Marketing Lessons from Great Storytellers

I learned long ago that people enjoy buying stories not products. They insert themselves into the narrative when deciding to try and buy a brand. They imagine themselves in a new car and connect with its advertising. The promise of an exotic vacation paints a vivid picture of the potential experience. Marketing has always been about storytelling.

What follows is a selection of quotes from famous writers speaking about their craft. In these are amazing lessons for marketers. The quotes cover motivation, preparation, effort, content, style, quality, challenges, criticism and reward. Each is absolutely applicable and relevant to those who plan and execute marketing strategies.

“The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” Albert Camus

“I write to understand as much as to be understood.” Elie Wiesel

“The purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning and inhibit clarity.” Bill Watterson

“I just knew there were stories I wanted to tell.” Octavia E. Butler

“I write out of revenge.” William Goldman

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading in order to write. A man will turn over half a library to make a book.” Samuel Johnson

“The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write about it.” Benjamin Disraeli

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything good.” William Faulkner

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” E. L. Doctorow

“Never, never try to scope the market.” Dean Koontz


“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Ernest Hemingway

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” Robert Frost

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Thomas Mann

“To write something, you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” Anne Rice

“Write the book you want to read. The one you want to find.” Carol Shields

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” Jack Kerouac

“All words are pegs to hang ideas on.” Henry Ward Beecher

“When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.” Charles Baxter

“Remember to get the weather in your damn book–weather is very important.” Ernest Hemingway

“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Stephen King

“I have tried for much of my life to write as if I was composing my sentences to be read posthumously.” Christopher Hitchens

“Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” Mark Twain

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” Elmore Leonard

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Mark Twain

“The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway

“Don’t get it right – get it WRITTEN!” Lee Child

“The story is always better than your ability to write it.” Robin McKinley

“Only a mediocre person is always at his best.” W. Somerset Maugham


“Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.” Neil Gaiman

“Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.” Steve Martin

“The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.” Ernest Hemingway

“A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.” Sidney Sheldon

“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” Joseph Heller

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready’.” David Mitchell

“Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post what it feels about dogs.” Christopher Hampton

“I would rather be attacked than unnoticed. For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his works.” Samuel Johnson

“If critics say your work stinks it’s because they want it to stink and they can make it stink by scaring you into conformity with their comfortable little standards.” Jack Kerouac

“I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” James A. Michener

“I hate writing, I love having written.” Dorothy Parker

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” Richard Bach

“The desire to write grows with writing.” Desiderius Erasmus

“Writing is a sweet, wonderful reward.” Franz Kafka


Authors Who Started in Marketing

Many famous authors got their start writing copy for ad agencies, positioning products and services, and finding ways to convince consumers to try and buy. Branding and marketing has always been about storytelling. It is a compelling narrative that first links consumer and brand. The ability to spin a yarn with credibility is an admirable talent that few possess. Among now-famous-authors who got their start promoting brands are:

Salman Rushdie
An Ogilvy & Mather alum who penned the Daily Mirror’s tagline, “Look into the Mirror tomorrow—you’ll like what you see.” He also produced “Naughty. But nice.” for a cream cakes company and ”Irresistibubble” for Aero, which remains the candy-bar’s slogan in certain markets.

Theodore Seuss Geisel A.K.A Dr. Seuss
The famous children’s author and illustrator drew and wrote for brands far before ‘green eggs and ham’. Beer companies received his unique treatment and soon Ford, NBC, GE, Flit, and Standard Oil were among his clients. The “moto-raspus” for Essolube five star motor oil is immediately recognizable as a Dr. Seuss creation.

Dorothy Sayers
Poor Dorothy got pigeon-holed at the Benson’s agency writing sandwich ingredient ads. This included Sailor Savouries, margarine and mustard. In 1923, she wrote to her parents: “Mustard again! It is astonishing that they should want so many advertisements for mustard. However, let’s hope that’s the end of it for a bit.” Sayers ended up creating the Mustard Club. It turned out to be one of the most popular ad campaigns of the 1920′s perhaps because of the ‘quality’ of writing. The club was described in one ad this way:

The Mustard Club (1926) has been founded under the Presidency of the Baron de Beef, of Porterhouse College, Cambridge. It is a Sporting Club, because its members are always there for the meat. It is a Political Club, because members find that a liberal use of Mustard saves labour in digestion and is conservative of health. It is a Card Club, but Members are only allowed to play for small steaks.

The club featured many fictional characters drawn from beef and condiments. It was arguably a precursor to McDonald’s marketing strategy of Mayor McCheese, Officer Big Mac and the Hamburglar.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s time in advertising had remarkable influence on his most famous work. He wrote slogans for streetcars and billboards for the agency Barron Collier. The latter would play a role in The Great Gatsby and its famous cover. In one interview he said, ”The hit I made with a slogan I wrote for the Muscatine Steam laundry in Muscatine, Iowa—’We keep you clean in Muscatine.’ I got a raise for that.”

Later Fitzgerald would rant against advertising, “Advertising is a racket, like the movies and the brokerage business. You cannot be honest without admitting that its constructive contribution to humanity is exactly minus zero.” In one of the interesting twists in history, poet Ogden Nash took up Fitzgerald’s job at Barron Collier scripting his own ads for streetcars.

James Patterson
Patterson has married marketing and writing to create an impressive assembly line of work. He churns out thrillers with such frequency that many argue the quality is now in question. Patterson is not forming every word and sentence these days. Instead he enlists co-authors who do the heavy lifting and he lends his name and oversight. He is the Henry Ford of writing.

Patterson once worked at J. Walter Thompson. He started as copywriter and was the agency’s youngest creative director. He ended his tenure as CEO of JWT North America. While there he first entered pop culture by coming up with ”I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us Kid.”

More Scribes
There are plenty of other examples of marketer-turned-writer. Mary Higgins Clark co-wrote catalog copy with another soon-to-be literary legend, Joseph Heller. Others who cut their teeth writing copy, jingles and taglines include William S. Burroughs, Phillip Kerr, Steven Pressfield and Lee Child.

One of my favourite stories concerns Fay Weldon, author, essayist and playwright. Her work is largely associated with feminism and female empowerment. In her advertising days she coined the slogan “Vodka gets you drunker quicker”. She said in a Guardian newspaper interview “It just seemed … to be obvious that people who wanted to get drunk fast, needed to know this.” Her bosses could not dispute the insight still it was overruled and never used.

Without a doubt great marketers can make great writers and vice versa. Those who tend to succeed in either or both professions know that it all comes down to the quality of the product. Charles Dickens hit this point when he said, “There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”

How Cool are Digital Agencies?

What Digital Agency Clients, Staff and Leaders Say in Private

Digital agencies enjoy a reputation of being cool, cutting-edge and creative. They even have a bit of a bad-boy persona because they talk about challenging the status quo. Their offices are hip and their employees are hipsters. They are positioned as the future of marketing and advertising.

Read the article in Advertising Age.