So You Want to Become a Creative? Here’s Your Homework.

April 19th, 2010

I recently had an exchange with a promising young copywriter who had no formal training or portfolio, but wanted to start picking up a paycheck for putting words to paper — something he currently does on a regular basis for free. I have this conversation at least twice a month. I would go into my advice on how to become a creative, but that advice could literally fill books. And does. That’s today’s topic.

After I scare the bejesus out of people with what it takes to become a copywriter or art director, I usually give them a recommended reading list. I did this for the hopeful copywriter last week. The process for detailing that list is always the same.

  1. I dig through my old emails looking for the last reading list email I wrote.
  2. I don’t find it.
  3. I curse myself for being over-organized and delete-happy when it comes to email. (Thanks, Inbox Zero.)
  4. I write another email.

Not anymore.

Now I’ll just send them this link. This is the actual email I sent (with a few four-letter edits) that covers the basics of what all aspiring agency creatives need to read for the  knowledge these books hold, as well as the interview fodder they provide.

Dear (Young/Career-Changing) (Copywriter/Art Director) & Current (Student/Barista/Truck Driver),

Sorry it took me so long to get this to you. It’s been a heckuva (week/month/decade). This is by no means a complete reading list, but it’s a really good start.

The most comprehensive look at the industry and how to put a portfolio together is Luke Sullivan’s book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. It’s pretty much the best book out there. I only have the first edition, so I don’t know if his later editions get into digital/interactive media (the first edition doesn’t). But it should be pretty easy to interpret his general philosophies and how they’d play in the brave new world of 1s and 0s. If you buy nothing else, buy this one.

You’ll hear a lot about two pioneers of this industry: David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach. For the most part, [expletive deleted] Ogilvy. (Only my opinion, and it’s pretty much heresy. But whatever.) You should probably read his book just so you can say you read it. Better than Ogilvy by far is Bill Bernbach. There’s a book on his campaigns that will set you back about as much as a Ferrari F50. Luckily, his old agency (DDB) is very proud of him and supplies a free downloadable PDF of his most famous quotes. He was a genius and his work still beats 99% of the stuff that’s out there.

Then there’s Howard Gossage. He’s my advertising hero. Half of the “revolutionary” stuff that’s out there today is a direct result of Gossage, even if the people who created the work have never heard of him. And a lot of people haven’t. For a large part, he’s an underground, cult figure to this day. The Book of Gossage is never cheap. It was out of print for years, and it looks like it might have gone out of print again (if I were to guess by the price). But it’s the Master’s Degree to Luke Sullivan’s Bachelors. If I’m remembered for anything in this industry, it’ll probably be for spreading the word on Howard. Call me Johnny Gossageseed.

Lastly, there’s How to Succeed in Advertising When All You Have is Talent. Honestly, I’ve never read it. I was too busy working and stumbling into success to ever get around to it. But a lot of people I trust and admire say it’s a great book. I’d definitely go for a used copy. Looks like it’s out of print.

Those are the How-Tos. To figure out things on your own once you have a foundation, start shopping around eBay or other places for three books published annually that showcase any particular year’s greatest work. First, there’s The One Show. Then there’s D+AD. Finally, there’s Communication Arts Advertising Annual, which is one issue out of eight that the publisher puts out annually. Good mag in general. The Ad Annual is usually pretty great (as are the Design and Interactive annuals). You should be able to find back copies on eBay, or maybe even on their site.

I hope some of this helps. I know it will help me the next time someone calls who’s “always been creative” and wants to get out of emu farming/taxi driving/hamburger flipping and into what they will unfortunately and inevitably refer to as “The Biz.” (Please don’t do this. There is only one Biz.)