Last week I had a wee argy-bargy with a freelance copywriter who said “reading books on how to do better ads will never help anyone become a better copywriter”. My own copywriting career would never have got off the ground if I hadn’t spent a week swotting D&AD Annuals in the National Library Of Scotland. Grumpy men in brown coats took my daily order and sent dusty piles up to the reading room by dumb waiter. From then on I’ve been addicted to books on advertising. If you’ve got a taste for them too, here’s a handy Christmas List to share with your relatives before they send you novelty socks or a Lady Gaga CD. I’ve ranked them in order of my own prejudiced preferences and given each a brief review. Don’t say I’m not good to you.
1 A Technique For Producing Ideas by James Webb Young
Not the snappiest of titles but this is my Numero Uno, the closest any advertising writer has ever come to explaining precisely what you need to do if you want to come up with creative ideas for a living. Bill Bernbach wrote the foreword. It hasn’t been out of print since it was published in 1940. Best of all, it’s short. You can read it inside a couple of hours. And if you take James Webb Young’s advice I guarantee you’ll have better ideas.
2 The Book Of Gossaage by Howard Luck Gossage
This a close second for Best Book On Advertising Ever. Gossage invented interactivity decades before the internet. He invented stunts. And he wrote the best call-to-action there’s ever been: “ If you’re driving down the road and you see a Fina station and it’s on your side so you don’t have to make a U-turn through traffic and there aren’t six cars waiting and you need gas or something please stop in.” At a time when every other agency made their money by creaming 15% off the media spend, Gossage was the first to put impact above frequency, saying: “"Our agency does not believe in spending too much money for advertising. We try to keep budgets as low as we possibly can and to say what we do say in as interesting a manner as possible.“ If we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, Gossage is the big guy on the bottom.
3 Changing The World Is The Only Fit Work For A Grown Man by Steve Harrison
This is a companion-piece to The Book Of Gossage, beautifully written by the best DM writer ever born in Britain, Mr Steve Harrison. The title, from a quote attributed to Howard Gossage, sounds out a message to clients everywhere – in the future your big brand will be judged on what it does to make the world a better place. Howard Luck Gossage, the only guy to make it onto this list twice. Now for another American….
4 Hey Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan
If I’d a tenner for every time I’d recommended this book to a young creative I could stop working today. Advertising books fall into two camps: either hilarious but unhelpful or helpful but dull. Whipple is useful and funny in equal measure. The chapter about coping with clients who nibble away at your idea till there’s nothing left, is called “Pecked To Death By Ducks”. Sullivan regularly updates each reprint to encompass the impact of digital media so this is one for young Turks, old farts and everyone in between.
5 Cutting Edge Advertising by Jim Aitchison
Jim Aitchison isn’t remotely hilarious. But he’s drilled deeper into what makes a good ad than any other writer I’ve ever read. I’d never bothered to analyse what makes a great print ad until Mr Aitchison put forward his theory of ‘straight visual/twisted line, twisted visual/straight line’. There it is right there, in eight plain words. I’ve yet to see a great poster or press ad that doesn’t observe this rule. (So much for ‘the only rule is there are no rules’.) And can I just say to my friends in social media, that applies equally to any brand post on Facebook. ‘Straight visual/twisted line, twisted visual/straight line’. So good I said it twice.
6 Predatory Thinking by Dave Trott
I have to be honest , I’ve only just started reading this but I can’t stop. Dave writes in staccato sentences. Just like he talks. It’s like having Dave inside your head. Telling you stories. Stories that make you think. Not just about advertising. Shut up, Dave! I’m trying to write a book review here. My verdict? So far. So good.
7 Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads by Alfredo Marcantonio, David Abbott and John O’Driscoll.
