June 28, 2005

Many lives, one day

There are two ways I could do this piece.

I could tell you about a day in the life of an obscure creative director in a Bombay ad agency. But an obscure CD’s life is pretty much the same anywhere in the world, innit? And, besides, for me, that was something I stopped doing five years ago.

It was good, was advertising. Taught me a lot, made me some great pals.

But one day I looked up and ten years had gone by, the industry wasn’t the same one I had jumped into from journalism, the agency I was with had morphed into a different creature while I wasn’t looking, heck, even being a creative director wasn’t the thing that I had aimed for when I started out as a copy trainee, aged 25.

The agency, after the last bout of changes, had made it clear that I didn’t exactly fit into their plans, and it seemed like a good time to drop out. So I did. And started over once more.

First jump was on to the dotcom rollercoaster. A lovely ride, learned new skills, had fun. And then, as bubbles have the regrettable habit of doing, it burst.

Since then, I have consulted with several small agencies, handled some clients directly, dabbled in other stuff that interests me, made some money, not made lots more, and generally have a more interesting life now. And while I have had the occasional twinge of what-might-have-been, I haven’t regretted it a bit.

So, instead of telling you what it’s like to be an obscure creative director, let me tell you what it’s like being an obscure advertising freelancer, part-time CD, occasional radio spot producer, Voice Over artist, columnist and travel writer, and full time net addict.

The day usually starts with bleary reading of SMSes – everyone more than marginally acquainted with me knows better than to try and phone me before noon, the rest talk to my voicemail – asking me to call someone back. If it sounds urgent enough, say a VO that has to be done that very day (hallelujah!), I make the call uncaffeinated. Otherwise, I only work the phone after breakfast and the papers.

Calls done, the computer is fired up. Mail from several accounts gets checked first – personal mail, freelance work, work at the office, mail from a column, daily summaries from my several online groups and blogs, all to separate in-boxes.

If it’s a really frabjous day, Outlook Traveller will be checking whether I’m free to do a trip for them, or a fat estimate for a web project gets approved. Less exhilarating, but not unwelcome, someone’s sent me a URL or two for my column (I review websites, with a slant towards the weird and off-centre). Or there’s a brief in there somewhere. Usually, it’s a client, or a small agency wanting to know status on a job that’s underway.

All are good. Attention if any kind is good. It wasn’t too long ago that I’d been in the financial doldrums, after a series of complications had taken away large chunks of time and wiped out my savings. You see, when you’re freelancing, you only get paid when you work. Seems self-evident, I know, but when you’ve spent most of your working life in the secure knowledge that there’s going to be a cheque coming in at the end of the month whether you’d earned every paisa or not, you tend to not plan too far ahead.

The morning backlog taken care of, its time to check in to Pinstorm – that’s the search engine marketing agency where I consult part-time. I switch on Trillian, a wonderful little app which lets me log into four different kinds of instant messenger via the same window. I chat with my team on jobs in progress, exchanging URLs and comments, and then with the account handlers on any new stuff or developments on existing clients. And decide whether I need to get into respectable clothing and make the trip into the office. If there’s nothing urgent, I wander the web a bit, and there’s a dozen Firefox tabs windows open in quick order. One will be tuned into Caferati, an online writing group I help run, another has my RSS feedreader open (no, it’s not that RSS – this means Really Simple Syndication), others will be online comics and news sites.

If there is anything urgent I need to do, I still do the web routine, except that I ration myself to just an hour. And then the bus into town, because I loathe city driving with a passion, and break into hives when I think about finding parking.

Pinstorm is, at present, a small team, but stretched. Growth has been phenomenal, and I spend more time there than I had planned to when I signed up. But it’s fun work. The scary part of the business model is that the agency only gets paid for results. That’s more than balanced out by the fact that clients do not have final authority over the creative. Part of the agenda for me now is expanding the creative team to be able to handle the increased work load, so it’s likely that I’ll be checking through CVs or meeting prospective writers and designers.

If it’s a day when it hasn’t been necessary to pop by the office, the only other reasons for making the sortie into the crowded, noisy, dirty metropolis is if I have a radio spot to produce (rare, because I still haven’t made a dent into that area), a VO to do, or an independent client to meet. The last I enjoy the least, most of the time. They’re usually blissfully innocent of advertising rates, and want cut rate copy (“It’s just words, yaar, why should words cost so much?”).

The actual writing I tend to do in the still of the night, after the creative director and client handler duties are taken care of, with generous doses of Freecell and Scrabble and idle web surfing thrown in. The closer to deadline I am, the longer these recreational breaks, until I happen to glance out of the window and notice that the sky has begun to lighten. At which point I begin typing furiously.

Work done and emailed, a spot of reading, before I fall asleep, curtains drawn against the bright morning.

Today is another day.


Peter Griffin is a freelance writer, communications consultant and part-time creative director in Bombay.

Published some time in June, in Aurora, Karachi. It's an advertising and marketing publication from the Dawn group.



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