October 15, 2022

What I wish I'd known entering the commercial industry

Icaurus falls.

This is it, I thought, sitting in a café adorned with road bikes, bike parts, and illustrations of people in bygone days riding bikes. The coffee I was now sipping, slightly spilling its milky contents into my saucer, had been served to me by a man wearing a small, tight bike cap with a red and white racing stripe down the middle. I was seated firmly in East London. Fifteen minutes later I would be sitting in the offices of a large and reputable commercial agency, presenting myself and my slim portfolio of work to them to try to garner some sliver of my boot into the slim passage that represented the gateway to a career in the Industry.

The man I was meeting, wearing an oversized t-shirt and sitting with the swagger I would imagine somebody who'd worked at a Lad's Mag named "Wankered" in the 90s might, told me he loved the film I'd sent him. "It's cool, it's dark... how much did you make it for again?"

"Five grand" I told him, no word of a lie.

He scoffed. "5 grand for that isn't half bad."

He was right, although I didn't tell him that money had come from a distant relative dying and leaving me some cash in his will. I kindly dedicated the film to this relative.

He bounced a tennis ball on the ground. The office had glass walls, and I could see into some of the other offices nearby. The company's themed colour seemed to be green, as a decent amount of the furniture, cups, and graphic design adorning the walls, was a sickly lime green. My trepidation felt at home in this space. It felt seen.

"Look, I've just taken over a new division we're starting, a smaller, light-weight digital division, and I'm putting together a core team of people to run it. I'd love to have you on board as a director."

My stomach jumped up into my throat. "... Cool, that sounds right up my street," I managed to get out. I wondered if he could hear my heart's beat. It seemed to be vibrating around the room like a Tibetan gong.

"Yeah, I'm calling it a War Room." He spread his hands out as he said this. He should have been smoking a cigar.

"It'll have writers, artists, directors, graphic people, tech people..."

I remember coming out of that meeting and calling my mum. The conversation seemed to go something along the lines of "It's alright mum. You needn't have worried about this one! I'm gonna turn out just fine with this career!"

Of course, I don't think I would be writing this, or at least telling this story, if all had gone to plan with the War Room. Much like a character in a 19th Century Russian novel, my expectations had hurtled ahead of reality.

After that meeting I had a short email exchange with the man in question before the trail went cold. After some calling and emailing to others in the office, I found out the news I'd been dreading.

He was out.

Transferred to the New York Office to do something similar. The guy that replaced him wasn't interested in meeting me. He had his own people.

So began an important lesson that would take some years to properly ferment in my mind: People will make promises they can't keep, and you will get excited each and every time it happens until you realise that this is an industry of speculative bets, and only a small percentage will come off.

It's a business of confidence, and to succeed within it you have to project an outsized level of such confidence.

I spent a long time resenting this guy who'd brought my Icarian hopes so high. But I've come to understand that what he was doing was hedging. Fair play. I hedge a lot in the work I do now: Will this work? Let's try it out. Maybe it won't, but unless we jump in we won't find out.

In many ways I'm grateful for the loss of this opportunity. It spurred me on to go and do my own thing, which has led to a number of experiences that I might never have had sitting in the War Room, playing with toy soldiers and sipping bike-themed coffee.

Advice time:

What Would I Do In That Situation Now?

  • I might have sent him an email congratulating him on the new NYC position, and asking if he could connect me to any relevant people who might be interested in something similar to what we were planning.
  • Set up further meetings with whoever would take me, pitching myself as somebody who can solve problems where a full-time person might not.
  • Read up on filmmaking, watched a lot of films, watched a lot of commercials, and got a camera soon after and shot random stuff until something clicked. I.e. Because you've made this one film with nice cameras and a big crew for no money, doesn't mean you should only try to make all your future films with nice cameras, a big crew, for low money.

What Did I Do?

  • I moped around for a while until a production company a friend was starting picked me up. We did a load of low-budget but highly fun jobs before the company broke apart.
  • I made four or five short films with nice cameras and decent-sized crews that didn't do well at festivals but provided fertile ground for learning.
  • I continued to build my own production company as a vehicle for future work and continued income, with loyal crew members to continue building relationships with.
  • I eventually moved to a city that felt more in-keeping with my values and working style, while maintaining my connections to my old one.

Do I wish I had my 30 year old brain in my 23 year old head? Maybe, but the lessons I've learned (which I'll keep writing about here), have served me well enough to be still doing this 7 years later, and building on what I know year on year. It means that next time I'm in a meeting in a room with glass walls and somebody promises me the world, I'll set my expectations low, but see how I can best come out of the interaction with good energy, good contacts, and a great next step on the path.

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