Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

My Life As A Mad Man

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 22, 2010

[First, many thanks to everyone who made our two-day $1.99 special on the eBook version of The War of Art so successful. The switchboards were lighting up like the Fourth of July. Even if you just browsed and didn’t pull the trigger, thanks for the thought. Your interest and attention are very much appreciated.

Order the eBook

[As of today, the FastPencil price on The War of Art goes back to $9.99. All other platforms set their own freight. We have no influence, alas. (Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on The War of Art 2.0., which I hope to have in six months or so. Watch this space for news!) And now … back to our regularly scheduled programming.]

My life as a Mad Man

I worked in the ad biz a little bit after Don Draper. He was gone by the time I showed up. Here’s a post about the single greatest lesson I learned working on Madison Avenue. But what I want to talk about today is the least prestigious ad gig I ever had.

This job was a significant turning point for me, in terms of becoming a professional. Let me set the stage:

I was in my mid-thirties. Not a kid anymore. I had long since left Mad Ave and crashed and burned a number of times in other endeavors. I had migrated at last to L.A.—dead broke, no prospects, writing screenplays that nobody wanted and scraping by on whatever freelance ad stuff I could dredge up. Somehow (I forget the exact circumstances) I got the following assignment:

It was what they call a data sheet. Not even an ad. The job paid twenty-five bucks. The product was an egg carton. The audience was not the public; it was egg farmers and producers. The assignment was to sell them on this specific brand of egg carton. I remember thinking, “Steve, this is about as low as you’ve ever gone as a writer.”

I was wrong. That attitude was egotistical (not to say narcissistic), snot-nosed, defensive, condescending, entitled and all-around bullshit. Fortunately for me, the egg carton was about to teach me a lesson.

Don Draper

I got into the ad biz a couple of years after this guy

What I learned from an egg carton

Did you know that there’s a fat side to an egg and a skinny side? I never did. An egg is not a perfect oval. An egg carton has to accommodate the fat side. It goes in down. This particular brand of carton had a way to do that, so that the machines that packed the cartons didn’t break any eggs. Wow, I thought as I’m working on this, that’s pretty cool. Who knew?

An egg carton’s main job is to protect the eggs. If one egg cracks, the customer will see it and put the whole dozen back on the shelf. This brand of egg carton had particularly high “shoulders” between each egg pocket. This protected the eggs better.

That’s not all. Egg cartons have to be stacked on top of the other, sometimes twenty high—in the truck, the warehouse, on the handtruck as they’re wheeled out to be stocked on the market shelves. What if a carton caves in? Now all the eggs break. That’s why my brand of egg carton had six reinforced posts (not four like Brand X cartons) to support the weight of up to thirty cartons stacked on top of it.

An ad for a nail

Young & Rubicam, the ad agency, once did an ad for a ten-penny nail. The ad was actually for the agency itself. The visual was a simple nail, nothing more—except what they call “call-outs,” meaning little blocks of text with arrows pointing to a specific part of the nail. Each call-out described a humble but fascinating part of the nail—the head that was reinforced so it wouldn’t snap off when you pulled it out with a claw hammer, the four-sided point that drove through wood without splitting it, the little grooves just under the head that bound the nail tight into the wood when you hammered it down.

Bottom line, said Y&R: “There are no boring products, only boring ads.”

A professional attitude

A pro turns up his nose at nothing. A pro respects everyone and everything, however humble. A pro keeps his eyes and ears open. All things are fascinating to the professional, because he understands how much thought and effort go into even the most unassuming articles (and jobs and concepts and people, including ourselves) in our lives.

I got more than twenty-five bucks from that egg carton. It was doing me a favor, not the other way around. And did I tell you about the locking devices on the carton’s lid that snugged down tight so the customer felt secure when she took the eggs home? Or the wide space on top for your egg farm to put its name and logo?

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

19 Responses to “My Life As A Mad Man”

  1. October 22, 2010 at 3:53 am

    Steven,

    It has been a while since I have made a comment on your post.
    First, let me start by thanking you for yesterdays Facebook post , that led me to Oliviers blog. I enjoyed his story and come to find out he is speaking in Atlanta today. I am sending three of my employees to his seminar. I love how this works!
    As an owner of a small advertising agency I would say one of the biggest challenges is to get the creatives to care about the -not sexy- clients. The accounting firm or the financial services ad. We try to live under the concept of “no boring products only boring ads” It can be challenging. As expected the younger creatives want all the big sexy projects. If they can get me to care about a law firms employment and labor practice group, then maybe they can move to the sexy clients. It usually take months for this to occur. A funny thing usually happens though. They fall in love with the challenge of making the boring-sexy! I think true creatives love challenges as much as creating. It’s a sort of “I will show you” attitude, a bit”screw you”ish. Perhaps one of my writers will go on to write best selling novels one day. That would be cool by me.

  2. October 22, 2010 at 7:55 am

    You are Seth are on the same page today…(http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/10/two-problems-with-whining.html)

    Together you’re singing, “Stop whining and be a pro.” I like the duet. Thank you.

  3. October 22, 2010 at 8:10 am

    I enjoyed this very much.

    I’ve recently taken to doing a column on my blog called Facts, New or Not. I try to find items such as your egg story. Yesterday, I found fascinating stuff on the MoonPie and how it came to be called that. Curiosity in my case does not “kill the cat”; it’s brought me new readers.

