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Letting Go

In the L.A. advertising industry, Susan Franceschini is the name everyone knows. From the creative boutique agencies in Venice to the skyscrapers downtown, she provides an anchor of stability in a tumultuous business. As executive director of ThinkLA, a local trade group for the industry, she communicates to more than 6,000 members and produces nearly 50 events a year, ranging from roundtables with a few dozen people to dinners for more than 1,000. Franceschini helped form the non-profit six years ago and has led it since then. Previously, she worked as a recruiter and HR manager at several local agencies. Franceschini met with the Business Journal at her office in Marina del Rey (the group has since moved to Culver City) to discuss how people sometimes throw up during job interviews, the emotional toll of firing people and the growth she found when she was laid off herself.

Question: Are you really a frustrated art director?

Answer: Copywriter. I started in advertising as a floater with aspirations of becoming a copywriter.

What’s a floater?

An in-house temp. Whenever a person was sick or on vacation, I would fill in. Assistant media planner, creative coordinator, receptionist – I’ve worked them all. The job doesn’t exist anymore.

Why not?

Maybe it was a luxury for an agency to have someone on staff full time to pop in as a temp when needed. It was a great learning experience for me.

Where did you float?

Davis Ball & Columbatto in Los Angeles. After six months as a floater, the HR department asked me to work for them. I’d never thought about HR, never considered it as a career.

Why did you take the job?

I realized I didn’t have the talent to be a copywriter. It wasn’t the type of writing I wanted to do. HR was a suitable role for me – helping people find their place, facilitating placements.

How long did you stay?

Seven years. The agency changed names to Davis Elen Advertising. Then I was hired by ChiatDay to become their in-house recruiter. There were 60 open positions when I arrived at Chiat. I had five interviews my first day.

Do you remember any unusual job interviews?

As a recruiter you get a few outliers. I’ve had people get sick in front of me.

Did they throw up?

They did. Too nervous. And I don’t think I make people nervous.

But you did pose challenges for the candidates.

Working at Chiat, they had an interior courtyard where people would meet and eat their bagels. That’s where I conducted all my interviews because if you couldn’t focus in that environment, you couldn’t survive at Chiat. There were hundreds of people walking through that place.

Any other memorable interviews?

One day I brought this woman in and I get an emergency page from the receptionist. I excused myself from the interview and go to the front desk. The receptionist said, “Your candidate has the back of her dress tucked into the top of her panty hose. She has been parading through the office all exposed behind.” I thought, “How can I handle this gracefully?” When I returned I made up this story about how another candidate was looking for me so I would have to go. Then I said, “And by the way, you might want to check your dress when you go back out. The receptionist mentioned it was tucked in.” She was mortified.

What was your favorite memory at Chiat?

One experience gave me goose bumps and reminds me why I got into this business. I was at Chiat when they won back the Apple account. Before they released the “Genius” campaign, they screened a rough cut of the TV commercial for agency staff. Later that day, I was sitting at a desk in a public space and (Chairman) Lee Clow was called out of a meeting. He sat down next to me. Steve Jobs was on the phone. Lee said, “Steve, I showed the kids a rough cut and I’ve got some ideas. I’m flying up tonight.” That was Thursday. The commercial aired Sunday and by airtime it had changed significantly – new music, new editing.

Why did that impress you?

The creative process really came from the gut. That’s real advertising.

What’s your funniest story?

After I started working at Chiat, I was on the elevator and Lee Clow turned to me and said, “Hi, I don’t know you.” I introduced myself and said I was the recruiter. He said, “You have the easiest job. Everybody wants to work here.” It was true – everyone did want to work there, but not everyone could.

Why did you leave Chiat?

Laid off. The toughest job I ever did as HR director was fire people. It was ironic to be in a situation where it happened to me.

What was the turning point of your career?

The layoff. I always told people that nine times out of 10, you end up in a better place. That’s true. It provides clarity. The layoff made me more self-reliant and gave me that entrepreneurial bug. It gave me the courage to start my own business and ultimately to run this one.

