The Writing Desk | Tom Albrighton
Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of this quirky and esoteric feature I’ve started here and welcome to The Writing Desk. We’ll be talking to writers, copywriters, poets, designers, marketers, photographers and all sorts of creative folk.
Now, imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say?
“Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce…
Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…
Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)
Can I have two? No? Well, sue me.
The first would be Does Your Marketing Sell? by Ian Moore. I’ve never seen anyone else cite it and I don’t think it’s even still in print, which is a real shame. When I first got into copywriting, from publishing, it really helped me understand the basics, and it still does today. It’s great for making you think about how your copy will work in the context where it’ll actually be read – in a mailing, in a press ad, on a supermarket shelf.
The second is the D&AD Copy Book. It’s basically like a colossal, high-octane swipe file covering the very best copy from the last few decades – plus details of how it all got written. Whenever I’m stuck for a creative idea, it always inspires me.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
I’m not really an ad man, so my choices are pretty mainstream. Conceptually, I really liked Guinness in the 90s – ‘Surfers’ and ‘All the time in the world’. And I love the famous Economist print ads for doing it all with words.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
Wide reading, which thanks to tinterweb is easier than ever. And deep reading, which thanks to tinterweb is harder than ever.
And listening – to clients, to people who buy products (if you can) and to people you meet or just overhear on the bus. Even on social media, if all else fails. As a marketer, and dare I say particularly a digital marketer, you can easily end up expecting people to act in ways you never would yourself. Listening is a very good antidote to that.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
Call yourself a copywriter from the outset, because everyone else will. Know where you add most value and go there. Act like someone who’s got too much work, even when you haven’t got enough.
First books to read: something by Ogilvy, Hey Whipple and The D&AD Copy Book.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
I wish I could have music, but I really need silence. Some of my most tooth-grinding working days have been spent in offices alongside idiot designers blithely singing along to Radio 1 while they choose a colour out of a book or something.
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for the concision of the language and the expert weaving of politics into the narrative.
Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (The War of Dreams in the US) for sheer poetic intensity.
Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman for its surreal plot and amusing mock-academic pedantry. Clive James does this too, jamming formal and colloquial words together for big laughs (check out his TV criticism).
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
I once wrote a frivolous blog post about my favourite winter products, one of which was (indeed, is) Heat Holders socks. Rhapsodising on their phenomenal thermal power, I observed that their slogan should be ‘Your feet won’t know it’s winter’. Later, having seen the post, the brand commissioned me to write for them, and I got to work it into the copy. It really was life imitating art – or work imitating dossing about anyway.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
A new dog toy comprising two orange rubber balls joined by a strap. This morning, I idiotically flung the previous one directly into a tree, where of course it lodged firmly in a forked branch. I refuse to out myself as the perpetrator by attempting to retrieve it, so someone else’s dog can have it.
Who was your teenage crush?
Probably Tanita Tikaram, who looked a bit like my girlfriend at the time. That’s quite a good arrangement, because after you get dumped in real life, you can still listen to the records.
Describe the best meal you have ever eaten.
Any of the Sunday lunches we had in the King’s Head in East Dereham when I was little. It really was a compendium of now-risible 70s dining clichés: Thelwell hunting mats, flickering orange candle bulbs, orange juice as a starter (in a wine glass, on a doily), Black Forest gateau off the trolley. But at the time it was magical.
What’s your favourite tipple?
One or two bottles of lager or bearded-hipster ale followed by whatever red wine we’ve got in. The combination is pretty much guaranteed to produce a headache, a lesson that I’ve now given up on ever learning.
If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?
Can’t I just spend the month in bed? OK then, maybe Japan to check out some Buddhist temples and monasteries. I’m fascinated by Zen, but not to the point of actually putting butt to zafu, so I’d welcome the chance to swoop in and soak up the ambience without the physical and spiritual toil. Dave’s knackered old joints probably aren’t up to the lotus position, but there might be some macaques he can tickle under the chin.
What’s in your pockets?
A £2 coin I’m looking after for my daughter, an iPhone and a bit of kitchen roll repurposed as a tissue. I rarely go anywhere without a rucksack or bag, so all my other tat goes in that. ‘Take a bag and put a warm top in it’ is the biggest lesson life has taught me. Now I’m sharing that timeless wisdom with your readers.
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
Keyboard and screen unless I’m doing something creative, in which case I often move to a different location and switch to pen and ink. As a former editor, I approach the goal by writing something shit and then polishing it into, if not a diamond, at least a very shiny turd. And the screen is usually the best tool for that job.
Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on desk and recycle?)
None religiously, but I read lots of posts from writers and marketers I follow on Twitter. It’s particularly good to read younger writers, who I would probably never have ‘met’ otherwise.
Tea or coffee?
Coffee, black, no sugar. Yes, black, please. No milk. *Interlocutor brings white coffee*
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
One my daughter gave me for father’s day. It’s got a photo of her trampolining on it.
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
I read Roald Dahl incessantly. Those books are so canon now, it’s funny to think they were quite new at that time.
Character-wise I loved Dougal in the Magic Roundabout books. Eric Thompson made him into a classic self-important, self-deluded British hero in the style of Hancock, Steptoe Jr and Arnold Rimmer. I really enjoyed writing a pastiche recently.
Your favourite word?
‘Architrave’ and ‘theodolite’ are wasted on builders.
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?
‘Moist’ and ‘creamy’. Use them together to get me eye-twitching in the cheese aisle.
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
Online, I’m afraid. I buy books online, although I like bookshops when I get the time.
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
Hard to choose one, but I’m going with ‘Waters of March’ by Antonio Carlos Jobim (here’s Art Garfunkel’s version). It’s ‘just’ a sequence of images over an acoustic bossa nova… but the effect is magical.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
Stick ‘Panic’ by The Smiths on and you might get a result.
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
Not really. I wear headphones without playing music sometimes, but that’s as strange as I get. I am a particularly boring person.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
Today I rewrote some conference session descriptions, and next week I’m working on some infographic copy and a case study. If they send me the stuff, that is…
Describe the last photograph you took.
The sun through the trees, on my dog walk.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
Despite having a literature degree, I never consciously thought about rhythm until I saw Giles Coren’s rant about his closing syllable being un-stressed by Times subs. Now I think about metre a lot more.
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
I don’t write for pleasure, I cycle. But my blog wanders quite a way off topic sometimes.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
Hemingway: ‘The only kind of writing is rewriting.’ If I ever had to use my first draft of anything I would be in deep, deep trouble.
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
Is this about the TV show or real-world ad people? Assuming the former, I’ll go with Bert Cooper. I hope I’m that enigmatic and revered when I’m old(er).
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
Miller’s Crossing. An insanely convoluted pretzel of a plot, dusted with crunchy (made-up) argot, presented in a vintage gangster box. ‘Danny Boy’ and tommy-guns, what’s not to like?
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
100 Short Short [sic] Science Fiction Stories edited by Isaac Asimov, Dr D.G. Hessayon’s Bedside Book of the Garden, Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton, Asterix and the Roman Agent and the Ladybird Book of the Midlife Crisis. I’ve nearly finished the Ladybird book.
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
I know this sounds awful but I’m mostly self-taught. But I still learn a lot from people on Twitter, both within marketing and outside it.
Who is your favourite artist?
I really like Philippe Charles Jacquet. Regardez ‘Le peintre et l’écrivain’ et discutez.
Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop?
Most of the time I’m in my office, but I switch to the conservatory for a change of scene.
And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?
Thank you, Tom 🙂