Maybe Hitler was in a good mood the day he invented the Volkswagen, a ‘car for the people’. (Let’s face it, you’re going to need a decent motor if you’ve been goose-stepping all day.) That the Beetle is still a cool, iconic car is largely down to the way it was advertised in the Sixties by the first generation of art director/copywriter teams. In an era when every other car in America was “sleek” and came with “bigger curves”, DDB told us the VW Beetle was small and ugly but very, very reliable. The late David Abbott learned his own disarmingly down-to-earth style in the very same agency and together with Alfredo Marcantonio, he curated all the work in this book. It is the best car campaign ever written. And judging by the calibre of writing on today’s car campaigns (“The New Vauxhall. As Individual As You Are.”), it always will be.
8 The Copy Book – How Some Of The Best Advertising Writers In The World Write Their Advertising originally by Alistair Crompton
There was another book in this D&AD series called ‘The Art Direction Book’ but it wasn’t very well written, tee hee. The Copy Book’s the one. In fact, it may well be the Most Stolen Advertising Book In The World but if you’re thinking of half-inching a copy from your own creative department you better start doing bicep curls. This is a tome. Inside, you’ll find selections of work and beautifully-written essays by 48 world-famous copywriters on how they do what they do. David Abbott used to put his feet up on the desk. Neil French got pissed a lot. And at least three of the contributors cited country and western song titles as examples of great writing. (Like this one: If The Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me.) But my own favourite piece of writing advice came from Richard Foster: “Imagine there’s a little editor in your head, shouting “Get to the fucking point!”
9 Perfect Pitch by Jon Steel
There’s no point writing great ads if you can’t persuade any of your clients to run them. Pitches are the lifeblood of our business; the equivalent of going out hunting for a woolly mammoth and dragging it back to the cave. The author, Jon Steel, has worked at BMP and Crispin Porter, to name just a couple. His pitch win rate is two out of three. But the thing I love most about him is that he’s just as happy to tell us about the pitches he lost and what he learned from those failures. If you still put together Powerpoint presentations with lots of bullet points and ‘Key Messages’, you desperately need this book.
10 Hoopla by Crispin Porter, Alex Bogusky and Warren Berger
Hoopla is Crispin Porter Bogusky’s house manual. They stole the word ‘hoopla’ from circus showman PT Barnum and it describes their modus operandi which is to create work that has an explosive cultural impact the moment it runs. Reading it changed the way I judged creative ideas when I worked at the Leith Agency. After Hoopla I started asking the creative teams for work that would spill out of paid-for media into unpaid-for media, like Bruzil our Cannes Gold Lion-winning World Cup campaign for Irn-Bru. After launching in Miami in 2006, CP+B quickly became America’s Agency Of The Decade, rocketed there by mould-breaking campaigns like Burger King’s ‘subservient chicken’, a man in a chicken suit and a suspender belt who would do anything you wanted online, simply to make the point that at BK, you could ‘Have It Your Way’. Hoopla is a snip at £27. Just remember it won’t slide easily into a stocking; it has a sandpaper cover.
11 Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent) by George Lois
Something troubles me about our current generation of young creatives: they don’t have any heroes. In fact a few of them even sneer at the notion. George Lois, the writer of this damn good little primer, is one of mine. In the first week of 1960, the very time the Madmen series is based, Lois set up Papert Koenig Lois triggering what is revered today as the Advertising Creative Revolution. He worked with Muhammed Ali, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol. But his most famous collaboration was with Bob Dylan, persuading him to write the song Hurricane, protesting the unjust conviction of Ruben ‘Hurricane’ Carter. Dylan went further and performed not one, but two Night Of The Hurricane concerts at Madison Square Gardens. Finally, ten years later, Carter’s conviction was overturned. George Lois, still working today, doesn’t like being compared to the Mad Men: “This maddening show is nothing but a soap opera where stylish fools hump their secretaries, suck up martinis and smoke themselves to death as they produce dumb, lifeless advertising – oblivious to the inspiring Civil Rights movement, the burgeoning Women’s Lib movement and the evil Vietnam War. Besides, when I was in my 30s I was better-looking than Don Draper.” Another £7 Phaidon publication, you can read it in two hours but once you have, you’ll want to read it again right away.
