Over the years, the world of copywriting has hosted many great men of letters. Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo both worked for Ogilvy & Mather; F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote streetcar sign slogans for a small firm in New York; Helen Gurley Brown wrote copy for makeup brands like Max Factor.
But content marketing has its own literary giants, too, and none is bigger than Kurt Vonnegut, the author of "Slaughterhouse Five" and many other thoughtful, ironic works that look at the world in surprising ways.
Mr. Vonnegut, who died in April 2007, was part of a small team of content marketers hired by George W. Griffin, Jr., the manager of GE's news bureau in Schenectady, N.Y. Mr. Griffin wanted to share news about the research going on at the company's Schenectady Works facility, and after deciding it would be easier to hire writers than to groom them internally, he reached out to a number of young journalists with science backgrounds. Mr. Vonnegut, then 24 years old, was one of them.
From 1947 to 1950, he interviewed GE scientists about their research, taking the most exciting developments and pitching them to media. The things Mr. Vonnegut saw and heard served as the inspiration for his first novel, the dystopian "Player Piano," as well as one of the central elements of "Cat's Cradle."
Though he was there only for a few years, the work (and his colleagues) agreed with him, even though it sometimes seemed to Mr. Vonnegut that GE executives were skeptical of what they were doing.
"It was a group of screwballs as far as the rest of the company was concerned," he told the Saturday Evening Post in 1986. "We weren't promotable; there was no kind of higher job they cared to give us."
Today, the operation Mr. Vonnegut helped pioneer is very different. GE's content-marketing site, GE Reports, is now a daily digital magazine overseen by Tomas Kellner, an engineer and onetime Forbes staff writer who reports on topics ranging from neuroimaging and smart devices to 3-D printing and jet engines. Every morning, GE Reports content goes out to an audience of more than 20,000 people via email.
Mr. Kellner adored Mr. Vonnegut's books growing up, and he says it came as a shock to learn that one of his idols once worked in a very similar capacity.
He also thinks they took their jobs for similar reasons.
"I love what he loved, or I imagine that he loved," Mr. Kellner said. "Talking to the scientists, and learning about all the amazing things they're working on, and then putting it in context of the big things that are happening in the world.
"If you regularly say something that's valuable, you're going to have an audience," Mr. Kellner said, "whether you're GE or the FT."