When I Worked in Advertising

June 6, 2017 | 6 4 min read

When I worked in advertising, I took solace in knowing that my task was, fundamentally, to tell stories. I believe that; our society’s most successful storytellers are probably the people who make television commercials. In one of the 16 or so drafts of my new book, I mention that Folger’s commercial where the guy comes home for Christmas and wakes his family by brewing a pot of Folger’s. If that ends up in the finished book, I’m confident most readers will know exactly what I’m talking about.

When I worked in advertising, one of my clients, one of this country’s largest retailers, used the language of storytelling, which further helped me take solace in my work (the money was quite good, too). They told stories and then sold things, and the story changed every so often, so that the months of the year were like the installments in a collection of short stories. You can guess how some of those stories went: the story was Christmas or the story was Summer or the story was cleaning and organizing or the story was Father’s Day or the story was Mother’s Day and the moral of the story was buy stuff. Only the stuff changed, and even then, not that much, the same stuff month after month, story after story, the way certain writers repeat themselves when it comes to an image or a turn of phrase. Years ago, I noticed a detail in two separate Margaret Atwood works, both novels I think, but I really can’t remember; something to do with tenants seeking revenge on a bad landlord by painting the walls black. It’s possible I just made this up.

When I worked in advertising, I told myself that anything is a learning experience if you insist it be. I think that holds true. On more than one occasion, I had to write for a sign that could only accommodate four words. Four words is not many, but you can, if you need to, if you’re being paid to, get a great deal out of four words. The other day I went to visit an art gallery in Chelsea with a friend, a novelist, and her mother-in-law. My own mother-in-law is an absolutely delightful woman, and other people’s mothers-in-law are almost always my favorite people, perhaps because of my fraught relationship with my own mother. When I worked in advertising and I had to tell the story of Mother’s Day, I never thought of my own mother. At the gallery, apropos of nothing in particular, my friend said How long is your new book? and I tried to remember the page count and she said No, words, how many words? and I told her it was near 80,000, which is true, and quite a bit longer than those four-word signs I used to write.

When I worked in advertising, I was invited to many meetings and expected to have opinions about things beyond my purview as the writer. People cared, or pretended they did, what I thought about the models, or the music, or the wardrobe, or the director. I realize now that it was not because my opinion had any value (it didn’t) but because there’s something reassuring about consensus. If we all agreed that this model and that model made a handsome and believable on-screen couple, if we all agreed on the green dress instead of the polka dot one, if we all agreed on the director from Los Angeles instead of the director from London, if we all agreed, then we must all be right.

When I worked in advertising, sometimes the art director I worked with (there were many, and this is true for every one of them) would say What does it look like? She (they were mostly, though not always, women) would be frustrated, because I was using words and she did not think in words; she thought in pictures, which was why she had become an art director in the first place. I would describe, say, a Mother’s Day ad, and she would ask What does it look like? I would spin a story about a sweater or a handbag or a lipstick or a stand mixer and she would ask What does it look like? I enjoyed these conversations because they were a bit like the conversations you have with someone on drugs, or a young child; they didn’t have to adhere to any particular logic. She could ask What does it look like? and I could tell her it looked like flowers, and Tina Barney’s photographs, and happiness, and late afternoon sunlight, and the paintings of John Singer Sargent, and a scone on a chipped porcelain plate and an old American standard sung by someone with a Carly Simon-ish voice but not Carly Simon, and the art director would close her eyes and nod her head slowly.

When I worked in advertising, I learned that I had to be tough enough to toss out ideas to the boss or to the client and not flinch as they were rejected. No, not right a kindly boss might say or That’s stupid a different sort of boss might say or Did you read the brief an impatient client might say, but all this, after a time, rolled off of me. If my idea was bad, and no doubt the majority of mine were, it didn’t matter. Learning this was incredibly liberating. Once, a very well-known writer said something unkind to me about my book—right to my face!—and I rather wanted to explain that I had plenty of experience with people telling me that my ideas were bad and it didn’t matter because that was the job, having bad ideas, and that maybe that was the job of the novelist, too.

When I worked in advertising, the objective was to sell. There’s a purity in that, if you think about it. Last summer, I had a long and often angry conversation with another novelist, though we weren’t angry with one another. We were talking about beach reads. On the one hand, what writer doesn’t want to see lots of people lying on those Turkish-y beach towels that are so in fashion now, cradling the thing you wrote? You should want people to buy your book—you should want to sell!—and read it on the beach or in the bath or in their shrink’s waiting room or on the subway or on a park bench whilst eating one of those dry Pret a Manger sandwiches. Of course, you sometimes run into people who think that because your book was marketed as something to be read at the shore that means it’s stupid, that you’re stupid, that everything is stupid, etc. Maybe everything is stupid; it depends who you ask. I wanted to tell this other novelist that beach reads anagrams to abashed rec, but I didn’t, because only a crazy weirdo searches for meaning in anagrams.

Image Credit: Pixabay/ David Geib.

's novel Rich and Pretty is now available in paperback. His novel That Kind of Mother will be published in 2018.


  1. When I worked in advertising I learned that people who worked in advertising who viewed advertising as “storytelling” were among the most shallow, ignorant, and foolish people in the industry. When I worked in advertising I learned not to trust the people who worked in advertising who believed that what they were writing had any value whatsoever because they were often the ones who were also the most machinating and mercurial. And if your book is marketed as a beach read, as it should be, that has to do with the inanity of what it contains.

  2. I worked in advertising for 40 years and happy I did. I have no regrets and would do it again if i got to write TV and radio spots and double truck print ads. And billboards, brochures, bumper stickers, press releases and feature stories, and in one case, a poster meant to go above a urinal. In all that time, I put my clients in a good light, but never wrote a lie. We gave away thousands of hours to good causes (pro bono for those of you who prefer Latin). I learned economy of expression and how to hit difficult deadlines. In fact, I never missed one. Consequently, writer’s block is not a problem. My art director team mates often wrote the better headline, and I contributed visuals. We shared the awards without rancor. There’s nothing immoral about selling things. If it were, the only moral people would be those who live off others’ efforts. I write beach reads, and have read literature on the beach. I’m not sure what the distinction is.

  3. You’re not sure what the difference is between Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities” and Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook”? Lord help you.

    There’s nothing immoral about selling things. True. But there is something deeply immoral about a culture that organizes itself around sales, profit, and corporate beneficence. I’ve written my fair share of billboards and headlines, etc., and I found the process and experience vapid beyond belief. It taught me nothing but that corporate PR is sheer propaganda, and can potentially be laced throughout the culture with perilous consequences.

  4. I really enjoyed this, Rumaan–LOLed at how the advertising conversations mimicked those with a druggie (or a small child), and appreciated the new understanding about why we all remember certain ads, say, that kid with the infernally sloppy face eating ribs (think of the backstory! what kind of parent lets their kid…eat ribs? Kidding. Get that messy without cringing? The Bounty ad anticipated the false self esteem movement backlash by at least a decade).

    I digress. Thanks for sharing your insights, and best of luck becoming the hit beach read of the season. A book many people read hits on many levels. It can be read as a rousing romp or a deeper examination of some relationship or phenomenon. As the best literature has always done.

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