Career advice from an arrogant kid with a crappy film camera
By Dan Kahn
I bought my first car when I was 14. A multi-colored and primer-covered Mustang fastback that I slowly rebuilt with my dad in his garage. Since I taught myself to read with car magazines, it was only natural that I wanted my freshly-restored car on the covers of all those mags. It never occurred to me that such a feat wasn’t likely for a kid with a homebuilt car.
So, I drove it to the local park, had my cousin Andrew (who later became an accomplished automotive marketer in his own right) shoot some pics, and then proceeded to write a feature story on my own ride. I mailed the story and photos to every magazine editor I could find. A few of them bit and six months later, my car was on the cover of Hot Rod, Mustang & Fords, and in the pages of Car Craft. Editors like Ro McGonegal and Jim Smart took a chance on me, and it changed the course of my life.
After that experience and while still in high school, I decided this whole “writing about cars” thing seemed like a good idea. I wrote a letter to the staff editors of my favorite magazine – Car Craft – and asked for advice. John Kiewicz and Miles Cook wrote back and offered to take me to lunch if I drove down to their office in the Petersen Publishing building in Los Angeles. It was not only 40 miles from my parent’s house but about 35 miles farther than I had ever driven before. They were cool, generous with their time and very clear in their advice: “Don’t do this for a living, you’ll work very hard for very little pay, and the deadlines are a grind.” But what I heard was, “You can do this, but get a degree in journalism first.” So I did and they changed the course of my life.
My first “real” job came about at age 19 while going to college full-time. My parent’s neighbor Chris Hatounian, the editor of a mountain biking magazine at the time, walked across the street and told me the publishing company he worked for had a few car magazines and they needed a writer. I brought a pile of clips from my high-school newspaper, threw on a button-down shirt, and BS’d my way through the interview landing a gig as a staffer. All for the princely sum of $22K a year, more than I had ever imagined.
Within a few days, I realized a few things. The publishing company was not a pillar of ethics (I heard stories almost immediately about how paychecks bounced with some regularity). And I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. My confidence in the interview convinced the owner that I’d be a great fit to write for all their car magazines, with titles like Car Toy Collectibles, Rod Action, All American Chevys and Kart Racer. I could write and I knew a fair amount about cars, but I didn’t know how to edit or work on a layout. And I certainly didn’t know a damn thing about photography, which I was expected to handle to illustrate my stories.
The writing and editing came along quickly, but the photography did not. This was the very end of the film camera era, and I was expected to have and use my own gear. So I borrowed an ancient (even for the time) Nikon FE manual film camera with a bag of fixed lenses and started firing away at my first shoot. A week or so later, the art director called me back to his office. When I crossed the threshold into his dark dungeon, something whizzed past my head. The next projectile made contact with my forehead. They were my slides he was chucking at me while loudly proclaiming they were, well, expletives I won’t repeat here.
It was a demoralizing and humiliating experience. It also pissed me off and motivated me to get better. Quitting never crossed my mind. Showing him he was wrong was all I could think about. Thankfully, even at that odd little pirate ship of a publishing company, some people were willing to help me. An editor named Rex Reese, that came from the biking side, showed me the basics of exposure, balance and framing a photo. An editor near retirement, Kevin Boales, taught me the basics of editing. I was young, arrogant and a little stupid. But I was at least smart enough to listen and learn, and I progressed in my career. Chris, Kevin and Rex changed the course of my life.
As I neared graduation my senior year of college, I met an effervescent lady with fiery red hair and an infectious smile named DeEtte Crow. She was the publisher of Rod & Custom Magazine, as well as one of the first female publishers at Petersen Publishing, and she seemed to know everyone. We spent some time chatting at the Grand National Roadster Show, followed by a more formal interview. When I graduated, I had a gig waiting for me at R&C as a technical editor. DeEtte was kind, patient and offered a guiding hand along with an endless stream of introductions to everyone in her orbit. Even as mergers and acquisitions quickly changed the face of that once-mighty publishing company, she was a rock in a sea of chaos. DeEtte took a chance on an arrogant kid who thought he knew twice as much as he actually did but was willing to work unlimited hours if necessary. She changed the course of my life.
