Have you ever been inside an ad agency? If you haven’t, you should, if only to realize you are not as cool as you think. My turn came a few years ago, on a series of weekday evenings in October. Interviews, two of them, for a boy who thought he wanted to spend the rest of his life writing ads for Johnnie Walker.
I remember visiting Droga5’s website when I was 23. Their offices were on Lafayette, in New York, and the homepage was a photo of seven creatives crossing the street. Impossibly delicate sans serifs hung above their heads. The sky was periwinkle-white, and they were pausing mid-cross to look into a wide-angle lens. Two were smiling. Four were in pea coats. Their eyes said Hey we stop traffic with our incandescent ideas but it’s no big deal, we’re just over here doing pirouettes on the tippy tippy top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs so, you know, hi.
There was a Puma ad. A chorus of 40 straight white men sang “Truly Madly Deeply” by Savage Garden. They were drunk. They were singing to their wives—or girlfriends, or any shapeless mass of women who would listen. They were football fans in a sports bar in England. It was match day, and it was also Valentine’s Day. This was them telling their wives they wouldn’t be home to fuck because they were watching football while prostituting themselves to Puma.
I want to stand with you on a mountain. I want to bathe with you in the sea.
Two years later, I was interviewing with a brand strategist in Chelsea. A friend of a friend worked there—it was not Droga5, but it was similar. All wood and glass and parallel lines. Cappuccino floors, and windows framing the Hudson’s wine-blue water. There were no chairs. There were leather cylinders, and suede rectangles, and balls covered in buffalo hide. You could work for a month and sit on a new shape each day, dreaming of ways to sell tubs of Vaseline to chapped men between the ages of 35 and 44.
Can we call him Brad? His name was not Brad. His aura was Brad. Actually, it was Bradley. He wore a moonstone-colored v-neck and jeans that were darker than the river.
So, what’s your favorite ad?
Brad was my second interviewer at this agency. My first, a woman named Naomi, took me to the agency’s roof at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday. She was juicing. She was doing the BluePrint cleanse, the one where you drink five colors and sit on the roof of a global ad agency as the sun sets. She was wearing clothes from Calypso St. Barth, I think—a cashmere cocoon cardigan and sea green jeans—and she was in charge of the agency’s Oscar Mayer account.
Brad and I were in a room that looked like a cross between Restoration Hardware and Myst, and I was sweating.
Brad had mastered the art of looking men in the pupils. His eyes were paisley coils of insight into why I never eat breakfast, why I only watch TV on Hulu, why I talk to myself in the shower and buy Dove liquid soap. He led the Verizon account. He did the Droid ads, he said. He also did branding for the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. And Johnnie Walker.
Another, more desperate beat.
“I like drugstore ads.”
I hate drugstore ads.
I just didn’t know what else to say. I felt like the guys from the Puma spot—drunk, dumb, desperate. I was in a tailspin, shards of self-esteem falling onto the parquet floor. Maybe it was the view—the river, the hills of Montclair, and the calm employed people who lived there. Maybe it was the knit throw to my left. But probably, likely, it was the way—even without saying it—this man was telling me he was paid to be creative. People valued his stories. Literally. It didn’t matter who he was doing it for—Verizon, DiCaprio, Johnnie, Mephistopheles. What mattered was he could turn his ideas into Merino wool and I couldn’t.
I used to dream about moving to Nebraska, or Kansas or someplace. I’d get a studio and just type all day for no money. Maybe I’d work at a diner or something. I’d flip burgers and write stories about it, like a story about someone finding a diamond ring in an undercooked burger. Maybe I would slowly self-actualize on the Plains like a ripening squash. That was before Brad, before I felt how incredibly fulfilled he was. I could smell it. His dead-deep love for telling stories that made whole continents of people open their lips for Scotch whiskey.
Advertisers convince us to love things we never thought we could. It’s an important job. An expansion of the world’s desire. We all know what it’s like to want something. To want something so bad you’re willing to give up a part of yourself, or a few silky bills from your back pocket. It hurts, and we live for it. We want to want. We were born to suck. To rejoice at the feeling of figuring out, all of a sudden, that the universe contains something that perfectly fills a hole in your self you didn’t even know was there.
There would be no whiskey writing in my future. Brad led me out through the kitchen, and let me go with a half-smile and a smooth shake.
I walked home past the river and a little white store that sold only black clothing.