A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

How can I stop my hairdresser talking to me when she's cutting my hair? I know they are trained to engage with customers, but all...

It’s with great joy that I’m able to share with you an anecdote recounted to me long ago by Harry, Lord Tennyson, then an unconventional account person at J Walter Thompson.

Harry had been sitting in his customary silence in his customary cubicle in Geo F Trumper’s barber shop (est. 1875) in Curzon Street, W1.

The next cubicle was occupied and also silent; until, that is, Harry heard the unseen barber clear his throat and advance an observation: "Getting a little bit thin on top, Sir."

There was a considered pause; after which the unseen client responded, entirely without heat, as follows: "If we are to descend to personal comment, I might in turn observe that your fingernails are far from clean and your breath would fell an ox."

The silence returned, never again to be broken.

I’m sure you can modify this exchange to suit your particular purpose.

Every so often in your column, which resonates deeply with me in an existential, serendipitous – nay, capricious – manner, you refer to one-time copywriters who have ‘gone on’ to greater things – ie. writing novels, plays and TV series. Is copywriting still a rite of passage to Pinewood, or a pathway to nowhere? Should I take that first step of the journey, plunge into the river of potential, and weave my magic in marcoms?

Chris Wilkins once memorably wrote of a piece of advertising copy: "I know what each of those words means. What I do not know is why they are in that order." Since I feel much the same about your question, I thought I’d first turn it into English:

I want to write novels, plays and TV series. Is becoming a copywriter still a useful starting point?

Thank you. That’s much better.

Copywriting and novel-writing were most closely aligned before the arrival of commercial television.

Much press advertising was long copy, elegantly constructed, gently persuasive. Many of the men and women who could write such copy were also able to write publishable short stories and novels. From before the war, Dorothy Sayers is probably the most enduringly famous; she worked for SH Benson, later Ogilvy Benson & Mather. For would-be novelists, needing to eat while writing their books at weekends and in lunch hours, advertising agencies were wonderful. Bernard Gutteridge’s The Agency Game was one of the last novels to be written in the pre-television age.

An ability to write television commercials doesn’t help prose writers much. The abandonment by most agencies of those despised but invaluable copy tests ensured that no-one any longer got hired purely on their ability to write. The standard of press copywriting is now so poor that most so-called body copy is reversed out of lemon yellow and tucked away shamefacedly as a design element. Clients approve press ads as if they were posters; they know the words aren’t going to get read. One or two wonderful writers survived the television age. I think of Chris Wilkins, Nicholas Salaman, Matt Beaumont and, of course, Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie. They have one other thing in common: they’d all been hired as writers, not as 50 per cent of a creative team.

To my mind, Peter Carey is the most remarkable adman novelist but he’s an Australian – or at least he was. He even had his own agency. He wrote five full-length novels before the first was published; and then won the Booker twice.

In what way, I wonder, does this brief and inaccurate review, as requested, help guide your career? Perhaps in two ways.

On the clear evidence of your letter, you can’t write. But since an inability to write is no longer a disadvantage when applying to work in marcoms (as you excruciatingly call it), that needn’t discourage you from trying.

If as a result, however, you’re hoping to be fast-tracked to a Booker or an Emmy, prepare for disappointment.

But, there again, I may have failed to understand your question. It’s easily done.

"Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP

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