In the beginning there was the word, which means there were writers. Writers create. They create using words. Words are putty. But to create you can’t run away from feeling like a god, a literary god. You can’t pretend that you don’t feel a certain clout at dictating and shaping emotion. Of creating scenarios. And that makes writers vain. Yes, very conceited. And cocky.
My writing journey started in an advertising agency. Many years back ago, while in campus, I interned at Ayton Young and Rubicum as a copywriter. Copywriters – for those of you who hold normal jobs- are the guys who create adverts, guys who conceptualize ads before the art directors breathe life into them. These guys are the creative heads, they have healthy imaginations. They are gods. Now, an advertising agency is not your normal office; guys don’t have normal conversations, guys don’t dress normally, women don’t meet at the printer and chat about their teething kids, guys don’t comb their hair or wear socks (like the copywriter I was attached under). It’s a different kettle of fish back there. They smoke, they go to work on loud motorbikes, they drink, they walk about in a trance, they put their feet on their desk, they chew gum while they are talking to the boss (which is okay because the boss always has a lot in his mind anyway) and they play loud music. Hell, they even have a bar in their office for chrissake! These guys are not like me and you. They are a bit cuckoo, cuckoo because they created and to create something truly magnificent, something truly exceptional, something that can sway masses to buy into it, you got to be a bit mad. And I loved these people, loved their quirkiness. I was home. I was among the people I admired, people who earned a living by thinking. Constantly.
I was crazy about advertising (still is). I was crazy about words, maybe obsessed with them. Words to me were what a pole is to a strip dancer. I was also crazy about images and how images and words came together in arty matrimony. At AY&R I was attached under a lead copywriter and a graphics designer. Decent fellows yes, but weird. The first day of internship I remember the copywriter swiveled in his chair (he always did that like he was Marlon Brandon or some shit like that) and read me the riot act. “Do you like burgers?” he asked me. I said I did. Look, I didn’t care much for burgers but I didn’t want to admit that incase it turned out that he loved burgers. I didn’t want to be the uptight intern who made history in the agency as not loving burgers. I imagined that everybody in the agency loved burgers, that burgers were the real deal. So I fibbed.
“I hate burgers Biko, they make you fat and fat makes you lazy and lazy people can’t think.”
First day and this fella with baby dreadlocks was hanging my ass out to dry. I stared at him trying to make up my mind if I was going to like him or I was going to have to put laxatives in his drink at some point.
“Copywriting is not like eating a burger Biko, you don’t need a brain to eat a burger but unfortunately you will need lots of brain to copy write,” he continued.
Where do people buy laxatives again? I thought. What was his problem?
I intensely stared at him in the eye, hoping that would intimidate him a bit. It didn’t.
“Do you drink, Biko?”
“Uhm, well, a bit.”
“Well, here you will learn to start drinking a lot, but don’t worry nobody will notice.” I didn’t want to assume that was a joke, so I continued wearing my poker face.
“Do you have a chick Biko?” he asked and whenever he would ask me a question he would insert my name at the end of the question, just so that I don’t assume that he is talking to the invisible person behind me I presume. Copywriters see people we don’t see. They have powers, you see.
“Well, yes, I do.”
“What does she do, Biko?”
“Yes she does Biko.”
Look, I couldn’t resist it. He laughed, and whenever he laughed he would laugh like Ban Ki-moon. Have you seen the UN honcho laugh? No? You should.
“She is in campus with me.” I said.
He groaned. “Then that’s not your chick Biko.”
“No?” I asked.
“Of course not.”
He then got up without warning and disappeared. He came back shortly with a glass of water. I was hoping he would explain to me why he thought my chick wasn’t my chick, but he had moved on. And I didn’t want to pursue it further, I was an intern after all and it was my first day. He was a bit of an eccentric, but ideally that word “eccentric” wasn’t a real word in an advertising agency. It was an oxymoron. But this guy seemed to having many conversations in his head, all in different languages. He would ask me a question and before I answer he would move on to something else. He had a great handwriting, he would write like he was printing the words. He wore only jeans and sneakers. He smelled of cigarettes. He loved to suck on a lollipop which he would point at me with when asking me a question.
“Do you love dogs Biko?” he asked me one day, a lollipop trained at me like a weapon.
“Yes, actually I do.”
“Dogs are just the one, aren’t they? What dog do you love Biko?”
“A Rottweiler or Ridgeback any day” I said.
“Hmm,” He said before rummaging through a stack of papers on his desk where he produced a picture of this dog, a dog that looked like a sausage. I wanted to laugh. I really wanted to laugh because a sausage dog is not even a dog, it’s caricature of a dog. Dogs shouldn’t look like food. Dogs should look like dogs.
“What do you think, Biko?” he asked.
See my predicament? What if I said the dog was ugly and it turned out to be one of his treasured possessions? Won’t that be starting the internship on the wrong foot there? Wouldn’t that earn me a place in the doghouse? Pun intended.
“Well, uhm…it’s a bit…how do I say this, long?” I said cautiously.
