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Truth In Advertising by John Kenney

April 5, 2014

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I work in the creative department of a mid-size advertising agency, part of a big global agency network, owned by an enormous holding company. I’ve had this career for 14 years, a few years less than John Kenney, a New York copywriter. But our work lives are pretty darn similar. When I was reading this book, a story about a copywriter named Fin Dolan at a large agency in New York, I would frequently mark passages and read them aloud to my co-workers. Here is one of my favorites. After describing what he does all day (leafing through magazines, going for coffee, wondering if anyone would catch him masturbating, googling the word assface, etc.), he says this:

This is my job. Indeed, this is the job of the other fifty-four creatives at the agency. Copywriters and art directors. They are artists. They are misunderstood. They are impulsive, brilliant, difficult, short-tempered, divorced, heavy drinkers, smokers, recreational drug users, malcontents, sexual deviants. It is the land of misfit toys. Every one of them deep believers in their individuality, their Mr. Rogers “You-Are-Special”-ness. And yet so very much alike in wardrobe, attitude, world view, background, humor; readers of HuffPo, Gawker, Agency Spy, people who quote Monty Python, Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman [whomever I am reading this passage to always laughs at this part, nodding at how he’s got us us, like identical insects pinned down in an entomologist’s case], who speak in movie-line references over and over, who like Wilco, Paul Westerberg, Eddie Izzard. Fast talkers, people who no longer tuck in their shirts, overly confident people with low self-esteem, people with British friends, people who know about good hotels and airport business lounges, people who are working on a screenplay/novel/documentary, watchers of HBO and The Daily Show, politically liberal, late to marry, one-child households, the women more than likely to have had an abortion, to have slept with their male copywriter or art director partner, the men having had sex with at least one coworker and probably more, half having once experimented or are now experimenting with facial hair. Everyone wears blue jeans all the time.

On the one hand, it’s not cool to be stereotyped. On the other hand, there are only three things on that list that don’t describe me. It’s disconcerting to be such a cliché, but it’s also oddly comforting to know that it’s the same everywhere. Likewise, the work-related events described in the book—the shoots, the client presentations, including their oft-ridiculous comments on the work; the abhorrent, narcissistic, brilliant behavior of co-workers; the apathy and passion and cynicism and optimism—all of it is painfully, hilariously true. As Fin works toward a chance to have a Superbowl spot (on every creative’s career bucket list) with a diapers client, he travels a road familiar to every creative in the industry.

Simultaneously, he’s dealing with his dying, estranged father, which has kicked up a cloud of existential questions. And there’s a little romantic thing going on as well. This last part is by far the wobbliest leg of the table. It has a fairly standard romantic comedy feel to it, though more along the lines of Perks of Being a Wallflower or Garden State (kind of an offbeat, young, hipsterish love thing) than anything too sappy, but still fairly predictable. It weighs the plot down some, but didn’t diminish from the pleasure I took in reading about a work environment that is exactly, exactly like mine. And much of the work stuff, aside from being funny, deals with the essential tension in an advertising agency, perhaps in any creative business. As one of Fin’s co-workers tells him:

There’s the yin and yang of it…You get to travel and stay in great hotels and eat great meals and drink expensive wine and be treated like someone on a movie set. Yet it’s not art and deep down we want it to be. We need it to be beautiful. We need it to mean something. And it does, for the first twenty-three seconds of the spot. Then the voice-over comes in and talks about chicken tenders.

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