Killers and Poets

David Ogilvy once said, “Most good copywriters fall into two categories. Poets. And killers...If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.” Poets understand emotion.

They know how to make you feel what they want you to feel.

They work magic.

Killers understand strategy and know how to stay on it.

They work logic.

Clients love killers.

Then there’s the unicorn, the mythical killer poet, who can stay on strategy while making you give a damn about dish soap, or margarine, or just about anything.

These killer poets don’t only write advertising.

Some write about killers.

And these ex-copywriter’s have been responsible for some of the best crime novels ever written.

There’s logic to this.

A large part of copywriting is problem solving.

But problem solving is rarely straightforward, as Dashiell Hammett pointed out:

“The problem with putting two and two together is that sometimes you get four, and sometimes you get twenty-two.”

For a couple of years Hammett was the highest paid writer in America.

In the end he drank it all away, but not before banging out classics like, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.

While he was learning his craft, he worked as copywriter for Samuel Moss, a San Francisco jeweler.

Hammett, an ex-Pinkerton man was every bit as tough as his creations, in spite of bad health.

During the McCarthy hearings he refused to name names, preferring to serve time.

Legend has it that when he went to prison the guards addressed him as Mr. Hammett out of respect.

The late Elmore Leonard was another ex-copywriter.

He worked for several years at Campbell Ewald, in Detroit.

Then he wrote more than 40 novels, including some great ones like: Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch.

A master of quirky dialogue and stripped down prose, around 15 of his books have been made into movies.

His 10 rules of writing are excellent advice and #10 should be hung over every copywriter’s desk:

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Philip Kerr worked as a copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi.

His Bernie Gunther novels may not be a household name--yet.

Tom Hanks is producing a series for HBO based on Kerr’s brilliant Berlin Noir trilogy.

Kerr’s hero Bernie Gunther, is a grouchy ex-cop, caught up in the maelstrom of Berlin between the wars.

Tough, cynical, funny, Gunter is a classic private dick.

He’s talking about crime, but could just as easily be talking about advertising, when he says:

“The man who succeeds is the man who is able to reduce problems to their simplest terms and who has the courage of his convictions.”

As every reader of crime fiction knows, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s a pattern.

Copywriting sometimes feels like looking for clues; discover one and you get a better idea of what the next one looks like, a better idea for conjuring up your own blend of logic and magic.

A better shot at becoming a killer poet.