Behind TNT's New Advertising Drama, 'Trust Me'

Q&A: How the Writers' Former Gigs as Chicago Admen Turned Into Their Own Show

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny are advertising refugees who have finally gotten what many a copywriting cubicle dweller craves: not only a TV drama about them but one that allows them to lampoon advertising.

Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny
Photo: Karen Neal
Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny
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Mr. Baldwin started his advertising career at J. Walter Thompson in Chicago, rising to creative director in 1995 before quitting and joining Leo Burnett, where he met Mr. Coveny. By 2000, Mr. Baldwin was feeling burned out and quit; Mr. Coveny was laid off. Both decided to start over in Hollywood, sharing a moving van to the West Coast. By 2002, they'd landed gigs as staff writers on Fox's "Fastlane," which quickly folded.

After a frighteningly lean year as unemployed screenwriters, the two landed gigs on TNT's drama "The Closer" in 2004. They've been writing and co-executive producing the hit series ever since -- that is, until they recently stepped away to create "Trust Me," which will make its debut on TNT on Jan. 26.

Madison & Vine: So let's get this out of the way: Without AMC's "Mad Men," would you even be having this conversation today?

Mr. Coveny: I think "Mad Men" captured, no doubt, the critical acclaim and the covers of magazines to get the drama and hipness [of advertising] in people's minds, but "Bewitched" and "Thirtysomething" did that too. And, honestly, the people at TNT, besides thinking about their families, think only about one thing: What's good for TNT. But there's no doubt that the stars have aligned.

Mr. Baldwin: Whether it would or wouldn't have gotten to air isn't something we could answer, but TNT was looking for a show with this backdrop even before "Mad Men" was a shot pilot.

M&V: When you were just getting started in advertising in 1992, talent agent Michael Ovitz famously stole Coca-Cola from McCann-Erikson by arguing that people don't watch TV to watch ads; they watch TV to watch shows, and that Coke shouldn't be working with the guys who interrupt the shows but rather with the artists who make those shows. Yet in the pilot of "Trust Me," you have Tony Mink, played by Griffin Dunne, screaming, "I don't want an artist, I don't want a sculptor, I don't want a novelist. I want a creative director!" Who's right: Ovitz or Mink?

Mr. Coveny: I will tell you I think Ovitz was wrong.

Mr. Baldwin: Actually, we find the most interesting conversations happen when both sides are right. Everyone has a hard time seeing the weaknesses in their arguments. We loved our time in advertising. In the course of doing the show, we still love the craft of advertising.

M&V: Your show is set in the modern day. Have consumer brands been wary of being integrated into the show?

Mr. Baldwin: We were clear [with TNT] about what kind of latitude we needed. We have enough experience to know how to talk to brands and know if there's going to be a partnership or not. Once we were given the freedom to tell the stories we needed, it became incredibly smooth.

Mr. Coveny: This is not a show about lying liars sitting up in their dark offices telling lies. We didn't do that when we were creatives, and to quote the old man Leo Burnett, "Drama lives in the truth." But TNT handles all that stuff. I will say the best way to find out is to watch the series. People who thought [product integration] couldn't be done seamlessly and creatively will be surprised. This show is not about "How can we sell more widgets?"

M&V: Does the scrutiny of the ad industry affect how you portray the ad industry?

Mr. Baldwin: When we first started developing the pilot, we said, "It's about fear and envy, and the people who create it." And you can go to those [advertising] publications for information, but you can also go to them as a yardstick. What? That guy you knew five years ago is now a creative director? It can be motivating -- and corrosive.

Mr. Coveny: Having said that, if Ad Age wants in the show, please call us. [Laughs]

M&V: Any advice for those who want out of advertising and into Hollywood?

Mr. Baldwin: Soak in the view of Michigan Avenue and prepare for a much less glamorous existence. Our first job, we went from each having private offices with views to a semiprivate office trailer on the Warners lot looking at a dumpster. Nobody gets to make a lateral move when they make that move. It's a pretty painful thing to do. You have to write when no one is paying you. And the other thing was: You have to convince them that you're going to be fun to have around. Because Coveny had worked with McG [when he was a commercial director] he got us a meeting with the guy who was running "Fastlane." In fact, we didn't get the job. But halfway through, after other writers left, they remembered us, and called us back in. It was a combination of doing the work and having the meeting.

M&V: And even after all that bravura, you almost had to come crawling back to advertising when "Fastlane" was canceled, no?

Mr. Baldwin: We were convinced we were going to be superstars of film and TV. And people were not as enthusiastic about reading our "Fastlane" scripts. We'd missed an important thing called staffing season. We spent a year after our big break with nothing to do. It was the running out of money and opportunities that was tingling in the back of Mr. Coveny's head.

Mr. Coveny: I tend to live my life a little higher than my salary. [Laughs]

M&V: How did advertising prepare you for Hollywood?

Mr. Baldwin: Being able to pitch your ideas quickly and in a dramatic fashion goes a long, long way in dealing with the personality dynamics. But it's the writing that's always the reason that you get hired. I think we violated every pitch rule in terms of brevity and clarity [for "Trust Me"]. We didn't have a classic one-liner. ... There's a perception that Hollywood pitches are like, "It's 'Jaws' meets 'Schindler's List'!" Done properly, it's not like that at all. You have to convince people that you can tell 100 stories, and provide an authentic look at the world. Whether it's the CIA, doctors or ad guys, it comes down to characters.

M&V: Is the real recession going to affect the fake advertising world in "Trust Me" as much as it will the real Madison Avenue?

Mr. Coveny: We do hit the mentality that [advertising] is not a big cash money room where a fan blows the money around and you grab it and run out. We didn't expect it to be so timely, but the emotions we dealt with when we left are back.

Mr. Baldwin: I think, for a long time, there's a simmering undercurrent of anxiety in advertising. ... I think that sort of creeping obsolescence that a lot of people have felt -- that's built into the DNA of these characters.

Mr. Coveny: But we're not going to talk [directly] about the recession. This show is a really a show you relate to, but it's also a show you can escape to.

M&V: How do you think "Trust Me" will go over with audiences?

Mr. Coveny: It's funny: You spend years dealing with them, but the world's biggest focus group will convene on the night of Jan. 26. We'll know then.