A funny thing happened when i was 22. i started writing ads.
You’d imagine there must have been more noble pursuits for a young man with a classical education in the arts and an Honors degree in English Literature.
Perhaps journalism would have been a worthy career.
And that was the original plan. I'd even had the good fortune of getting hired by a nice man at the Wall Street Journal named Anthony Spaeth. He was Bureau Chief.
But before I could join WSJ and embark on a respectable career in the press corps, I was flipping through the newspaper one morning when I saw a recruitment ad on the back page for something called... copywriters. Yes, copywriters. Have you ever heard of those before? Neither had I.
I had no idea what a copywriter was. But I noticed that the second half of the word was "writer," and so I figured anyone could do that. I kept reading:
"Copywriters wanted. Long hours. Low wages. Rejected headlines. Awards and recognition in event of success..."
The company looking for copywriters was called something like.... ummm... J. Walter Thompson. And I had no idea who that was either.
Certainly sounded stodgy.
I applied for the job, and got called to an interview with this incredibly eccentric Creative Director named Denis Joseph and do you know what? He's still ticking! Yes! He lives in New Zealand now and writes a series of spoofs called Absolute Bull.
But wait a minute. Before I tell you Denis' yarns I have to tell you about this other Creative Director I met before I went for my interview.
His name was Sundar Kaula, and he was as round as the Michelin Man. (Yes, Kaula. As in Pepsi Cola.)
Sundar cleared up for me the mystery of what copywriters do. Without hesitation, he leveled with me. Seated behind his enormous desk, leaning forward ever so slightly, choosing words as gentle as he could find, he told me candidly that copywriters write, well... (deep breath)... they write... ummm... copywriters write... ads.
So there. Now I knew. In hindsight it sounds obvious, but at 22, how was I to figure that one out? Until that day, I'd always thought that the people who made the product made the commercial. If someone's smart enough to make a toaster, surely it doesn't take that much to make an ad to go with it.
There was a book Sundar was reading. It sat face-up on one end of his desk. He gestured towards the book, and recommended that I read it first if I was serious about wanting to be in this business.
The book was the autobiography of Jacques Séguéla, who was once Chairman of the Publicis Group.
It was in French, and Sundar could read French. But I only knew a total of five words.
The title of the book was:
Ne Dites Pas À Ma Mère Que Je Suis Dans La Publicité, Elle Me Croit Pianiste Dans Un Bordel.
In English, that's:
Don't Tell My Mother I Work in Advertising, She Thinks I Play the Piano in a Whorehouse.
I thought Sundar was the coolest. These were fun people, you know. I mean, who wants to be a journalist after that? I wanted to be like these guys. Such brilliant minds. And what did they do with those minds? Nothing. They just made ads all day.
Zapf. Blam. Tizzzzschkk. At that instant I was zapped by a flash of light, a clap of thunder, and suddenly a voice from the sky broke through the clouds, filled the room, and spoke to me, saying: "Son, son... listen to me, son... advertising is your calling."
I listened. Ears perked. I listened... but, dead silence. Nothing. Nothing more. The voice had said all it had to say.
Alone with my thoughts, I considered it deeply for three and a half nanoseconds and decided: "Who wants to write about stocks for some staid old financial newspaper when you can write ads at some staid old advertising agency that has a picture of a bearded Civil War Marine called ‘The Commodore’ on its conference room walls?"
For one splendid moment, everything made total sense. And in all my years in the advertising business, that was the one time I have seen clarity. (Everything else has just been a struggle to decipher the Strategy Director's half-baked brief.)
Wait, did I hear you ask if I ever read that book before making up my mind?
Well, I never got around to reading Jacques Séguéla's book. (I already told you I only know five words of French.)
But I can certainly recommend you a few others. There's this really funny one by Denis, the Creative Director I mentioned right at the beginning. It came out in 2018. Some tall tale about a woman who had multiple speeding tickets for airborne travel on her motorized broomstick. Actually, you're going to find Denis' book a lot better than reading this bio, so take my advice and click here.
Oh, what? Still on this page? You haven't left? I can't believe you find this nonsense better than reading a free except from a Whodunit that the Bard of Avon reviewed as [add description].
But I digress. Let's get back to when I regained consciousness after being zapped by enlightenment and waking up in the knowledge that my life is advertising...
Now that I knew what copywriters did, when I went to see Denis, my job interview went pretty smoothly in my opinion. Probably took 2-3 minutes in total.
