Whenever I've talked to college undergraduates about the advertising business, there's usually a question like “How do you get into the business?”
That's probably the toughest question I'm asked. And the easiest.
Toughest because I can't predict the path that will get you there. And easiest because it gives me a chance to talk about ME – and how I got there.
I come from a stage-struck, star-struck family. My father, along with his three older brothers, were mightily influenced by show business. Uncle Jimmy (Vincenzo) wrote and produced local shows in Troy's Little Italy, based on the vaudeville and minstrel shows that came to the area in the early years of the 20th century. Although politically incorrect today, ethnic stereotypes and minstrel shows were still popular back then, and Uncle Guy (Gaetano) was in a large black-face group called the Georgia Honey Boys. He proudly displayed a group photo of the men, in costume and makeup, which I always thought was rather odd, not only for its blatant racism, but for the fact that you can't recognize any of the people behind the burnt cork.
Uncle Tony was in every production, but as I recall, he didn't contribute much to the creation of the shows. He was usually the mysterious tall dark and handsome stranger.
My dad, Frank, was usually the naïve boy in the production, and later, the romantic lead.
Eventually, they licensed more professionally-written plays and performed them in local venues, helping to bring the community together and raise money for local churches, schools and organizations.
They welcomed the next generation, and soon my double cousins Anthony and Guy Junior were writing and performing sketches, cousins Mickey, Mary Anne, Diane and Marie were singing, dancing and doing impressions of popular entertainers like Al Jolson. We were all involved in putting on variety shows to raise money for the USO during World War II.
After the war, two things continued my interest in the entertainment field. My father, who had settled down with a wife and family and a job in a local factory, took his family to Manhattan for occasional weekends of seeing live Broadway shows, and movie premieres at Radio City Music Hall.
Also, cousin Anthony returned from the war and studied comedy writing on the GI Bill, wrote gags for people who appeared on Groucho's “You Bet Your Life” and even had a western comedy sketch stolen outright by Milton Berle. He eventually got a job as a radio writer at a 50,000 watt top 40 station. And when he left, when I was 19 and still not out of college, I talked myself into the job. I learned by doing, and from there, the move to ad agency writer, and the opportunity to expand into writing commercials for TV and ads for newspapers and magazines seemed logical.
There's more to the story, of course – a love of words, of movies, a desire to be behind the scenes.
So mine was unusual path to the ad business, to be sure. But that's the point I always make to students – there are many paths to where you want to go, and in the ad business, you can get to use everything you experience along the way.