Indu Balachandran
Nov 09, 2011

Opinion: "Every copywriter definitely has a book inside..."

Indu Balachandran is former executive creative director and VP, JWT Chennai, and the author of the newly released “Don’t Go Away, We’ll Be Right Back: The Oops & Downs of Advertising”.


Almost every copywriter in an ad agency will tell you “there’s definitely a book inside me…” Only very few actually prise that book out (one possible reason: there’s always, but always, a serious-panic, life’s No.1-priority, ad campaign to get out of the way first…).

When you think about it, there’s no better training ground than advertising to help one write a book that could be a potential bestseller.  Advertising trains us to be storytellers with a clear, compelling idea at its core.  Advertising teaches us never to bore our readers, to stay fresh and engaging.  Advertising hones us to look for insights; and create characters and conversations that sound real and convincing.

Apart from the wail of ‘ just can’t find the time to write my book’, many copywriters will admit it’s the pattern they’ve got used to: writing only to an immediate threatening deadline (where apparently a lot of lives are at stake: the servicing guy, the minion at the client’s office, the brand manager, indeed an entire brand’s future itself)…this is what gets stuff out on that blank page. Writing your own book on the other hand is a task with no finite end-point, with just you and the laptop involved. And like the Pope who asked of Michelangelo, endlessly painting the Sistine chapel: “When will you make an end?” the author’s answer would probably be much like Michelangelo’s:  “When I am finished”.

I recall reading an interview in Campaign (UK) where a creative director was asked, whatever happened to the book he’d always planned to write, before straying into advertising.  His answer: advertising had made him think too much in pictures. But don’t all authors do that too? Yes, he said, but he relied on actual pictures to say stories (with an ad filmmaker to interpret his visuals). So writing only in words seemed suddenly daunting!  By that logic,  radio-spot writers probably have it better as a training ground to be book-authors; where you master the art of just words to engage the reader’s mind to say a good story.

While it’s certainly not true that copywriters have a better shot at being great authors, there are literary giants who acknowledge advertising’s role in their craft. Like Salman Rushdie and Joseph Heller who began life as copywriters. Salman Rushdie worked part time at Ogilvy while writing his first novel. A famous line you’ve probably heard many times came from Rushdie (for cream cakes):  “Naughty, but nice”.  Joseph Heller worked on ad promos for Time magazine while plotting his best-seller Catch-22.

From our own crop of desi-Mad Men of the 70’s, prominent personalities have written biographies or textbooks: Alyque Padamsee ‘s A Double Life,  Ram Sehgal ‘s 9 Secrets of Advertising, Ivan Arthur & Kurien Mathews’ Brands Under Fire.  Fiction has typically come from copywriters,  like the prolific Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupe and Kiran Khalap’s Halfway up the Mountain. More recently we’ve seen the most insightful collection of observations on life by Santosh Desai, Mother Pious Lady.

In the circle of copywriters that I know, Cauvery Madhavan from JWT probably first got us all thinking: I too will definitely write my book one day…! with her two instant best sellers Paddy Indian and The Uncoupling.   Anuja Chauhan, Swapan Seth, Sunil Gupta (all ex-JWT copywriters)  have written their witty, engaging, fast-selling books too. Most of them took that sabbatical away from the agency to finish that book; probably with the strong compulsion of missing their regular salary, to reach the book’s last chapter faster!

Then there’s the ultimate copywriter-turned-bookwriter: James Patterson. Once a junior copywriter at JWT New York, he has written an astonishing 71 novels in the last 33 years. His thrillers constantly hit best-selling charts, and he sells more books than Stephen King,  John Grisham and Dan Brown combined.

Call it inspiration. Or call it by its more primeval expression: envy. Just as a Cannes prize won by a colleague in the ad world results in an adrenalin rush: “I too can win at Cannes!”, maybe the only way more copywriters (and blog writers in Campaign India) will turn into authors is to see a book in the stores, authored by an ad person, and rush home to do something right away, about that book that is definitely inside…just waiting to get out.

Campaign India

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