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So What Do You Do, James Othmer, Ad Creative Turned Author?

Truth in advertising comes through in this former creative director's revealing tome

By Mathew Van Hoven - November 18, 2009
James Othmer grew up thinking he'd go nowhere. A kid with zero direction, his only career advice came early on from his older sister, who suggested that his wise-cracking personality might be suited for a copywriting job in the advertising industry. To her credit, Othmer says, "She spent five minutes more than anyone else spent in my life at that time thinking about what Jim can do with his future." But it was the writing he later honed as a reporter for The Boston Globe and New Haven Register that truly propelled him into the field as a copywriter, and later creative director, leading campaigns for clients like KFC and AT&T.

Fast forward to today and Othmer has become an in-demand author. As his debut The Futurist is being prepped for the big screen, his recently released Adland is a tell-all of his days in the advertising world. Drawing on his experiences watching Young & Rubicam miss the 'Internet' boat along with almost everyone else, Othmer takes us through what it was like knowing his once-Herculean shop couldn't compete with smaller, nimbler agencies. And he was partially to blame. Those stories and others were the basis for Adland -- in which he describes himself as an average copywriter. Things haven't been any easier for him as an author. From one agent that quit representing him to go to clown school to another that passed away, Othmer's been to the bottom more than once. We sat down to discuss how he got back up and where he's going next.

Name: James P. Othmer
Position: Writer/creative consultant
Resume: Started out as a reporter for The Boston Globe and New Haven Register. Later did stints as a copywriter and creative director for several companies, including Dell Publishing, Franklin Spier, Grey Entertainment & Media, and Young & Rubicam. Author of The Futurist, Adland, and Holy Water. Also a freelance contributor for Esquire, Condé Nast Portfolio, New York Times, Forbes, and more.
Birthdate: October 17, 1960
Hometown: Mahopac, NY
Education: B.S. in Journalism from Northeastern University; MFA in Creative Writing from NYU.
Marital status: Married 26 years.
First section of the Sunday New York Times: "Week in Review."
Favorite TV show: CBS Sunday Morning
Last book read: Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann
Guilty pleasure: "Going out and pretending I still have an expense account."
Twitter handle: @jamespothmer

Tell us a little about your background in advertising and your transition to published author.
I got into advertising in a roundabout way -- unlike people, say at Creative Circus or VCU Brand center, who are fixed on it and know what they want to do and are locked in on advertising as a career. I started as a journalist. I left The Boston Globe and the New Haven Register and gave up on some sports writing because I didn't want to work nights and weekends, and the money wasn't so wonderful. So I went into publishing and then eventually writing ads about books. And then I went to a mainstream agency; my first big mainstream agency was N.W. Ayer. I left newspapers so I didn't have to work nights and weekends, but I immediately realized that advertising was all about working nights and weekends.

I never looked at [becoming an author] as a change; I looked at it as a goal. I realized that if I wrote a nice little jewel of a novel that would have a small readership and was well-reviewed, I would never come close to making the money I was making, even as a copywriter. I realized it was an unrealistic goal to say I'll be a self-sustaining writer of fiction. So I kept at it, and I wrote three novels. I had several agents. One agent died, one agent quit to go to clown school.

Clown school, seriously?
Yeah. She quit to go to clown school. We were going to talk about auction strategy [for my first book], and soon after, she informed me that she would be going to clown school. So I went home to my wife and I said, "My agent is going to clown school. If I really want to write at this point, when your agent goes to clown school, you must really want it bad." Because if there was ever a time to completely be psychologically crushed, this would be the time. I even thought, you know, "Can you do both?" I wanted to, like, beg [my agent] to stay and, "Just make sure to take the little red nose off and the big shoes before you go into pitches," but I realized that even if I wasn't guaranteed success or publishing, being published, I was going to stick to it. And ironically that's when I wrote the first chapter of The Futurist, and that set things in motion.

"Writing radio copy [for] the ear while there's a clock ticking and a pissed off client and a celebrity talent in the next booth... is a really interesting exercise that has to make you a better writer."

Could you ever go back to advertising?
I have gone back. It's funny -- I Tweeted the other day, "What's the difference between freelancing and consulting?" I guess pay, a little bit. And you feel a little bit better about yourself consulting. But I've been asked to come in and not knock out ads, but take a look at a brand, and lift the hood up and see if there was something I could bring to it.

What motivated you to write Adland?
I did not write Adland as a love letter to advertising, nor did I write it as a condemnation to advertising. I just thought that as a novelist, as a journalist, and as a writer who happened to spend 20 years in advertising during this really amazing transitional time, it would be great for someone to get it down who was on the inside, wasn't a CEO, wasn't a legendary ad person, and wasn't an embedded journalist. It's kind of a middle manager's story of what it's like, and that's the part where I realize the timelessness, timeliness of it wasn't important, because if you can do that and say, "This is what it's like."... When you get a job, think about what it entails, what the implications are, what the consequences are, what the choices are. If there's a good thing that I've noticed, [it's that] younger people are asking those questions before they start, unlike sad people like me who ask these questions 20 years later having a 48-year-old midlife crisis. I think that the fact that it's written by a relative nobody, truthfully without an agenda to say, "This is how I did this, and how I translated this industry, company," is kind of good.

