The Advertising Apprentice

June 16, 2010

Interview with an Adman – James P. Othmer

Filed under: Advertising — adamlauzon @ 12:09 PM
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After an unexpected two-month sabbatical from the Advertising Apprentice, I’m back. (In case you’re wondering, the sabbatical was the result of me starting an important new job. So my attention for the last two months have been almost exclusively on making the most of this opportunity.)

A few months ago after reading James P. Othmer’s Adland – Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet, I decided to try and contact the author and see if he’d be willing to do an interview with me. Sure enough, he was quite enthusiastic about the interview request, and below we have part one of my interview with James P. Othmer.

Othmer, by the way, has been quite busy lately, on June 1st Adland hit bookshelves in paperback form, and just yesterday Othmer’s second novel, Holy Water: A Novel, was released.

As I learnt from reading Adland, Othmer was not only a great adman, but he is an amazing story-teller. I have yet to get my hands on Holy Water, but I’m almost certain that it will be one of those books that you start reading and you’ll be hard-pressed to put it down until you’ve read the last sentence on the last page!

Without any further ado, here is part one of James P. Othmer’s interview with the Advertising Apprentice. And watch for part two of the interview, which I plan on publishing Friday morning.

Phil Dusenberry wrote, (the aptly named title of his book) “One great insight is worth a thousand great ideas”. What’s the greatest insight you had in your career?

I wandered along quite the non-traditional path before getting a job at a mainstream agency.  I worked as a sports writer at The Boston Globe and as an editorial assistant for a wine magazine. For Dell Publishing I wrote jacket copy for tawdry paperback books and was Kurt Vonnegut’s publicist for 18 blissful months.  My first screenwriting assignment was a freelance gig for a film for the NYC Hospitals called “Creating a Sterile Surgical Field for Gallbladder Surgery.”  All great experiences for a young writer, but when I started at NW Ayer I had a crude portfolio of book publishing and odd PQ (pre-Quark) spec ads I’d cobbled together without an art director.  I knew little to nothing about the way a big agency worked.  Strong writing and decent conceptual skills helped me get by, but after a lot of creative throat clearing I realized (painfully obvious insight alert!) that if I was every going to break out, I needed to trust my creative instincts and take more chances.  Rather than mimicking the work of risk takers in advertising and literature, I began to mimic the way they approached the work.  This didn’t come suddenly, and I imagine people starting out today are aware of this coming out of the gate.  But I wasn’t sure I belonged at first.  Only after letting it all hang out and doing work that made people squirm and laugh and think differently, did I get noticed, and more confident, and take even more risks.  My insight, or epiphany, was to simply have confidence in my ability. It took a while for me to recognize this with advertising, and even longer with my fiction.

Talk a bit about the one person in your advertising career that had the biggest impact, good or bad. What was it that made their impact so memorable? Do you still keep in contact them?

There have been a lot, including Mark Fenske, whom I’m sure we’ll discuss later.  But other than Mark I’d have to say my sister Karen and my wife Judy.  Karen was the first person to take the time to think about what an 18-year old wise ass with horrible grades might do with his life.  In ADLAND I recount the kitchen table conversation we had, and I have some fun with it, but the truth is she took the time to recognize some latent ability in me as a writer and cared enough to push me in that general direction.  When I got out of college and was having trouble finding a job as a writer of anything, my wife Judy refused to let me settle.  To make ends meet I agreed to listen to my father and get my union bricklayer’s card.  While waiting in the car on a cold winter day, my wife looked at the dozens of men hunched and waiting on line and told me if I got out of the car she’d never speak to me again, because I was a writer. Plato wrote in The Symposium that one of the greatest privileges of a human life is to become midwife to the birth of the soul in another. My sister Karen and Judy, my wife of 26 years, changed my life by taking the time to cultivate my soul and urge me to reach higher and one of the things I enjoyed most with younger creatives and now with emerging fiction writers is to pay that gift forward.

You spent 20 years in the advertising industry and then you experienced a paradigm shift when you landed the book deal for your novel, The Futurist. How much of an adjustment was it going from a hectic, very stressful life in advertising and barely seeing your family to enjoying the leeway offered by being an author being able to spend exponentially more time with your family? Similarly, while doing the research and conducting interviews for Adland, did you at all miss “what has been such a large part of your life for so long”?

