About Me

My photo
Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gladiator School

One day I was participating in a very informal job interview at a Royal Oak, Michigan coffee shop. The person sitting across from me evaluating my credentials had a copy of my resume in hand. She began to read off the places I had previously worked, but a couple of employer entries caught her attention. “Oh, I see you have agency experience. More specifically, I see that you worked at the ‘Puppy Mill’ for XX year(s). Impressive,” she said.

I thought to myself, Puppy Mill? How so? Later that day I looked up the definition of the term:

A puppy mill, sometimes known as a puppy farm, is a commercial dog breeding facility that is operated with an emphasis upon profits above animal welfare and is often in substandard conditions regarding the well-being of dogs in their care. Hmmmm.

It wasn’t the first time that I had heard the expression puppy mill used in describing working at an agency. It was the third time in five years of working in Michigan that I had heard the reference. In fact, because of the oddity in the usage of the term, I was originally going to name this post “Puppy Mill” but after giving it consideration, I believe the title I chose to be more appropriate. Besides, I didn’t really care for the characterization of being a dog, despite me considering myself an Alpha Male often leading a pack of one.

Also puppy mill is somewhat of a derogatory term when you think of it. Its right up there with “sweatshop” and “shark infested waters,” both of which I’ve heard used when describing working at an agency. But “Gladiator School”…yes, that would be more appropriate. And when I say “Gladiator School” I’m not talking about the type typically associated with the height of the Roman Empire or the story of Spartacus, but rather the one related to America’s penal system. I’m talking kill or be killed…Gladiator School.

Now for those, who have not experienced the correctional industry up close and personal, or seen one episode of HBO’s “OZ” or MSNBC’s “Lock Up” series, a Gladiator School is a less-than maximum security prison (Levels two, three and four in the Federal System) where prisoners are said to get their first real taste of prison life. Within a Gladiator School, guards sometimes use violence to control prisoner behavior, forcing inmates to "snitch" on other inmates under the threat of moving them to the most violent sections of the prison. A gladiator school also may refer to a facility that engages in the practice of setting up prison fights for the benefit of others. In a nut shell it’s an environment that thrives on a survivalist mentality: only the ‘strong’ shall survive.

It’s a grim association I’ve placed upon agency life, but I happen to believe it. And though some may disagree, I also believe that only the best of the best in the public relations industry have faced and survived the Gladiator School. If you take a look at the credentials of the top tier PR pros more than likely you’ll see that they’ve all done a stint at a public relations firm at one time or another.

Additionally, PR agency experience is highly coveted by hiring managers in the world of in-house corporate communications. Why? Because agencies are typically a very fast paced, hardcore grind environment. If you can survive and “make it” at an agency, you can make it anywhere. I’ve been on countless job interviews where the hiring manager made some variation of the following statement, “oh, I see you have agency experience. That’s good because things operate very fast here.”

In translation, what they were really saying is, “Survived Gladiator School huh!? I’m sure you had to shank a few people and spend some time in the hole to make it to Account Supervisor.” And they wouldn’t be that far off from the truth (lol).

Agency experience is also attractive to recruiters from other agencies. Knowing that you didn’t melt from the heat of a busy agency environment can be very seductive. I’ve had multiple agency recruiters engage in competition poaching, trying to lure me into their fold. It happened twice in Michigan and once in Chicago.

When it comes to agency life, there are two things I’m certain of: It’s not an easy environment and it ain’t for everybody. During a total of five years at two different agencies, I’ve seen a lot of things take place. Some people don’t make it past the probation period, while others stayed too long to the point of burn out. I’ve seen people crumble under the weight of the workload and others reduced to tears by overbearing supervisors. You definitely have to be built a certain kind of way to survive and advance. And I’m not specifically talking about kill or be killed or shanking people in the back but definitely incorporating an element of prison survival (life on the yard) to your routine.

It’s funny, I recently read a New York Times Magazine article describing the work offices of the publication, Politico as a fast paced, tough and challenging environment that only the “fearless, fast and ruthlessly competitive” survived. That’s pretty much what agency life is all about.

In saying all that, if I had to do it all over again, I would. I went into the Gladiator School, took on the baddest on the yard, didn’t break and I never had to use my shank. I like to think of myself as the Val Kilmer character in the movie “Felon.” He was tested every now and then, but mostly he kept to himself and nobody bothered him. For up and coming PR professional hopefuls and recent graduates, I think working at an agency is imperative. Not only is a good test of your mettle but also is a good way to test whether or not this profession is right for you. Watching Samantha Jones do PR on “Sex and the City” is a not an accurate litmus of what the profession is like. You have to get your hands dirty and if you can’t join an agency as an Account Assistant, you definitely need to do an internship at one.

There came a time when I left the smaller Michigan PR agency to test my resolve at a much larger agency in Chicago. On my start date, I had just gotten off of a plane and caught a cab downtown with suitcase in tow. I didn’t even have a place to live yet. As I entered the front door of this impressive new agency, the front desk receptionist took my suitcase, which was filled with a week’s worth of clothes, and placed it into a hall closet. She indicated that I needed to be in a morning meeting/call with one of my new clients, the insurance giant, Allstate. To be fair, I was late starting my first day of work, so I had to skip the early morning orientation (due to snow I missed my flight from Detroit and had to catch a later flight). When I walked into that Allstate meeting, it seemed that all eyes were on me and there was an anticipation of what I’d be bringing to the account team as Associate Director of Engagement Marketing.

Normally, in these types of situations, I like to listen and take notes before I comment. But almost immediately a question was thrown to me and I was asked for my take on the approach being taken on a major project. The group around the table and the client on the phone awaited my response. I smiled internally to myself.

Once again, it was time to start sharpening my toothbrush on the floor…welcome to day one of Gladiator School.


  1. I have not had agency experience, and I feel that is something that I missed out on. Went to a non-profit and loved it.

  2. While I do believe that agency is a benefit, I don't think it's the only route to go. Non-profits provide a great PR experience.