Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Advertising - how famous artists and writers pay the mortgage

I've never watched Mad Men because I know I will end up getting it confused with reality, and I do know a bit about the reality.  I was an advertising copywriter for about 20 years, in six very large London agencies.  It was during the time we like to think of as the golden age of advertising, the late 60's, 70's, and early 80's.

Lots of cool people worked in advertising then.  Many of them went on to become famous in different fields.  The first commercial I made was directed by Hugh Hudson, who went on to make Chariots of Fire.  I spent a lovely day in the long grass with him and a bottle of beer.  Ridley Scott of Blade Runner made hundreds of commercials, including the Hovis prizewinner, "bike round".  Radio advertising was equally starry.  Most famous actors are only too happy to work as voice-overs.  My first radio commercial was "voiced" by the Sherlock Holmes before last - Jeremy Brett.  At the end of a long cold day he lent me his fragrant scarf.  "Be sure to send it back" he said, "Larry gave it to me".

And then there were the writers.  It's hard to believe, but the lofty Salman Rushdie once worked in advertising.  He was responsible for the immortal words "naughty but nice" - not original, but the first time it had been used for cream cakes.  I know this because I tried to hire him once and was told by his then wife that he would not be writing any more slogans because he was "about to be famous".  At least Mr Kipling never took out a fatwa.

We all know about Fay Weldon, and her slogan "Go to work on an egg".  Fay has aways denied authorship, because the line came out of a group session and no-one could remember who said it first.  But it has stuck to her like egg white, perhaps more so than the titles of her many novels. Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy L Sayers, David Ogilvy - and of course Peter Mayle who sold Provence so well that he all but ruined it - have all served time as copywriters. 

Before my time, George Orwell kept the aspidistra flying by working in advertising as a copywriter.  Russell Hoban, author of the immortal "The mouse and his child", wrote ads - and lived down the road from me in Belsize Park.  Alec Guinness wrote copy.  John Betjeman wrote for Shell.  The list goes on.

Every copywriter ever born has a novel/play/poetry collection in a drawer waiting for that moment when they can give up "prostituting their art" and become famous for something respectable (like acting). But fame, like advertising, is ephemeral - and many of those artists and writers wandering the corridors of advertising are forgotten - just like the slogans they wrote.


  1. It´s not a background that I can claim, but my dad worked on the edge of advertising for most of his working life - as a photographic retoucher, back in the days before it was all done with computers. Those old commercials are very nostalgic - hovis, and eggs as a form of transport!

  2. Pithy, economical advertising copy and images come from the same root as poetry - it's just a matter of different intentions and applications, I suppose.

  3. I've always been interested in the link between copywriting and fiction/poetry writing. I did apply for jobs as a copywriter at times when I was a struggling journalist, but ended up staying with journalism and doing the odd day here and there writing for marketing companies to boost my income. I do think writing good advertising copy could be the mark of a writer able to make pithy comments. George Orwell certainly has some wonderful one liners in his novels - the boot coming down on your face, every animal is equal etc.

    I used to know a fantastic young playwright called Steve Lavell who was a copywriter and wrote fabulous plays just starting to appear in fringe theatres. I often wonder what happened to him.