I Had to Pinch Myself More Than Once

In the mid-1980s I was a senior at New York University, burning with ambition and happily anticipating the launch of my career. Wall Street was bullish setting new S&P records and I wanted my piece of the pie — or, so I thought.

I took full advantage of the university’s on-campus recruiting program. I must have interviewed at 15 different investment firms hoping to secure a spot in one of their rigorous training programs and learn the secret sauce to accumulating real wealth.

Without a legacy, an Ivy League education or a wealthy familys, I found it challenging to get an offer and finally accepted one in the Surety Bond training program at Chubb Insurance Company. Clearly, not my first choice.

After suffering through two and a half years of performing financial analysis on construction companies, I was done. I realized that making gobs of money wasn’t inspiring me. But, what would I do instead?

As I was feeling overwhelmed and confused about my next career move, I bumped into my best friend’s sister near my apartment at the Hoboken train station. I told her about my situation and she suggested grabbing a cup of coffee nearby.

After listening to my tale of woe, her eyes widened and a smile dipped across her face, “I have the perfect solution.” And then she said two words I never heard put together before. Advertising Sales. In my mind, you either pursued a career in Advertising or one in Sales. I didn’t know about Ad Sales from any of my fellow students, mentors, professors and I had done a ton of research.

She explained that Ad Sales is a career in which you sell advertising inventory such as pages in a magazine to companies who want to reach their particular audience with their products.

She gave me an example; “lets say you work at Vogue magazine and Chanel was one of your accounts. Your goal was to get them to take an ad. But, Chanel was considering going into In Style instead. My job would be to create and deliver a presentation to the advertiser underscoring how Vogue made more sense for reaching Chanel’s potential customers than In Style. I would compare and contrast each magazine’s editorial product and levy a promotional campaign on top.”

After she finished her explanation, she asked, how does that sound? I thought, “let’s see a well-paying career that drew on my interests in sales, advertising, publishing, beauty and fashion?” I said I was sold and wanted to get started at once finding a job. So, I disposed of my Brooks Brothers suits and floppy bow ties, bought chic clothes and accessories and off I went.

I soon learned that Ad Sales is a competitive career choice and without prior ad sales experience, the publishing companies weren’t interested in interviewing me. I was totally frustrated, but I love a good challenge and formed a plan of attack. I sent out resumes with creative cover letters personalized to each magazine and literally knocked on doors. The door-knocking got me my first job at a small magazine titled TWA Ambassador (the free magazine placed in seat pockets on airlines).

After working hard for two years developing relationships with media buyers at ad agencies, I was now known in the industry and had the necessary experience the big companies required. I got a call for an interview with Conde Nast – the esteemed publisher of such prestigious titles as Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Glamour and Mademoiselle. It took 6 rounds of interviews including delivering a presentation to win them over. And this is where my story of pinching myself for the first time begins.

I got a position with Mademoiselle — a fashion magazine targeted to young women age 18-34. Being a 26 year old at the time, it meant I was in their demographic and could easily relate to the editorial product, making it an easy sell.

Working in a glossy office tower, with smart and gorgeous men and women, my work life was “Sex in the City” meets “The Devil Wears Prada.” Soon I was having lunch at the Four Seasons in the Grill Room with my publisher and presidents of global cosmetic companies. Pinch me again.

We had no limits on our expense accounts and could do whatever it took to get the business. We wined and dined our clients, took them for spa dates, created promotional programs and, attended black-tie industry galas. Once a year we went on extravagant sales meetings in luxurious destinations. We skied the Alps in Austria and sunbathed in the Bahamas and on Turks and Caicos. Pinch me a third time.

I excelled at sales and soared through the ranks of the magazine. I loved everything about my job so much it didn’t feel like work. My mentor was a charming power broker that could sell ice to Eskimos. He was such a big personality he became the inspiration for the character Mr. Big in the series “Sex and the City.”

I spent eight years at Conde Nast between Mademoiselle and Conde Nast Traveler and loved every minute of it. I was offered more money and eventually left and worked for a competing mega-media company – but they didn’t compare. So I returned to Conde Nast for another ten years.

Toward the end of the 1990s, the web was ramping up and by the mid-2000s magazines were closing left and right, budgets were cut, staffs reduced and the glamorous lifestyle of an ad sales exec was replaced with tons of pressure and tension.

We never imagined it would end with such a crash. When my colleagues and I get together now we laugh at the way we were doing business back then. It sounds irresponsible, but we were making money hand over fist. It was part of an era in a certain industry, at a particular time when magazine publishing was the “It” business. I imagine it’s what it’s like in Silicon Valley now.

About 4 career changes later I am so happy to have experienced those years. Nothing I have done since even slightly compares. My memories of those high times make me laugh and yes pinch myself that it actually happened

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Published by Amy Sandelman Harris

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