Monday, May 6, 2024

Notes from a Writer: A Guest Post from Jim Nolan.

Jim Nolan and I don't really know each other, though decades ago we worked at Ogilvy together, and we've been connected on Linked In for six years--which should have been longer, but we were each too, I think, reserved to make the first move.

I've always admired Jim's work. (A small smattering is above.) It always seemed to me--judging from afar--to be copywriting of the highest order. With a level of intelligence, restraint and taste that makes me more than a little green with envy. Jim, to be reductive about this, is a writer. A writer who actually writes. Which means he actually thinks.

He's one of those rare birds, the best creatives are like this--who actually believe--against all odds and all indications to the contrary--that craft will eventually prevail. That you can win over clients and people by sheer force of good work that doesn't pander.

I remember Hall-of-Famer, Mike Tesch, once being quoted that "A great thirty-second spot can solve any marketing problem." We've forgotten the logic of statements like that. 99-percent of the industry no longer believes in the industry's power and efficacy. No wonder clients don't want to pay us. We don't even pay ourselves.

In any event, some time ago, I had written an invitation--a fairly open invitation, and fairly honest, too--that anyone who wants to write something for this space can have at it. Many people think I have some super-human capacity that lets me write every day. I don't. It's all the product of assiduous work. If there's anything at all super-human about me, it's my stubbornness. I refuse to give in to the idea that I can't.

Relief in the form of guests posts is welcome. What's more, it never hurts to provide my trillions of readers with someone else's perspective. As computer scientist Allen Kay once said, "a different perspective is worth 85 points of IQ."

What's better than a Large Language Model? A thinking human being.

One more thing, before I turn you over to Jim. 

What the monolithic powers that run the holding companies don't have is exactly what's most needed to run a business: Love for the brilliant practitioners who make the business special. 

Yes. Love.
Yes. Respect.
Yes. Awe for their ability.
Yes. Recognition of their one-of-a-kindness.

The best companies, institutions, sports teams, countries, families love their members. They treat them as integral. Not a cost. They don't teach that at MBA academy.

Today, remember, everyone is a number and an interchangeable part. All the theories about the decay of creativity in advertising aren't worth a bucket of warm spit. The decay of advertising goes hand in hand (or middle-finger to middle-finger) with the decay in how we treat the people who actually do the work--who make clients and agencies special.

Not long ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a short article commemorating Duke Ellington on the 125th Anniversary of his birth. In it was this quotation from Duke: “'We have deep consideration for the limitations of everyone; it’s an interesting problem to handle.' Ellington solved the challenge of shortcomings by listening closely to all his musicians and then composing to highlight their strengths."

That last bit: listening closely to highlight strengths is what being a human is about. It's about acceptance, caring, learning and loving. 

Somehow, Jim's piece brings all those too-rare and so-important qualities to life.



The Truth-and-Beauty of Corinne L. Murray

Corinne Murray was my first copy chief at my first advertising agency, in Anchorage, Alaska. 

I had never been to Alaska. 

I had never written an ad. 

I had never met anyone named Corinne. 

And I certainly had never met anyone like Corinne. Because Corinne was sui generis. 

A poet (brilliant). 

A copywriter (excellent). 

A friend (supportive). 

A mentor (patient). 

A smoker (chain). 

And a flat-out, no doubt-about-it, guessing-she-was-always-so genius. And for some unknown cosmic too-good-to-be-true reason, I got to know her. 

Corinne had many appealing qualities. One was that she despised account people, well, just one in particular. In the long, Homeric-length poems about the agency she would write, he appeared as “the Silver Snake,” as he had a flowing headful of gray hair and a thick gray beard. The poor man was tormented by Corinne who was, I should mention, the agency founder’s daughter and thus mostly but not completely bulletproof. My fellow copywriter and great friend Mike and me, new to advertising, thought her tirades were well deserved and assumed that this was simply the way of advertising, cats and dogs, creatives and suits. Now of course I know the indispensability of a great account person to great work, or work that tries hard to be. And I realize just how outstanding all the account people at the agency were, including the Silver Snake himself.

What were the Silver Snake’s crimes? I think he may have passed on to Corinne client copy changes, an outrage to us. By god, we were English majors, or Mike and I were. Corinne skipped college, but we knew we couldn’t carry her typewriter (a programmable IBM Selectric upon which she could type at blistering speeds). Corinne knew it too but would never say so.

While Corinne was a very good copywriter, it was her poetry, and Samuel Johnson-like quality of talk, that made her especially interesting to me. If I grew bored, I could walk into her office, where she would light a fresh Benson & Hedges 100 from the one she was finishing, and listen to her talk. Corinne was always happy to have an audience, and I was always receptive. I don’t think I ever discovered the limits of her ability to go on—she could easily monologue for a couple of hours, and I would only occasionally interject a comment of my own, which she would impatiently tolerate in some half-hearted spirit of politesse. Her range of subjects was wide-ranging, from professional sports to problems with her Chevy Chevette to national politics to art to her cats and whatever she was reading at the time. She was a student of romance writer Barbara Cartland and could have cranked out a perfect imitation of her work overnight, if she wanted to. I think that, while she didn’t respect Cartland’s writing, she respected her lifestyle. Here was a writer rich enough for people to look after, and Corinne could have used a lot of that.

