Former FCB/San Francisco copywriter/CD Suzanne Finnamore penned last year's semi-autobiographical Otherwise Engaged. The book takes a peek into the life of 36-year-old Eve, a bride-to-be who also happens to be a CD at a San Francisco agency. The novel, at moments, comes across as a cathartic purge of Finnamore's frustration about advertising. "It occurs to me that I detest advertising and that this fact isn't going to go away, that actually as I approach forty it will intensify," the book's protagonist reflects tellingly. "I begin to understand that I am not going to be allowed a second, more honorable lifetime, where I teach handicapped children and write politically correct musicals and know Toni Morrison."
"The parts about advertising are taken from others' and my experience in the Hades toboggan," quips Finnamore, who helped to create the 1995 Levi's "501 Reasons" campaign, and who dropped her CD gig as soon as she sold her book and its movie rights.
Melissa Bank, a former McCann-Erickson/New York copywriter, wrote the successful The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which reviewers like to equate to an American Bridget Jones's Diary. The modern-gal tale also contains true-to-life scenarios. "I'd write plays or novels or appliance manuals at night," remarks Jane, the copywriter heroine. "But advertising made my IQ go down; every night I had to work just to get it back up to regular." The author says the line was inspired by an early phase in her seven years of writing direct marketing. Bank's calling had always been literary - she got her M.F.A. from Cornell, and as with Jane, advertising was the "day job" to support loftier writing pursuits. Nevertheless, the ad grind proved a writing school of its own. "I learned a lot about writing from working in advertising," says Bank. "I learned to have a kind of respect for my reader, specifically my readers' time. As an advertising writer, you're like a Hoover salesman trying to get in the door, and you don't have much time. So you have to be very engaging and persuasive. You're never asked to stretch out a headline, or `Could you make that a little more copy-intensive?' It really teaches you not to be self-indulgent."
Kathy Hepinstall, a freelancer based in Austin, Texas, learned about the importance of concepts from her copywriting. She wrote The House of Gentle Men, a mystical tale of redemption that centers on a sort of reverse brothel where men give women emotional solace. The book's tone is contemplative and soothing, unlike the copywriter's grittier work for Pioneer's 1995 "Roadkill Diaries" ads from BBDO/Los Angeles. Advertising also honed Hepinstall's marketing sensibilities. In her home town, she organized a silent Gentle Men "sit-in," paying 20 college students to plant themselves outside a bookstore and read her novel. She also embarked on an agency tour, with scheduled readings at shops like GSD&M and Wieden & Kennedy. The guerrilla publicity paid off, at least for a while. "After a reading at Ground Zero, for one glorious week I beat John Grisham on the L.A. Times best-seller list," she laughs.
Finnamore isn't quite so giddy, but she cracks plenty wise about how advertising whetted the razor-sharp wit that's evident in her popular novel. "It would be wrong to say my wit came from advertising," she declares. "It came from surviving advertising. I don't think that advertising makes anyone funny. It makes them grim and suicidal, nasty and competitive. Overall, I'd have to agree with Helmut Krone, who said that advertising is better than a heart attack."
On the other end of the spectrum, pursuing outside writing projects helped some authors to stay positive about their ad work. Margaret Ellman, a senior copywriter at Messner Vetere with a flair for comedic dialogue, wrote Sex in Advertising and The Girl Who Said Yes to the Guy in the Brown Subaru, two off-Broadway plays. "I think I had more problems with advertising before I took care of some of my creative needs," she explains. "I felt like advertising was holding me back. But now I that I realize that I was holding me back, I don't have a problem with it."