Mummies, Lost Arks and Long Copy Ads

Ernie Schenck

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Most of the time, I try to write about issues in this space that apply to all of us. Doesn't matter if you're an art director or a layout artist, photography buyer or an account planner. If you're even remotely involved with creating advertising at all, I'm talking to you.

Not this month.

This time, I want to talk to you copywriters.

(Although, now that I think about it, the rest of you are welcome to stick around because this applies to you, too. Might not seem like it at first. But if you're in advertising, well, you might find this useful.)

In last year's Design Annual, I wrote a column on why we need to stop relying on technology and get back to a more organic way of creating advertising. I mentioned how copy–writers would be doing themselves – and their clients – a favor if they took a clue from the biology books and tried this little osmosis exercise I came up with.

I suggested picking up something by Ray Bradbury or Rick Bragg or Annie Proulx. I suggested picking out a few pages and slowly transcribing them – yes, with a pencil – into a note pad. I suggested that this was a fine way to feel the rhythms of the language and that this might have a definite ruboff on copywriters.

As it turns out, a lot of you e-mailed me to say you actually took my advice and, what do you know, it actually did make a difference. In fact, many of you wondered if I had any other ideas like that.

I do.

But to tell you the truth, what I'm thinking of this month has less to do with writing than it does with archaeology.

As it turns out, some of the greatest writers of our time might just as easily have found themselves at home in the shadow of the Sphinx or Machu Picchu as they do in front of a blank page, paper or otherwise.

Not long after Stephen King was hit by a van while taking a walk on a country road in Maine, he wrote this little book called, On Writing. In it, he talks about how he doesn't so much create his stories as he does unearth them.

Personally, I love Stephen King. Love his work. Love the way he writes. But I never thought of him as, you know, Indiana Jones. And yet, that's how he sees himself. An archeologist. Only instead of looking for mummies or sunken treasure ships, he's looking for stories. That's right. Looking.

If you're Stephen King, you do not work from an outline. There are no plot points written down on 3 × 5 cards. No subplots taped to the wall over your computer. And why would there be if you believe the story is already there? The plot. The characters. The climax. Hidden. But there. And if that's true, then the job of the writer – fiction or advertising – isn't so much to create as to discover.

Think Stephen King is the only one who sees it this way?


Ever read anything by James Lee Burke? Great storyteller. Guy writes mystery novels that – no matter what the title might say on the cover – generally have New York Times Bestseller written all over them.

In a recent essay, this is how he put it:
"In the 46 years that have elapsed since I published my first short story in a college magazine, I have never been able to see more than two or perhaps three scenes ahead in a story. For me, the creative process is more one of discovery than creation."

AE: Hey, guys, I'm sorry about this, but the client's leaving for Paris in the morning and he wants to see where we are.
Creative team: Uh, but you said we had until Wednesday.
AE: Yeah, but see, the client's leaving for Rome tomorrow.
Creative team: You said Paris.
AE: I gotta meet her at the airport at seven.
(Short awkward silence)
AE: Want me to order pizza?
(Cut to next morning. Same office)
AE: Geez, guys, this stuff's breakthrough. Seriously. You did this in, like, no time. Cool.

We've all heard stories like this. Happens and happens often. The short fuse. The ticking clock. And yet, somehow, the big idea shows up. Maybe not always. But enough. So how is that possible? How can something genuinely brilliant be created under such overwhelming pressure?

But that's just it.

It isn't created at all.

Maybe in the heat of the battle, when all hell is breaking loose and dark havoc is rampant upon the land, the really brilliant stuff, well, maybe we just sort of trip over it. Maybe the truly heartbreaking works of staggering genius – to blatantly rip off a phrase – are already there, just hovering around, just waiting for us to, well, like James Lee Burke says, discover them.

It's a humbling concept, I know.

After all, we're creative people. We create ideas for a living. This is what we do. This is what we believe ourselves to be. But this archaeology thing. This is something we haven't thought about. I mean, archaeologists dress in dumb-looking vests and pith helmets. Us? We don't do that. We dress in black. Jeans and Nikes. We don't dig up ideas. We invent them.

Uh huh.

Ever heard a really brilliant musician when he's improvising? This has always impressed me. The idea of having no clue where the music is going and yet taking it there anyway. Good comedians can do this. Painters, too. There is no sheet music for this kind of thing There's no script to follow. It just happens. It just gets...found.

I suspect some of the best advertising is written this way, too.

Yes, there are points we have to make. Information we need to impart. But how we get there, how we weave the story, this is something you can't plot out. You just start writing, conscious of the stuff that needs to find its way into the copy, but letting it form on the page almost on its own.

Instead of consciously writing, you are unconsciously writing. The story tells itself. You're just the conduit. A very talented conduit, but a conduit nonetheless. Sort of like in a séance where the spirits are talking through a medium.

Any college kid who's ever taken a creative writing class will tell you, once you've got yourself really compelling characters, well sorry, but it isn't your story anymore. It's theirs. If Maxine wants to kill Clark, then she's going to kill Clark, whether you like it or not. Sure, you can have Clark kill Maxine. You can have Maxine move to Toronto, meet Damien, have Damien's children, and never think of Clark for the rest of her life. You can do anything you want. But it'll be wrong. And your readers will know it.

So here's my question.

If the characters in a novel can come to life like this, why can't the characters in, say, a 30-second TV spot?

Well, they can and they should. So try this. Once you've nailed down the concept, spend a little time with your characters. Flesh them out. Write a little bio for them. Put some meat on their bones. Who are they? What are they? Where did they grow up? Where did they go to school? What's their name? Do they have a dog? Are their parents still living? Spend a little time turning your characters into real people instead of just lifeless mouthpieces for your concept. Then let them tell the story. Them. Not you.

Yeah, I know. A 3O-second spot isn't a 35O-page novel or a 120-minute screenplay, and it sure does sound like overkill. But it's not. You know why? Because viewers tune out cardboard characters just as much in a TV spot as they do in a book or a film. Seriously. The Bud Light ferret has more depth than most TV commercial characters.

I've got a theory on why we don't see as many long copy print ads anymore. And it's got nothing to do with shrinking attention spans or MTV or video games. I think it's because we've lost touch with our inner storyteller. (Unless you work in Singapore, in which case you can skip this section. Neil French, I love you.) We think the concept is the story. Nail the big idea. Funky headline. Hip layout. Few lines of mandatories at the bottom and thank you, thank you very much.

We've got to stop doing this. How do we do that?

By thinking less about advertising and more about archaeology. By spending less effort manufacturing a brand and more helping it to simply reveal itself. By getting down in the dirt with your spade and your trowel and peeling back the layers until something wonderful shows itself.

I had a colleague once who was big on stream of consciousness. You know, the free association thing. You write down a couple of words. They make you think of something else. You write those down. Yadayadayada.

I hated that. I thought it was a remarkably undisciplined way of writing. Where was the sense of structure? Where was the logic? Stream of consciousness. What a cheap shot, I thought. It was like turning a monkey loose on a canvas with a paint brush. Anybody could do it.

But I was wrong.

I now believe that this is how great stories, and great advertising copy, is written. Not manufactured. Not consciously assembled like a kid building a spaceship out of Legos. But discovered. One thought giving rise to the next to the next to the next.

So take a lesson from Stephen King and James Lee Burke and start approaching your craft like an archaeologist. OK, so maybe what you discover won't be in the same league as a pharaoh's tomb, a Tyrannosaurus rex or Pompeii. And yeah, maybe nobody at National Geographic will take notice. But you will. Your creative director will. And your clients just might, too.

Just don't start wearing a bullwhip around the office.