What I Learned in the Ad Biz, Part Two

Advertising is a much-reviled industry (selling us junk we don’t need, etc.) Let me not be last in line to heap my own scorn and derision upon this hell-spawned profession.

Mad Men

My graduation pic, sort of.

That being said, my own time as a copywriter (I worked for Grey, Benton & Bowles and Ted Bates in NYC) was more valuable than a Ph.D. from Harvard. I also met some of the best and most interesting people I’ve ever known, many of whom remain friends to this day.

So what did I learn in the ad biz?  First lesson (see this post from 2009): Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t.

Second lesson: I was a “creative person.”

Before I went to work on Mad Ave, I thought the biz contained only one type of person. That would be an “advertising man,” like Clark Gable in The Hucksters or Cary Grant in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. (By the way, if you’ve never seen these movies, do yourself a favor and Netflix them.)

To my amazement, I discovered there were many types of Mad Men. Riding to work in the elevator, the lighted panels above the doors indicated the Media Dept, the Account Management Dept., the Research Dept., and the one I now worked for—the Creative Dept.

In the Creative Dept., there were two job categories: art director and copywriter. Art directors handled the visual elements of the ads and commercials; copywriters wrote the words. The art directors were all Italians and the writers were all Jews. They worked in teams of two.

I had never thought of myself as “creative.” It seemed an odd word to apply to a human being. Wasn’t everybody creative? Were there people who were uncreative? But I soon realized that there really was such a type.

In my family, everyone except my Dad was a business type. All my uncles were lawyers or executives or business owners. I never fit that mold and it bothered me. I worried that something was wrong with me. I also didn’t fit too well into the other roles I had tried on thus far in my young life—regular Joe, military man, athlete, brainiac. I was beginning to wonder if something was wrong with me.

Suddenly I found myself among the paisans and the landsmen. I was right at home. Wow. This was great. I discovered that the particular combination of ambition and anxiety, self-doubt and self-deprecation, depression, confusion, rage, terror and inability to conduct a healthy relationship with a woman were not my own unique failings. Everyone on the floor was just as screwed up—and in the exact same way. This was fantastic! A great weight fell from my shoulders.

But I still haven’t answered the question, What Did I Learn in the Ad Biz, Part Two. (By the way, there will be Parts Three through Nine coming up in subsequent weeks in this space.)

What we did as “creative people” in the Creative Department was—all day long—to “create.” In a way it was like working for NASA, or laboring in pure science or mathematics or ruminating for a think tank. We had assignments. We were pitching Burger King or trying to come up with next campaign for Chase Manhattan. And we had bosses (Creative Directors) who mentored us and kicked us in the ass. But basically all we did all day long was sit around and hatch ideas.

This was invaluable training.

For one thing, it taught you what an idea was. An idea was not a notion or a germ or an inkling. An idea was an idea. It stood on its own. It was original. It had a point of view. It said something.

For another, it taught you how hard it was to have a good idea. I’d sit around with my partners for days on end, churning out stuff whose value ranged from dubious to half-assed to out-and-out rubbish. Once every six weeks or so the agency would launch what was called in those days a “gang bang.” This was when the whole Creative Department teamed up on one project, usually a pitch for new business. The climax of a gang bang was a mass meeting in the Big Conference Room when every team (probably forty in all) presented their ideas, while every other team watched and smoked cigarette after cigarette. This was crunch time for all of us. You saw trash that made you cringe. And brilliance that made you put down your Marlboro and offer a standing O.

You learned to distinguish good from bad. When another team pinned to the wall something truly great, you felt shame and inspiration. Why couldn’t we come up with that? Let’s get back to work and try harder.

Assignments in the ad biz were referred to as “problems.” What we were looking for was the “solution.” This again was tremendous training. Because it taught you that within every question lay its own natural answer. You didn’t have to impose the solution from without. Your job was to burrow in and find the answer that was hiding there all along.

A great solution arose organically from the problem.

And it could be found by hard work, by a certain kind of sensitivity, and by an incredibly delicate mental process of teasing out—i.e., trying very hard mixed with not trying at all. This was my first exposure to the Muse, though I never in those days thought of it in such terms.

True, the stuff we were pimping was U.S. Prime humbug. “Parity products” and pure gar-bazh that nobody needed. But later on, trying to write movies and novels, the habits of “being creative” paid off.

I was never particularly good as a Mad Man. I’d come home depressed and could never figure out why. But the business, for me at least, was a fabulous training ground. Gearing up for pitches, sitting in gang bangs, or just beating my brains out trying to come up with solutions for impossible problems proved to be an invaluable education.  On Mad Ave, I discovered the first glimmers of who I was and I began to understand, hazily and for the first time, how to access the talents and gifts that I had, before my initiation in the Creative Department, discounted as nutty or worthless or neurotic.


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Constantin Gabor on January 18, 2012 at 6:10 am

    Now you got me thinking… am I a creative person? 🙂

  2. Jeremy on January 18, 2012 at 6:19 am

    Great post, Steven. My first job out of college was Associate Editor at a monthly journal for the engraving industry. I pitched, researched, and wrote articles about gold shovels for grand opening ceremonies, how to etch acrylic, and a bunch of other crap I didn’t know a damn thing about.

