By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 18, 2012
Advertising is a much-reviled industry (selling us junk we don’t need, etc.) Let me not be last in line to heap my own scorn and derision upon this hell-spawned profession.
That being said, my own time as a copywriter (I worked for Grey, Benton & Bowles and Ted Bates in NYC) was more valuable than a Ph.D. from Harvard. I also met some of the best and most interesting people I’ve ever known, many of whom remain friends to this day.
So what did I learn in the ad biz? First lesson (see this post from 2009): Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t.
Second lesson: I was a “creative person.”
Before I went to work on Mad Ave, I thought the biz contained only one type of person. That would be an “advertising man,” like Clark Gable in The Hucksters or Cary Grant in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. (By the way, if you’ve never seen these movies, do yourself a favor and Netflix them.)
To my amazement, I discovered there were many types of Mad Men. Riding to work in the elevator, the lighted panels above the doors indicated the Media Dept, the Account Management Dept., the Research Dept., and the one I now worked for—the Creative Dept.
In the Creative Dept., there were two job categories: art director and copywriter. Art directors handled the visual elements of the ads and commercials; copywriters wrote the words. The art directors were all Italians and the writers were all Jews. They worked in teams of two.
I had never thought of myself as “creative.” It seemed an odd word to apply to a human being. Wasn’t everybody creative? Were there people who were uncreative? But I soon realized that there really was such a type.
In my family, everyone except my Dad was a business type. All my uncles were lawyers or executives or business owners. I never fit that mold and it bothered me. I worried that something was wrong with me. I also didn’t fit too well into the other roles I had tried on thus far in my young life—regular Joe, military man, athlete, brainiac. I was beginning to wonder if something was wrong with me.
Suddenly I found myself among the paisans and the landsmen. I was right at home. Wow. This was great. I discovered that the particular combination of ambition and anxiety, self-doubt and self-deprecation, depression, confusion, rage, terror and inability to conduct a healthy relationship with a woman were not my own unique failings. Everyone on the floor was just as screwed up—and in the exact same way. This was fantastic! A great weight fell from my shoulders.
But I still haven’t answered the question, What Did I Learn in the Ad Biz, Part Two. (By the way, there will be Parts Three through Nine coming up in subsequent weeks in this space.)
What we did as “creative people” in the Creative Department was—all day long—to “create.” In a way it was like working for NASA, or laboring in pure science or mathematics or ruminating for a think tank. We had assignments. We were pitching Burger King or trying to come up with next campaign for Chase Manhattan. And we had bosses (Creative Directors) who mentored us and kicked us in the ass. But basically all we did all day long was sit around and hatch ideas.
This was invaluable training.
For one thing, it taught you what an idea was. An idea was not a notion or a germ or an inkling. An idea was an idea. It stood on its own. It was original. It had a point of view. It said something.
For another, it taught you how hard it was to have a good idea. I’d sit around with my partners for days on end, churning out stuff whose value ranged from dubious to half-assed to out-and-out rubbish. Once every six weeks or so the agency would launch what was called in those days a “gang bang.” This was when the whole Creative Department teamed up on one project, usually a pitch for new business. The climax of a gang bang was a mass meeting in the Big Conference Room when every team (probably forty in all) presented their ideas, while every other team watched and smoked cigarette after cigarette. This was crunch time for all of us. You saw trash that made you cringe. And brilliance that made you put down your Marlboro and offer a standing O.
You learned to distinguish good from bad. When another team pinned to the wall something truly great, you felt shame and inspiration. Why couldn’t we come up with that? Let’s get back to work and try harder.
Assignments in the ad biz were referred to as “problems.” What we were looking for was the “solution.” This again was tremendous training. Because it taught you that within every question lay its own natural answer. You didn’t have to impose the solution from without. Your job was to burrow in and find the answer that was hiding there all along.
A great solution arose organically from the problem.
And it could be found by hard work, by a certain kind of sensitivity, and by an incredibly delicate mental process of teasing out—i.e., trying very hard mixed with not trying at all. This was my first exposure to the Muse, though I never in those days thought of it in such terms.
True, the stuff we were pimping was U.S. Prime humbug. “Parity products” and pure gar-bazh that nobody needed. But later on, trying to write movies and novels, the habits of “being creative” paid off.
I was never particularly good as a Mad Man. I’d come home depressed and could never figure out why. But the business, for me at least, was a fabulous training ground. Gearing up for pitches, sitting in gang bangs, or just beating my brains out trying to come up with solutions for impossible problems proved to be an invaluable education. On Mad Ave, I discovered the first glimmers of who I was and I began to understand, hazily and for the first time, how to access the talents and gifts that I had, before my initiation in the Creative Department, discounted as nutty or worthless or neurotic.