New York City Copywriter – Chapter 1

A little more than a year ago, I was living in Philadelphia, nursing a slowly dwindling checking account, with no prospects for a career. I was sick of retail and service work (privilege checked), and wanted to exercise my writing ability. But in what arena? Was I prolific enough to craft the Great American Novel? Funny enough for primetime television? What would it take to write a play?

I went to visit my mother. Sometimes she would sing commercial jingles or recite taglines from her youth—he’s a pepper, she’s a pepper, they’re all peppers, and sure, I would like to be a pepper too. Even Lucille Ball’s Vitameatavegemin routine left an indelible impression on her. These cultural artifacts brought her such joy, and I think she inadvertently transferred that joy to me. I remember when I was a child, watching VHS tapes I’d recorded from the TV, and rewinding to rewatch some of the commercials (a trailer for the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie sticks out in my mind). I thought about the feeling I got from those colorful thirty-second spots and something clicked. I thought about the cultural currency these spots afforded, how they form milemarkers in our lives. When we meet someone new, bonding can be as simple and as easy as the two of you remembering that Fruitopia was a thing that existed. I wanted to be a part of that.

When I went to college, I was warned that it was nothing like Animal House. When I got a job at a record store, they told me it was nothing like High Fidelity. The only thing I knew of the advertising industry was what I’d seen on Mad Men—no one had to tell me it would be nothing like that. But there was still something cinematic about my arrival in New York, stepping off the bus with bag in hand, the city large and lively, and full of possibilities. “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere,” right?

So I got a job. It was as exciting as it was nerve-wracking. Up until that point, I had written in a vacuum. All of my writing was relegated to class work, unread blogs and long form journals; safe things. I had never written collaboratively. I had never taken part in the creative process. Giving an idea to the group means that it isn’t yours anymore, which was new to me.  But I was part of the group, and the energy of that revealed new facets to an idea that I never could have seen. I saw the seeds of ideas blossom, and full concepts come to fruition.

To have work in the world, to have a direct impact on something tangible (or digital), is a heady experience. The first time you see a poster, or a TV spot that you worked on, it’s like, “wow, I touched that, I helped bring this into the world.” I’d never felt anything like it.

The scariest thing is how much talent there is in this city. It’s intimidating to meet someone at party, exchange the usual pleasantries, hear them say they work in advertising too, and that they’ve been writing for the past ten years. But the energy is infectious. This is a city of passionate, tireless workers. I was told recently that while you’re sleeping, there’s someone else who’s awake, writing.

Copywriting takes a lot of learning. It’s spending every day, hunkered down in the trenches with your colleagues, making the best work that you can. It’s going to bed when you just can’t stay awake any longer, swathed in a well-earned exhaustion. It’s feeling like you finally did something good, only to be effortlessly outmatched by someone who’s better than you at what you do. And then it’s trying to be better than them.

That’s what I’ve gleaned so far, anyway. This story is far from over. The first act has barely finished, which means the really exciting stuff is yet to come. Stay tuned—things are about to get interesting.

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