When I entered his office, he was signing reimbursement slips that his assistant had left on his desk. He kept going through the pile while I sat waiting to be interviewed. He didn't say much. Just kept examining each reimbursement slip, shaking his head, and grudgingly signing it.
All this while, I was trying to get his attention with a portfolio of mock ads I had made.
Suddenly, without looking up from what he was doing, Denis finally spoke:
"And what if I don't hire you?"
By now, I had my mind made up that I was going to be a copywriter and not a journalist. I replied that if I didn't get hired, I would come in anyway, find an empty desk, and start writing ads.
Without taking his eyes off the reimbursement slips, Denis said, "I'll pay you ten bucks."
I said, "I'll take it."
He said, "Come back in the afternoon and get your contract."
When I got back that afternoon, Denis stepped out of his office holding a sealed envelope.
He looked at me for the first time, handed me the envelope, and said: "Don't open this until you get home." Then he turned around and stepped back into his office.
I got on my motorcycle, rode home, and opened the envelope. Instead of ten bucks, Denis was paying me three times more than I could have ever imagined in my wildest dreams.
Thus began a life-long love of advertising.
I don't know if you've ever noticed this, but sometimes there are decades where nothing happens.
And then, there are weeks where decades happen.
At JWT, those weeks that are as long as decades came often. Sometimes, twice a month.
In this business, things are so intense some days that you can gain ten years worth of experience in just a week.
For a 22-year old straight out of college, it is incredibly good fortune to get a bird's-eye view of the world of corporate business and work on so many global brands, alongside so many smart professionals.
No wonder they call J. Walter Thompson the University of Advertising.
We had the best brands. Pepsi. Motorola. Ruffles, Nestlé, NBC, MSNBC, Citibank, 7-UP, SmithKline Beecham, Ray-Ban, Reebok, and on and on and on... I think I remember the count was 87 brands from 29 clients. It was by far and away the Greatest Show on Earth. Each day at the office was like watching a parade of the world's greatest brands.
And working on those brands brought me a parade of awards. In fact, everything was a parade. Life was a parade of fancy lunches. A parade of workshops. Photo-shoots with expensive photographers. A parade of zeros on my paycheck. And on my annual bonus check. And on the dividend from owning company stock. What a time. Eight years spent at the University of Advertising, becoming a true adman.
I got strong on strategy. Was frequently chosen to work on the agency’s largest accounts. Led a tax compliance campaign that brought US$7.3 billion of voluntary disclosures on a media spend of US$6.5 million -- in 7 months. Won worldwide awards. Learned to address 1200 colleagues by name. And always wore whatever the boss wore the day before. That is the Thompson Way.
But then, something life changing happened.
The phone rang.
It was a landline in those days (a type of phone that has to be plugged into the wall at all times). Every time it rang, I had to get up from my seat and walk over to where the phone was. "Unbelievable," you're thinking to yourself, as you shake your head left to right.
(If you find landlines hard to believe, listen to this one: whenever I needed a taxi, I would walk to the curb and raise my arm in the air until a car with a yellow paint job pulled over and stopped. Unbelievable. But true.)
I went to the phone. It was the headhunter again. I told her the same thing I told her every year when she'd call during hiring season: that I enjoyed my work at Thompson's.
This time, I asked her why she kept calling when she knew I wasn't going to leave.
She told me that it was her belief that candidates that won't easily leave their current positions make the best new hires in their new positions. Once she can get them to move, they will stay in their new jobs longer, and as a result, her clients will ask her to find more quality hires.
Now, as a copywriter, I have spent my entire life fascinated by insights into consumer behavior.This insight struck me as particularly deep.
It left me disarmed.
I listened as the headhunter continued, "Just this once, come see someone I want you to meet for just one hour. And that will be it."
The meeting would be at 12 noon, on a Sunday, at the headhunter's home, so that no one would know. (Everybody gossips in this industry, you know. I mean, everybody except me).
I agreed to be there. After ending the conversation and hanging up the landline that was appended to the wall, I walked back to my desk.
That's when I realized there was just one problem with this whole thing: the day of the meeting would be my birthday. I wasn't going to squander my birthday.
But by then, it was too late. I had already committed.
Looking back now, that meeting was the best birthday present I ever got. Even better than the toy train set I got the day I turned six. Better than the Yamaha motorcycle I got when I turned 18, and on which I rode home after being handed my contract by Denis. I've enjoyed a few good birthdays, but this one was pretty life-changing.
I turned up at the appointed time and place, proudly holding my portfolio, as any excellent creative person would.
