, that week I decided never to work for tobacco, alcohol, or gaming (lotteries, gambling, etc.).
I decided I would put my faith in the universe, and my work ethic, to make it in the world. Somehow.
So here I am eighteen years later. I’ve shifted perception, built brands, and driven sales for all types of businesses and non-profits. But I’ve never so much as written a syllable for the tobacco, alcohol, or gaming industries. It’s hard enough to be a human being in this world without someone manipulating you to consider dark alleys.
I’m not wealthy, I continue to battle just to make it, but I sleep well at night. And somehow, the universe provides me with what I need.
It’s ok to take a stand. Even in advertising.
PS – I quit smoking in 2012. It wasn’t easy. But it was absolutely necessary. Don’t smoke, kids. And don’t fall for big tobacco’s attempts to fool you. It’s a trap. To them, you’re just a rat with a wallet.