A Copywriter’s Blog
Don’t say it Ben Levy 24, March

In advertising, the only time you work 9-5 is if it’s a twenty hour day.

I don’t drink coffee. I’ve never touched a Red Bull, Rockstar, or 5-hour. Once, in college, I tried half a Mountain Dew at 4am. I wound up running laps around campus for 20 minutes before passing out. In no way did this help me finish my figure drawing homework.

I have my own method for working through fatigue. It’s to work through fatigue. Just don’t think about it. Just keep going. Focus on the task ahead, not on how you feel. Keep on keeping on.

In other words, I treat marathon work sessions the way most people treat marathons. Find a rhythm. Keep moving. Don’t think about it.

After a decade of operating this way, it’s second nature. I rarely notice how tired I am, or the dull ache behind my eyes, or how even my skin hurts.

Unless someone reminds me.

“You look kinda tired.” That single sentence breaks the zen-like trance I’m reaching for. It brings the reality of the past 24 hours, the past weeks, the past months crashing down around me. I’m suddenly reminded that I would very much like nothing more than to pass out. This is, to put it mildly, inconvenient.

My life is currently akin to unicycling down the steep side of a volcano while juggling chainsaws and balancing a jenga tower on my head. It shouldn’t even be possible to begin with but it’s working so for heaven’s sake don’t say anything. It’s like pitching a perfect game. Don’t jinx that shit.

“Aren’t you tired?” people ask me. And suddenly I’ve left the unicycle 20 yards behind, I’m missing all the chainsaws and possibly a limb, there’s not a jenga block to be seen, and here comes the lava.

Of course I’m tired. I’m exhausted. Aren’t you? Isn’t everyone? But I’ve got it under control if you would just, for the love of all that’s holy and the Adobe Creative Suite, not mention it.

Now hand me that chainsaw. I’ve got to get back on this unicycle before the jenga tower falls off my head again.

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This is exactly what it looks like when I play. See?


Well, the motion-blurs and flames don’t really show up in that shot, but you get the idea.

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He’s not kidding, you know. That document is completely true. You can tell because only a brand manager would ever compose a memo that sounded like a buzzword-bingo cheat sheet.

Here then, is a bit of insight into what I do for a living. It’s my job (with the help of many, many people, usually smarter and cooler than I am) to take that, and make it something like this:

I’ve never worked on Old Spice, but I guarantee you they have the same sort of guidelines. They have brand managers and strategiests who say things like “Old Spice is not an exclusionary brand” and who want the ads to inform people that “Old Spice’s line of unique scents help teens 12-18 feel empowered and individual.” There are lines explaining that “the Old Spice product should never be shown doing something cool. Old Spice doesn’t do cool things, it gives the people the confidence to do cool things themselves”.

Is any of that actually written down somewhere at W+K? Who knows. But that’s the kind of language you get handed, and it’s your job as an Ad Man to – in the parlance of the business- “solve it.” And it is a problem that needs solving.

This may come as a shock, but I don’t actually have anything against brand managers, and certainly nothing against strategists, who are liable to say things like “The message we want to communicate is that Old Spice helps me feel empowered.” Yes, on paper it sounds ridiculous. Hell, it is ridiculous. But it’s also necessary in order to make great ads. I once had a legendary Creative Director tell me, “I know how good a campaign will be just by the strategy team assigned to it.” You get the right strategy, the ads practically make themselves.

And brand managers? Well, look at it this way- without brand guidelines, Apple’s website could be hot pink. Sure, it doesn’t match the aesthetic of the iBooks, iPods, and iPads, but who cares? In fact, forget all this iStuff- let’s call the next iBook a jBook. Cause, see, “j” is the next letter after “i”, and this is a newer version, so… Sound crazy? Some moron would try it, trust me.