    But one of the first things they told me was, “You are the expert.”

    That was huge. It gave me permission to write from authority and has carried over to my fiction. Now when Resistance scoffs at my audacity, I slap it away. I am the expert.

  3. Jason on January 18, 2012 at 10:39 am

    My worst jobs have taught me the most; usually about my self.

  4. Brandon on January 18, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    You know, Steve, I’m in the same position now that you once were. Except I don’t work on Mad Ave., I’m not Jewish and I’ve never participated in a gangbang.

    But other than that, I can definitely relate.

    Personally, since I started copywriting, my “non-commercial” writing has gotten much tighter and more emotive. And just more damn interesting. Like you said, many of the writing processes are directly applicable to other types of writing.

    I will say that my section of the industry (direct response marketing) might be a bit more informative for the aspiring writer than the big brand agencies. You’ll spend less time being “creative”, but more time fleshing out motivations. This is gold for those that struggle with constructing believable characters.

    Plus, the job is actually enjoyable. And you’ll be able to sleep well at night.

  5. Arthur Shapiro on January 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    I was always on the client side of the desk but knew enough to realize that the heart of communications is in the hands of the creatives. Media, account planning, management and all the support functions at an agency are cast members — the writers and art directors are the stars.
    Further, it never ceases to amaze me how clients I know, don’t get this fundamental idea:
    It’s about he work, stupid!

    • Pepita on January 19, 2012 at 2:44 am

      Hi Arthur,
      I so do not agree with you:-)It is about balancing all the disciplines into one great outcome. If you have great strategy, but crap creation it doesn’t work. But the other way around doesn’t work either.

  6. Jeff Abbott on January 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    I love this. I was a copywriter and then a creative director — my last job before I went to writing full time after my seventh novel. Everything you said here is true, especially about recognizing an idea as something that stands on its own, And solutions rising organically from the problem (that is how you solve a plot problem, as well, it must arise organically from the characters). Can’t wait for the rest of the series.

  7. Rebecca Lang on January 18, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Thanks for the article. It was very thought-provoking. The world of advertisement has always frightened me. I hear stories about it sucking the life out of people, which makes me wary. On the other hand, I’d love to be on a team of writers like that, able to throw ideas around, and go through the process of creativity together. I wonder if the learning experience would make it worth it.

  8. Laura on January 18, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    I fell into a job at an ad agency in Anchorage, Alaska, in the late eighty’s. Like you said, Steven–great training…and, ultimately, I discovered, creatively draining.

    Looking forward to The Rest Of The Story.

  9. Tony Derbyshire on January 19, 2012 at 5:43 am

    I’m not sure what I like more on this post, the post itself or some of the well thought out and helpful responses. Jeff Abbott, your reminder about characters helped me yesterday. I was sitting here ‘doing the work’ and hit a wall. I read the post, read your observation and worked my way out of the muck. Thanks to all of you!

  10. Ronald Sieber on January 19, 2012 at 7:03 am

    I’m an automotive writer and enjoy investigating leads on cars with famous provenance and notorious owners. I found value in this post because I do many of the same things that were mentioned therein, but I comport with the ghosts of the past and the machines that they ran.

    Brainstorming ideas with vapors and inanimate iron is a creative discipline unto itself. Pitching ideas to harried mag editors and gathering material to write without the Mad Ave salary takes another kind of creativity, as in “What flavor of Ramen am I eating today?” 🙂 Great post, Steven!

  11. Barry Densa on January 19, 2012 at 9:15 am

    You mean there is life after being a copywriter? I can’t wait.

    I need a list of all the novelists who were once copywriters so I can tack it next to my computer screen.

    And every time I write for a client “Plus, you’ll get my 100% No-Nonsense, Risk-Free, No Questions Asked Personal Money-Back Guarantee” I can then glance at it and say to myself…What the hell are you doing?

  12. Shawn Phillips on January 19, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Love it Steven,

    “I was right at home. Wow. This was great. I discovered that the particular combination of ambition and anxiety, self-doubt and self-deprecation, depression, confusion, rage, terror and inability to conduct a healthy relationship with a woman were not my own unique failings…”

    Yes, I can relate and woo hoo, I too am not alone.

    I so get the “isn’t everyone creative?” bit. I’ve long organically spewed ideas like vegas does addictions; usually to a look of shock and awe in a room of people I assumed to be much more capable than I, if not smarter.

    Ahh… I guess this is why I love to write. Couple that the creative with the need to be heard, and write one will.

    I too have the utmost respect for the copywriting profession, for the Gary Halbert’s and John Carlton’s of the world. It teaches one thing most so-called writers give far too little thought to–the necessarily element of communication and engaging–talking with the reader, not just “at.”

    Thanks for this share!

    To Your Strength,

  13. Brandy on January 19, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Advertising fascinates me. I think when we’re being honest, most writers can admit to a love affair, however brief or dysfunctional, with marketing. And I’d say, as bloggers and writers in this brave new world, we all need to cozy up to our our Mad Muse.

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