Every once in a while, a copywriter breaks free from the 16-word shackles of advertising to pen a novel that goes on to commercial or literary success. And everyone is amazed.
What might be more amazing is how rarely it happens. After all, these folks are paid to write. And it's not for lack of trying. I could build a comfortable apartment out of the self-published works that get sent to the office. Interestingly, some of the more famous copywriters-turned-novelists chose to write very little (if any) about the ad industry.
Well, John Kenney's "Truth in Advertising" -- which will be released next week -- changes all that. The debut novel from former copywriter and New Yorker contributor is set firmly in adland. And it's hilarious.
I'm not going to get into an exhaustive, spoiler-laden review in this space, but our hero, such as it is, in Finbar Dolan -- a mid-level ad guy who's struggling with his own family issues, but also those questions that haunt adland creatives. Or creatives who work in adland. Is his work of any value? Is he being churlish for whining about a pretty easy job? Should he just quit or should he embrace the work? Should he simply get along, or apply that extra 20% of effort that would take him up into the ECD ranks? Can you mature without selling out?
And while there is some hand-wringing involved, the navel-gazing is kept to an appropriate level and is balanced by the absurdity inherent in much of advertising and marketing, which Kenney captures so well. From an opening scene involving Gwyneth Paltrow doing a diaper spot to the manipulative skills of the agency executives to the actual diaper company itself -- which is planning a Super Bowl spot for a really, truly new and improved type of diaper -- Kenney mixes inside advertising jokes with the broad comedy necessary to keep those in the real world laughing. (And maybe I'm crazy, but I found the diaper product's character arc -- for lack of a better term -- a brilliant encapsulation of modern marketing.)
Of course, a book about marketing would be nothing without a little marketing. As part of the book launch, Touchstone has launched a contest asking participants to create an ad for the book. Judges of the contest include Havas CEO-Chief Strategy Officer Andrew Benett, New Yorker VP-Publisher Lisa Hughes, Mother Co-Head of Strategy Charlie McKittrick and Simon & Schuster Director of Advertising and Promotion Mark Speer.
Kenney and Rick Knief, a former partner of his at Ogilvy, have already created a book trailer, launched earlier this week at The New Yorker's website. Kenney said that he and Knief have made a couple of other non-ad projects before, including a documentary on his brother's experience as a rescue worker at Ground Zero and a comedic short based on a New Yorker piece of his.
Unlike 99% of book trailers, it's actually funny. (Yes, I know, you've all created your own parodies of focus groups. They're all funny, too. Quit whining.)