Ryan Coons: Associate Creative Director, Struck
WFU Class of 2008
Ryan Coons is a former Lilting Banshee and currently creative director at Struck in Portland. He recently ran us through his journey from aimless job fair wanderer to ad agency creative lead. And yes, we agree his child is adorable.
DeacLink: Tells us about your current job and what it entails.
Ryan Coons: I am the associate creative director for an ad agency in Portland called Struck. I oversee the creative output for a few of our clients, from design to copywriting and advertising. I shepherd anything art and copy through the process going from idea to execution.
I completed a certificate program at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta, where I started as a designer. Of the seven people in my class I was an okay designer, but everyone was coming to me asking for writing on their pieces. I spent a few months fighting this but I realized I was a way better writer than designer. I made the switch midway through the school and wrote ever since.
Before this I had worked for agencies in Atlanta with clients like Baskin Robbins and Delta Airlines. Here at Struck I oversee output for smaller brands like Uinta Brewing, a Salt Lake City brewery and TriMet (Portland’s public transportation system).
DL: Did you spend your years at Wake preparing for a career in advertising?
RC: I was actually an Econ major… I didn’t go through the Scales art program. I graduated at the height of the recession with a gentleman’s 2.5 GPA and knew I wasn’t going to find a whole lot of work in that market. My path to a more creative industry is actually an interesting story.
Graduation was just two months away and I had no clue what I wanted to do. I went to this job fair and was wandering the aisles aimlessly when I spotted a Gary Baseman illustration (known for the Cranium board games) on this bank’s stand backdrop. I tried to talk to the guy manning the booth about the artwork but he had no idea what I was saying. His only response was, ‘So…. do you wanna work at this bank?’
Across from him was a booth for the Portfolio Center in Atlanta. She got my attention over knowing about Baseman’s work and told me all about their design program. I knew then and there it was meant for me. In a single day I went from not knowing what I wanted to do, to knowing exactly what I wanted to do.
DL: Did your time at the Portfolio Center set you up for your first job in advertising?
RC: Yes, exactly. I got my first position about three months before I was supposed to graduate. Because of this I technically didn’t finish the course! My reasoning was, the whole point of this school is to get me a job… I have a job… I’m outta here.
DL: What’s the hardest part about breaking into your industry?
RC: Breaking into advertising isn’t nearly as difficult as having a long happy career in it. There’s lots of internship opportunities in this field, although the majority aren’t paid. If you can get that one person to take interest in you, then bother them ‘til they throw a piece of work your way; now you’ve got your foot in the door.
We take new people fresh out of school, and look for potential and passion. We don’t care about your GPA; if you can approach a client’s problem in a unique way, we’ll teach you the rest of the skills required. Design and Photoshop can be taught but a passion for creatively solving problems is what gets you into advertising.
That said, keeping a job in advertising is tough because people actively avoid what we do. They install ad blockers, unsubscribe from everything, and press skip buttons to hurry up and watch a video of someone falling over. My mindset now is if I can get one campaign per year that I’m really proud of, it’s been a really great year.
DL: Which campaign have you been most proud of so far?
RC: Well, one of my very first client jobs in Atlanta was naming ice cream flavors for Baskin Robbins. Contrary to belief, I did not get to taste the ice cream in some Willy Wonka factory. I had to use their ingredient lists because it was so far out from production. It was still cool, but also easy to explain to relatives. My grandparents would order flavors once a month at the ice cream shop saying, ‘My grandson named this!’ to the teenager working the counter… who clearly didn’t care.
Recently however, we launched a new campaign for Snowbird ski resort which has a reputation for being a little rough around the edges. The campaign takes one-star reviews from Yelp and TripAdvisor and turns them into ads. We take negative reviews like- the snow is too deep, the courses are too difficult, there’s nothing to do unless you wanna ski all day- and flip them into advertising for the resort. It’s taking this very real thing of people complaining about these awesome aspects, and showing if you want a proper ski trip, then this is where you want to be. It really hit, and that felt awesome.
DL: How did your time at Wake prepare you for life after graduation?
RC: The thing that prepared me most was being part of the Lilting Banshees comedy troupe. That was where I really started to write and be funny. I made those yellow posters that are all over campus, which is a good exercise for writing print ads. Between posters and writing sketches, I learned how to be funny. Also, performing these jokes in front of an audience prepared me for pitching ideas to clients in an agency. Doing that with a dash of humor is so crucial.
Also with pitches, more often than not your ideas don’t go over super well. You’re always trying to push a client just a little bit toward uncomfortable. If you only present the same expected ideas they’ll never break out from amongst their competitors. I’ll do the song and dance some presentation, and the client takes a moment to pause before delivering the most flat rejection possible. You have to laugh it off even though the idea you shared was personal. Ultimately the ideas we come up with are born out of our own experiences that speak to a larger truth about how people interact with each other. To have that rejected so soundly can definitely hit at you… but just like with a joke falling flat onstage- you can’t be too precious.
DL: Do you have any advice for readers considering moving to Portland?
RC: I’m from Boston, but my wife is from Portland. The first time I came to visit I realized we had to move out here, no matter how long it took. Portland is a really interesting place not just for advertising but design and creatively driven pursuits. It’s very different from New York, LA and Atlanta, where Atlanta really tries hard to compete with those two cities. The hustle in Portland isn’t as exhausting. Everyone finds their niche here; there’s lots of small agencies doing amazing work for a select group of clients rather than chasing the big global brands like in other cities. If you have a specialty and a passion, you can find a way to make it work for you. Whether you go freelance or find a place to work, there’s plenty of options.
DL: Do you have a mantra you go by, or kernel of advice you’d like to impart?
RC: I have a number of post-it notes on my monitor that I repeat to myself constantly, the oldest of which says, ‘Be mindful of the work you leave for others’. I think when you work in a big team it’s easy to let someone else handle the dirty or boring stuff. This is an industry where there’s grunt work, like cranking out tiny web banners for hours on end waiting for that awesome campaign to come along. If you can live with that gladly, take it on and be helpful to other people, you’re more likely to be handed the bigger opportunities as they come.
Another post-it says: No one wants to work with a tortured artist. That’s not a viable career life option anymore! I truly believe you make your best work when you’re happy, healthy, and take care of yourself. I’d so much rather work with somebody that has some talent but a bigger desire to be better, than someone who is just pure raw talent but difficult to work with and precious about their ideas. Be a good person to the people that you’re working with.
One last post-it- right now is an amazing time to make a living off your creativity. You can work full time for a company or brand, bounce around doing freelance, or use platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon to build a following around you and your work. There’s never been a more fruitful time to be a creative-minded person, which I wish was the case when I graduated.