I rang the doorbell, and walked up the steps. The headhunter showed me into her living room, and there was the creative director. He went simply by the name: Gyatso.
Gyatso had spent most of his career in New York City, and was hiring for Lintas (now Interpublic's MullenLowe, but originally the internal advertising department of Unilever, and an acronym for Lever International Advertising Services).
Gyatso asked me to sit. Saw my ads. Heard my story. All in the space of an hour. (Stickler for deadlines).
But after I went home from that interview, I heard nothing. Nothing at all.
I went back to work at JWT, looking after my accounts and clients. Two weeks passed. And then, another one. And then, one more.
I had found our meeting to be so stimulating, that by now, I wanted to join the creative director and learn the skills he brought.
They say you join a company, but leave a manager. I seem to have always done the opposite.
Just when I couldn't bear the suspense any longer, the headhunter called and said Lintas had offered me the job.
Years earlier, when I'd joined J. Walter Thompson, I'd read these wise words somewhere: "Think a hundred times before you join Thompson's, because you'll think a thousand times before leaving."
If you remember, it had taken me 3.5 nanoseconds of deep thought before deciding to join JWT. But leaving the world's most storied advertising agency isn't as easy.
Finally, after much introspection, I gave Thompson's my three-month notice, wrapped up work on my campaigns, said goodbye to all those amazing colleagues with whom I was to remain in touch for the rest of my life, partied at the week-long farewell they organized for me, and headed over to Lintas. (Later named Ammirati Puris Lintas, and then Lowe Lintas & Partners, and then Lowe & Partners, and at the time of publishing this page, it was called MullenLowe. But you already knew that holding companies can change agency names faster than the time it takes for the average consumer to zap a 30-second commercial on TV. Another quick note: MullenLowe is not to be confused with the Mullen Company, which is a PR agency once involved in Watergate, and a front company for the CIA in the 1970s, but I'll tell you more about that in the true-life spy thriller I'm writing.)
When I started working with Gyatso, I noticed that when his mobile phone vibrated in a meeting, he would take the call with a gentle whisper, "Hello Martin," and discretely step out of the room.
I remember a Thursday afternoon when I'd returned from a client meeting with MasterCard, and told Gyatso about the changes to the script the client had asked for. I asked him if we could meet the following morning to get his input on the revisions.
Gyatso said we should go over the script right that moment, because he wasn't going to be in the office the next day.
I asked if he was going to the big photo-shoot in the morning. He said, "No, I am working with Martin over the weekend."
Not knowing who Martin was, I must have looked puzzled. Gyatso said, "Martin. Martin Scorsese. I have a dubbing in LA every weekend of this month.”
That's when it struck me -- all the while Gyatso was running the creative department, he had a side-gig. He was co-starring in "Kundun," Scorsese's movie about the Dalai Lama. The shoot in Mongolia was over. And now, every weekend, Gyatso would fly to Hollywood and do the audio takes. That takes a pretty astounding amount of stamina. More energy than you can get from drinking a big-rig full of Red Bull. (You'll have to excuse me for smattering this page with brand names all over the place. I've been told it's good for SEO, though I doubt that it really works that way).
As Associate Creative Director, my team and I looked after big brands that included MasterCard, Bank of America, and white goods from LG. But a couple years later, when Gyatso was to return to New York, I found myself at a loose end.
I'd heard there was this thing called a "Dot-com Boom" going on in San Francisco. I flew out here, fell in love with this city, and nailed my feet to the floor. Seriously, there's no better town.
When people ask what brought me to San Francisco, there's nothing unusual about my story.
It's a common story, and you've heard it before. It happens all the time. You visit here, you like it, you stay. It's what happened to another advertising copywriter, called Mary Ann Singleton in Armistead Maupin's famous Tales of the City.
I loved The City, I read Maupin's book, saw the mini-series, and then, got myself an apartment overlooking the famous wooden steps of Barbary Lane where the story is set, and from where I could sit at the window taking tea and reading the book.
This was the time of the Dot-com boom, and I got a job at a tech company just a few doors down from the San Francisco Chronicle on Fifth and Mission Streets.
The only way to commute from my apartment to the office was by waiting five minutes for the famous San Francisco cable car to charge up the hill clanging its bell in its trademark B-minor. It would slow down and stop long enough to let me grab a pole and hang on until the end of the line. Then, I'd walk a block to the office. Who doesn't want a daily commute like that?
