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Advertising's authors – What can the worlds of commercial and creative learn from one another?

The shift from commercial to creative endeavour is no more obvious than in the art of writing. In an age where ‘brand storytelling’ has become trite, what can the two learn from each other? Creative writers who started in advertising share their stories with Gillian West.

What do Salman Rushdie, Fay Weldon, F Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy L Sayers and Don DeLillo all have in common, apart from being world-class authors? All five, and countless others, started in advertising.

It’s no surprise many of the creative minds who work in advertising pursue extracurricular creative outlets, with the industry playing host to best-selling authors, a handful of screen writers, artists, directors and others who have made the shift from commercial to creative art.

One such creative was Winston Fletcher, founder of Fletcher Shelton Delaney and Delaney Fletcher Delaney. Following his passing in 2012, his colleagues decided to honour his legacy as an eclectic writer of both non-fiction and fiction with the launch of the Winston Fletcher Prize, an annual fiction competition open to those who work in advertising, marketing or related businesses.

As Tom Knox, a serving judge on the Winston Fletcher Prize panel and chairman of the creative agency that lent its services to promote this year’s awards, DLKW Lowe, explains, the reason so many advertisers flourish in publishing is because the skills are transferable.

“The characteristics it [publishing] shares with advertising include the fact it’s tremendously competitive and, ultimately, success is entirely dependent on the quality of the creative talent,” he explains. “There’s a school of thought that says all the great writing has gone out of advertising and that in a digital world no one reads long copy anymore.”

International campaigns, changing creative trends and technology have all been blamed for the demise of long copy ads which proved standard up until the early 90s with The Economist, De Beers and, perhaps most famously, Volkswagen all favouring the style. But who says long copy has to only be printed ads?

“Brands still need to tell stories and there’s a huge amount of creativity in agencies that knows how to tell a good story,” adds Knox, with the DMA’s 2014 British Copywriting Census revealing it’s the preferred medium for 37 per cent of copywriters and the art is alive and well in the form of websites, branded content and packaging.

Vitamin Water, Soap and Glory and Innocent are all champions of long copy on their packs with Innocent’s group head of brand and creative, Dan Germain, telling The Drum: “I grew up as a kid reading the back of cereal boxes, and it feels right for Innocent to continue that tradition, by writing stories on the back of our packs. It has allowed us to tell the story of our business, pass on useful (and useless) information and generally attempt to brighten up the world in a very, very small way.”

He adds: “There’s a simple human truth that our brains are built to retain and pass on stories, rather than dry facts, so what better way for us to spread the word about who we are and what we do than write and share a few more stories?”

Tim Waterstone, Waterstones founder and Winston Fletcher Prize jury chair, echoes Knox’s observations that those from advertising can often make the best authors and explains the processes of creating an ad and those of producing a book are not as dissimilar as you may first think.

“A publisher is seeking to present its author and his or her work in a way that exactly encapsulates and optimises the specific, individual quality of it – the USP, if you like to use ancient ad agency-speak.

“The editing to eliminate the book’s preliminary rough edges; the physical presentation, to make it attractive; the pricing, to make it market smart and the onpublication marketing, to give it air and drive – it’s all ad agency stuff really, isn’t it? What’s the difference?”

With the second Winston Fletcher Prize winner due to be announced this month, Sarah Evans a consumer policy manager at Ofcom scooped the inaugural prize in 2014, what of those who have turned their back on advertising to pursue writing full time?

Emer Stamp, a former executive creative director at Adam&EveDDB who retired her role at the agency earlier this year, reveals she’d always enjoyed writing but never thought, or wanted, to take it any further until 2010 when she felt compelled to start writing outside the realms of her job.

“My career was going great guns, but creatively it was tough; very demanding. I strongly felt the need to create something for myself, something that I was totally in control of. So one evening I sat down, put finger to the keyboard, and started to write. I never intended what I wrote to be published,”

One of the creative brains behind the John Lewis adverts – including ‘The Bear and the Hare’ and ‘The Snowman’ – Stamp’s debut children’s book ‘The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig’ was published early last year after landing a four book deal.

“In 2013 I had my son. It’s true what they say, kids make you reassess your life. I knew that to have the relationship I wanted with him I couldn’t give myself to my job in the way it needed,” adds Stamp. “I felt that something in the stars had conspired to show me that there was another path I could take.”

Of her time in advertising Stamp says it has armed her with some “invaluable skills” to take into the world of publishing. “Without it I wouldn’t have the resilience needed to go again and again, draft after draft, or the ability to think so flexibly. My editor was surprised how little I blanched at comments and changes and was shocked at how fast I turned work around. Compared to advertising, publishing is glacially slow,” she laughs.

Joan Ellis, an independently published author whose CV includes time with Ogilvy, Lowe Howard- Spink, Banner and Arc Worldwide amongst others, also feels that her decades spent working as a copywriter served as “fantastic training” for the world of publishing. “I was writing for eight to 10 hours a day on different briefs so I’d be changing my style and tone of voice depending on the product and the audience. It was fantastic training for becoming an author because you’re getting inside the heads of different audience types as well as the discipline of meeting a deadline and that creative process of taking things in different directions and thinking of things in different ways,” she explains.

Working in advertising predominately in the 80s, Ellis mentions she was hired by one agency to replace ‘The Fog’ author James Herbert when his writing career took off, finding herself in the office next door to Salman Rushdie. “There were a lot of people who had books in their filing cabinets, as they were in those days, and though I loved reading at the time the thought of 70,000 words was very daunting. I was used to doing 30 second TV or radio commercials and little chunks of copy,” she recalls.

“When it came to the books I found that sitting down and cracking through an idea, that discipline of sitting down and writing and getting on with it, after 30 years in advertising, is ingrained in you. A lot of people who worked in advertising go on to do different things, not just writing, because the industry is full of very bright people but we’re all kind of oddballs. Advertising allows that creative freedom.”

This feature originally appeared in the 8 July issue of The Drum which is available to purchase from The Drum Store.

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Gillian West

Gillian West is The Drum’s social media manager and works to ensure The Drum’s content reaches followers across platforms including Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram in an engaging, relevant and timely manner. Based in Glasgow, she has been actively involved in building The Drum’s Creative Works brand for over three years now and has interviewed major creative figures including Rankin, Peter Souter, Rosie Arnold, Bob Greenberg and Vicki Maguire. During her time at The Drum she has attended events such as Cannes Lions, the Edinburgh International TV Festival, Art Director’s Club Europe, D&AD and more.

All by Gillian