In which I commit professional suicide.

To every employer who has hired me, fired me, or may hire me (and fire me) in the future,

This is a hard letter to write.

I think most people believe that I speak without a filter, that honesty is something I wield without reservations or fear of consequences. Nothing could be further from the truth. I speak when I am most fearful. I gamble with my reputation because I dread insincerity more than I do censure. And I know I can’t demand of others that which I am unwilling to give.

So this is probably stupid. But here we go.

I am not a good employee. I know that.

I wasn’t a good student, either. It’s sort of always been this way. I don’t work any harder than I have to. I am easily distracted. I am abrasive. I have difficulty waking up in the morning and getting where I need to be on time. I daydream. I resent the authority of those I perceive to be less intelligent and more disingenuous than I am. In procrastinating, I often create more work for others.

I’m sorry for all of this. It’s not you. It’s not your business. It’s not the system. It’s me.

I’m especially sorry because I love to write. I love to be paid to write. I am a good writer. I take so long to write anything because I cherry-pick my parts of speech. I vacillate over comma placement. I begin to research your project and end up half a dozen Wikipedia articles deep into the wheres and whys of the thing that makes your project go, because the gears that drive the machine are so much more nuanced and interesting than their sum. I love to read. I love to learn. I am the only one in your office who knows how a semicolon works.

I don’t want to be a word robot. And I know. I know. This is the real world. Deadlines don’t wait for artists and prima donnas. Sometimes you need a word robot. You need someone who can produce great language and do it fast. I can’t. I don’t want to. And I’m so sorry, because I’m not going to change.

The prevailing wisdom seems to be that it is not good enough to merely excel at a skill. This makes perfect sense to me. Economies aren’t driven by earnestness and good intentions. Nature tends towards chaos and entropy – it is only through a concerted effort of Sisyphean will that anyone succeeds at anything at all. In cellular biology, this is called active transport: a substance that, through impulsion or propulsion, penetrates a cellular membrane into an area of high pressure – a little like shoving your way past a bouncer into a packed club. It’s the same sensation I experience every time I have to interrupt a lucid dream to wake up and make it in for a 9 a.m. meeting. I realize this is not your fault, either – what must be done must be done. But I am not good at doing it.

So I admire the single-minded gumption necessary to make a business thrive. It is not in me to navigate the niceties of commerce; I simply do not have the energy. The prospect of being a creative director, or a “senior” anything, makes me feel tired and anxious. Even my low-level peers seem to have a knack for doggedness that eludes me entirely. I just can’t put my head down and work all day. I don’t know how anyone else does.

But I am a good person and a better writer. I am intelligent. I take chances. I am insightful. At times I have been known to be pretty goddamn funny.

I don’t want to be stigmatized as a lazy know-it-all who doesn’t pull her weight. Okay, fine, it’s true. But I am so much more than that. I just need a little help.

Please don’t leave me to twist in the wind. Please help me understand what you need me to do. I want to have a job. I want to be an asset. I know that I’m a pain.

But when you say to me, “You’re a brilliant writer, but we’re just not feeling it” when I am feeling it; when you say, “You’re not happy here” when once I was happy, and could be again if you’d just take me off the fucking demos and let me write something brave and weird and new; when you presume to tell me what I should be instead of letting me be what I am – fierce and curious and funny and pedantic – then you do damage to me. You obliterate my trust in you. And you teach me not to strive for more.

You cannot make me what I’m not. But you can help me be a better version of what I am.

I am angry with myself for not working harder. I am angry with myself for not having more patience. I am angry with myself for my crappy time management. I am angry with myself for not being able to see the writing on the wall, time after time after time after time.

But I am angry with you for telling me to make bricks without straw. I am angry with you for withholding critical tools like information and empathy. I am angry with you for cutting me loose with phrases like “I’m sorry” and “This is hard for me, too.” I am angry with you for misrepresenting your faith in my abilities. I am angry with you for enticing me with a future you never meant for me to reach.

I am a shitty employee. But you are a shitty manager. We both could have tried harder. We both should have done better. I hope you have the wherewithal to ask yourself whether you did everything you were supposed to.

And yet, for all of that, I still really want you to like me. And I want to like you, too. We are not bad people.