You explain in Adland that you were nudged into advertising by your sister. Is there anything about your youth that stands out and shouts that you were meant for advertising, or writing?
A friend who followed me a long time in my advertising read [Adland], and he had read a couple of pieces of the fiction and some of my earlier ads. He said, "You tapped into your inner wise-ass." It's not this great story about how I found my voice, but I think he's right, and I think my sister saw that I had a gift with language, I had a vivid imagination, I had a smart mouth and I was curiousTo her credit, she spent five minutes more than anyone else spent in my life at that time thinking about what Jim can do with his future, and she said advertising would be good.

What was the worst experience you had in the advertising business, and what effect did that have on your career as an author?
I think my worst experience was the KFC experience. I was asked to help out on a pitch, [and] I enlisted my nephew to help. He was going to school in Florida State at the time, and he did the demos for me in his garage. The next thing I know, my nephew was driving from the suburbs, 50 miles, to work with me every day and watching me get yelled at by clients. I think we had just lost Citibank and I had to build something that was ours again, so I said, "Okay, I'll do KFC." And it was not the most rewarding creative experience. It was lots of travel, lots of tension, and lots of stress because the account was about to walk. We saved it, but they ultimately walked while I had it.

"[While] researching Adland, I found shops still saying, 'This is our digital side, and this is our other side.' It's really surprised me that it wasn't incumbent upon everyone to be versed in all of it."

You are a copywriter-turned-author. Talk about the transition from short-ish form to long form.
I think advertising was great training for fiction, and fiction was great training for advertising. I would pilfer freely from both sides. Writing radio copy [for] the ear while there's a clock ticking and a pissed off client and a celebrity talent in the next booth -- and you had to cut 20 seconds out and still maintain the concept -- is a really interesting exercise that has to make you a better writer. I was great at writing the vision statements, the strategic pitch thing, but I did not have some wonderful ad career or killer reel or anything. People who knew me in advertising knew I delivered good work, smart strategic work, creative work -- stuff that usually came in second place.

In Adland you reiterate that in the mid-late '90s, Young & Rubicam wasn't ready for the digital advertising changeover. What did it feel like to know that the techniques you'd used for years would need a complete overhaul?
Part of the problem with Y&R at the time was they were encumbered by legacy people, and teams, and systems, and satellite offices, and they would buy an Internet play rather than seamlessly integrate it into the program. And then I went walking around the country in 2007-2008 researching Adland, I found shops still saying, "This is our digital side, and this is our other side." It's really surprised me that it wasn't incumbent upon everyone to be versed in all of it.

How did you get permission to tell Y&R's stories in Adland?
I did not. It's funny 'cause most of the people are gone who are in the book. Most of the people, I think, I reflected upon them pretty well. If I complain about something, I'll usually give context and say, what I realize now is what strain they were under, or what they were hearing from their boss. I wasn't out to hammer the industry, or [to] hammer any individuals. But nah, I didn't ask permission.

It was already written?
It was already written. Yeah. So it was about a 16-month turn around just from a written book. Adland was very frustrating in that I really felt that there was a born-on date, or a shelf life for a book like this, and I urged my publisher to try to get it into print as quickly as possible. I put pencils down when I got back from Cannes in 2008, and [the book] didn't come out until mid-September of 2009.

How did you get your first book published as a relative unknown?
I published the first chapter of The Futurist in the Virginia Quarterly review. It came out in November of 2004, I believe, and it was then picked with Salman Rushdie and a couple of other writers as a finalist for the National Magazine Award for fiction. So after clown school agents and agents who died and all that stuff, I had agents calling me for the first time. The guy I ended up with is John Grisham's agent.

What's next for you?
My next novel will be called Holy Water; it's coming out in June. That's about a water-filtration salesman who gets transferred to a third-world nation to open up a back office in a drought-plagued nation. His wife has thrown him out of the house because he lied about his vasectomy. It's one of those books. But he's vice president of Underarms and Sweat at a P&G Colgate-like multinational. It's this kind of droning job. It touches upon globalization, consumerism, 'What are we doing with our lives?'

I have TV projects in the works. The Futurist is being produced as a feature film by Reason Pictures. It's not on any schedule yet, but it's been optioned, there's a film option for that. There's a good director attached to it, there's a really good actor that I can tell you off the record, attached to it.

Mathew van Hoven is editor of AgencySpy.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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