After a few years (and a few sales of the parent company I worked for), the writing was on the wall. The digital era was coming for the publishing industry fast, and I needed to understand it. I started aggressively pursuing a job in the burgeoning world of online car reviews, and I was fixated on working for Edmunds.com – the market leader at the time. I hammered editor Karl Brauer with emails asking him to interview me. Eventually, he relented and offered me a road test editor job. To be clear here I was not a good road test editor. I was egotistical, not a team player and my driving skills were not anything close to what I claimed they were. I was probably a pretty lousy hire, but he took a chance on me, and even when I decided to leave, he was kind and generous. That experience was humbling, and Karl changed the course of my life.
After leaving Edmunds, I suddenly found myself at a crossroads. I had a mortgage for a house I bought at the market’s peak before the housing market collapsed, with no job and no real prospects. My cousin Andrew (the photographer – remember him?) had landed a job working in automotive public relations at a small agency called Automedia 2000 for a pair of industry icons – former MotorTrend editor Len Emanuelson and former art director Jim McGowan. Andrew set up the meeting, and after chatting a bit, they brought me on as an account executive.
For the first time, I found what I considered a “comfortable fit.” I could write and talk about cars and use skills learned in photography, layout and design. Even my newfound digital publishing knowledge came in handy. It was a good job working for good people who treated me fairly. A few years in, when a headhunter called and offered to double my pay to take a job with a bigger agency, it broke my heart to leave. But the money was too much to pass up as I was about to get married and start a family. Jim and Len pulled me aside and told me, “This job will be very different than what you’re used to, and if you ever want to come back, we’ll be waiting.” They didn’t say it as a warning, they said it with sincerity and it meant the world. They changed my life forever.
The headhunter was working for an agency called JMPR, and the owner, Joe Molina, was known throughout the automotive industry. He wore huge “Swifty Lazar” style glasses and was known for having an even bigger personality and repping incredible brands like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Rolls Royce and Bentley. And he was also rumored to be pretty tough to work for. Everything I had heard turned out to be true. The clients were incredible – I worked on accounts like Aston Martin and Airstream – the man was a creative whirlwind with decades of experience and was indeed very challenging to work for. His expectations were stratospheric, “good enough” never was, and he ran the tightest ship I had ever seen.
At the time, I resented the hell out of him for it. I chaffed under his management style and didn’t like the constant pressure to do better, work harder and push the staff to its limit. I couldn’t understand his constant focus on hour burn and the bottom line. I swore that I’d do things differently if I were in charge. I didn’t realize that Joe’s heat and pressure were forging a piece of pig iron into steel. I unquestionably would not be where I am today if not for him. Joe changed the course of my life, and the older I get and the longer I run my own firm, the more I understand why he was the way he was. He taught me the basics of running an agency, and he changed my life as a result.
Finally, after realizing that the world of PR and marketing was changing faster than any of the agencies realized, I left and started my own firm in 2008 with the kernel of an idea for what I considered “a better way.” Over the last 14 years, I have changed my leadership style dramatically. I had precisely ZERO ideas of how to run a company or lead a team when I started. I’m only slightly better at it today, with the goal of learning at least one lesson daily. The way I learn is usually by making mistakes. Along the way, I believe I have given a handful of people a foothold to build a career in this industry. I am certain that I’ve made mistakes along the way. To those I lead astray, I am truly sorry.
In this current crazy Wild West of a job market, where offices are becoming ancillary, people can work from anywhere, and turnover seems to be at an all-time high, I offer this piece of unsolicited advice – most leaders don’t wake up in the morning thinking about how they will make or break someone’s day or month or an entire career. They’re simply doing the best they can and making a lot of it up along the way. To the leaders wondering why your people are leaving, look in the mirror and ask if you’re the boss you used to resent. To the employees chafing under the supervisor who keeps asking for more, contemplate what they are trying to achieve. Are they simply pushing you to make a quota, or are they trying to give you a boost to the next level in your skillset and career?
I’m so fortunate that a handful of my early Kahn Media team members are still with me and that our executive team is a brilliant blend of veterans from the very beginning and new faces that bring fresh perspectives. It’s gratifying to see former employees who started with us at the dawn of their careers leading PR and marketing efforts at major OEMs and brands across the industry. To all of them, those still with the company and those that have sought greener pastures, thank you for allowing me the privilege to work alongside you. To those I haven’t had the opportunity to work with yet – the one promise I can make is that I’ll lead with grace and gratitude, and tomorrow hopefully, I’ll be a little bit better than I am today.
In the end, that’s all we can really hope for. That, and the chance to change someone’s life along the way.