And so you take this ridiculously corporate, soulless language, these documents full of “extreme” “unique” “inclusive” “shareable” and the like. And you try to make something human out of it. “Old Spice’s line of unique scents helps teens 12-18 feel empowered and individual?” Let’s tell people when they use it they Smell Like Power. In hindsight it sounds incredibly easy. In actual practice, when you’ve only got a couple of hours and a sheet of paper so pompous it can be thrown as-is into a Stephen Colbert skit, it’s a bit trickier.

So let’s all raise a glass of whatever you like, and drink it alongside no more than 16 wheat thins, which will perfectly compliment whichever beverage you’ve chosen. To the brand managers. To the strategists. And to my mother, who may or may not have any better idea of what I do for a living after reading this.

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I decided on two rules when I started this (slightly forced) job search.

The first was the rule I’ve always had when seeking employment: To find a happy place.

I believe the people you work with are way more important than the building you work in. You’re spending a minimum of 40 hours a week with your coworkers. For most people, that’s more time than you spend with your friends, your family, and your significant other. And advertising is not a 40 hour a week job. Not even close. Which means you better find an environment and people you like working with, because you’re going to be spending way more time with them than you are with your bed.

So. Rule 1- find a happy place.

Rule 2- no “digital agencies”.

My first job was at a digital agency, and I loved it. But I found myself getting typecast as a “digital copywriter”. So when I left my first gig, I made it a priority to work at a full-service shop, where they did traditional and digital advertising. Having achieved that, I didn’t want to go back to digital again.

I told all my recruiters I wouldn’t work full-time at a digital shop. Flat out refused. Hard stop. No. Nyet. Nuh-uh. When one of them sent me to an interview with a primarily digital agency, I only went because I thought I might get a freelance gig out of it.

And now I should probably mention Rule 3.

I didn’t know there was a Rule 3 when I started this process, but it turns out there is.

Rule 3 is very simple: Rule 1 trumps Rule 2.

Yes, I could have gone to a traditional agency. Yes, I could have taken offers at agencies that guaranteed I would never be described as a “digital copywriter” again. I had an offer like that.

But I also walked into a little-known, digitally-focused shop that felt like home, damn it. They were easy to talk to. They were playing music throughout the whole office. They had nerf guns on the couch.

They had nerf guns on the couch.

Which is why I completely ignored Rule 2. And why I’m gonna be the new Senior Copywriter at LBi.

I’ve Had Stranger Lessons Ben Levy 10, January

A few weeks ago, The Wife and I were on vacation in California. We were walking along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco when the following occurred. Every word of it is true.

Walking down the street, we noticed several people, clearly tourists, having their shoes shined. This was not a fancy airport “sit in a chair and look like a Southern White Land Owner reading a newspaper” shoe shine. This was a “lift yer foot off the curb a second so I can run this dirty rag over it” shoe shine. You had 50/50 odds of your shoes being dirtier at the end of it, and everyone’s expression seemed to say “If I hadn’t agreed to this, he would have robbed me!”

I smiled to myself as we walked past them. How hard is it to avoid a guy on the street? Don’t make eye contact. Don’t talk to them. Don’t respond if they talk to you. Stupid tourists. It was their own fault that they-

“Hey, man- hold up. If I can tell you exactly where you got ‘dem shoes, will you let me clean ‘em for you?”

The Wife had moved on a couple of steps, but I was trying to figure out the catch. I ran through the most common cons in my head, but I couldn’t see where this was going. Technically, my shoes were from “a shoe store”. Was that the trick?

“I’ll tell you exactly where you got dem shoes- city, state, the exact place. If I get it right will you promise to tell me the truth, and lemme clean them?”

City and State? I took a quick look at The Wife and myself. Nothing on us screamed Florida. The shoes in question were black Converse. I could have picked them up anywhere.

“You can whisper to her where you got ‘em. Just promise me yer gonna be honest if I get it right.”

Could he read lips? There was a trick here, but damned if I could figure it out. I cupped my hands around my mouth and whispered “Miami, DSW” to The Wife.

The guy leaned over my left shoe, pulled out a rag that was significantly blacker than my Converse, and started wiping at it.

