Lessons from an Ad Agency: Want to be the Next Aaron Sorkin? Start by Being Don Draper

Lessons from an Ad Agency: Want to be the Next Aaron Sorkin? Start by Being Don Draper

A key piece of advice given to any budding screenwriter:

Write daily.

Write a few script pages every day, craft a clever email, or at the very least, jot down story ideas and notes—anything that keeps your writing muscles from atrophying. One of the best ways to hone your writing skills, not to mention get paid handsomely before you get your big break, is to work as a copywriter in advertising.

That’s right. Before you become the next Aaron Sorkin, you should try becoming the next Don Draper.

Not only is earning a living as an ad agency copywriter a splendid way to get paid every day for writing, but the disciplines and experiences are so analogous to Hollywood, you might very well think it’s the same profession.

How so, you ask?

Copywriters Must Be Prolific

If you’ve only got one screenplay under your belt, you’re stuck. What if it doesn’t grab a potential producer or agent? What else have you got?

The same is true in advertising. The more ideas you can attack a problem with, the better. In advertising, you must come up with new ideas and new executions for client’s products daily. There’s no such term as “pens down” in the ad game, because even when your work is being produced, there will still be times that words will be changed, or a visual idea must be altered. Doing the work is about making it work.

Additionally, such ideas will not only be cut down by various critics within the agency: your creative director, the account people, and the client, but your work might be cut altogether. If you cannot abide getting knocked off the horse, you aren’t going to ride too many days in advertising. Developing a tough skin, getting used to rejection, and learning to keep at it again and again—those are the skills that keep you thriving in the ad biz.

It’s a gauntlet that will serve you well for when you get to Tinsel Town and are greeted by an inevitable chorus of "no’s."

You Have to Write in a Variety of Ways

Think your award-winning screenplay is going to get produced and you’ll be able to write whatever you want forever after? It’s a great fantasy, but merely that.

The odds are such that your entrée into show business will most likely be as a hired hand to write for someone else’s idea. It may be a rewrite of a flawed pilot or joining the writers' room of an existing TV show, but most screenwriters aren’t handed a million dollars for an original script. Instead, their script serves as a resume, enabling them to get hired to bring someone else’s project to life.

When you work in an ad agency, you’re almost always writing for a brand that already has a POV. Most every brand you’ll touch has an existing voice, a track record, and a vaulted history. Your job as that brand’s copywriter will be to find new ways to bring its ‘character’ to life. Learning to write well from another perspective, and be true to what’s been established, is great discipline for a screenwriter. If you can continue the warm-hearted tone for Welch’s Grape Juice, you'll be able to adapt to Vince Gilligan’s voice if you’re hired to write for "Better Call Saul."

You Must Write Epics and Indies

Projects in advertising are big and small. Copywriters are asked to write across all kinds of mediums: TV commercials, print, digital, outdoor boards ... you name it. Sometimes there are big budgets, sometimes they’re so minuscule you’ll wonder if a client has enough money for in-store signage. Just like in Hollywood, there are all kinds of budgets, and the quicker you can learn how to write for epics, as well as indies, the better.

And if you can write eight words that convey a brand on a billboard or an in-store shelf-talker, you will be way ahead of other advertising copywriters. And in turn, you will be way ahead of other screenwriters who only want to write 120-page screenplays and don’t have the skills for shorter stories. Being able to write for all kinds of lengths is the key to becoming a talent who makes a consistent living on Madison Avenue or Sunset Boulevard.

Writing is Rewriting

Legendary playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon always quipped that writing is essentially rewriting. Rarely does a sentence go down on the page that is kept intact through thick and thin. A good writer can put clever words together—a great writer knows how to edit, shorten, and give up passages to make them even better. And in advertising, writing is all about honing for effectiveness and limited space. Oftentimes, brands must be conveyed in a sentence or two, and sometimes a big idea must be culled down to something pithier.

Writers who are used to creative directors or clients asking for rewrites are also writers ready for similar demands from directors and producers. Rewriting is probably a writer’s greatest weapon in the arsenal. If you can be hard on yourself, you’ll have the thick skin required for when others are hard on your work, too.

The Suits Have Power and Their Say

Both advertising and filmmaking are team sports, and in order to stay on the roster, you must be able to play nice with others.

In advertising, that means collaborating with equally talented people invested in the same goals for whatever project you’re working on. It also means being open to do such work with those who aren’t necessarily creative. Clients own the brand and will have a say in your copy whether or not they have a creative bone in their body. You can’t be cavalier and tell such folk to f*ck off. They’re investors, and they get a say.

In Hollywood, of course, the same applies. Suits at the studio or investors will want their requests to be heard. It’s best not to treat such folk as adversaries, but instead, find the common ground and work toward great conclusions together. If you respect them, they’ll respect you. And if you can turn them into friends, they’re going to be much more amenable to you having your say. The key is to listen to what they have to offer and finds ways to work with such requests or help them realize there are better ways.

No Matter How Great a Script, You Still Have to Sell It

Most creators would like to think that their genius sells itself.

Sadly, that isn’t true.

Even Oscar winners must take oodles of meetings, create pitch decks, and be able to talk the talk to persuade others to see their vision. This is where toiling in advertising best preps a screenwriter. You’re always pitching there, starting with trying to convince your creative director of the brilliance of your idea, and then moving onto account folks, clients, and yes, the general public.

And for each of such pitches, you better be able to explain your thinking, act out the script, and conjure up images and analogies that will help paint the picture. Learning to sell with enthusiasm should persuade others to share such passion. It’s the same with taking meetings, convincing actors to sign on, and selling the press on your project during junkets. You have to get people to want to invest their time and money. If your enthusiasm is contagious, you’ll get the sale.

The negative side of Don Draper—the sexism, the bullying, the substance abuse—these parts of the ad game unfortunately are all too prevalent in show business as well. The "Mad Men" protagonist may have been a world-class shit as a human being, but: the creative director/copywriter in him understood what was required to win colleagues, clients, and the nation over to his brand’s POV.

It’s all storytelling, be it a product or a film or a TV show. Combining art and business is a tale as old as time, and the more ways you can handle all parts of the equation, the better off you’ll be.

*Feature Image: Don Draper of "Mad Men" / Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
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