I want to be the kind of person who can own her foibles – who can try to make the most of her shortcomings by turning them into something positive; or who, failing that, can at least exist without regret. Perhaps this is a deluded, unrealistic expectation. Perhaps I’m just gilding my albatross.

But for all of my failings, my optimism persists: I can survive as a creative writer in the right environment. I will probably arrive at 9:15 instead of 8:59 (and I will be proud of myself for not arriving at 9:30). I will use every last minute of my allotted deadline time (and I will want three days more).

But here are some things I can promise:

  • I promise to write my heart out for anyone who can get used to the sound of “I’m sorry.”
  • I promise never to give you words that I don’t believe in; I will agonize over them. They will pour out of me in a fever the last thirty minutes of Friday afternoon.
  • I promise to argue over my adjectives with any tight-assed, perfectly manicured project managers who think they know the first damn thing about writing—and I will gladly do so to the detriment of my reputation, because all that matters is the words, all that matters is being right about the fucking words.
  • I promise to make your clients say, “I never would have thought to phrase it that way.” I promise to hate you if you let your clients do my writing for me.
  • I promise not to take criticism personally if you can provide thoughtful and reasoned criticism. “Just because” or “I don’t like it” are not reasons.
  • I will go to battle for my words. I will go to war. Just tell me what to do, and then step back and let me do it.

I am weird and unpredictable and crass and forgetful. I am incorrigible. I am insufferable.

I am at your mercy. Let me write for you.

who should probably start practicing wrapping trout in old newspapers (whatever those are)


Crackwhores and Call Girls

I am only going to say this once, so pay attention.

Copywriters and social media writers are not the same thing.

One doesn’t really come to appreciate this distinction unless one is an out-of-work copywriter looking for a job in advertising. Obviously, I don’t know any of those people, and if you do, you should throw rocks and rusted cans and old glass at them. Do it. Do it until they cry. Out-of-work copywriters are literally the worst people alive.

But let’s say I knew one, or, God forbid – we’re just pretending, all right, this is a purely hypothetical scenario – I was one. I imagine a typical period of joblessness might go like this:

Me: Well, shit. Really thought I’d make it to five weeks that time. Oh well. Anyone need a writer?
Well-Meaning Friend: Oh! Oh! We do!
Me: O RLY?
WMF: Yeah! We just placed an ad for a Content Strategist!
Me: …oh.
WMF: What?
Me: Nothing, nothing. Tell me some more about the job.
WMF: Well, a Content Strategist collaborates with the marketing and branding team to leverage data mines culled from social media in an effort to facilitate more meaningful customer outreach and retention. AND – this is the best part – you’d be creating original content to evangelize the brand’s potential as a strategic solution that helps meet client goals! ISN’T THAT EXCITING? That’s EXACTLY what you do, right?
Me: I pretty much just arrange threesomes between nouns, adjectives, and verbs.
WMF: But content strategists also have to use words! And you use words! You have so much in common! —what are you doing?
Me: Oh, it’s just the potassium chloride tastes better with bourbon. I call it a “Sweet Release.”

Repeat ad infinitum.

Traditional creative ad agencies – yes, they still exist – will often utilize a mix of copywriters, art designers, and strategists. Writers create the copy of a piece, designers make it shiny, and strategists find ways to promote it/get more work to do. There is a bit of overlap: writers and designers are useless if they create for themselves rather than for their audience; strategists must have the creative vocabulary to understand why a piece, a brand, or a strategy is successful. Typically, however, these are separate but equal roles. I write the commercial, those guys film the commercial, and that chick uses our commercial to find us more commercials to make. What a well-oiled machine.

Thus, the core of a copywriter’s duty lies in coming up with words; any research or collaboration he or she does is in support of this work. As it should be.

Marketing and social media agencies are a different kettle of fish. They’re the kettle of fish where all of the fish are different, but they’re expected to know what each of the other fish do, and must be able to swap jobs with any other fish at any given time. They do a little bit of writing, a little bit of design, a little bit of prestidigitation. Essentially, a social media writer – or a content strategist, or a web content strategist, or an Metabrand Verbalization Ideator, or whatever the hell they’re called – bears a lot of resemblance to what was once thought of as a salesperson: they do not merely create on behalf of a brand, but actively advocate for it as well. They should know the brand. Be the brand. Make sweet, sweet love to the brand.