What did you do next?

I started my own business, AdJobsInc.com. That was a great experience, lots of learning. It was an online job board for the advertising industry, but jobs were scarce at the time.

What happened then?

I got a call from Carol Golden with the Los Angeles Association of Advertising Agencies, saying the executive director of a related organization, the Los Angeles Ad Club, was leaving and would I come in for a temporary six-month stint? My business wasn’t thriving so I came on board. About three months into it, she decided to retire. She asked me, “How do you feel about taking over this business?”

What happened to your business?

AdJobs stayed up for about another year. We couldn’t dedicate the attention that it needed. We shut it down when it became evident I had to dedicate my time here.

How did the organizations come together?

At the time there were three separate organizations for the ad industry: LAAAA, which was all agency people; Ad Club, which included marketers at large advertisers; and the Magazine Reps, the people who sold space in magazines. I became executive director of all three boards.

Is that how ThinkLA was born?

It took a year of talking between the boards. Those were bumpy conversations because everybody was taking care of themselves. The sales mentality is all about getting access to people, versus the agency mentality, which is more social. In the end, we created a board with three representatives from each organization, in addition to others we recruited.

What do you remember about ThinkLA’s early years?

At an annual retreat in Palm Springs, I got a call at 2 a.m. saying, “Someone from your group is on the golf course chasing ducks. Can you come get them?” The retreat was for CEOs and top executives to get away from the pressures of the business!

How did you have to change your personality to succeed at this job?

I had to amplify my diplomatic skills. At first, I thought people were so tough to work with. Once I made the shift to seeing the opportunities provided by their personality, I got more access to people. I adapt and learn from everybody.

What was the most difficult assignment of your career?

Firing people.

How many people have you fired?

More than 50. At times I had to lay off 15 or 20 at a time. But here’s the greatest compliment of my life: A couple of years ago at a restaurant downtown a guy came up to me and asked if I remembered him. I said, “I do remember you.” He said, “I just wanted to thank you for how you handled my termination. It had a great impact on me.” He went back to school and became a psychologist.

Why was that your best compliment?

As an HR director, you don’t get a lot of people who tell you they love their job and they’re getting paid enough and are happy. You hear the negative: My boss stinks; I don’t get enough money. That feedback was really refreshing. The point is, laying people off with grace and respect is really emotional work. That’s why I’m not an HR director anymore.

What was the hardest decision of your career?

Taking on this organization. I didn’t realize how hard it was until I started. It’s one thing to do a job, it’s another to start a business. The first two years were crazy.

How so?

At first we were in donated space for six months. We were supposed to get a 90-day termination notice, but they told us we had to leave in 30 days. And our biggest conference of the year fell on the day we had to move. Trying to keep the business going, mobilize the move and keep my staff motivated – that was not easy.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in Arcadia with four older brothers. My parents still live there. I was a good kid because I watched my brothers get in trouble.

How has your family affected your career?

Well, it’s the opposite. My career affected my family. I am the event planner in my family. Everyone used to rally around my parents’ home, but now that they are older I have taken that role. Holidays, birthdays, all that. It’s easy for me to do it – I’m a planner. It would be nice if someone else planned and invited me to a party, but I do it.

And you’re single?

Haven’t found the right man yet, but hope to.

What other careers have you considered or would you secretly like to pursue?

Copywriting. I’m coming back to that. I want to be a travel writer now. Travel and food are passions for me. In this world of blogging, anyone can write, so I’m experimenting with it. I have a trip coming up to Italy in September and I’m going to blog about that.

Where else do you travel?

I worked in Paris for six months when I was 22. That gave me the travel bug. Besides Europe, I love Hawaii and Mexico. But there is a long list of places I want to go: Australia, New Zealand and China.

Do you speak a foreign language?

No. I used to speak a little French, now it’s bits and pieces. Communicating is half the fun.

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