Learn to be better

I often hear a plaintive lament from some of the older people in advertising: the craft skills of copywriting and art direction are supposedly dying out because young creatives aren’t interested in learning them.

Although there’s some truth buried in there, I’m not sure it’s reflective of the situation as a whole. Some younger creatives want to learn and improve, and some aren’t that bothered. But that’s how it was back when I was a junior. Creative departments were divided into people who were utterly obsessed with enhancing their abilities, poring over D&AD annuals and sticking to their talented bosses like underpaid limpets, and the others, who saw making ads as more of a regular job that they could do perfectly well with the thoughts that popped into their heads.

Both categories produce successes and also-rans, but the odds of becoming one of the former are greatly increased by putting in the hours. How many hours? Well, I once heard that the creatives of 1990s awards-magnet agency Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow and Johnson would while away late nights playing a game: the first person would name the headline of an ad from a past D&AD annual. The next would name the writer, then the art director, the CD, the production company and so on, until some poor sod had to have a stab at the page number.

87% of the ads they made won awards.

I know the industry still contains its share of massive ad nerds, people who know that Collins and Webster aren’t just the names of dictionaries. They may not be the majority, but they will end up being the majority of CCOs.

And where do they learn? If they’re dedicated enough, none of this will be news to them, but they can start with the books: for the Brits among you, every D&AD is available to peruse at the reference library on the south side of Leicester Square. The Copy Book is on sale at your local Amazon, as is Helmut Krone. The Book. Hey Whipple Squeeze This is now in its fifth edition and can be read on a Kindle or iPad. And there are many other guides to advertising writing that are no more than a Google away. Hell, you could even plough through Great Expectations or The Story Of Art. They will do you nothing but good.

Then you can listen to the podcasts Dave Dye and I have recorded, preserving the fathomless wisdom of some of the greatest creatives living today. Or insist your boss pays for you to go on a tax-deductible D&AD Masterclass. Or Robert McKee’s Story seminar.

What else? How about finding a mentor? I was lucky enough to work at AMV BBDO from 1998 to 2005. During that time I was able to ask for copywriting advice from David Abbott, Alfredo Marcantonio, Richard Foster, Tony Cox, Mary Wear, Malcolm Duffy, Tim Riley, Nigel Roberts, Peter Souter, Sean Doyle and many others. Yes, I’m aware that most of those greats have since scattered to the four corners of adland, but an enterprising junior could easily track them down.

Find your favourite writers or art directors and get in touch. Send them your work. Stand outside their house with a big sign saying ‘Please Help Me Become You’, then ask them to mentor you. They will almost certainly be enthused by your enthusiasm. 

You could even try joining their agency. When I was a middleweight writer, still at AMV, the best creatives in the world were Paul Belford and Nigel Roberts. I seriously considered resigning from one of the top agencies in town to see if I could join them at slightly-less-attractive Ogilvy. By an extraordinary stroke of good fortune, my boss soon hired them, allowing my AD and I the opportunity to squeeze as much wisdom out of them as humanly possible. After they left I stayed in touch with Paul and continued to tap into his genius, even when I became an ECD.

Besides Paul, I’ve gleaned a ridiculous amount from several other people kind enough to lend me their time, skills or desk space. Dave Trott has given me hours of informal private tuition in philosophy and marketing, Mark Denton has never let me forget that literally everything is an opportunity to express my creativity, and I’ve learned more over cups of tea with Dave Dye than in three years of university. Who could your mentors be? And what new vistas could they open up for you?

Yes, it takes effort, but it will be worth it. Mediocrity has been depressingly sufficient for many an advertising career, but if you’re inspired enough to take this on, working to be the best till your eyes bleed and your typing fingers are worn to stumps, you could improve the industry, the businesses that depend on it, and ultimately the world.

We need more intelligent, elegant voices, communicating on behalf of the unheard. The better those voices are, the more persuasive they become. Work, learn, improve, and who knows? You might be able to pass your wisdom on to the generation that follows you.