Why I quit advertising and learned to code

27 February 2022

Three years ago, I quit my job as an advertising creative director in Sydney and moved to Amsterdam. I arrived with one suitcase and one wife, who brought one suitcase and one husband.

Our plan to circumvent the pesky catch-22 of needing a job to get a visa, but needing a visa to get a job, was to arrive without either.

After touching down from a 23-hour flight, we had 90 days for one of us to become a respectable, employed member of Dutch society. Otherwise, we’d be sent home. This would have been especially painful as we’d sold everything we owned.

In our second week, my wife, Michelle landed a job at a boutique digital studio, meaning we could stay — for another 365 days. But enough about my badass wife, this is about me leaving advertising.

Time heals all wounds, they say. I reckon they worked in advertising. Because I only have great memories working with great people on some pretty great projects.

Why did I leave then? Sorry, advertising, it’s not you, it’s me. I left because I wanted to:

  1. Have a unique skillset
  2. Build things without permission

Let me explain.

Have a unique skillset

I was lucky enough to attend the Cannes Lion Advertising Festival early in my career. It was inspiring – and terrifying. Walking hall after hall packed with the best work from around the world, I realised something. To succeed in advertising and get one of your ideas on the wall at Cannes, you have to be incredibly talented, work incredibly hard, and get incredibly lucky. Even then, success isn’t guaranteed.

I’d developed a knack for winning advertising awards that had ‘young’ in the title so I used to think this was my trajectory.

The hard work and long hours didn’t bother me. But I thought a smarter way to work hard would be to first stop playing the same game as every other advertising creative.

Picture a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles. One circle contains advertising creatives. The other contains people who can code. To stand out in either you have to be in the top 1-2%. Where these two circles intersect, however, is much less occupied. Combining two distinct skillsets to become an advertising creative who can code would mean I’d be in a position to create a unique body of work while competing against fewer people.

Build things without permission

Spending all day solving business challenges with creativity means you have a lot of ideas.

Most never amount to anything more than a scribble in a notebook. But coming up with lots of ideas is a necessary step in coming up with interesting and unique solutions. The more interesting and unique, the more likely people are to take notice. This is the first step in behaviour change that 95% of ads seem to skip.

Somewhere around the 200 mark is where you wade into unfamiliar creative territory. But sometimes, annoyingly, it’s one of the first ideas you have. But you only know that somewhere around the 200 mark.

You’d be forgiven if you thought coming up with lots of ideas meant you got to make lots of things. For an idea to get made, you have to convince a lot of people that it will solve the business challenge in a way that’s on-brand, on-budget, and on-strategy.

The great irony about advertising is that the more fresh and interesting the idea is — and thus more likely to be noticed and remembered — the harder it is to sell.

Good ideas are unfamiliar because you haven’t seen them before. Because there’s nothing to compare it to, you can’t be sure it’ll work and involves taking a risk from the client to buy. This means most great ideas don’t get made without significant compromise. If they’re made at all.

Now, I’m not saying collaboration is bad. It isn’t. And I’m not saying companies should pay strange creative people to make whatever they want on the company’s dime. They shouldn’t.

I’m saying as an advertising creative you’re powerless to make anything without somebody’s permission and it’s frustrating. You’re stuck in a loop where to bring an idea to life you need to collaborate with people with unique skills that you don’t have. These people all need to be paid. So you need a client to sign off on the idea. Without this permission, your idea will live forever in a pdf presentation on a hard drive somewhere. All because you don’t have the technical know-how to build it yourself.

After 8 years of not building anything myself, I’d had enough. I wanted to be able to build any idea for any reason at any time. So I learned to code and now that’s my entire approval process for bringing my own ideas to life.

But you know what I learned? The idea and building the first version of something is the easy part. Building something that people want which also solves a real problem in their lives is hard.

But It’s a lot more exciting than writing ads to sell fried chicken.

(And I love fried chicken.)