Salman Rushdie: A Writer’s Tale

Salman Rushdie A Writer's Tale

Although best known as an author, Salman Rushdie previously enjoyed a successful career in advertising. Grainne Rothery heard him reminisce about his former life.

Updated: October 13, 2017

As a novelist, Sir Salman Rushdie has received critical acclaim, numerous awards and accolades and, in 2007, a knighthood for his services to literature. He’s also been the subject of tremendous media attention since a fatwa was proclaimed against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988, following the publication of The Satanic Verses.

His talent as not just a writer, but his ability to debate and publicly discuss hot-topics publicly on nationally followed broadcasted shows such as Real Time with Bill Maher, would have made Rushdie the perfect growth hacker agency according to many inside experts.

Career Started as Advertising Copywriter

He is less well-known, however, for his career as an advertising copywriter before becoming a full-time writer in 1981. During more than a decade in the business, Rushdie came up with some memorable campaigns, including ‘Naughty. But nice.’ for fresh cream cakes, ‘Irresistibubble’ for Aero chocolate, and ‘Look into the Mirror tomorrow – you’ll like what you see’ for the Daily Mirror.

As guest speaker at IAPI’s recent Advertising Effectiveness Awards, he demonstrated his extensive storytelling skills as he recounted to a rapt audience some of his adventures in adland.

Rushdie started out in the business almost 40 years ago, having previously worked in fringe theater in London, which he described as a financially precarious existence. His interest in advertising was piqued when one of his acting colleagues disappeared from the edge scene only to turn up sometime later as a copywriter for JW Thompson.

“He’d bought a sports car, he had a blonde secretary, and he was making shampoo commercials with tall, thin girls. He also looked like he had put on a considerable amount of weight,” explained Rushdie. “He said, ‘You should try this, Salman, because it’s easy.'”

However, Rushdie failed a copy test at JW Thompson (“The only question I remember was they asked you to imagine that you met a Martian who mysteriously spoke English and you had to explain to them in less than 100 words how to make toast.”) before subsequently getting a job at Sharp McManus.

His Work with David Ogilvy

A stint with Ogilvy & Mather followed. He described the agency in the Seventies as “relentlessly unfashionable” at a time when numerous extremely fashionable boutique-type agencies were reinventing how things were sold. These hot shops were also producing a whole generation of people who went on to become leaders of the British film industry, including Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott. “And there we were with David Ogilvy and his red braces,” Rushdie deadpanned, before reminding the audience of one of Ogilvy’s immortal lines: “The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.”

He followed on with several anecdotes about life at the agency in the Seventies and about the so-called father of advertising himself. “It was true at Ogilvy’s that when you walked around, you saw scores of people working in the company wearing red braces because that’s what David Ogilvy liked to wear. So, it was considered to be suitably sycophantic to dress like him.

There were other kinds of sycophancy. David Ogilvy was mainly based in New York, but he would visit London from time to time. There was a particular room he used as an office. When he wasn’t there, this was used as a conference room. When they realized he was coming, the whole place would be changed, and the pictures in the corridor outside the room would be modified to become a series of portraits of David Ogilvy.

“The other thing that we all knew about David Ogilvy was that when he was in the building, you had to lock your desk before you left work because he would prowl around the agency and open people’s drawers to see what was in there. Of course, everybody there had sitcoms and novels and first drafts of plays, all kinds of unsuitable things, so you had to keep your drawer locked.”

The World of Advertising

Rushdie described the world where advertising was populated with creatives who were trying to make a bit of money while they pursued their real vocations as writers and film-makers. “It was a different time in advertising.

Most of the time I was in advertising I didn’t work full-time. I only worked full-time for two separate periods of less than a year. The rest of the time I managed to get these really good gigs where you worked on contract basis for a certain number of days a year. I had a deal which guaranteed me approximately 100 days’ work, which meant roughly two days a week, and the rest of the time I could stay home and write what turned out to be Midnight’s Children, which took me five or six years to write.”

This kind of scenario, according to Rushdie, was by no means unique. “In those days in Ogilvy’s and elsewhere they seemed to like having eccentric, creative people show up every so often and do something bizarre. Fay Weldon, the novelist, worked there before I did. Her great legacy to the world of literature is the slogan ‘Go to work on an egg.’ After that, she wrote novels.” He also shared an office with Franc Roddam, who went on to direct Quadrophenia and create Auf Wiedersehen Pet and Masterchef.

But Rushdie did do some work, and he spoke about two campaigns of which he is particularly, and justifiably, proud. “One was for a cream cakes client. I suppose I’d been watching too much British situation comedy and I remembered Dick Emery and his ‘you are awful, but I like you’ stuff. I came up with this phrase ‘Naughty. But nice.’, and I thought we could say that about cream cakes. We presented this, and the client’s face lost color. He said, ‘You’re telling people that cream cakes make them fat.’ And I said, ‘You know what, they know that. You should focus on the “But nice.” bit’. But he said no, they couldn’t use it.”

