Friday, November 7, 2014

So You Want to Work in Advertising?

You do not want your creative director to give you this look. Ever.

I am an advertising copywriter. I write the words that appear in any kind of advertising you might see. Over the course of my career, I have written spam email, the junk mail that winds up in your garbage can, magazine and newspaper articles, catalogs, brochures, radio spots, online advertising, posters, print ads, billboards, packaging, video scripts, press releases, newsletters and a sex advice column.

A lot of people don't realize someone is paid to write all this crap. So the next time you complain about all the junk mail you've been getting, just think of my kids. You're sending them to college. (P.S. Thank you. I'm really hoping one of them goes to an Ivy League school.)

When I first started my career, I worked for a man who was notoriously difficult.* He was hostile. He was intolerant. He was addled-minded and vague. On top of all that, he didn't know what he wanted. But he was my boss and I had to please him.


Without any direction or supervision along the way. I was a mere flag in the winds of his ever changing mental state and cognitive abilities—which were sometimes so muddled and unreliable that he walked into glass doors like a confused bird.

I often tell the following story about him, especially when people express concern over giving me critical feedback. As a part of my job, I must submit to regular and widespread criticism. Everyone has to put their two cents in. The account people, editing department, legal department, product specialists and creative directors all make comments on what I've written—and all of that before the copy has even left the advertising agency. Then I get an entire round of client feedback. Each and every person who sees my writing will mention something to change, edit, alter, re-write or lambaste.

I take it all in stride. Unless the comment is proceeded by multiple exclamation marks or question marks. I mean, that's just rude. It's easier to write "Sentence fragment" than to write "Sentence fragment???" Am I right or am I right? And I happen to like sentence fragments. It's my way of taking creative liberties.

So there. (Go ahead and try to find a verb in that sentence. I dare you.)

Advertising copy is a process and no one really owns it. I mean, sure, the copywriter takes the public beating for the stupid headline, but everyone along the way has their hands all over it. It's not like I, alone, am responsible for the final product. By the time it hits the streets, it looks nothing like the original. It is truly a group effort.

And now you know why most advertising sucks.

Haha. I kid. I joke. But not really. My original ideas really are the best. Some day I will show everyone the sheer enormity of my creative genius and I will be vindicated for all of the multiple exclamation marks thrown my way.

*Shakes fist*

Let's go back, shall we? Back to my former boss, in the shadowy past, in the somewhat distant and fictionalized history of my mind. The difficult gentleman in question was a cigar smoker. Let's call him "Satan." Satan had a huge white office with white leather furniture. White walls. White carpet. All stained with a smoky beige tar. He would sit all of us—the entire team of fifteen people—gathered around a glass conference table in his office. The cigar was perpetually resting in the glass ashtray. It spilled smoke over our layouts and concepts, the paper absorbing the smell.

One day, he lasered his eyes at me across the table, my copy in his hands, smoke billowing over his head. I sat and returned his stare. I waited to hear what he was going to say, trying not to betray any emotion whatsoever. He made me wait while he took a long drag off that stinking cigar. He exhaled and gave me a withering gaze. I met that gaze with the enigmatic face of the Mona Lisa.

"Did you mean for this to suck when you wrote it?" he said, his eyes assessing me through the fog. All of my co-workers had gone silent. No one moved a muscle nor made direct eye contact with Satan.

"No," I said and gathered myself together. "What exactly would you like me to change?"

"I'd like you to change the fact that it sucks." He pointed his cigar at me like an accusation.

"Did you not like the headline, the body copy...," I began again, despite my co-workers urgent glances. I knew they were communicating one unified message of "SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!" But I couldn't stop myself. I wanted clarity. I demanded it through the stink of cigar smoke.

"I SAID I WANTED IT TO NOT SUCK!" he spat out his cigar and threw the papers on the table. Everyone continued to remain motionless, staring at the table. I pursed my lips and kept quiet. Finally, one of the account girls that Satan was particularly fond of changed the subject and moved something else in front of him to review.

When the meeting was over, we all collapsed into an office together and shut the door. Had we liquor, we would have passed around a bottle. Had we a joint, we would have smoked it like soldiers in a foxhole. Seeing as we had neither, we took a two-hour lunch and considered alternate careers which none of us ever pursued.

Despite this, I am grateful for the experience. It is why I can take criticism from just about anyone. Unless of course you use three exclamation marks. That may move me to curse you very quietly, under my breath. Beware the repressed fury of the lowly copywriter, my friends. We have blogs now and memoirs to write.

*Evil laughter*

*I have changed any identifying details about the man so he is unrecognizable. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


  1. Our industry can be whack. I hate people like that. Power trip asshat. I'm glad you got something out of it though.

  2. You taught, too, right? You are an expert at handling shit-flinging.

  3. ...which takes a special genius in my book.

  4. Hey there, I found you via the NaBloPoMo blogroll.

    I think that, if he were able to read this, he would be thrilled that he inspired a post that did not suck. I really enjoyed it. And I can tell this is a blog I am going to keep reading after November right away. So, there's that! ;)

    I also think you probably *love* that episode of Seinfeld about the exclamation points. I love when the boss in that episode reads the lines from the book and does verbal exclamation points. Now when I see one, I automatically read the preceding word that way. :)

    As part of NaBloPoMo I try to comment on as many participating blogs as I can, and I also add participating blogs to my feed reader.

    So I'm just dropping by to let you know I've added your blog to my feedreader, I'm reading you loud and clear, I have a link up going at my place so my readers can find participating blogs which you are more than welcome to add your blog link to.

    Looking forward to seeing your posts, and you'll likely see me drop by again during November.

    Happy NaBloPoMo to you!

  5. BEST thing I've read in months.

    Not kidding. Not even a little

    I keep waiting for your book. No matter what you write, you have me sitting here wishing it wouldn't end.

  6. Hahaha! I love this. It's horrifying that someone treated you like that, but I still love it. The foxhole - so great.

    My old creative director used to have a diagram he'd draw when we were concepting at Yahoo. It was really just a silly cartoon of little people in a rollercoaster car. Above the peak, he'd write "concept presentation." After that, it was all downhill...

    Oh, and sentence fragments? Love them. Just had to have a chat with our new 23-year-old proofreader about how in advertising, we often break the rules of sentence structure and grammar. Just. Because. We. Can.

  7. haha, nice. I don't think I could have kept that composure or be quiet about it. I would have taken the paper and the cigar and tell him (or show him how...) to shove it.
    But that's why too I have gotten myself the title of people's favorite mean person.

  8. Writing by committee! Love it!

    And since everyone can write (and sing and act and photograph) it makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

    Despite being very late to the party, I want you to know I loved this peek into the advertising world. Whew.

  9. Have you seen the Seinfeld Clio "acceptance" speech? Funny. Telling. And the ongoing love hate relationship we (in advertising) have with the biz. Keep going. You should be getting a book or whatever the next charming media is - soon, if you want it. Then the kids go to Ivy League Schools.

  10. Merry xmas to you and your loved ones, Mandy! xx