5 Tips Writers Should Borrow from the Ad Industry

My husband is a creative lead at an advertising agency here in Portland, and I recently returned to books after a stint in brand marketing, so we often find ourselves talking shop at home. Whether it’s the shortcomings of different storyboards, scripts, and pitches he’s crafting; the strength of the cover design or flap copy for the latest novel I’m working with; or the business end of the client-creative relationship, we have a lot of overlapping space in the Venn diagram of our careers. You might think that the production of a piece of fiction has little in common with the production of a TV commercial for Nike’s new kicks, but the ad industry uses strategies on a daily basis that authors should learn to love and leverage.

Distill your story

The advertiser’s central challenge is to condense complex messages into extremely small spaces—a thirty-second video or a single image in a magazine. Space and time are premium, so advertisers are strategic and selective about each word they use.

It’s equally important for writers to exercise control over their story. What would happen if you were to take a hard look at your novel and scrub everything out but the essential elements? You just might begin to approach the transcendent brilliance of writers like Ernest Hemingway, master of the concise. It’s a common and tempting mistake to want so desperately for your reader to pick up what you’re putting down that you end up hitting them over the head. Trust your reader to do more with less.

Know your consumer

An advertiser’s success depends on the strength of their market research—it’s a mandate and a mantra in the ad world to know thy consumer. I can hear you thinking: Know your consumer?! But writing is an art! The story is paramount! Create away, but keep in mind who your readers are. As in, if you’re writing a historical romance, perhaps myriad gratuitous rape scenes (while possibly authentic to the story) will be a total turnoff to your largely female readership. I’m not suggesting that you start pandering, but it’s worth taking the time to learn about the people who are reading and enjoying your work (or if you’re as yet unpublished, work like yours). The more you can internalize their perspective, the better you will be able to communicate your story to them.

Understand sell-in

When a creative agency makes a pitch, there are normally only a few people in the room representing the brand. Then, those folks have to turn around and “sell in” the agency’s idea to their higher-ups in a series of internal meetings, where the idea is passed along as in a game of telephone until it gets green-lighted.

The process in publishing is not so different.  You “sell” your work to an agent, who in turn sells it to an acquiring editor who then has to turn around and sell it to the editorial board, the associate publisher, the sales teams, etc., who then have to sell it to readers. Phew! When you’re steeped in the glorious depth of your own story, sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. A succinct and punchy a two-line story hook is your best weapon against this hoary process.

Be a good vendor

This might be hard to hear, but you, dear author, are not the client in the writer-publisher relationship! They hired you, they send you paychecks. Hmmmm.

On each project, the creative agency’s producer hires several contractors—such as cameramen, sound guys, editors, illustrators, motion graphics artists, etc. These partners are fully aware that they have to do good work, creatively speaking, in order to get re-hired on the next project, and they also know that their success is also dependent on them showing up on time for shoots, communicating clearly about plans in advance, accepting feedback gracefully, and generally being pleasant to work with. The work is 50% about quality, 50% interpersonal dynamics.

Authors, on the other hand, sometimes like to act like god’s gift to their editors. I once had an author harangue me, rather mercilessly in the middle of a phone call that lasted eight hours, for “robbing his voice” because I suggested we change the spelling of a birdcall. You might think that dazzling writing is all it takes, but I know many editors who would any day rather hire a decent writer who is great to work with than a brilliant diva. Approach your editor with a sense of humility, and your project, and the relationship, will be much the better for it.

Build your brand

When I was part of the brand marketing team at adidas, we would always remind ourselves that our team’s function was “not to sell shoes, but to sell a brand.” Our objective was to create material that our consumer valued and could connect with by inspiring brand love for adidas. That way it didn’t matter what particular shoe we were releasing that season—people would buy it not because of its technical features, but because it was from a brand they loved.

Allow yourself to become a visible personality that people can connect with—make yourself a brand. Your publisher will be of some help selling your book, but much of the onus will be on you, which means getting people interested in you as a writer. Authors like Terry Tempest Williams, Elizabeth Gilbert, and David Sedaris are but a few examples of authors who’ve leveraged their personal appeal to connect with readers—we love their writing, but we love them just as much. With authors you know, you don’t even need to read reviews of their book before picking it up—because you “trust their brand.” Whether by doing live events with booksellers or leveraging social media tools to build an audience online, connecting in a personal way can make all the difference for your long-term career.