The tech company was called USAGreetings. This was a new and valuable experience for me. I used my advertising experience to figure out how to use a Persistent Client State Object (cookie) to improve brand building on the Internet. My overall role was to gain strategic insight into each client’s business and help clients achieve campaign objectives. Clients included TerraLycos, Comverse Technology, Inc. and Capital One’s PeopleFirst Finance, LLC.
Yet, I missed working at an advertising agency. All that adrenalin, all that creativity, the intelligent people, the weeks that are as long as decades.
Remember what the voice had said when it broke through the clouds and spoke to me when I was 22? The voice had told me back then that advertising was my calling. I will always abide by that advice.
So I went back to advertising.
Gyatso thought of a great name for an ad agency: Tungsten. And on a whisper, a prayer, and a lark, I dove right in.
Ask our clients, and they'll tell you we do good work. Or take a look at it for yourself, here.
Apart from the work we do, the best thing I like about this company is the corporate culture. Everybody's the boss, and no one listens to me. Maybe that's how the good work gets done. And only the best work goes out the door.
I'll write more about that another time, and I'll add it to this page. But for now, I have to stop this brazen display of endless wit and publish this, or it'll never get done.
Meanwhile, I'd love for you to send me a message. Write me anything. Or send me memes, chocolate, money, anything at all. It might be the beginning of something big. Who knows, maybe we'll become friends. Maybe we'll become your agency. Maybe we'll do big things together. Let's find out what our future holds.
Message me here: fb.com/mukul
(That really is my Facebook handle. I was there first.)
Q: Yzzzschikkk! Where do you get your sound effects?
A: Any adman knows every issue of Mad Magazine by heart. Don Martin was genius. Try this page when you're looking for sound effects: https://www.madmagazine.com/blog/2014/07/15/whats-your-don-martin-sound-effect-name
Q: Which five words of French do you know?
A: Hmmm, let's see now... Oui, Mercy, Ouzle, Publicité... and I'll tell you the fifth as soon as I can recall it.
Q: Why are you weird? What makes you weird?
A: If you'd grown up in 4 countries like I have, you'd be pretty crazy too.
Q: That's not possible. That's too many countries for one lifetime.
A: I said it right. Four countries. When I say lived, I don’t mean I was there for six months on an extended tourist visa. I really mean lived. Went to school there. Or worked there. Experienced the country like everyone else living in that country. Like 5-years in London. Six in Tehran. India. America.
Q: Is it important to be eccentric if you're going to succeed in advertising?
A: If you're asking that question, you obviously have difficulty telling the difference between cause and causation.
Q: I can’t read a book unless it's a signed, first edition. Can I get a signed, first edition of Denis' book?
A: You'd have to make arrangements with him. Send him a message, and tell him you know me: here
Q: So I ordered Denis' book. Are there any modern-day advertising books you recommend reading?
A: Well firstly, you should definitely read some of the ones I've mentioned above. And I've listed some below It doesn't matter that they were written before there was an internet. They're really important. Even today. But sure, I can suggest a few good ones from recent years: “Blockchain,” by Don & Alex Tapscott; “How Google Works,” by Eric Schmidt; “Up The Agency,” by Peter Mayle who escaped JWT for Southern France; any fiction by Martin Amis, who once told me he had been a copywriter at JWT in 1971; “The Eternal Pursuit of Unhappiness,” by Ogilvy; Maurice Saatchi’s “Brutal Simplicity of Thought”; “Advertising and Anthropology,” by two exceptionally insightful and wicked professionals who observed ad people in their environment and (unlike Peter Mayle who wrote a comedy) these guys wrote a text book.
Q: Why do you put your full-stops, commas and question marks inside the quotation marks, "like this???"
A: That's how we do it in America. And besides, it's not a full-stop. It's called a period. Look up the Chicago Manual of Style. But if you are a prospective client in a country where they put the comma outside the quotation marks (e.g. UK), and hire our agency to do your advertising, our proofreaders will make sure to put your commas exactly where you like them.
Q: When you're talking about San Francisco, why do you write "The City" with initial caps?
A: That's out of homage to the author, Herb Caen. He said that's how you do it when you're talking about San Francisco. (Also, don't ever call it 'Frisco.)
Q: Is there any other person that has had an important influence on the way you turned out as an adman?
A: Yes, my shrink. But I can't talk about that here. All I can say is that he taught me the principles of an Agile Scrum Master long before it became a formal disciple.
Q: Are you really going to be updating this page later?
A: Yes. That's another search engine optimization trick. Google ranks a page higher if it is frequently updated.