“Ok, I told ya I was gonna tell ya exactly where ya got yer shoes, right? Exactly- city and state. Well, ya got dis shoe on yer left foot.”

Oh, son of a-

“Yah got dat one on yer right foot.”

Where you “got dem shoes” not “where you got dem shoes from”. Sneaky, freaking-

“And yah got both of ‘em right here in San Francisco, California.” He tilted his head intently as he wiped at my foot. “Now, Momma always told ya not ta talk to strangers. And she was right.”

I smiled ruefully. It was a good trick, and well-played, but I wasn’t about to start making small talk.

“I’m not just a shine shiner, ya understand? I’m an entertainer. I’m like PT Barnum.”

The hell? PT Barnum? You’ve got to be kidding me here. Had this guy read Hoopla*?

He was on the right foot now. “I don’t just provide a service, I entertain. And you learn summin. So it’s $5 for the lesson, and $5 for the shoes.”

I gave him $10. 50 cents for the shoe shine, and $9.50 for the lesson. He could have been a beggar harassing people for money. He could have been a thief (he was, but an honest sort of thief). But he was out there entertaining people for some money. I respected that. And one more thing.

“I don’t just provide a service, I entertain.” That right there is pretty much my entire post-graduate education, summed up in 8 words. For $10 and slightly wet feet, I got an important reminder of what my job is as an ad guy. Sell the product. And entertain.

Oh yeah, and never talk to strangers. Idiot tourist.

*Hooplah was a book written by Alex Bogusky and CP+B about some of the philosophies and experiences behind the agency. Among the many crazy things inside it is a conversation between Alex and the deceased PT Barnum, in which the latter is given much credit for pioneering many of the techniques CP+B used to become one of the best agencies in the world.

The Racist Post Ben Levy 8, November

When I talk to someone, I tend to unconsciously mimic their style of speech. It’s a habit I picked up somewhere. Most of the time I don’t even realize I’m doing it.

Being able to speak in different voices is a necessary skill for a copywriter. Various brands, demographics, and media all have their own styles of speech. Screw them up and things just sound “off”. For an example of this, let’s observe what happens when a White Jew from South Jersey who tends to mimic dialects gets into a conversation with an African American from Pretty Much Anywhere.

[Spoiler Alert: what happens is he sounds like an idiot.]

Example A: Lunch.

Black Coworker: “Mmm! This food is BANGIN’!”
My Dumb Ass: “FER REAL, YO THIS SHIT IS HAW-I mean yes, this food is quite delicious.”

Example B: Goodbye

Black Coworker: “See ya tomorrow, boy. Be easy.”
My Dumb Ass: “PEACE, SON!…oh man, I’m sorry can I just- can I just come back in the room and- and we’ll do the whole thing again? Ok? Just- like I’ll just come back in through the door and we can start over.”

Example C: I Don’t Even Know What To Call This

Black Coworker: “Yo that [OMG N WORD] was tryin me hard.”
My Dumb Ass: “Tell him ‘Don’t Step’ man. Gotta represent. Can’t just be comin’ round here talkin’ smack that way.”
Black Coworker: “…”
My Dumb Ass: “…”
My Dumb Ass: “Cause it’s- I mean, that’s how…um…”
Black Coworker: “Sometimes you try too hard, man.”
My Dumb Ass: “…You guys laugh about this in the meetings don’t you?

I’ve got to assume I’m not the only one who’s done this. I really hope I’m not. It’s not intentional, I swear. Sometimes I’ll do it three times in the same conversation and for the entire time my brain is screaming SHUT UP! YOU ARE A WHITE JEW BOY! YOU DO NOT “KEEP IT REAL”. YOU DON’T “ROLL WITH YOUR HOMIES”. NONE OF YOUR “SHIT” IS “TIGHT”. JUST KEEP YOUR DAMN IDIOT MOUTH SHUT, WISH THEM A HEARTY “MAZEL TOV”, AND GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE BEFORE YOU EMBARRASS YOURSELF FURTHER.

