How I Got Here

Ad specialty pros share their backstories on how they got into the business of promotions.

Ad specialty pros share their backstories on how they got into the business of promotions.

How I Got Here

In the journey of ad specialty sales, there is no single path to success.People from all walks of life, from wildly different backgrounds, have forged blockbuster careers in the industry, striking out with independent spirits to make success their own.

This diversity gives the industry energy and originality, a real verve that leads to creative solutions for clients and healthy competition that pushes pros to always up their game.

Here, we spotlight the stories of five of your industry peers from various interesting backgrounds. From an illustrator and an author, to an emergency room nurse and a hard-charging skier, these professionals may have taken different journeys to promo success, but they do have a several key traits in common: a penchant for creativity and a willingness to delve into hard work on behalf of their clients.

Read on for their unique stories, insights and inspiration.

Tee Hamilton

Kids’ Book Illustrator

The publishing house where Theresa Hamilton worked as an illustrator of children’s books tended to dole out assignments according to gender stereotypes. “I was a girl, so they figured I should draw flowers and things like that,” says Hamilton. “So I would put my name in as Tee, so they couldn’t stereotype me. I was really better at drawing dinosaurs and cars, and I liked that a lot more.”

The self-described red-haired comic book geek kept the nickname and now uses it professionally in her role as head of the Creative Alchemy agency based in Clearwater, FL. Most of Hamilton’s clients are other promotional products professionals. Creative Alchemy specializes in design services (illustration, graphics, marketing/ad layouts, Web/app/mobile apps, toy and product design, photography and storyboarding/copywriting) and consultation (art/creative direction, development and branding).

Hamilton’s dad worked as a distributor in the promotional products industry. As a kid, she was the student who came to school with logoed pens and pencils from companies she’d never heard of and were a bit of a mystery to her and her classmates. But she didn’t follow directly in her father’s footsteps. The path to starting Creative Alchemy in 2013 circuitously started in Baltimore, led to Atlanta, swerved around and down under the world to Australia and then doubled back to Florida.

It was a romantic quest to continue a relationship with an Aussie boy that prompted Hamilton to pack up her illustrator pens and paints and move to Melbourne. Alas, the relationship didn’t last. But the opportunities afforded by being in that country were instrumental to Hamilton’s career success.

“I’d started in children’s books in the States and that led me to working in toys and other kids’ stuff,” she says. “The thing about being in Australia was that there were so many jobs available for young people. The population there is so much smaller than here in the United States. If you were a go-getter and willing to take a chance on new opportunities, well, the competition was a lot less.”

One of the jobs she picked up in Melbourne was designing toy bears for a line of Beanie Kids collectibles, similar to the Beanie Babies that were popular in the U.S. “I did that for four years,” Hamilton recalls. “I designed about five different bears every month. Some bears were aimed at being rare, so they were only released for one month. Others were made available for years.”

After designing a menagerie of Beanie Kids, Hamilton found jobs working on Web design for a telephone company, moved into doing media projects aimed at kids and moved around to working for a toy supplier. All the while, she was picking up a wide range of tools that would come to be implemented in Creative Alchemy.

Once back in Clearwater, she decided to focus on design services specifically for the promotional products industry. “I noticed a disconnect between distributors and suppliers and artwork,” she says. “A lot of them don’t have people on staff, so they call me for design service. I really enjoy helping people, and focusing on people in this industry.”

Hamilton speaks at industry educational events to get to know more distributors and build her company’s street cred. She believes anybody that might be considering a career in this industry needs to embrace one very important aspect of their personality: creativity.

“Get in touch with your creative side,” she says. “The way this industry is going, it’s what will set you apart and lead you on the road to success.”

Don’t just be a mug and T-shirt hawker. “If that’s all you offer then all you’ll be about is price,” she says. “Embrace the product world by seeing how you can be different than everybody else. Don’t be afraid to miss a deal because somebody else is offering it 10 cents less than you.”

That’s the canvas on which Hamilton has drawn success.

Rick Greene

Film Major

The interview did not start well. It was the early 1980s, and Rick Greene, fresh out of college, answered a help wanted ad for a job with an advertising specialties firm, Walter Cribbins Co., in Los Angeles.

When he showed up for the interview, the female hiring manager announced that she was intent on hiring a woman. Greene was dejected. Before dismissing him, though, the manager asked if he even knew what the ad specialties industry was. Sure, Greene replied. Pens and stuff with logos on them. Growing up in Cleveland, his mom had been in the industry. Turned out the dozen women interviewed for the job hadn’t known anything about the business. Greene was hired on the spot.