Working as a full-time writer has been incredibly fulfilling and terrifying.  Creatively it’s everything I want for a career because, in addition to fiction, I’ve been writing journalism, non-fiction and, recently, some TV projects.  Seeing my kids and coaching Pony League and softball and all that is great, too.  But working alone, sentence to sentence, book to book, all essentially on spec, or dependent upon the acceptance of complete strangers, is a different kind of situation, a different kind of stress.  As good as the reception has been for my work, and as confident as I am that there soon might be a feature film version of The Futurist, I’m still in startup mode, and, truthfully, for this very reason I never did completely walk away from advertising.  I still do creative and strategic consulting and still enjoy it, under the right circumstances, very much.  The first thing I tell clients or agency CDs is, I promise I won’t write about it, unless you want me to!

Midway through Adland it seems a shift takes place from you discussing your experiences in advertising from a first person point-of-view to you supplementing information on certain topics by referring to other authors or by interviewing people and quoting former colleagues or people still in the industry. This seems like an interesting, and uncommon, storytelling technique.

Hah! Uncommon or terribly flawed.  Here’s my rationale for the structure: I had a nice but far from legendary career.  What I thought I could bring to the ad book canon is a sort of classic middle manager creative’s tale.  Not the tale of a guru or a legend or a CEO.  Oglivy or Della Famina or Mary Wells. Those books, while insightful, entertaining and valuable, tend to look down at the business from 37 thousand feet, or are intended to preserve one’s legacy, rather than offer a clear-eyed view of the industry.  I wanted to write something fun and provocative that someone coming into advertising might read and say, ‘So that’s the kind of shit that goes down…Those are some of the moral and ethical choices I might have to make…That’s one writer’s tale of what it was like, at least at a big agency.’

The other type of ad book seems to be from an outsider’s perspective, the event driven narrative of an embedded or dedicated journo, such as the amazing Where the Suckers Moon.  For the second section I decided to go back to the scene of the crime and take a look at advertising circa five minutes from now.  I wanted to satisfy my own curiosity and to look more closely, years away from my last full-time gig, at how the industry continues to shape and reflect our culture.  I also wanted to get away from the big dinosaur shops and Some people dig both approaches. Some wished I’d stuck with a straight adland memoir and had skipped the more journalistic pieces, and others could care less about my career but ate up the look at the idea factories and present day issues.

In the final chapter of Adland you state that during your “final years of advertising the most rewarding aspect of the job was trying to help younger people who you liked make sense of the process, telling them what (and whom) to watch out for and what steps were needed to make their idea better and maybe even the one that wins. (A large part of the reason I suspect you agreed to do this interview!) So for the young people reading what advice do you have?

Not just young.  I get more letters from people who have given many years to advertising and now find themselves on the outside looking in, or feeling that it’s passing them by.  Or they are disillusioned.  Some got depressed at while still at VCU’s Brandcenter or Creative Circus.  Others got inspiration from everything.  I recently spoke to the students at VCU and it was interesting, because the most brilliant ad execs in the world go down to Richmond to speak to them and, of course, to recruit.  The students had the best teachers and were surrounded by passionate, hungry and talented colleagues.  The thing that struck me about all this was that coming out of such a perfect creative/strategic environment, how would they deal with a serious dose of the incompetence, compromises and disfunction that plagues advertising (and most) industries?  I paraphrased a bit from the introduction to the book and asked, Would you work on a tobacco account? A military account on the eve of a controversial war? A petrochemical account?  A fast food account?  Does obesity run in your family?  Cancer? I told them, since they clearly had oodles of talent, that they should write the brief for their career before it starts because there will come times when they will be asked to do deception, evil, or worse, mediocre work.  I told them sometimes it will be easier to say no than others, depending upon your bank account, your age, your moral strength, and your place in the agency pantheon.  At one time or another I was asked to work on all of the above, and during my twenty years as a creative person I went from wide-eyed junior to golden boy to star to veteran to disillusioned has been, back (briefly) to golden boy and then finally to savvy and wise in-house poet.  Things change.  Some people are meant to be stars and some are meant to thrive in the middle and there’s no shame in that.  I scared the shit out of more than one student that day but a lot appreciated the candor.

(Come back on Friday, as in the second part of the interview I ask Othmer about the unconventional relationships formed in the advertising industry, the hot-button topic of pharma marketing, and his views on an agency that comes across as a bit of an enigma.)


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