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.
[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.
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?