He grinned and asked me how much I thought the dog would go for. The truth was I wouldn’t barter that dog with a packet of spoilt milk.
“I can’t say really.” I murmured.
“Some odiero is selling it at 27k; do you think it’s a fair price?”
Of course I didn’t, I thought he was crazy! In my head I started doing a quick math on how many packets of sausages 27k would fetch. That’s a lot of sausages. I told him it seemed a bit overpriced. Two weeks later he bought the damn thing. I found that a bit lonely, to buy a sausage dog. I found it depressing in a way.
We would have quirky conversations with him. He was an oddball. He was moody, and when he got into one of his moods I kept off and only spoke to him when spoken to. But when he was good mood he was a real sport; he would give me unprovoked lectures on copy writing and buy me lunch and tell me how his latest squeeze was baffled by his new dog, “who wouldn’t love a dog like that man?” he would ask me and it would take everything in me not to raise my hand.
Anyway this guy would get a brief with a tight deadline. And they would agonize over this brief with the graphics designer, burning many a cigarette over it. Downing many a drink over it. Nothing else would matter to them apart from the brief. The brief became them and they became the brief and together they became one. Tunnel vision. They would bounce ideas around…most which were batty. He would tell me, “Biko, when you get a brief the first couple of ideas that come to your mind are crap, so toss them.” When finally an idea they liked came about, they would put it down on one of them white drawing sheets in form of an ad frame or story board if it was a TV ad. They called this “crack”. They had cracked it. I loved that lingo. To crack a brief was to make a breakthrough. Then later that evening they would crack a bottle of whisky and toss to the gods of creativity. Those were some good evenings.
Cracking a brief was one thing; the next hurdle was selling it to the boss, the creative director. Now if I’m not mistaken the creative director at that time was a cool cat called Kilimo, I believe everybody called him Kili or something like that. He was the gatekeeper of creativity. I would be excited about a brief I just supposedly cracked, and very proud of my ass I would walk into his office to sell it to him and he would listen to me politely then he would tweak the idea without thinking much about it and the idea would transform immediately into something much much better than my idea. That would amaze me, his eye, his ear for an idea, and how he would tweak and develop it. Look, I don’t call many people geniuses, but I remember thinking “this guy is a bloody genius!” I also picked a lingo from him, if he liked the concept you presented but it needed some more tweaking he would say, “It has legs,” Don’t even pretend that you don’t like that.
But these guys, these creatives, taught me a lot. Whilst all the advertising books taught me to think outside the box, they convinced me that there was no box, it never existed. They also taught me that it’s okay to drink at work as long as you don’t try and kiss the tea girl. They taught me to be loose, to be courageous enough as to let your mind wander (“Don’t tether your mind Biko,” the copywriter would tell me). Most importantly they taught me how to write copy. The copywriter who I was under was one guy who would write some really sexy short sentences. Sentences that would sing. He was the master of one-liners. Writing an sms was an art for him. If you can say it better in less words, all the better, was his motto. I remember keeping his smses for the longest time because they were arty, they were thought out smses, creative as hell. Hang on, that sounds a bit gay, keeping a man’s smses. But you understand, don’t you?
These guys were cool. But they were also different, different not because they were cool but different because they lived curious. To be a creative you have to learn to protect and defend your work jealously because your work is your art and your art is your life. I learnt from them that artists protect their work jealously and that it’s okay to take offense to have your worked knocked unfairly by loudmouthed critics. The only reason why they were touchy and moody about their work was because their work talked keenly to who they were as people, as men and women. And that was sacred. Hallowed. Obviously I didn’t end up in advertising, but I’m constantly drawn to it. Advertising to me is like the one who got away; you lust for her secretly.
Generally we are artists, and to be an artist you have to learn to be touchy. You have to learn to act up, to be a diva. It’s an occupational hazard. Here is a story; Last week I was in this pretentious pub (that vanity thing again) with this writer pal of mine having a tipple. Now one of his pals pitched up with this girl with a loud lip gloss. She is one of those chicks who have an opinion about everything. But she was clearly intelligent. Conversation drifted to something this guy wrote in the gazeti recently and the chick made a statement that sort of challenged his writing. I believe she said, “It’s evident that your argument wasn’t thought out enough,” she didn’t mean it in a bad way, I could tell. She wasn’t being malicious. Now, my pal took immediate offence because she sort of attacked his art, in essence she said he didn’t think.
But since he couldn’t punch her in the mouth like he would a man, he sat there and glared at her. But the chick didn’t let up; she continued making thin veiled attack on him which to me seemed like she was just making fun of him, you know teasing him? It was the Redds I suspected. But at some point when this chick’s boyfriend too off to go shake his wee-wee in the little boy’s room, my pal slowly leaned into the table and asked her through clenched teeth, “Tell me something, what have you written lately, apart from an sms?” Of course I found that mean but very hilarious.
But writers need that check. They need someone to bring them down to earth. They need to be told to back the hell down. It’s sobering.