Looking back, Corinne was struggling with issues I did not fully understand. Sometimes she would sleep on the couch at the office. She had a hard time taking care of herself physically. The cigarette smoking gave her a not infrequent hacking cough. But none of this was ever spoken of, at least between us. 

But what made me really adore Corinne, besides her sense of humor and kindness to me, was her poetry. Corinne is an example that many artists of the first rank remain undiscovered, their work stashed away in a desk drawer somewhere, eventually to disappear in the passing of time. We know of Emily Dickinson by sheer luck, more or less.  

So let me share a little of her poetry from “THE MURRAYBOOK,” a binder she put together for me when I left Alaska. Perhaps here, online, it will gain some sort of immortality. 

These are from a section entitled “The Animal Kingdom.”


I’ve often thought the Camel

Is a beast I’d like to own,

He’d be my friend right to the end,

I’d never feel alone.

He’d sneer at those who’d harm me,

And spit at friends untrue,

He’d let me ride in stately pride

Atop his hump (or two).

We’d settle in the desert,

And share our joys and woes,

We’d make our stand upon the sand

Against our common foes. 

I’d love to have a Camel,

I swear I’d treat him right;

He’d be so dear -- it would be sheer

Arabian Delight. 


Of all the reptiles, none is greater

Than the agile alligator;

To some, he seems a lazy lout,

Amphibiously hanging out;

He has no time for pride or pomp

While snorkeling around the swamp,

Avoiding hunters who would use

His hide for alligator shoes;

He knows that it would be a drag

To end up as a belt or bag;

Or as a wrestling partner where

The tourists come to stand and stare;

So he prefers to bask all day,

And if you’re smart, you’ll stay away;

For dinosaurs, as you can see,

Are on his scaly family tree.


The Platypus is strange. 

There can be no denying

He looks like something God whipped up

Before He started trying. 

The Platypus is awkward. 

He waddles when he’s stolling,

His feet are webbed, much like a duck’s,

His gait is oddly rolling. 

The Platypus is primitive,

And wears a bill, to boot, 

Somewhere around the dawn of time

He got his silly snoot. 

The Platypus is ugly.

Has been, and always will;

If you’d been made from spare parts, too,

You might look weirder still. 

This one’s from the section, “Other Times, Exotic Climes.”

2,000,000 B.C.


I’ve often wished that I could be

A dinosaur in days of old;

I’d wallow in the steamy sea,

For lunchtime I could eat a tree;

I’d be so brave and bold. 

To see my pals my way I’d wend

The Brontosaurus I would kiss;

Triceratops would call me friend,

I’d be contented to the end

In prehistoric bliss.

I’d bask in the primeval sun,

I’d play all day; I’d sing and dance,

Among the ferns I’d jump and run,

I could have had a lot of fun,

I would have made a lovely one -- 

Too bad I missed the chance. 

Corinne also wrote many poem parodies. This one, inspired by “She Walks in Beauty,” is dedicated to my friend Mike.


With No Apologies to 

George Gordon, Lord Byron,

Because He’s Dead

He writes in copy, I suppose,

With clouded mind and starry eyes,

And all that’s best of tailored clothes

Meets in his pin-stripes and his ties;

Thus mellowed by that tender prose

Which heaven to journalists denies. 

One word the more, one line the less

Had half-impaired the nameless style

Which comes out only under stress

Or after drinking for a while -- 

Where all the archives are a mess,

How pure, how dear the Copy File. 

And on those lips, that clearly show

Just how his new career occurred,

Are smiles that win, and words that flow,

With force that cannot be deterred -- 

A mind whose moves are never slow,

A heart whose love is for the word. 

This poem is a take on Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman.” I think of her working late on Reka Drive in the cold Alaskan night, alone, as I read it.  


(With Patently Insincere Apologies to Alfred Noyes) 

The wind bore a scent of chicken from the Colonel’s corner store,

The moon was a ghostly tanker that leaked on a cloudy shore,

The street was a ribbon of asphalt, a-gleam in the fitful light,

And the Copy Chief was writing -- 

Writing -- writing --

The Copy Chief was writing, alone in the stilly night. 

Bent with the sorrow of ages, she gazed upon her work,

And wept with wild abandon, and called herself a jerk;

She’s heeded not the warnings, so into the pit she fell -- 

She’d gone into Advertising,

A job in advertising,

At an agency next to the “on” ramp of the highway down to Hell.

She thought of the fine ambitions she’d cherished in her youth,

She’d wanted to write of beauty; of art, of love, of truth;

But advertising got her, through a strange and sorry fluke -- 

Tonight she writes a slide show,

Another epic slide show,

Another scenic slide show, for tourists in Dubuque.

Then all through the darkened hallways, and the building all around,

There drifted a birdlike echo -- a haunting, mournful sound.

