The Ten Headlines in Ten Minutes Challenge
or, How I landed my first advertising agency gig.
In the mid ’80s, while still a student in college, I decided I didn’t want to wait until graduation to land my first copywriting job. I had amassed years of experience in the production department of a daily, then a weekly newspaper, with occasional feature writing. But I was ready to take it to the next level.
So I selected what largely was regarded as the best advertising agency in Lafayette, The Graham Group, made an appointment, and brought along my portfolio (and I use the term quite loosely) of work.
As I sat across the conference table from the agency CEO, George Graham, he was rather straightforward and asked one simple question: “Why should I hire you?”
Without hesitation, my response was simply, “You give me ten minutes, I’ll give you ten headlines.”
Insert a blank stare and a long pause here.
I repeated the challenge, followed with, “If I can’t deliver, don’t hire me.”
With raised eyebrow, he nodded and replied, “Okay, you’re on.”
He proceeded to describe a project on which the agency was working, handed me a marker and pointed to a white board.
“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” he stated.
He left, closing the door behind him.
Twelve minutes later he returned, cracking the door slightly and peering in, probably expecting to see me still scribbling away on the board. What he found, however, were 11 headlines on the board (some of which were admittedly mediocre, with others right on point.) After reviewing all of the headlines, he looked at me squarely in the eyes and said, “You’re hired.”
It was a sweet victory that was defined not so much by the quality of the product as the fearlessness of the approach. Part confidence, part terror, and the willingness to risk failure in order to succeed. It worked. And to make the occasion even sweeter, the agency ultimately used one of the 11 headlines in the campaign.
The next year brought with it a tremendous opportunity to create and collaborate, to learn from some of the best in the industry, and to grow in the profession of which I’d dreamed since early childhood (yes, really.)
Is it always that easy? Of course not. But on that day, in that moment, the stars and planets aligned and provided an opportunity for which, to this day, I remain incredibly grateful.
So now, some 30 years after the Ten Headlines in Ten Minutes challenge, I extend a heartfelt thanks to George Graham, for taking a chance on a young, largely inexperienced writer, paving the way for a career that has since brought with it many more challenges, rewarding moments, and yes, even occasional less-than-stellar moments.
The takeaway remains one of my lifelong philosophies: never let the fear of failure overrule the promise of possibilities. Because in the end, the risks we take lead to the rewards we celebrate, or lessons learned that make us all the wiser.
So either way, we win.