A boss sticking out his hand after a first interview and extorting, “Congratulations, you’re hired!” sounds like it’s out of an old black-and-white movie script. Right? But that would suit Greene, western regional vice president of HALO Branded Solutions (asi/356000) and a lifelong fan of film, just fine.

From an early age, Greene collected 8-millimeter movies of classics starring Abbot and Costello, Mae West and the Three Stooges. He watched Charlie Chaplin on a screen set up in his living room. These comic legends inspired Greene to enroll in the Ohio State University as a film major. When his father, a photographer, moved to Southern California, Greene tagged along and became a writing major at University of California, San Diego. “I went to Beverly Hills and stayed with my aunt and uncle, who lived next door to actor Kurt Douglas,” he says. “Needless to say, I fell in love with Southern California.”

Greene intended to take the job in the ad specialties industry for a short time, or “until Disney or some studio called to hire me.” Soon enough, he realized he was making more money than any of his counterparts working in the film industry. He’s now been in the business for 33 years, on the distributor side for all that time. He’s served on the board for the Specialty Advertising Association of California, and was the 2009 president.

His work with HALO, where he’s been for the last 11-plus years, encompasses recruiting, sales management, large account presentations, creative brainstorming, planning and facilitating events and writing. The writing is his forte. He has penned a series of articles on an approach to branded marketing called: “Be Bold, Be Different, Be Memorable.”

He also authored two fantasy fiction novels, Boofalo (2004) and ’Shroom (2007). Both feature a lead character who takes on magical powers and has adventures that include time travel, excitement, intrigue and epic battles between good and evil.

Greene’s experiences with good and evil in the promotional products industry spans three decades, and he takes a moment before summing up his experiences and advising anybody interested in getting into this realm.

“Twenty or thirty years ago this was a different world than what we now live in,” he says. “When I started there weren’t the research tools that we have today. And even five years ago things were so different. The economy is better now, so everybody is positive again.”

He advises others to be bold, be different, be memorable. “Apply that in how you go to market,” he says. “Don’t be just another person who has crap with logos on it. Be startlingly unique as a promotional partner. Find out what you are passionate about and use that to stand out from the pack.”

Paula Gossett

Emergency Room Nurse

The wildly popular medical show ER, which featured a young George Clooney and ran on television from 1994-2009, was a realistic depiction of what it was like to work in a hospital emergency room. So says Paula Gossett, an ER nurse for nearly three years who went on to spend 32 years in the promotional products industry.

“Working in an ER is like being inside a popcorn popper,” she says. “Things are flying around all over the place and you have no idea what’s going on. It looks like chaos from the outside. But from the inside it’s a well-orchestrated scenario.”

Gossett worked in an ER in New York City, located in the Bronx on the ominously named Gun Hill Road. “We saw a tremendous amount of overdose cases,” she says. “The city bus would pull up outside and the driver would tell us to bring over wheelchairs for all the people who’d overdosed and taken the bus.”

Gossett also got to deal with the homeless population. Then there were the elderly.

When she became pregnant, she kept working in the ER, until a couple incidents caused her to clock out. The first time, she was doing CPR on a patient when a runaway stretcher hit her in the stomach. The baby was OK. After that, somebody handed her a sick baby full of spots. Those spots turned out to be German measles, and Gossett hadn’t been vaccinated for measles as an adult.

She spent a very scary two weeks before determining that she and her unborn child had not been infected.

Gossett wanted to go back to the ER after her kids were born. But that meant working nights, holidays and weekends. She started to look around for alternatives. “I did what every good Long Island woman does – went to get my nails done,” she says. “I asked my manicurist if she knew of anybody looking to hire part-time workers. Turns out Sharon Tallif had just left the chair right before me.”

Tallif ran Prestige Promotions in North Massapequa, and was looking for inside support staff. She hired Gossett on the spot, over the phone. “Sharon would go out and sell, and I’d process the orders,” says Gossett. “Even though at the beginning I had no idea what an invoice was. Those were different times. You had to make copies at the library, and it cost a quarter. Processing time was like four to six weeks. It was like shipping by Pony Express.”

Gossett also volunteers with Therapy Dogs, Inc. She and her rescue dogs visit nursing homes and present to grammar schools as a precursor to anti-bullying programs. They teach kids about being kind to animals (and kids) and that special needs animals (and kids) can do almost anything ... just a little differently.

When Gossett moved to Florida, she interviewed around and was hired by Ad Ease South owner Aviva Suppo. After about a year, Suppo pushed Gossett into sales. About six months after that, they became partners. They built the business, and it went through several iterations. Today, Gossett is part of the Geiger (asi/202900) team.

Gossett likes to laugh, and she keeps busy. But is her life ever as busy as those crazy days in the ER? And did she bring along any life-saving lessons?

