Going from adland to neverland

James Swift meets five adlanders (The Famous Five, if you will) who have swapped one type of scamp for another by fulfilling their dream of writing children's books.

Without wishing to invite obvious jokes about never growing up, agency folk seem to thrive in the world of children’s literature.

There’s no hard data to back this up but plenty of anecdotes. For instance, Philip Ardagh, best-known for his Eddie Dickens series of books, talks about leaving McCann London, where he was a copywriter, only to be introduced to his eventual replacement – Anthony Horowitz, another successful author of children’s fiction.

Of course, most copywriters and art directors have creative side-projects, and these include all sorts of things. There’s bound to be a few children’s authors in the bunch.

But children’s books and ads have more in common that just being creative endeavours.

"Writing children’s books is very advertising-friendly because it’s basically 12 spreads and a storyboard, so very similar to TV storyboarding," Kes Gray, who worked at Saatchi & Saatchi before leaving to write full-time, says. "Also, I think advertisers find it very liberating. Advertising is a difficult discipline. If you give a creative a chance to write 800 words, they would bite your arm off for it."

Thiago de Moraes, a creative director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO who is about to publish his first book, adds: "Kids’ books tend to be a bit more stylised and closer to advertising. The idea is a single thing and it’s quite coherent. If you’re writing a long novel, the idea matters less than how it’s written."

Campaign interviewed five people from the industry who made the leap into children’s books and asked how they did it and what they’ve learned.

Andy Cutbill

The executive creative director at Albion only wrote his first children’s book after he’d already sold the idea as a TV show.

Cutbill was at Y&R when he first submitted a heap of cartoon strips to Cosgrove Hall Films. The now-defunct production company (which also made Danger Mouse and The Wind In The Willows) came back to him asking to see the TV treatment.

"I said ‘sure’ and spent the next 48 hours frantically writing the stuff," Cutbill says. "I then signed a deal for two TV series with ITV. When I was doing that, they thought I should be doing books as well, so we went to HarperCollins and they said: ‘Let’s go.’"

The result was a cartoon and series of books about a six-year-old boy called Albie, who would encounter strange beasts in his house and garden. It was based on Cutbill’s own upbringing in a house that was so cluttered with stuffed animals and bric-a-brac that it resembled a mausoleum.

Cutbill left advertising to work full-time on his writing, but returned to the industry because he’d "got married and had kids".

"I have got two children and wanted to educate them the best I could. Even though I have sold –  in comparison to some – quite a few books, it doesn’t pay very well," Cutbill, whose Albie books have sold more than 750,000 copies, says.

"But writing books is fantastic," he adds. "It’s frustrating, though. Like coming up with a good campaign, it’s very difficult. The best book I ever wrote took half-an-hour and, the worst, six months.

"If I won the lottery, would I pack up my job and just write books? Among other things, yes."

Favourite children’s book "Beegu by Alexis Deacon."

Advice to would-be children’s authors "To write a good picture book, you need to have a good narrative arc and a poignant story. Publishers will look for this because they are selling the books to parents as much as to kids."

Thiago de Moraes

"I always wanted to do kids’ books," De Moraes, the creative partner and head of creative innovation at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, says, "even before I had a kid."

The Brazilian has just finished his first book, which he wrote with his wife. He illustrates and she works on the story.

"We did things the hard way," De Moraes adds. "We had almost finished the book when we got in touch with the publisher [Anderson Press] and so then had to go back and change loads of stuff.

"It’s called Zoomer’s Handbook and comes out in 2016. It’s a simple story about a boy who looks after animals that aren’t farm animals but aren’t zoo animals either – like a shiger, which is half-sheep and half-tiger."

De Moraes says he found working on the book "quite healthy" as it was such a personal project: "I just wanted to do as much illustrating as I could. That’s the thing I can’t do in the agency. And I have tried. It just doesn’t work."

He left Droga5 Europe after eight months earlier this year and returned to AMV BBDO so he could spend two days a week working on his books. But De Moraes says he doesn’t know if he would go full-time if it became an option.

"I think they help each other," he says. "Advertising is a very good process if you’re an artist. You have to be good at analysing an idea and knowing if it’s any good or not, and you have to learn how to take criticism and notes – but I like to think that, even in advertising, the best work is quite instinctive."

Favourite children’s book "It changes all the time. Currently, it’s Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat."

Advice to would-be children’s authors "My only piece of advice would be to write about something you are genuinely interested in and try to actually write the whole thing (instead of just plots or outlines). As you write it, the story changes and you might end up with something much more interesting than you expected at the start."

Elizabeth Kesses

"Going to Fox as its marketing director was either the pinnacle or the low point of my career," Kesses says. "The level of creativity in my day job was so minimal."

