Back when I was younger and didn’t know better, I used to write ads for a living. I wasn’t very good at it.
So, when my creative director called me into his office late one Thursday, I thought he was going to fire me.
Instead, he told me to grab my coat and took me to the pub round the corner. He sat me on a bar stool, bought me a beer and said:
‘What do you do for fun?’
I wasn’t sure how to take this. He was a fierce and flamboyant character with a famously volcanic temper – there were rumours he’d been a gangster in an earlier life.
I answered cautiously that I liked meeting up with my friends in pubs, like this, and sharing funny stories from our week.
‘Okay’, he said. ‘Imagine we’re friends. Tell me a story.’
So, cautiously again, I told him about a drunken exchange I’d had the previous evening with a Spanish busker.
He grinned and said: ‘Very good. Have another pint.’
We stayed there for a while and had a few more beers: it turned into a surprisingly enjoyable evening. He was an excellent raconteur and an appreciative listener. I got more relaxed, the conversation flowed and he seemed to be enjoying it: at one point, he threw back his head and literally roared with laughter.
In fact, I was just thinking how unlike his reputation he was when, abruptly, he looked at his watch, put down his glass and announced that he had to be going.
‘This has been fun,’ he said, standing up.
It had, I agreed.
‘I’ve enjoyed your company’, he said.
Likewise, I said.
Then he stopped smiling, poked me in the chest and said:
‘So why are your ads crap, then?’
I didn’t know how to reply. I spluttered something about rubbish briefs, unreasonable client expectations, still finding my feet….
He said: ‘No. Your ads are crap because you’re not doing your job. Your job is to make people want to spend time with our clients’ products, which means you have to make them likeable. When you’re chatting in a pub, you’re likeable. When you’re writing ads, you’re boring. And no-one wants to spend time with boring ads any more than they want to spend time with boring people. Now finish your beer and go and write me an ad that sounds like you on a bar stool.’
Thirty-three years later, that’s still the best advice anyone’s ever given me.