And yet it just keeps happening. I’d stop it if I could. I mean, after the first time it’s not even funny anymore.

So to all my Black/African American/Painfully Sunburned friends, coworkers, and acquaintances- I apologize. I’m really, really sorry. I’m going to try really hard to keep it from ever happening again, and I beg your forgiveness if I act the fool while we’re cold chillin’.

…aw, damn it.

All ads should be like this. Ben Levy 6, November

And may I just add “Fuck” and “Yes”.

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Copywriter, not ©er Ben Levy 28, September

3 Jews walk into a bar.

Actually, it was significantly more than three, and they were sitting around a table, but “50 Jews gather in the synagogue’s conference hall for the annual Kosher Chinese food Eat and Greet” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Anyhow, 3 Jews were talking about what they do for a living. It all started because one said “I really wanted to go to that beer tasting event, but I worked 80 hours that week, so it wasn’t happening.” Which is the sort of thing that someone in advertising regularly says, and none of his advertising buddies think twice about it.

“Oh” said The Accountant, “what is it that you do that has you working 80 hours a week?”

“Ah- well, I’m an Advertising Copywriter,” says The Copywriter. And silently he adds: Please get it.

The Accountant gets a funny look on his face “Oh, so you deal with patents and things?”

The Copywriter sighs inwardly.

“No, no,” interrupts The Lawyer “he’s a copywriter. Y’know, like a writer.” The Copywriter nods vigorously while shoveling rice into his mouth.

“So you copyright ads? Like slogans?” asks The Accountant

“Yes.” Wow, that was easy to explain, thinks The Copywriter. They never get it that fast.

“So someone comes up with a slogan, and then you make sure it can’t be taken by someone else?”

The Copywriter fights a sudden urge to smack himself in the forehead. “No, I’m a writer. I write ads. TV commercials, websites, radio scripts, slogans- all that stuff.”

“Yeah,” says The Lawyer, “like Mad Men.”

The Accountant digests this, unlike the Chinese food. “But what are you copying?”

The conversation goes around and around in The Copywriter’s private, profession-themed rendition of “Who’s on First”. It isn’t the first time he’s had to explain this. He’s grateful for The Lawyer, who is helping. And for Mad Men, which has made such discussions significantly shorter. “I’m Don Draper” while at first a confusing statement, has in fact proven much easier to explain then “I’m an Advertising Copywriter”.

The funny thing about all this is that while he’s explaining it, The Copywriter is getting a little embarrassed. The fact is, advertising is one of the coolest jobs in the world, and he doesn’t want to rub it in The Lawyer or The Accountant’s face. There’s no shame in those professions- hell, The Copywriter’s grandfather was an accountant- but come on. This is Don Draper you’re talking to. Sort of.

And so even though he’s gotten everyone on the same page, and they understand that he “writes copy”, but doesn’t “copyright”, The Copywriter is keeping intentionally vague about what it is he does. He doesn’t want to brag. So when The Lawyer asks what brands The Copywriter works on, he half mumbles “couple of beverages” and tries to change the topic.

But it slowly dawns on him that The Lawyer and The Accountant feel sorry for him. They don’t fully understand what he does, but they know 80 hours a week sucks, and they imagine the job must suck. And The Copywriter decides “You know what? Fuck it. I’m talking to a lawyer and an accountant, and I can probably hit a doctor just by tossing a chopstick. I’m damn well going to brag a little about what I do.”

And that’s how The Copywriter ends up explaining that his job is about concepting. And writing. And yes sometimes he stays late. He also wears jeans to work, and takes part in nigh-holy foosball tournaments. And it’s true that Ad Guys tend to drink a lot- yes like Mad Men. And no, The Copywriter doesn’t sleep with a new co-worker each week, but he’s married so you’ll have to ask someone else what the inter-office intercourse numbers are like, he stays out of it. And yes, when he says “concepting” The Copywriter essentially means “sit around and think up awesome shit all day”. And then for good measure The Copywriter goes on to list half a dozen brands he’s worked on in the last year, sitting around and (trying) to think up awesome shit for, all of which are recognized by The Accountant and The Lawyer.

