The author teaches in the graduate program in advertising at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond VA. Beyond this, nothing is promised but that life is short. Thank you for stopping by.

It will do you no good to learn to write from your heart if there is nothing in your heart.

Get a hobby.

Dive deep into something.

The more that is in your heart the more you can pull out of it.

When you nurture passion for a subject you also grow the desire in yourself to learn deeply of other subjects.

Collecting stamps or flying model airplanes or fly fishing or furniture-making doesn’t just increase your knowledge of those subjects. It grows your desire for  the heart-swell that comes from having deep knowledge and interest.

Half of loving good work is hating bad work.



The only reward the ad business hands out for mediocre work is the chance to do more of it.

Never do what you’re told.

When someone can describe what they want you to do that work is already dead.

Don’t do it.

Breathe your breath into a new thing.

It will be better than the dead work you’ve been asked for.

And only a wholly bad agency will fire you for doing better work than they asked you to do.

Don’t advertise your growing pains.

If you do bad work, don’t worry about it.

Everyone does bad work.

But resist the temptation to share it.

I know we live in the age of Share Everything.


Even a fool is considered wise if he doesn’t open his mouth.

Take the smallest slice of the pie you can find.

Big assignments come with scrutiny. Scrutiny kills good ideas before they get a chance to prove themselves to be good ideas.

Small assignments mean fewer scrutinizers.

A good idea can be hatched for a small assignment away from the death-dealing effects of scrutiny.  Get produced. Discovered. And become the big campaign.

Small assignments are like acorns. They can grow into oak trees. But a big hunk of oak stuck into the ground will always only be a big hunk of oak. Stuck in the ground.

It’s the odd reason to buy a product that leads to a great ad. More often than an obvious reason does.

A Promise is an Infomercial.

Dear Students,
A good ad tells truth.
It is concerned with a fact.
(it doesn’t have to be an informational fact. observations can be the truth)
A bad ad promises.
A promise is a lie because it has not come true.



Granted, nobody’s going to run a headline like this, but I see variations of this every week in class and the airwaves, websites and magazines are full of the same.

People aren’t moved by a promise.
They know better.
Not only do they know the whitest snow in Snowland isn’t nearly as white as they want their towels and sheets to be because the whitest snow in Snowland still has bug detritus and tire tracks and dirt on it, but more to the point, they know better than to listen to a promise because they’ve all been broken up with when they were in high school by boys and girls who’d promised to love them forever.

The audience knows you’re getting paid to write ads.
Stick to facts.
It doesn’t mean you can’t speak to the strategy statement the clients are in love with.



One learns to write by reading.

You breathe without thinking. When you write, you make sentences in the same manner.

So, to make better sentences–which means different from the ones you’re writing at present–it behooves you to learn to breathe differently.

Read, if you wish to write.

First, read the best — Nabokov, Bellow, Helprin, O’Connor, Frost, I know you’ve heard those names. When you read them you enter into the cadence of their writing, their breathing. And it affects you.

Here are some I’ve been drawn to that aren’t as widely appreciated:

Lee K. Abbott.
Texas. Football. Girls. Hubris. Divorce. Disappointment.

All Things All At Once by Lee K. Abbott

Martin Luther King, Jr. Speeches and writings. Oh my. Visuals. Writing meant to be spoken. Spoken words that live in the air. You want to write commercials on the TV you’ve got to write sentences people can see. Not even poets do it as well as he did.

Shalom Auslander. This is a book of short stories. He also just wrote a memoir. They read the same. God, profanity, self-disgust. It’s like looking in a mirror.

Beware Of God by Shalom Auslander
Lynda Barry. Cartoonist & writer.

100 Demons by Lynda Barry

I’m not much of a woman.

So when Ms. Barry is writing about the interior struggles of a young woman I should probably feel as if I don’t get it.
I do, though.
The comic strip format can train your mind not only for sentences but for film sentences.
The word balloons and having to know what’s being seen while somone is talking is crazy good for you.
Go look in the basement for your old ones. Read the Sunday paper.

Let this in as far as you can. Maybe you’ll be lucky and it will unman you enough that you’ll pick up Emily Dickinson again.

Wendell Berry. Farmer. You can tell.

Heck, this could go on for pages, boring you into losing your interest in sitting down with just one writer and letting his or her breathing sound in your head.
Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Saul Bellow, P.G. Wodehouse. Wislawa Szymborska, Lucille Clifton...
p.s. If you start with a Jeeves book by P.G. Wodehouse you’ll be happy you did.

Second, read wildly. Willfully read what it would not occur to you to read. It is like cross-training. You get better at swimming by the less specific work your muscles receive while playing basketball. Same thing in reading/writing. Your brain gets bigger as it rises to the challenge of taking in what you’ve not fed it before.

Clients Hate Advertising, Part Two

If clients don’t like advertising why do they come to ad agencies?
They want you to tell them what their story is.
Then they want you to tell that story to the public.
Until a client has a story they believe in you’re wasting your time trying to sell them ads.
They can get ads from their brother-in-law for an extra turkey wing passed under the table at Thanksgiving.
What’s hard to get is a good story.

