I’ve been kicking around the idea of using a day a week in my posts to share something I’ve loved from the many random books I’ve read. Mondays seem like a good day for this, since Mondays tend to suck the life out of most of us and it’s easier than writing something new and fresh, which might be better suited to Tuesdays… or Thursdays.
I read Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris a few years ago. It is a story about many things, but it is primarily about of a bunch of sad Chicago ad agency mucks who are within an inch of being laid off every day because of a bad economy. At the time I read this book, I worked for a San Francisco marketing agency, which made it just a little funnier to me. We, too, were constantly waiting for the axe. Working in marketing is like pimping yourself out to whoever will bid the most – or actually, whoever will bid at all, whether you actually offer what they want, or not. You want Asian? OK, we can absolutely give you an Asian and she will be the best Asian you’ve ever seen! Meanwhile, the boss wraps Maria Sanchez in a kimono.
From Then We Came to the End:
Jim was so desperate one day to come up with inspiration for an ad, he exhausted his traditional list of people, broke down, and called his uncle Max. “You know how when you buy a new car,” he began – and immediately Max interrupted him.
“I haven’t bought a new car in thirty-five years,” said Max.
Jim suspected then that this was probably not a man with his finger on the pulse of the buying public. Patiently he tried explaining his assignment. When people buy a new car, he said, they usually have an image of themselves that corresponds to the car they buy. Jim wanted to know from Max how Max would want to perceive himself when purchasing a new ink cartridge.
“Yeah,” said Jim. “You know, for your printer.”
“Uh-huh,” said Max.
We had a client at the time whose marketing objective was to make their customers feel like heroes when purchasing one of their ink cartridges. Our charge in every communication was to inspire the potential buyer with the heroic possibilities of man-using-ink-cartridge.
“I want to see myself as Shakespeare,” Max said. “What’s this for, anyway?”
Shakespeare, thought Jim. Shakespeare. That’s not bad.
“It’s for a client of ours,” he said. “They make printers and ink cartridges and that sort of thing. I’m trying to come up with an ad that makes you want to buy our specific ink cartridge after you see our ad because it inspires you and makes you feel like a hero. Will you tell me more about wanting to feel like Shakespeare?”
“So you’re trying to sell ink cartridges?”
Another long pause. “Do you have a pen?” his uncle asked. He began to quote: ” ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…’ “
Finally Jim reached out for a pen. He tried to keep up with him. At a certain point, Max stopped quoting and told Jim the lines should start to fade out, gradually at first, eventually disappearing altogether. Then he suggested the headlind. “A Great Writer Needs a Great Ink Cartridge.” The small print could explain how, if ink cartridges had been used throughout time, the history of literature might have been at stake using a cheap ink cartridge.
Not only was Jim startled that his uncle could quote what he thought was Shakespeare seemingly off the top of his head; he was floored by the speed and ingenuity of his advertising abilities. Who was a greater hero than Shakespeare? And the person encountering the ad that his uncle had just pulled out of his ass could immediately put himself in Shakespeare’s shoes. Max had just made a million Americans feel exactly like Shakespeare. He told Max he’d missed his calling. “You should have been a creative,” he said.
“A creative?” said Max.
Jim explained that in the advertising industry, art directors and copywriters alike were called creatives.
“That’s the stupidest use of an English word I ever encountered,” said Max.
Jim also told him that the advertising product, whether it was a TV commercial, a print ad, a billboard, or a radio spot, was called the creative. Before he hung up Jim asked Max for two more examples of great pieces of literature, suspecting that an entire campaign could be generated from Max’s concept.
Sometime later that afternoon, Max Jackers surprised Jim by calling him back. “You folks overthere,” said Max, “you say you call yourselves creatives, is that what you’re telling me? And the work you do, you call that the creative, is that what you said?” Jim said that was correct. “And I suppose you think of yourselves as pretty creative over there, I bet.”
“I suppose so,” said Jim, wondering what Max was driving at.
“And the work you do, you probably think that’s pretty creative work.”
“What are you asking me, Uncle Max?”
“Well, if that’s all true,” said the old man, “that would make you creative creatives creating creative creative.” There was silence as Max allowed Jim to take this in. “And that right there,” he concluded, “is why I didn’t miss my calling. That’s a use of the English language just too absurd to even contemplate.”
With that, Max hung up.