So 3 Jews sit at a table in the synagogue’s conference hall for the annual Kosher Chinese food Eat and Greet. There is silence for a moment, and then The Lawyer says “Wow. Your job sounds pretty cool.” And The Accountant says “Yeah. The only people who drink at my job are alcoholics.”

And The Copywriter feels a little bad, but also a little proud. Because The Lawyer and The Accountant clearly like their jobs, so they’ll be fine. And it’s about time someone knew how awesome it is to be a copywriter. As opposed to a ©er, which honestly sounds like just about the most boring job on the planet, and is not at all what The Copywriter does for a living.

The Copywriter wishes to apologize for writing this entire post in a whacked-out version of the third person, but this is the sort of thing that happens when he posts after reading half a book that has parts of itself written in a whacked-out third person. Plus he hasn’t eaten much today and it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Sidearm of Creativity Ben Levy 13, September

I have tried for the better part of a year to write this post. It’s very, very important to me. It’s about Nerf.

Nerf guns back in the day were pretty cool. They were guns. They shot foam darts. Since I had a younger brother, such devices were invaluable. They weren’t perfect- the darts, arrows, and balls often fell short, and the suction cup ammo never stuck to anything really. But the fact is that they were weapons whose very purpose was to deploy bright, foamy death at range. Like I said- pretty cool.

Fast forward about ten years.

Your standard Nerf firearm is the Maverick: a 6-shot, single-action revolver that fires over 30 feet with enough force to adhere a suction dart onto anything from a painted wall to your co-worker’s shiny forehead. The Maverick’s cousin is the Recon. The box will tell you it’s cool cause you can customize it by adding a barrel, a light, and a stock. Which I guess is cool. If you’re a girl. The Recon is really cool because it’s the foam-firing equivalent of a machine pistol. Single-action, clip-loading death. Oh, and they make this thing called the Vulcan. It’s a 25-round machine gun. The ammo comes on a belt. You can wear it as a bandolier.

I’m talking about toys here people. Toy makers, take note: if I have to use the nomenclature of an arms dealer to describe your product, you are doing something right.

I don’t remember exactly when I rediscovered Nerf. It was sort of like discovering the girl you shared cookies and milk with in kindergarten but haven’t seen since has grown up to become a playboy centerfold and she just moved back into town and totally remembers you from Mrs. DiMattio’s class and thinks the two of you should go out some time. (Best metaphor I’ve ever written? Or best metaphor EVER?)

The point was, I had grown up, and so had Nerf guns. Particularly pleasing to me was the fact that, somewhere along the way, the Nerf Maverick had become the sidearm of creativity.

This isn’t really new. I remember being ten years old and watching some stupid “meet the animator” interview on Cartoon Network. This guy is standing there with an old school Nerf Bow and Arrow. And he looks right in the camera and says “I wanted a job where I never had to wear a tie, and I felt like I was playing all day”. Then a dart whizzed by his head and he dove for cover under a desk. At dinner that night I told my parents I was going to be an animator.

It’s still true today. Nerf shows up everywhere. Comic creators use them. Game developers and animators leave them on their desks during interviews. And then there’s these guys.

They’re in agencies too. I think every creative person understands that there are times we will become stuck. Or we’ll take ourselves too seriously. Or – heaven forbid- we might have a moment where we feel like we’re growing up. And that’s why we keep Nerf around. I know of no faster, more foolproof way to fix all of those problems then a neon foam dart between the eyes of a co-worker. It works every time.

But just to be safe, I’ll plug them with the remaining five darts too.

Why Everything Sucks Ben Levy 7, August

Craig Ferguson has figured out why everything sucks…. and it’s kind of all advertising’s fault.

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