Career Tips

How to Make a Whistle Out of an Acorn (Or, “Use What You Have to Give the Audience What They Need”)

by Jessica Colombo

Sometimes getting a job is about creating your own luck.

For instance, upon graduation, Monte Bartlett was without a job, much like many of today’s alumni. Despite being a twice-over alumnus (undergraduate degree from Justin Morrill College, graduate degree in Advertising) Monte could not even land an interview. Sound familiar?

However, instead of channel surfing until the economy recovered, Monte developed an alternative approach that created immediate work and positioned him for better future opportunities. Best of all, the work Monte found was actually at companies he liked, doing work in line with his skills.

First, and obviously, he realized that recruiters were not going to come pounding on his door begging to pay him; he was not entitled to anything. The light bulb moment was when a quick study revealed that there were over 400 not-for-profit groups and organizations in the greater Lansing area.

Monte suspected that every single organization needed to announce their existence and promote their services. He also bet that they could not afford a marketing staff but still could use some affordable advertising help.

Monte chose several such organizations. His main criteria: those companies that appeared most interesting (ahem, fun) and seemed likely to give him tangible work experience.

He approached these groups and offered to work for 1 hour per week for $10. His duties would be whatever they needed: filing, typing, faxing, messenger, no task too menial. He would also help with their advertising.

Monte’s appeal to them was who doesn’t have $10 to spare, or an hour’s worth of administrative work no one else wanted to do?

He talked to several companies. It took a while. Not everyone got it. But Monte learned how to refine his elevator pitch, and stuck with it.

Eventually, several groups hired him for that hour a week. Soon these companies found more work for him to do. Some even increased the hour to a half-day, then a full day, then multiple days.

Within several weeks, Monte was able to lobby for developing advertising and marketing for these organizations. Since he had started slowly with the organizations and proved himself, they gave him lots of flexibility to market their services. Monte created several marketing brochures, wrote advertising copy, even produced a television commercial.

That relevant experience would later be a key factor for him landing an agency job in Chicago. Yet not a single one of the Lansing organizations that provided this experience had ever posted a help wanted ad or had a job “opening”. Instead, Monte proposed a mutually beneficial working relationship with the organizations that front loaded value to them and resulted in real world training for him.

That approach has served Monte well through subsequent careers.

For instance, a few years ago after he moved to New York City, Monte was working a second shift and had spare time. While skimming a magazine, he came across an article that described the lively parties put on by a small theatre company: Naked Angels (the off Broadway troupe where Marisa Tomei and Sarah Jessica Parker are members).

Thinking who doesn’t like a party, Monte simply called the theatre company and offered them his services to clean and do office work. They accepted, and soon he was the company’s janitor. Monte then offered to create the advertising for the troupe’s performances, for free.

By initially working unpaid (again starting slow and gaining trust) Monte soon had more work than he could handle. Without him ever asking, the company insisted on paying Monte, followed by steady raises. And the parties weren’t bad either (well, except for that one unfortunate incident with Billy Joel…).

A few years later, Monte had a chance encounter in a restaurant that proved you never know where opportunity arises. He struck up a conversation with a stranger about eyeglasses. The next day the stranger phoned Monte to reveal himself as ad industry icon Peter Arnell (creator of memorable campaigns for Samsung, Donna Karan, Pepsi, Banana Republic among many others). Momentarily stunned, Monte actually dropped the phone!

He had a connection to an industry titan. But Monte couldn’t figure out how to convert that to a job. Then a few weeks later, Peter Arnell won the Tommy Hilfiger account. Monte sent Peter a handwritten note congratulating him on the win and reminding Peter of their meeting.

Several days later, Monte found himself in Peter’s conference room. Peter was intrigued by Monte’s experience and wanted to hire him, but wondered what his role would be.

This was another light bulb moment for Monte: rather than base the conversation on a job description, volunteer to write a proposal of services. Overnight he put together a 4-page proposal that included specific tasks and deliverables he would perform for Peter Arnell and his agency. Monte basically wrote his own job description—catering to his strengths—as a proposal. Peter hired Monte as part of his executive team, at a 30% raise over his previous job.

From this chance encounter, and staying in touch, then offering to define his role, Monte developed a job where one had not existed.

He chases what grabs him and persists until he has grabbed it.

I asked Monte for advice on how to land the job you’re chasing. He quickly replied: “Be on LinkedIn. Set up a profile, start connecting and most importantly, foster the relationships you’ve built into the future.” Secondly, ask the question: “what can I do for you? If they’re not sure how you’ll fit into the company, tell them.”

Most of all, make every conversation about the company; its goals and dreams. Companies are mainly interested in their own challenges and making money. The career goals of the job seeker by definition must complement the company, not the other way around.

Monte’s favorite tactic is still offering to write a proposal on how the job seeker could be useful to a company. If they are still not sure, propose a short-term freelance employment contract. In addition to giving the employer a chance to see you in action, it will allow you to write your own job description and relieve anxiety in the process.

Finally, he suggests focusing on your accomplishments and results, and not (definitely not) merely listing your previous tasks. Way too many job seekers assume potential employers will be impressed by their previous roles. Unless one of those roles was being on the Space Shuttle, employers don’t care. Results are all that matter.

Currently, Monte has the coolest job ever (my thoughts, for what it’s worth.) He works for a naming company, Catchword.  A naming company, come again? Yes, Catchword dreams up brand names and taglines for a plethora of products and companies for clients including McDonald’s, Cisco and Hewlett Packard.

As a marketer, I see the scope of importance that surrounds a brand name, not to mention how much creativity it takes to come up with the one that fits perfectly. I’m glad to have been able to meet him, to learn from him, and to be able to tell a little bit of his story here. Hopefully, a few people will read this and get a few creative ideas of their own to share with a couple of Spartans who may need to hear it!


Jessica Colombo is finishing up her last semester of an undergraduate degree in Marketing at MSU. She is still the Communications Assistant where she gets to do fun stuff like write for this blog and sing the praises of MSUAA Career Services in other social media places. She is still searching for a company that’s hiring in their world domination department, and is super-excited to tell that story on this blog when she can share the details!

Monte Bartlett is a “creative,” with a flexible mind that has led him down the path to awesomeness. He is certain that John Reid was the best professor to ever teach at MSU. Monte currently lives in Manhattan and enjoys collecting arts and crafts antiques and supporting his local independent record store. There are also rumors that he can make a whistle out of an acorn.



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