She knew that the phone was ringing, in its sad night-switchboard key,

So she picked up the phone and answered,

In a weary tone, she answered -- 

Thinking, “It’s nigh on midnight -- oh, who can this caller be?”

The voice she heard was confident, with vigor in its tone,

She knew its pitch and its cadence, as well as she knew her own;

It was her supervisor -- a mentor of talents rare,

And he said, “What are you doing,

Whatever are you doing,

What in the Hell are you doing, to still be writing there?”

She offered her explanations, but she could not make him hear,

He crisply gave his orders, and they rang out loud and clear:

“Be done with this lonely vigil! Reject this martyr’s whim!

And if our honored client,

Our esteemed and noble client,

Complains of his missing slide show -- well, that’s just too bad for him.”

“How easy it is,” she grimly thought, while hanging up the phone,

“To organize the workload, when the work is not your own.”

But, on her leader’s orders, she was turning to leave the room,

When she glanced at her pile of dockets,

Overdue, overflow dockets,

And the sight of that mountain of dockets was the sight that sealed her doom.

The mute reproach of neglected work made her fingers start to twitch,

A storm of guilt set her mind awhirl, and raised her to fever-pitch;

She cast aside her orders, and she leaped for her typist’s seat,

And began to turn out copy,

Blindingly brilliant copy,

She pounded the keys in a frenzy, ‘til they glowed dull red with heat.

They found her there in the morning, slumped lifeless at her desk,

With a satisfied smile on her cold dead lips, which seemed to them grotesque;

And under her head, for a pillow, was a stack some two feet tall

Of once-in-a-lifetime copy,

Painfully perfect copy,

And all the dockets were marshaled in order -- the Copy Chief finished them all. 

And still, on a lonely night (they say) when there’s chicken on the breeze,

And the moon is a ghostly tanker, tossed upon oily seas;

When the street is a ribbon of asphalt, a-gleam in the fitful light,

The Copy Chief comes writing -- 

Writing -- writing -- 

The Copy Chief comes writing, alone in the stilly night.

This last one, however, may be my favorite. Perhaps it’s revealing of her mood at the time. Or maybe not. 


This is the house where Loneliness lives,

And hides from a past that it never forgives.

The hearth is cold and the walls are bare,

The dust lies deep on the creaking stair;

Where voices echo, too low to hear,

And whisper of worlds that will disappear;

Of unlived lives and the unheard call

From the clock that chimes in the empty hall;

Murmurs that fade in the fading light,

Leaving the echoes alone with the night.

The old gate swings from the leaning post,

Touched by solitude’s silent ghost;

The dead brown leaves of the apple tree

Stir with the passing of memory. 

Lilies adrift on a silver stream,

Gardens locked in an endless dream;

Shadowed woods where the nightwing cries,

Sleeping seas under satin skies;

Shrouded shores at the ebbing tide - 

The door standing open, and no one inside.



It’s been many years since Corinne died far too young, from MS. I was working at an agency in New York when I found out, and I wept in my office. I think Corinne was proud of me. I had been able to make a career in New York, to her and to me the Rome of advertising. It’s no exaggeration to say I owe my career to her. 

Thanks to her, I had a shot at becoming a working copywriter, to be able to support a family by writing, to do many of the things she didn’t get the opportunity to do because of her health: 

I learned to write headlines without fear, but eagerness. And I pay as much attention to the post copy, something that came after her, as I do to headlines. 

I learned the difference between writing copy and writing English, and came to prefer the former. I wrote 24-page brochures about gas turbines and auto after-market parts and a two-minute spot for Hallmark. 

I met David Ogilvy, and even better, Shelly Lazarus. David Lubars asked someone who wrote the copy I wrote while freelancing at BBDO. I have had dinner in Madrid with Rob Schwartz. And drinks at fancy Manhattan restaurants with David Fowler. I worked on a winning pitch with Amy Ferguson. And I’ve worked with one spectacularly talented art director after another, and terrific account people, producers, planners, and clients. George Tannenbaum, the badass bard of the power of words, asked me to write a post for his blog, this blog, that has enormous readership and respect.

And, with just a few lapses, throughout my career I have used the final serial comma, because Corinne would have wanted me to. 

Corinne’s stock-in-trade was something she dismissively called “truth-and-beauty” copy. Copy that described Alaska as the Great Land it is, for “tourists in Dubuque.” Slide shows, brochure copy, TV and radio spots, press ads for The Alaska Marine Highway or the City of Seward or any project that required a photo of glaciers or Denali Park or bald eagles or moose or bear. She joked about the expression, but I think she meant it. She was, at heart, a truth teller and it got her into trouble sometimes. And she was a beautiful person, caring and thoughtful, and her poetry is some of the most perfect, beautiful writing I know. 

When we start out, we have no idea what lies ahead. I was desperate for a guide, for someone who thought I could write, and I was fortunate to find one in the least likely of places. Long after I left the agency, Corinne continued to be that guide for me. I am so grateful for it.

Eventually I learned that truth and beauty are all that matters in advertising, and in life, too. Corinne, and I can hear her roundly disputing this in my head, was the epitome of both. 

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