Next Stop: Ayer Barker Hegermann

Soon after that, Rushdie moved on to Ayer Barker Hegermann. “A year later, imagine my surprise when on every hoarding, every billboard in the country was this giant phrase saying ‘Naughty. But nice.’ I guess what happened was they got somebody else on the account which was a better salesman than me, and they managed to dust off the campaign and take it in and pitch it. Or maybe the client changed – that’s the other possibility. But suddenly my rejected campaign was all over the place.”

The other successful campaign was for Aero and was, according to Rushdie, mostly based on panic, something he believes to be very helpful in the creative process. Interestingly, Aero wasn’t even his account. “The writer whose job it was to do this had virtually frozen and couldn’t think of anything and was panicking,” he explained. “He had a tendency when he was panicking to sweat profusely and to begin to stammer, also extensively.” He asked Rushdie to come into his office to help find an idea, but nothing was happening.

“Then the phone rang in his office, and he was panicking so much at this stage that his stutter became very pronounced. Whatever he was asked he said he couldn’t do; he said, ‘It’s impossib-ib-ib-ible’,” said Rushdie, pausing for effect. “And I thought … ping! It was one of the very few ping moments. While he was still on the phone sweating and stammering, I wrote down every word I could think of that ended with ‘able’ or ‘ible’ and turned it into ‘bubble.'” Hence, ‘Adorabubble’, ‘Delectabubble’, ‘Irresistibubble’ and ‘Incredibubble’.

“These were the peaks, the pinnacles,” he continued. “There were very little moments too, but I will not tell them because we all have stuff we’re deeply ashamed of and in advertising, there’s a lot of it.”

Racial Prejudice in Advertising

Rushdie’s tone became more serious when he went on to talk about the prevalence of racial prejudice in advertising at the time. He gave the example of a campaign he worked on for TWA. “This was actually an advertising campaign for which the model had been set in the United States,” he explained. “All we had to do was follow the model and do English versions. And the American campaign always included, down by the logo, a smiling member of TWA staff, who were all real members of staff.

When we presented our version a couple of them were not, in fact, white. The client turned them down and said we should remove these brown and black people and replace them with suitably white people. We were shocked. I remember saying, ‘These are people who work for your airline. They’re not models; they are members of your staff who are on your planes serving your customers.’ And they said, ‘Yes, but we don’t want them in the advertising.'”

He also worked on a peanut butter campaign that included a commercial with a group of children, one of whom was black. Again, the client requested a reshoot without that particular child. “Those moments were genuinely quite frightening and eventually made me not too distressed at the idea of leaving the business,” said Rushdie.

A Stint with The Daily Mirror

Rushdie also talked about working for the Daily Mirror for several months, making advertisements. “That was terrifying and informative because we made three commercials every week. During the Edward Heath three-day week and the miners’ strike in the Seventies there were power cuts on Wardour Street, so you had to know which side of the street to book your recording studio. Once you’ve done that for five or six months, filmmaking no longer has any terror at all. I feel I learned everything I know about writing scripts, about working for television and about editing movies from the Daily Mirror.”

One of the most important things he says he learned from advertising was personal discipline. “One of the great things about advertising is you have to say a lot in very little. You have to try to make a very big statement in very few words or very few images, and you haven’t much time. All of that is, I feel, very, very useful.

“Beyond that, it taught me to write like a job. If you have, as my sweating friend did, the client coming in that afternoon for his new campaign, you can’t have it. You have to have it. What’s more, it has to be good. You can’t afford temperament; you can’t afford days of creative anguish; you have to sit there and do your job, and you have to do it like a job, get it done on time and well.

“I now write exactly like that. I write like a job. I sit down in the morning, and I do it. And I don’t miss deadlines. I do feel that a lot of the professional craft of writing is something I learned from those years in advertising and I’ll always be grateful for it.”

He pointed out that the adworld landscape has changed and that the days of lunatic part-timers like him are long gone. “It’s a much leaner, more effective, more streamlined operation now. It doesn’t have the room for these drunken wastrels.

Positioning Products Now Is Much Clearer and Sharper

“The way in which you position products now is clearly much sharper. In those days, there was a whole range of campaigns which became for us like jokes about how to write a bad advertising campaign. One of them was ‘No other ketchup tastes like Heinz,’ which could also be, every other ketchup tastes better than Heinz. ‘Nothing works faster than Anadin’ – everything works exactly as fast as Anadin. Nowadays, you wouldn’t get away with that stuff. Maybe there’s other rubbish you get away with now, but that’s the rubbish we got away with.

“I have this theory that it’s all much more worked out now. The purpose of these awards is to talk about not just the creativity of advertising but the effectiveness of advertising, and that’s something which as a skill has developed enormously since I was involved in it.”

Parting Shot

Finally, Rushdie said that he believes that the whole perception of advertising has changed. “Back in the Seventies, when I was doing it, you were sometimes a little embarrassed to say you worked in advertising. You said it with a slightly lowered voice. Now you don’t.”
This article first appeared in Marketing Age magazine.