AUTHOR: VTMiller TITLE: 15 minutes of fame for my friend Tina DATE: 10/11/2005 07:03:00 AM ----- BODY:
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Last update: October 9, 2005 at 5:52 PM
Diary of an unemployed ad exec
Story By John Reinan •photos By Glen Stubbe
Published October 10, 2005

In Hennepin County alone, state records list nearly 300 advertising agencies employing thousands of people. It's a business that can be both glamorous and dreary, and Tina Puente was part of it.

But last spring, she joined the throng of highly educated, highly compensated workers who were cut loose as the business struggled through its worst times since the Great Depression.

Though ad spending has rebounded, employment at the Twin Cities' top five agencies is down 25 percent since 2000, despite award-winning work for blue-chip clients.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis' creative reputation in the world advertising industry -- built on clever, edgy print and TV ads -- is under siege from new technologies, cost pressures and corporate ownership that puts a premium on meeting investor expectations.

Many of the laid-off have left the business, moved elsewhere or set up one-person consulting shops. Puente decided to hold out for a job in the industry she says "is defined by the genius around you. You live it. You breathe it." In a series of interviews, she shared the story of her job search. D7

SEPTEMBER

Tina Puente used to make nearly $100,000 a year. Today, she's wondering how soon she'll have to move into her parents' basement.

Since her March layoff from a Minneapolis agency, Puente, 35, has applied for more than 250 jobs online, logged more than 125 networking meetings and had about 40 formal job interviews.

She has talked to ad agencies, promotion agencies and online agencies. She has looked into selling pharmaceuticals, software, industrial lighting and kitchen products. She has become an expert in job-hunting strategies and created a slick website, www.hiretina.com, to market herself.

And still no job.

An unemployment check for $986 arrives every two weeks, but that will end in November. On this mellow autumn afternoon, Puente's upbeat personality is beginning to fray.

"I loved my job. I went in pumped every day," she says, curled in a chair at her apartment in an upscale Edina complex. "That's part of the trauma of losing it.

"You look at some of the job postings online and you think, 'This is nothing like the exciting business I've been in for 13 years.' "

She begins to cry softly.

"I moved here to be closer to my family, and I might have derailed my career," she says, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. "How do you say to your family, 'This might be the biggest mistake I ever made?' "

Puente's story begins six months earlier.

MARCH

When she was 8 years old, Puente wallpapered her bedroom with ads.

"My mom told me that when I was a toddler, I didn't watch the TV shows -- I watched the ads and sang the jingles," she said.

A graduate of Washburn High School in Minneapolis and Drake University in Des Moines, Puente started in advertising with a coveted internship at Fallon Worldwide in Minneapolis and later joined the Martin Agency, a high-profile firm in Richmond, Va.

She moved back to the Twin Cities in 2002 when the Edina agency Kerker recruited her to take over new-business development. A year later, Kerker downsized, and Puente was laid off.

She landed with Group One, a Minneapolis marketing agency that had big growth plans. In short order, she helped sign a major wine client and developed relationships that she hoped would bear fruit with several major Minnesota companies.

But one morning in March, an agency partner handed her a severance check and told her the firm couldn't support a full-time business-development person.

In some ways, Puente saw it coming. Business-development people make good money, and they're not billable; several major agencies got rid of their new-business staffers in recent months, and Twin Cities agencies had yet to bounce back from the dot-com bust and the 2001 recession.

Still, for Puente, the news was "devastating."

"The business-development person is the one who works 100 hours on a pitch, who's there until 3 a.m.," she said. "It hurts. You think, 'I gave up so much for you.' "

APRIL

Puente is in a whirlwind of meetings, drawing on contacts from as far back as college and her first job. She jokes about her manic networking, calling it "two degrees of Tina Puente," but she views it as the most important piece of her job hunt.

"I'm proud that I've maintained a very solid network," she says. "I'm lucky -- I have a lot of cheerleaders. I can pick up the phone and talk to a lot of very influential people who will help me."

One is Gillian Gabriel, a top headhunter for the Twin Cities ad industry, who met Puente for coffee after her layoff.

"She's done a great job networking," Gabriel said.

But business development is one of the toughest areas to land a job. Most large agencies have only one or two people handling new business, and the turnover isn't high, Gabriel said. At small agencies, the principals tend to handle pitches themselves.

"Tina got stuck because she was an expert in a very narrow field," Gabriel said. "The growth in the industry is not in her sweet spot."

MAY AND JUNE

Puente meets with the president of a large Twin Cities ad agency about a new-business job. She negotiates with a midsize marketing firm about a position that would mean a significant pay cut but a chance to buy into the agency later. She declines to pursue it, but she winds up doing some consulting work for the firm.

She has several interviews with an interactive agency but cuts off the contact, convinced that she's being strung along only because the interviewer wants to ask her out on a date.

On May 6, she flies to Cincinnati for an interview with LAGA, a major branding and marketing agency. On May 27, she's offered a job as director of client development, with a total compensation package of more than $100,000 a year.

In the first week of June, she visits Cincinnati again for two days, getting a feel for the city and the agency.

On June 13, she turns down the job. She's not ready to uproot herself again.

"These people were so awesome; I feel I'm so lucky to have met them," she says later. "But I wouldn't have been going in with a 100 percent commitment. One thing you learn when you go through obstacles: You can't allow yourself to make decisions based on fear or panic."

JULY

Puente attends a Twin Cities audition for the TV show "The Apprentice." Bad idea.

"Hello, it's me, average girl from Minnesota, and a room full of 6-foot-2 supermodels with one name," she says, grimacing.

AUGUST

Puente is emotionally exhausted.

"Mondays are the worst when you're unemployed," she says. "You've had a nice weekend with your friends, and then they all go to work and you're just sitting there.

"Everybody says, 'You'll be fine.' And on those days when you feel like drinking a bottle of vodka, you want to say, 'Why am I always the one who's going to be fine?' "

On Aug. 19, she meets with Martha Burnett, managing director of Jack Morton Worldwide, a big marketing firm with a Bloomington office. The meeting was set up by a networking contact: Jeanne Carpenter, a former Kerker colleague who now runs Perception, a Minneapolis corporate marketing and public relations agency.

"Tina has a heart the size of Manhattan -- she would do anything for anyone," Carpenter said. "How can you not want to make a connection on behalf of a Tina when she's so talented?"

SEPTEMBER

Puente has three promising job options. She works the phones at home, at times talking on her cell while she's on hold on the land line. People have suggested she set up shop as a consultant, as so many laid-off ad and PR people have done in recent years, but she's determined to stay in the agency world.

"I don't want to work on my own," she says. "I'm much better on a team."

SEPTEMBER 20

Jack Morton offers her a job as a senior account manager, a position combining account direction and business development.

"From the moment I connected with her, she was very warm, collegial and fun," said Burnett, who made the offer. "She's interesting, she's engaging. That's the kind of person I want to send out on the front lines, dealing with clients."

The job offers compensation comparable to what Puente was making before her layoff. On Sept. 22, she accepts.

TODAY

After a quick vacation, Puente starts her new job.

"I'm thrilled," she said shortly after taking the offer. "It's a fit with my personality."

Her advice for other job-seekers: Network like a fiend.

"Every offer that came through was from networking," she said. "You really have to work at it. The online stuff was not effective."

The job search "was stressful and unsettling," she said, but actually enjoyable in some ways.

"It sounds weird, but I had fun looking for a job," Puente said. "The exploration of new possibilities and meeting fabulous new people was great."

Another thing she discovered: "You can wear the same suit to every interview. Who will know?"

John Reinan is at jreinan@startribune.com.

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