Are Copywriters Just Authors In Hiding?

Elmore Leonard’s recent passing prompted Bruce McCall to write a reflective piece for The New Yorker.

McCall worked on Chevy in Detroit at the same time Leonard was banging out Westerns on his typewriter and working as a copywriter. McCall notes how common it is for real writers to find “safe harbor” in the ad business.

EL_The Bounty Hunters

A fat book could be assembled, just listing all the later-to-be-famous writers who stopped briefly in the cubicles of ad agencies: Dorothy L. Sayers and Salman Rushdie and F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Patterson and Joseph Heller, for starters. Advertising is a morally squalid racket that demands one make a Faustian bargain by manipulating truth for money. But I’ll say this much for the murky intersection of morality and commerce and guess-who-wins that is the ad biz: it has perennially provided a safe haven and a decent income for writers while they were working out their higher destinies.

“Manipulating truth for money” is some pretty tough language. Or is it tough love? After all, it’s common wisdom that advertising is all about the bullshit. The agency dreams up some bullshit to present to the client, who has a whole list of bullshit reasons about why people ought to care and buy the bullshit they’re selling. After several high-priced bullshit sessions, the client then buys the agency’s bullshit about the client’s own bullshit, at which point the agency goes off to spends millions of the client’s dollars justifying all this crazy bullshit.

Here’s what I think. Common sense trumps common wisdom. And in this case, common sense dictates that advertising is no longer about the bullshit. It’s not that marketers woke up one morning and realized the error of their ways and opted for higher ground. No, it’s more like the Internet was unleashed on society and its industry-crushing reach has had its way with marketing communications, just like it did with the news and music industries.

Today, thanks to radical transparency and the popularity of people-powered, mobile and always-on media networks, your brand is who and what you do everyday, for real. You are not who your ad campaigns say you are and this is great news, provided you know how to operate in this new media environment.

When I consider my own higher destinies as a writer, I allow dreams of a best seller or a successful screenplay. But for me, it makes perfect sense to infuse advertising with poetry and art. Also with meaning, soul and passion. Advertising is a storytelling platform, like films and theater are storytelling platforms. The job is to convey memorable information in a moving way, and it’s far from easy to do.

McCall notes that advertising’s real writers rarely have much success in advertising. Clearly, for many, advertising is a payday and nothing more. In the beginning, I wondered if it would be like that for me. It wasn’t and isn’t and I am grateful for this.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. If you harbor a desire to be a Writer (with a capital W) then get the hell out of the ad business. You’ll only frustrate your clients, your coworkers and yourself. Copywriting is a business, so is writing books. Pick one. My experience has shown that most copywriters who secretly want to be a Writer feel that advertising is beneath them, and it shows in their work.

    • Thanks for the comment, David Moore. Dumb it down advertising is beneath all of us, but sometimes we’re made to do it anyway. Why? Because it’s expedient and we don’t want to stop the cash from flowing in.

      Fighting to raise our collective standards is the work or real writers and real writers do work in advertising and hold more than one reality in their mind at any one time. Perhaps the “writers” you’re thinking of are really poseurs.

  2. Mignon G Eberhart says:

    remember the ads for Famous Writers School?