To put it another way: writers are all whores. But where advertising copywriters are sullen, vulgar streetwalkers who’ll accept drugs in exchange for a handie, social media writers are high-paid escorts who’ll look great on your arm, laugh at your jokes, and cuddle you after anal. Copywriters will do that thing your girlfriend won’t, but we absolutely do not kiss on the mouth. Just give us our meth money and we’ll be on our way.

Ooops! Tina dropped her typewriter! Tee-hee! (That'll be $200, perverts.)

But the crossover between roles that were traditionally distinct – “writer” over here and “salesperson” over there – is increasingly ubiquitous in a world where companies don’t merely sell to customers, they engage with customers. Being articulate, convincing, and relatable are assets to both copywriters and social media strategists. So it follows that if more marketers are expected to behave like writers, writers will be expected to act like marketers.

Except a lot of writers don’t want to be marketers. We do not relish the act of closing a sale. We do not subscribe to the Infographic of the Day. Our degrees are in English, journalism, or Traditional Chinese Theatre, not business administration. In the year 2012, admitting this fact can be the difference between getting a job and borrowing rent money from your parents.

As a result, a lot of very good writers are working miserable jobs in companies to whom they believe they’ve sold their souls – after all, what other choice do they have? By the same token, a lot of sub-par writers – and, let’s be honest, a lot of sub-par thinkers – are entrusted with representing projects, brands, or entire agencies. (But that’s another post.)

I am forced to admit that being “old school” is now the exception more than the rule. Many very talented, driven writers are working fulfilling jobs in social media and/or strategic development (and I can feel their resentful eyes on me and my generalizations). As traditional media and digital media intertwine, I suspect that this will become the standard path for many new college grads seeking careers in advertising. But should we all have to? Is it really so bad to love the craft of writing for its own intrinsic value? Can one legitimately argue that writing only becomes “great,” only becomes “effective,” if it is part of some greater strategy or scheme? What happened to the simple elegance of ethos, logos, and pathos?

It may be that, at the ripe old age of 28, I subscribe to an outdated ideology due for its timely exctinction. Perhaps I should be more adaptable. Perhaps creative writers can only be happy if they’re wildly famous novelists or not-as-famous-but-still-pretty-successful TV sitcom writers, in which case I don’t know why I’m not sitting on huge bags of money right now. But for all my skepticism, I hold out a little hope that there will always be a place for words – just words, and the love of them and all they have the power to do – in advertising.

If so, I will find that job, and I will own the everloving shit out of it.

If not, I’m looking forward to my bright, safe, sterile future behind the glass of a museum display case.

William Bernbach doesn’t need your business.

Several years ago, a manager of mine — the creative director at the agency I worked for at the time — recommended I read a book called The Art of Writing Advertising. I don’t remember the specific circumstances of that exchange, but I’m sure he was, in his artfully gentle way, trying to tell me that I knew fuckall about writing ad copy.

I’m not really in the habit of reading books about writing, marketing, and/or advertising. Of course I’ve read Stephen King’s wonderful On Writing and Lynne Truss’ immensely clever Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris is a charming and sincere love letter to the act of reading. I’m pretty sure I’ve fantasized about a threesome with Strunk & White, whose decades-old manual The Elements of Style should be kept on every writer’s bookshelf next to the dictionaries, thesauruses, and personal lubricant.

But in general, books about books, or books about writing, lose my interest early. I’d like to be able to blame the authors for pontificating, rambling, or being straight-up boring, but I think it’s mostly that I don’t like being told what to do.

I took the battered paperback as a polite gesture of good faith (yes, I know how), but I didn’t really intend to read it and I certainly didn’t expect to enjoy it.

It is with real shame that I confess to you, reader, that even writers — writers especially — judge books by their covers.

The Art of Writing Advertising is pretty much Mad Men in book form. It’s a series of interviews with some of the fathers of modern advertising: William Bernbach, George Gribbin, David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, and Rosser Reeves (upon whom Mad Men‘s Don Draper is based).

I know I SAID "Don," but I was really THINKING "Joan." And so were you.

Even if we don’t all know their names, we all know their work. Reeves thought up “melt in your mouth, not in your hand.” Leo Burnett fathered — in what I can only assume was a series of depraved, interspecies entanglements that would make Zeus proud — Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger, and the Jolly Green Giant. David Ogilvy crapped out more famous ad copy than you could tattoo on the Old Spice Guy’s pectorals. And he was British.

