As little as fifteen years ago, nobody in the ad world had heard of Crispin Porter + Bogusky. The agency became famous by making their clients famous. Brands like MINI, Burger King, and TRUTH. To name a few. And a lot of this vintage-era CP+B work wouldn’t have been possible without the brain of Creative Director Bill Wright. He helped lead CP+B to numerous US Agency of the Year awards, and picked up a bunch of metal along the way. Currently Chief Creative Officer at OgilvyWest, he gave us the skinny on story-telling.
Can you tell us how you started off in advertising?
I pretty much grew up in front of the TV and I was fascinated by the ads. They were probably my favorite part of television. And, I always enjoyed writing. I knew I was better at it than anybody else in my school when I was growing up. So, my dream was to someday be able to write, come up with ideas, be creative — and get paid for it.
You went to the Missouri School of Journalism. How did being schooled at such a top notch Journalism school help you in the advertising industry?
I went there with the intent of going through the news/editorial sequence and ultimately landing a job as a reporter. However, my advisor, Jim Albright steered me into the advertising sequence. He was an amazing mentor who did a lot of great work for Doritos, Exxon and Frito-Lay back in the 70’s — I owe him a tremendous amount of credit for any success I’ve had. Missouri J-School is incredibly hard and demanding and you can’t graduate from there without being a very disciplined writer, who understands the craft.
An awesome piece of advice we once heard from you was “Don’t write funny. Write about things that are funny”. Can you tell us about that a little more? What’s the separation between the two in your mind?
Hopefully this is self-explanatory. But it means to find a premise, a situation that is inherently humorous and write a script about it. And not to write a script that is just a bunch of jokes or one-liners you strung together. That piece of advice was handed to me by Alex Bogusky, and I try to pass it along whenever I can.
A bad print ad just gets ignored. A bad TV spot, however, is up there on the screen for thirty seconds or longer, embarrassing everyone. There are just so many more things you need to get right in a TVC. Dialog, character, product messaging, establishing and resolving a story arc within 25 seconds. Would you say TV is one of the toughest mediums to write for?
I always thought radio was harder than TV, because in TV you at least have the visual part to do the half the lifting for you. A 60 second radio is hard; a 30 second radio ad is sort of impossible.
Think of an idea. Then do the exact opposite idea.
You once emailed us a great memo that playwright David Mamet gave to his TV writing team. He discusses the need for drama in every scene (What do the characters want? What’s the conflict?); the fact that a flat script can’t be saved by great directing; and he has a great quote “If you pretend the characters can’t speak, and write a silent movie, you will be writing great drama”. All these principles seemed to be summed up perfectly in this great scene from The Wire. McNulty wants info on the perp, Pearlman wants to save her future shot at joining The Bar Association, and Levy wants to keep his shit on the down low. Can you break it down for us?
1. “Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit”. – David Mamet
2. Drama is the quest of our hero to overcome those things that prevent him from achieving his goal.
3. Setup. Conflict. Resolution.
That’s your story arc. Always follow it.
What’s next for advertising writing? Where do you see the next big opportunities are for creativity?
I wish I had the answer for this. But people will always hunger for great storytelling. Learn to tell great stories.
Do you get to work on any writing or creative projects outside of your day job?
Not at the moment. Someday I want to write a book about the Crispin experience.
What are some other tips on storytelling, advertising, or life that we can steal?
Think of an idea. Then do the exact opposite idea. Incredibly, this really works. For example, here’s an idea for Burger King: Let’s give a free Whopper to every man, woman and child in America. Here’s a better idea: Let’s stop selling the Whopper.
This interview originally appeared over at Junior