“Well, in the ER you learn to shut down your feelings during a crisis,” she says. “You deal with the situation in a logical manner. You fall apart afterward, once the crisis is over.”

Sue Vonderbecke

Limo and School bus driver

A silver 1929 Rolls Royce and a white 1931 Bentley with right-side steering wheels are a couple of sweet rides. Those were two cars Sue VonDerBecke got to drive around New Jersey during her days as a limo driver.

These days, she’s the owner of Inkling Ink Screen Printing (asi/387285) in Fork Union, VA, which she has operated since 2000. The company has its own in-house graphic artist, works on corporate logos, has an embroidery service and specializes in personalized messages.

VonDerBecke fondly recalls the days of driving those classic sedans to and from weddings. Sure, she’d escort around local celebrities and sports figures in stretch limos. But it was being a part of the wedding ceremonies that were most memorable. “There was this one wedding at Princeton University that I’ll never forget,” she says. “It was just gorgeous. The chapel was decorated around Christmastime with pine trees and poinsettias. The pipe organ was playing.”

When her kids became a little older, she found it easier on her schedule to switch to driving a school bus. She drove high-school kids. You might shudder at the thought, but VonDerBecke says it wasn’t that bad. “In the morning, the kids are still nearly asleep,” she says. “And in the afternoon all the bad kids and the athletes are staying after school. So it’s just the quiet kids left on the bus.”

On one of her days off from bus duty, VonDerBecke discovered the world of promotional products. Her husband, Alex, is always looking for ideas for projects he works on around the house. The pair was at a home show when a display caught their eyes. A man was pad printing logos … on walnuts. That might sound nuts, but it got their attention, and spurred them to take a free seminar the next day. The VonDerBeckes were the only ones who attended the seminar. It turned out to be the right push for Sue, who’d always had an arts-and-crafts background. That aptitude was about to re-emerge. When they moved to Virginia, a main requirement of the new house was enough room for a real shop for her to run her then fledgling Inklings Ink business.

She encourages others to always keep learning about the industry, and to take classes, like the ones offered at ASI Shows. “You’d be surprised what you pick up just by talking to people,” she says.

VonDerBecke credits her years driving sedans and limos for her ability to converse comfortably with people in a business setting. “When you drive a limo you get very good at knowing how and when to start a conversation, and also at listening to people’s words,” she says. “You learn when to speak, and when to be quiet and just listen. There’s a very professional aspect to the art of a conversation. And in my business, that helps me hear what people’s needs are and how I can help them market their business.”

Abby Clark

Skier, Coach and Registered Nurse

Even after going for days without sleep, Abby Clark seems to be experiencing a caffeine rush. She’s got the energy level and endurance you might expect from a surgical nurse. Or, a ski racer. Random occupations? Nope, both are part of her resume.

Clark is the founder of Absolutely Creative Promotions (asi/102549) in Lake Forest, IL, just north of Chicago. She’s been in the promotional products industry for seven years.

Clark has been a registered nurse since 1981. She’s skied all her life, though, and those two worlds have coexisted, waxed and waned through the decades, even now as she runs her industry business.

As a kid, she would travel with her mom and other families to the slopes in Jackson, NH. Thirty years later, she was coaching elite racers on Copper Mountain in Colorado. There weren’t a lot of women in the mix, but she was shushing alongside women like Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso, both American World Cup alpine ski racers.

Intertwined with the skiing was the nursing career. Clark started working fairly exclusively with a particular female surgeon. The doctor realized she had a knack for creativity, and started asking her to handle event planning. After a successful blues-and-saxophone party, she was asked to handle a 75th birthday party for the surgeon’s mom. That sushi fête was a smashing success.

But when the surgeon sold her practice to a large hospital corporation, Clark saw the writing on the wall. A friend of a friend hired her to sell promotional products. She excitedly went to an ASI show, where she met an industry guru who taught an education class there and immediately got mentoring advice.

Clark recalls getting a lead for selling a dozen T-shirts that she was able to turn into a $23,000 sale. When she didn’t get a full commission on the deal, she realized she had to go into the business as her own boss.

Now, she’s big on networking. “I don’t do a lot of cold calls,” she says. “But I’m very big on returning calls to my existing clients and asking how things went, and asking for referrals.”

Use your networks, she advises. “I sell to a lot of ski race teams because I have credibility there,” she says. “My background as a nurse gets me into a lot of assisted living facilities. And God knows I love food shopping, and that’s given me a lot of exposure to grocery stores.”

In Clark’s “spare time,” she’s helped to develop a particular innovation for a potato chip bag that’s re-sealable, waterproof and has a cellophane window. Out of left field? Nope, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a nurse who’s also an elite skier who rarely sleeps.

Ron Donoho is a CA-based freelance writer.