“It’s good…keep going.”

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A few years ago I went to an event where the great writer Don DeLillo talked about creativity and politics. DeLillo, who describes his writing as being about “living in dangerous times”, is a subversive thinker and a serious intellectual, but the key to his talent is that his books are very readable. I’ve often wondered if that’s partly due to the five years he spent as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather New York at the start of his career. That night, I also wondered if his advertising experience partly shaped his view on the role of a writer in society – which is the polar opposite to that of a copywriter: “A writer must oppose systems. It’s important to write against power, corporations, the state and the whole system of consumption and debilitating entertainments. I think a writer, by nature, must oppose whatever power tries to impose on us.” Is it possible to agree wholeheartedly with this definition and yet to love working in advertising? I’m still working on the answer to that question.

I asked DeLillo a question about his novel Underworld, about how he’d planned out such a vast and complex creative undertaking. His reply was eye-opening. He told me that the prologue, Pafko at the Wall, had been conceived as a self-contained novella. The piece describes the young Cotter Martin sneaking into the Polo Grounds to see the National League-deciding 1951 baseball game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The game’s seen from the stands by a typically omniscient DeLillo narrator, with figures including Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and J Edgar Hoover in attendance. When Bobby Thomson hits a homer into the stands to take victory for the Giants (the infamous ‘shot heard around the world’) Cotter manages to get the ball and runs home with this precious souvenir – which his dad later steals and sells for $32.

Pafko at the Wall is a brilliant set-piece and would have made a great novella. But DeLillo told me that once he’d finished it, his mind kept going back to it. To where the story could go from there. “A whole world seemed to open up to me.” It was the writing of the baseball story that sparked the idea for broader novel. Without one he’d never have got to the other. This got me thinking about advertising, the ays that ideas beget each other and the difficulty in pushing a good idea to the limits of its potential.

When you’re starting out as an advertising creative you get used to hearing from unimpressed CDs that your favourite idea is merely a “first thought”. Then, long after you’ve learned to keep going and push harder comes a related but trickier challenge. Once you’ve got to the point where you can actually have a good idea and identify it as one, the natural human inclination is to stop there. But what if that idea, like DeLillo’s novella, is merely the building blocks for something even bigger and more ambitious? Which is why, at the very moment that every fibre of my being is telling me to stop and bask in the glory of a brief cracked and a job well done, I like to mentally run the work though the DeLillo filter and ask myself if I’m missing a bigger opportunity. As the legendary ECD John Pallant used to say when I’d show him an idea I really liked, somehow managing to simultaneously commend and challenge in just four carefully chosen words, “It’s good…keep going.”

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About antmelder
Creative Partner at DDB Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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