12 From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor by Jerry Della Femina
I like this guy so much I once considering changing my own name to Gerry Della Farrella. The title comes from a story della Femina tells in the book. He was sitting in a dreary meeting with a bunch of marketing people from Japanese electronic giant Panasonic. They wanted a new slogan that would help them break big in America. Jerry was bored. “How about this,” he piped up. “The new, 36-inch Panasonic TV. From those wonderful folk who gave you Pearl Harbor.”
You won’t find much in the way of advice here but you’ll be royally entertained with stories like the one about the Syngina. Jerry was on a pre-pitch tour of the Tampax factory when he was introduced to the Syngina, an artificial vagina designed to test the tampons. All the suits from his agency were asking serious questions about it then Jerry put his hand in the air. “If you’re really nice to it, do you get to take it out to dinner?”
13 Confessions Of An Advertising Man by David Ogilvy
Confessions Of An Advertising Man is still the best-selling book about advertising in the world. Written in 1962 after the author had spent just 15 years in advertising, it has sold millions and has been translated into 17 different languages. When Ogilvy opened an office in Edinburgh in the mid-Eighties, the grand old man himself, also in his mid-eighties, turned up and stayed for a week, curling up on the reception sofa and flirting with the girls. His writing style is by turns provocative and charming. Deliberately so because he wrote this book to make his business world-famous. Our cocky new generation of bushy-bearded, twentysomething creatives would do well to take a couple of his one-liners to heart: “The consumer is not a moron; she is your wife” and “You cannot bore people into buying your product.”. Ogilvy was no huckster. He believed every word he wrote about every product he sold: “At breakfast I drink Maxwell House coffee or Tetley tea, and eat two slices of Pepperidge Farm toast. I wash with Dove, deodorize with Ban, and light my pipe with a Zippo lighter.” My own favourite Ogilvy headline is “At 60mph, the loudest noise in this new Rolls Royce is the ticking of the electric clock.” This was beautifully parodied by Howard Gossage for a very different car brand: “At 60mph, the loudest noise in this new Land Rover is the roar of the engine.” Buy Ogilvy and Gossage. Put them side-by-side on the shelf. They’ll start arguing.
14 Hegarty On Creativity- There Are No Rules by Sir John Hegarty
Hegarty was a great mentor to me when I was a young copywriter. He regularly turned up at regional award shows and took the time to talk to and encourage me. This is his second book and for me it’s better than his first, Hegarty On Advertising. It’s pocket-sized for a start so the wisdom is distilled into brilliant soundbites. Better still, the pages are peppered with his own shaky-line cartoons, making it a more personal read. Finally, if you really want to digest everything the great man says, you can; the pages are made from edible rice-paper.
15 e: by Matt Beaumont
Matt Beaumont a seasoned copywriter was sacked from his last job in advertising for sending a death threat to a senior account director. So he did what all creatives secretly long to do and wrote a best-selling novel. Set around the Millenium it documents a fictional pitch for Coke’s $18million global account by London agency Miller-Shanks and is written entirely in a string of increasingly hysterical emails. It is piss-your-pants funny. Just about every character in it is a recognizable London agency ad person. Advertising books tend to get a rough ride from London’s literary critics. Not this one. Here’s a taster from Humphrey Carpenter writing in the Sunday Review Of The Year: ‘A brilliantly plotted comic novel about life in an advertising agency, narrated entirely through office emails. It gives me more sense that literature is alive and kicking than anything else I’ve read in these millennial 12 months.’ Humphrey Carpenter, Sunday Times Review of the Year
16 How To Do Better Creative Work by Steve Harrison
Steve Harrison only published this in June but already it’s set to become a classic text. He had me at this description of advertising: “A simple game made complicated by fools,” a motto which should be painted above the door to every agency boardroom. Have a sneaky peek inside on Amazon but take note of the price. This shelf-breaker of a book will set you back £95. Is it worth the money? I’d say so. Steve sharpened his pencil in the unfashionable world of DM but has made his mark repeatedly at the Cannes Lions so there’s no doubting his credentials. If you want to learn how to do great creative work that cuts through the bullshit and gets the job done, this is the book for you. If you just want to win awards (you know who you are) you better look elsewhere for the magic formula.