What is a client’s story?
This is where advertising gets fun.
Story isn’t definable.
Story is different for each situation.

A client’s story is what the president of the company tells his kids when they ask him what his company does.
A client’s story is the accumulation of everything the 15 different product managers have forgotten since they read the founder’s bio on the HR pamphlet their first day of work.
A client’s story is what the public thinks of the client’s company minus two times their worst advertising.
A client’s story can’t be predicted, can’t be faked (or at least not for long) and both does and doesn’t work like this:

A client’s story is what the maintenance people who clean their offices could tell you about the company in one sentence, but the marketing director couldn’t find with both hands in a 5 page memo.
A client’s story is what Steve Jobs knows about Apple that whoever had his job when he was away making Pixar didn’t.
A client’s story can be a person who isn’t alive. (Orville Redenbacher)
A client’s story may be hidden from the people who run things at a company by people at the company who they haven’t treated well.
A client’s story may be in the past, the present or the future.
A client’s story may be so obvious you don’t think to feed it back to the client. A client can be as blind to their story as some beautiful women are to how beautiful they are. Conversely, there are clients so sure they know their story they resemble an ugly man convinced he is attractive who never hears he isn’t.
A client’s story may be a song no one remembers or a song no one has written yet, or a song no one relates to the company until you play it for them. It’s easy to think a song is a client’s story. It’s usually not.
A client’s story is easier to find than to tell. The high points of all good stories stand high. What does a good job of hiding is what exact part of the accumulated narrative to tell. Let jokes be your guide. The best jokes never contain any words or information that don’t contribute to the laugh.
A client’s story could have to do with the president of the company or the lowest paid employee on the salary list or with someone who never worked for the company.
A client’s story may be a surprise to the client, the public, and the ad agency. (Frank Perdue)

A client’s story is the one piece of creative an agency creative director can work on without pissing off the creatives in his group.
A client’s story does not have a format.
A client’s story doesn’t have a billable job number attached to it.
None of the best things in life do.

Clients Hate Advertising.

Dear Students,
Following is a list of things I seen happen.
When you’re done reading you may be tempted to reconsider whether learning to make ads is what you want to spend the next two years doing.
The next post gets to a positive destination.
But now, in the spirit of Mr. Letterman’s Top Ten Lists,

Tell-Tale Signs of What Clients Think of 
Ads, Advertising, Ad Agencies:

Agencies show up on time to meetings to show ads even after flying across the country to do so.
Clients are late, in their own building.

Account people get 5 phone calls from the client about dinner reservations, airport transportation and ballgame tickets for every 1 pertaining to an ad.

The presentation of an ad to a client begins with the agency explaining what the ad they’re showing was created to do. This is followed by each person from the client in turn explaining in words no one at the agency has heard before a fully different description of what the job of the ad was meant to be.

When an ad is presented, the head client pushes it along the table to the next client without reading it. After it circles the table the last person pushes it into the middle of the table where it sits for the rest of the meeting like a spurned treaty.

If a client does look at the ad he holds it at arms length with both hands, grimacing as if it were an enlargement of a membership card in the Communist Party of America with his name on it.

If an ad makes its way past 4 layers of approval to a meeting with a client who can say yes or no, that client will begin the meeting by saying, Well, I don’t know anything about this advertising business, but….

More time in the meeting is spent discussing the copy than the headline.

This is followed by even more time spent on a monologue by the client asserting no one reads copy.

The bulk of the meeting is spent making certain which version of the logo will be used, for which design the company spent a sum of money greater than the yearly fee paid the agency.

The discussion of where the ad runs, how often, and how many millions of dollars will be spent takes 2 & ½ minutes and is later changed in a 2-minute cellphone call from a bar.

The decision to run one ad rather than another is made by 15 people who don’t work for the client or the agency but were found wandering about in a shopping mall one afternoon and who, when approached by people with clipboards did not possess even enough sense to walk the other way but instead were persuaded in less than a minute to follow an unknown person down a hallway into a dark room after being promised a bowl of M&M’s and maybe enough money to buy a tank of gas. (This is called a focus group. Bad news–you’ll get a chance to see more than one before you’re dead)

They will not be aware they are making a decision, will not know which of their remarks made the decision & which not, but their unconsidered & unconnected sayings, pauses, burps & look-abouts will be collected into a voice more powerful than the weight of the agency’s argument or the common sense of anyone involved.

The most easily moved item of business in any client’s day, even the ad manager’s, is a meeting with the agency. It does not outrank an auto mechanic’s call, a takeout container of Chinese food, a discussion of baby clothes with an office intern, or…..

and the Number 1 tell-tale sign that what clients think of advertising is different from what agencies think–

The person from the agency presenting the ad is paid $300k a year.
The person from the client to whom the ad is being presented makes $55K.

Next: If Clients Don’t Want Ads, What Do They Want?


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