Kesses says she fell into advertising after graduating from Oxford, when it was either that or a career in banking or law, and stayed in the industry for 15 years – first at Carat, then Unity and then 20th Century Fox.

"After Fox, I took a year off," she says. "Ever since then, I have been writing. It’s not about the result, for me – it’s about the process. I still write for The Huffington Post [Kesses started blogging after bumping into Arianna Huffington at a party] and I have had to freelance [at agencies], but I’m less bothered about the whole corporate thing now."

Kesses has written a trilogy of books called The Ugly Little Girl, about an insecure girl who goes to a magical night school for kids with low self-esteem. Kesses says she based the character on herself.

"I think what really motivates me is that, in this world, there’s so much for children that is plastic and commercial. I have such great memories of just being in my own bubble when I was a child and part of me wants to hand that down."

Kesses has also rejected offers to turn her books into TV shows, saying she wants to preserve the story’s written-word beauty for a little longer. Conversely, she also talks about advertising and writing as meshable worlds, seeing her role as a content provider. She even works with Dove as a "real beauty" ambassador.

Asked if writing ever feels like a treadmill, she says: "No. I’m tapping into something that’s so irrational. The only thing is that you can’t turn it off. I can get an idea on holiday and I’ll have to work on it right away. You can wish publishing could be more fast-paced or more contemporary, but you’re never bored."

Favourite children’s book "Probably the Beatrix Potter series. No whiz-bang effects or gadgets, just playful stories and simple narrative with a helpful message that everyone can relate to."

Advice to would-be children’s authors "Don’t give up. Many will tell you it’s not possible. There are too many unpublished authors. It takes drive and guts, but it can happen. JK Rowling had many rejections before success."

Al MacCuish

MacCuish, a co-founder of the creative agency Sunshine and former Mother creative director, says there’s too much fun to be had with brands to consider jacking it in for a life just writing children’s stories.

In fact, his latest book, The Bee Who Spoke, was originally created for the L’Occitane beauty brand Melvita, which published a contract edition earlier this year ahead of its official release on 25 August.

Asked if he draws on his advertising experience when writing, MacCuish responds: "Absolutely loads! Daz [Darren Bailes, his former partner at Mother] and I wrote lots of dialogue-based ads for PG Tips, Pimm’s, Fox’s etc, and I use that all the time; energetic dialogue, little jokes that don’t get in the way of the point, hyperbole – all these elements seem to work really well with children. Emotion too, actually. Having the confidence to be sentimental is very useful too."

And there is plenty, he feels, that the publishing world could learn from ad agencies: "I’m sure there are lots of publishing people who would agree with this – but there is generally less innovation and risk-taking and experimentation in publishing than advertising. I’m generalising, but I think we can be more intuitive, energetic and ambitious sometimes."

Favourite children’s book "Danny, The Champion Of The World by Roald Dahl."

Advice for would-be children’s authors "Start writing. Keep it simple. Practise your story on every single kid you meet. They will help you make it better."

Kes Gray

Before leaving to write children’s books full-time, Gray was a creative group head at Saatchi & Saatchi. He loved advertising.

Asked if he preferred making Carling’s "dambusters" ad or beating Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire to the Red House Children’s Book Award with his picture book Eat Your Peas, he says: "‘Dambusters’, hands down, because it was a huge collaboration with some wonderfully talented people. Happy days."

Yet, after years of making TV ads, something got lost. After periods of getting great TV ads made, he hit patches where his writing wasn’t getting through and it was tough.

Gray took a month-long sabbatical from Saatchi & Saatchi and wrote 14 children’s books. Every one got rejected. Undeterred, he tried again and, a year after taking the sabbatical, one of his books got accepted. Eventually, his publishers began badgering him to write more. Gray now writes five or six books a year.

"In 2002, I decided to write full-time, but the problem is the money," he says. "Unless you are very lucky, it’s a low-paid job. After a year of no ad salary, I was broke. I joined McCann but within a year realised advertising was becoming a closed chapter in my life. I had a choice. I could either stay in advertising or sell my house. So I downsized. That was in 2006.

"The parallels between advertising and writing children’s books are really strong, so it was a natural progression for me. And if you come from an advertising background, publishers give you a bit more of a free rein. You know how to tell a story and be economical with words.

"In publishing, you don’t have research to deal with. The only hurdle is the acquisition meeting within the publisher. It’s a simpler process and a better one for it."

Favourite children’s book "Not Now, Bernard by David McKee."

Advice for would-be children’s authors "Do it for the love and not for any other reason. Also, the worst thing you can do is take your 360-degree ad brain into meetings. If merchandise comes later – great. But 360-degree thinking is something that publishers are suspicious of; it’s quite a pure industry."