    • October 22, 2010 at 12:44 pm

      Tell us about the MoonPie, Maureen. I can’t wait to hear …

  4. October 22, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    You are a brisk walk through a light rain. Yesterday, I did not have 1.99 for your eBook. Yesterday evening, when borrowing ten dollars became fruitless, I walked into a local pizzeria ten minutes before it closed. I left my driver’s license with them and they gave me a large pie on credit. So we ate! We are forced to move house in ten days and so far do not have a clue how we will secure another rental. Yet I am alive, alert and calm. People are panicking that I am not panicking. Your material helps square my shoulders, your single greatest lesson tattooed itself on to my forearm. I am proud of you. I have been a professional designer for thirty years and my wife and I are both capable bright people. We will get through, this is not the first travail, and you will ride with us, a windshield wiper to keep the track clear.

    • October 29, 2010 at 5:55 am

      Keep the faith Howard – my professional prayers are with you!

  5. October 22, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    I finished reading “The War of Art” after buying it for 1.99 and wanted to thank-you. Really, truly, sincerely. I’m young. Each day I don’t meet my 1000 word quota, it nags me. I’ll defeat the Resistance. You’ve given me reason to.

    Cheers!

  6. October 23, 2010 at 9:31 am

    I like the paragraph “A professional attitude”. Hope to keep that in mind for the future.

    Thanks and Cheers!
    Rick

  7. October 23, 2010 at 10:18 am

    As always you bring it right home. Thank you. :)

  8. Blythe
    October 24, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    Hi Steven,
    I’ve read your blog from time to time. I read some of the soldier’s manifesto you were a part of producing and posted to your site. It is how I grew to respect you as more than a “blogger to follow.”

    Last week, through the blog network of the social media “gods,” I discovered that you had written new book “a must read”: the War of Art. I felt the urgency to buy a book I really didn’t know much about during the two day window. Without reading the book yet, I suggested to many colleagues they had to buy a copy. Now, I am a few pages shy of the end. I know why I bought it.

    I believe that because you and others are calling in unison to each of us to express our Selves, that this is a time of enlightenment that yearns to be born. There is a universal yearning of our higher Selves so many are grappling to understand right now, more than at any time. I see with more clarity why.
    Bless your heart.

  9. October 24, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Great read…1st visit to your site. Thank you for sharing. I must revisit this blog. I am really fascinated with animal behavior. I think dogs are super smart creations. I guess we shall see!!! Thanks one more time!

  10. October 24, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    Last week a friend recommended The Art of War to me… I ran to library and picked up a copy. Just returned home and I was GLUED to the book from beginning to end (with a lot of time spent after various chapters to just sit on the plane, stare straight ahead, and wonder who the hell you are and how you got into my head).

    Thank you for this fantastic work. You shine a lot of light and I am going to read it again tomorrow… I should be able to get in a few more readings before it’s due back at the library (then I’m buying my own copy).

    Fantastic work – and that’s from a guy who has dealt with that Resistance thing for 30-years and has some how come out of it with a great career, and a few world Juggling Championships.

    Can’t wait for TAOW 2!

    Barry

  11. October 25, 2010 at 6:22 am

    Steve, I enjoyed reading your article; this is the first time I have read some of your work. I’ll sign up to read some more…too bad I missed the TAOW offer. I used to raise chickens…fed ’em oat sprouts and they laid double yoked eggs…I couldn’t even close the lid on the egg carton…I wish I would have known you then…

  12. Mike Edwardson
    October 26, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Cheers Steve great read, very insightful as always. I also checked out Olivier’s blog via your facebook page, found that to be very good aswell, you and him may well be on a similar wave-length.
    This is my first post on here so I’d just like to say how much I enjoyed Gates of Fire and Tides of War. Gates, in particular, has affected me like no other book ever has, I think. I’m currently reading Amazons which is proving a cracker aswell!
    Thanks,

    Mike

  13. October 31, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    A great reminder – I worked my way up in an engineering company from the shop floor, got my engineering degree and now consult in manufacturing. I love understanding how things are made.

    I don’t know how many times I have to remind managers and other “helpers” that those guys down there, putting things together, is what the customer is paying for, and hence, bringing in the money that pays them ~ every part of the process is important. The salesman is only part of the picture.

  14. November 4, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Very cool post, Steven. I myself am an ad agency vet. However, I spent most of my time there working in traffic and production management. Foolishly, I turned down several opportunities to pursue the copywriting side of the biz because I “didn’t want to waste my writing energies on writing ads.” Silly me. I’ve been unemployed for about 2 years now and have finally realized that being a writer means being willing to write pretty much anything and everything. Last year I took a gig writing someone’s cover letter and resumé and made $150, felt pretty damn good. Ironically, I’m now planning to hit up some old advertising buddies for advice on getting some freelance copywriting gigs, all while working on two new graphic novel projects. Thanks for continuing to enlighten and inspire.

  15. Ugis
    November 9, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    Hallo Mr. Pressfield!

    Thank you for the book. Now I know two things: why I hadn’t written this book before you and why I didn’t by this book wile it was cheaper.

    Best wishes!

  16. Ugis
    November 9, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    Hallo Mr. Pressfield!

    Thank you for the book. Now I know two things: why I hadn’t written this book before you and why I didn’t buy this book while it was cheaper.

    Best wishes!