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My Career at 20, 30, and 40: An Advertising Creative’s Evolving Perspective

May 23, 2015

I am definitely one of those forever 29-year-olds. I feel I have a long way to go before I can call myself a proper adult. Yet at 42, I was startled to realize I’m into my third working decade (fourth, if you count my years dishing soft serve at DQ as a teenager). When I look back at all these years of plugging away at the office, I can start to see the bigger picture. Each decade has bestowed its own unique lessons.

Career Perspectives - Age 20

At 21, I knew I wanted to write. I also knew I had just invested nearly $100k in a business degree. So I did my research to see which careers would satisfy my business background and creative needs. I came up with advertising.

I landed an entry-level job as the broadcast production assistant at one of the big agencies in San Francisco. In time, I made it known that I wanted to become a copywriter; so when a creative assistant position eventually opened, I interviewed for it and got it.

This was in the days when assistants typed scripts for copywriters (on Mac Classics!), so I became familiar with the creative process. I was an eager beaver: I created spec work, read books by David Ogilvy (advertising’s patron saint), and sought advice from the vets in my department. My earnestness finally paid off when the creative director whom I assisted jumped to another agency and brought me along as a junior copywriter.

Lessons learned: Talk to people. Give your dreams air. Have faith and be tenacious.

Career Perspectives - Age 30

By 30, I had established a solid copywriting track record and had developed campaigns for brands like Levi’s, Amazon, and Revlon. I was also dabbling in editorial writing. In fact, I decided that writing for glossy magazines would be more glamorous and fun than what I was currently doing; so I thought about making the jump to magazine writing.

Unfortunately, reality pooh-poohed my fantasies of editorial greatness. First off, I didn’t have a network in the magazine world like I did in advertising. I was also finally making a decent salary and couldn’t fathom starting over as a $22,000-a-year assistant. So I found myself stuck in advertising, but I pined for the editorial world and hustled for every freelance assignment I could get. I became a bit sour on both industries, until I realized this tension was actually a good thing. I had a fun, secure advertising career; and in my free time, I wrote about spa treatments, restaurant openings, and international design. Instead of giving anything up, I had developed two parallel careers, each fulfilling in different ways.

Lessons learned: Figure out your priorities. Find creative solutions. Don’t be sour.

Career Perspectives - Age 40

Now in my early forties (seriously, how did that happen?), other forces have entered my life—namely, a husband and baby. After three cities, two countries, and seven ad agencies, I’m a creative director and have had to put my editorial ambitions on hold to find new balance with a family. Instead of lamenting that I can’t “have it all,” I tell myself this halt in editorial writing is temporary. If there’s one thing a couple decades of career-building has taught me, it’s that if you’re passionate about what you do, you’ll find ways to keep doing it. There are always new opportunities—both planned and unexpected—and endless things to learn along the way.

Lessons learned: Be grateful. Take the long view. Stay young.

Illustrations by Mai-Dea

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Amy Thomas is a New York-based writer who, in addition to working as a creative director in advertising, writes about food and travel for publications such as The New York Times and National Geographic Traveler. Amy is a new mom and lifelong sweet freak. Read more of Amy's posts.

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