Each interview is fascinating, educational, and full of insight. And though the book’s first run was in 1965, it’s very readable, very modern. It certainly beats the shit out of most of the blogs and opinion columns in circulation today.

But for all that the book has to offer, there is one interview in particular that sticks out at me. And by “sticks out at me,” I mean “whips out of its trousers with the turgid, lewd confidence of a porn star at a prom.” It comes from William Bernbach, who is well-known for his agency’s ingenious Volkswagen ads. Here is his quote in all its veiny glory:

As a matter of fact, I can tell you that a very, very big prospect once said to me, “What would you say, Bill, if you were told exactly where to put the logo and what size it would be.” I had over $10,000,000 riding on my answer, and I said, “I would say we are the wrong agency for you.” Now, in the long run I think this makes for a very healthy agency because we preserve our point of view. It lets us do the kind of creative work we really believe in and not prostitute that talent for 15%. Because, as I say, in the long run the client forgets how he told you to do something. He only remembers whether it worked or not.

Bold is mine. I wanted to put the whole damn thing in bold, but I suppose that would defeat the purpose of emboldening.

I ask you, reader: does ANYONE do this anymore? I ask because I truly don’t know the answer. I assume that the guys at Wieden + Kennedy, or Ogilvy and Mather, or Saatchi & Saatchi, have the clout and wherewithal to tell prospective clients, “Sorry, we’re not your monkey.” But it seems to me that, by and large, we — agencies, freelancers, anyone who stands to make a buck off someone else — don’t know how to articulate the word “no.” We’re afraid to lose their business, yes. But more than that, I think we’re afraid of confrontation. We’re afraid that people won’t like us. It’s easier to just smile and suck it up than to defend the creative integrity of your work.

That’s how you get shit like this happening:

It’s not that creative agencies don’t have any integrity. As individuals, creatives and the non-creatives with whom they work are more committed to doing a project well than to making an easy buck. No one likes to think of themselves as a corporate shill, not even the actual corporate shills.

But we live in a culture where everyone’s opinion matters. Everyone is a special snowflake with their own point of view and their own line of reasoning. We want to be respectful. We want to be fair. We want to hear each other out — even when it’s clear from the get-go that the guy holding the purse strings is a maniac who wouldn’t know a color wheel if it ran him down in cold blood.

So we don’t fight the good fight. Instead of speaking up in defense of our work, we hit the mute button on the speakerphone, curse, bitch, roll our eyes, and then smile through gritted teeth: “Sure, I think we can make all of those changes by tomorrow. 2 p.m.? Heck yeah! I was HOPING you’d ask for even less time!”

This is demoralizing. It’s counterproductive. And it leads to shitty work that no one would otherwise want to put their names on. If you want to earn a reputation as a doormat, this is the fastest way to do it. See what that attitude does for your employee turnover. See what it does for your schedules. If you don’t draw the line somewhere, you will never draw it anywhere. Yes: in the short term, you get the satisfaction of a check and a pat on the head. In the long term, you are well and truly fucked.

It’s true that we have to pick our battles with clients. Sometimes a fight really isn’t worth fighting — and if creating something is an act of communication, then the client-creative relationship must be one of give and take. I really, really believe that when a client hires you to create something, it’s not just because you have a set of skills that they lack (although you do, and you should leverage the shit out of that). They are paying you for your judgment as well as for your expertise. The onus must be on us, the creatives, to try to educate our clients — gently, diplomatically — about why a given decision makes sense for them. Stand behind your work. If you don’t believe enough in what you’ve made to defend it, then you shouldn’t have put that garbage in front of the client to begin with.

If all else fails, be ready to admit that you might not be the right fit for that client. It’s kind of like sex (yeah, yeah, with me it’s always about sex). You need to lay some ground rules out at the start, and discover each other’s quirks and kinks with plenty of respect. But if your partner doesn’t quit tweaking your nerps when you yell out the safe word, or if their idea of a good time involves you, a leash, AND the dog, then you might want to back away slowly and never speak of this again. (And maybe change your address. Just to be safe.) Sometimes it’s just not meant to be.

Otherwise, prepare to be spanked. Hell, maybe you’re into that. But before you invest in a good set of knee pads, take a look at your business card — what does it say? “Creative Professional” or “Daddy’s Little Bitch”?