Finbar Dolan has made 42 commercials in his career. But no great or particularly memorable spots, nothing to win him a big award and a shot at industry-fame and fortune. Nevertheless, the protagonist of Truth In Advertising, a new novel by John Kenney, makes good money thinking up mediocre ideas for companies who make diapers and other household goods.
In his own mind, Fin is an ad grunt, but he’s comparing his status to the most elite cadre of ad pros. This is something many of us do, but I don’t believe it’s necessarily the healthiest approach. And Fin is far from a healthy character. He’s emotionally distant from family and friends and he also struggles (again, like many of us do) to maintain his passion for the business. He asks his boss at a critical point in the narrative, “Is it enough? What we do?”
It’s hard to tell how much of Kenney’s own story is embedded in his leading man? Kenney, the real copywriter, worked at O&M in New York and mcgarrybowen. His descriptions in the book are all spot on — he nails the process, the people on both sides of the agency-client aisle and how intelligent people are paid to sit in a room and miraculously, but clumsily, will ideas into existence.
These are my people. These creators of oft-times indelible images for massive, far-reaching corporations. We are so much alike, sitting in a cubicle, in an office that is rarely large or impressive, the copywriters most likely working on an Apple PowerBook, typing in Palatino or Courier or Helvetica twelve-point, the art directors staring at comically large screens, who, from God-only-knows where, find an idea that will define a company, that will reach millions of people.
It’s a good read. Fin’s work is the backdrop, but his struggle to heal his childhood wounds and forgive his deadbeat father and fragile mother are front and center here. It’s a human drama about the search for love and happiness — not a particularly unique topic but Kenney pulls it off, thanks to a well-constructed plot and rich use of language.
I think most copywriters hope that the work they do day-to-day for brands will make them better writers. Fiction, of course, is another form and the writer’s intent is different, but the need to convey a powerful story in a compelling way, that’s the same.
Disclosure: Thanks to Touchstone Publicity, a division of Simon & Schuster for an advance copy of the book.