Copywriters: Killers, Poets, Nerds, Or Something Else?


I was figuratively punched in the gut by one part of Joshua Ferris' And Then We Came To The End, a book I highly recommend to anyone already in or considering a job in advertising or marketing.

Several characters in the book are copywriters, a title that has been present on my business cards, from time to time. Copywriters aren't just characters in the book, they're often characters, themselves.

Copywriters are often an interesting group. Well-read, imaginative, delightful at cocktail parties - it's practically written into the job description.

Baby, You're A Killer

And maybe it's imagination that allows us to create personas about ourselves. We are people who sit in offices, but frequently imagine ourselves as much, much more.

Consider this excerpt from Ferris' novel:

"'What's your idea?' asked Joe.

Her idea? We'll tell you her idea, Joe. To slaughter. Nobody talks about it, nobody says a word, but the real engine running the [advertising agency] is the primal desire to kill. To be the best ad person in the building, to inspire jealousy, to defeat all the rest. The threat of layoffs just made it a more efficient machine [page 109]."

Writers as killers? It might seem like a stretch, but consider this from On Advertising by David Ogilvy, father of one of the most successful advertising agencies ever and constant advocate of good copywriters:

"'Most good copywriters' says William Maynard of the Bates agency, 'fall into two categories. Poets. And killers. Poets see an ad as an end. Killers as a means to an end.' If you are both killer and poet, you get rich [page 32]."

Now, we're killers and poets? And we still wear ties?

Or Really Just Nerds?

And yet, something struck me about this quote from Almost Famous in which two writers are discussing their place in the world:

Lester Bangs: They make you feel cool. And hey. I met you. You are not cool.

William Miller: I know. Even when I thought I was, I knew I wasn't.

Lester Bangs: That's because we're uncool. And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don't have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we're smarter. ...The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool.

So Which Is It?

Personally, I can see all of them. Advertising and marketing agencies are highly creative, highly political, highly charged environments. So it's understandable to put yourself in any of these roles (sometimes all of them in a single day!).

What do you think? Which is most accurate metaphor for copywriters? Is it killer, poet, nerd, or something else? I anticipate your answers in the comments section below.

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(Image courtesy of jbhill via Flickr)