10 Famous People You Didn’t Know Were Copywriters

We noble copywriting few. We are not in the copywriting game for money, power, celebrity or sex – we answered our copywriting calling to help. Flying under the radar, often anonymous, often using slightly ridiculous pseudonyms; we exist to help connect people. The retailer with the shopper, the needy with the altruistic, the knowledgeable with the uninformed; we gently form mutually-beneficial bonds through words, ideas and collaborations with Twitter celebs.

But sometimes, the copywriting union loses a member to the bright lights of fame and fortune, determined to make a name for themselves outside of the copywriting sphere. So, to demonstrate there are no ill feelings between us, we have decided to celebrate the achievements of 10 famous names you didn’t know were copywriters.

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fitzgerald would have been delighted he managed to save this poetic line to close his most famous work, The Great Gatsby, rather than use it to advertise the services provided by one of his clients, Muscatine Steam Laundry. As it happens, Fitzgerald managed to find a fitting line for the Iowa-based laundrette whilst working for a New York ad agency – the unforgettable, timeless classic: “We keep you clean in Muscatine.” He got a raise for that effort.

Sadly, alcoholism and a number of heart attacks ended Fitzgerald’s life prematurely, but his legacy lives on as one of history’s greatest authors.

2. Alec Guinness

How I wish for Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Jedi mind trick ability when pitching ideas for our internal content meetings, and during my annual salary review. I guess the only thing I have in common with Alec Guinness is the days spent forming copy for clients, for the great Shakespearean actor was a copywriter before he got his big break in theatre.

At the age of 18, Guinness secured the role of junior copywriter at Ark’s Publicity in London, whilst also trying to indulge his thespian tendencies on the side. It was the latter which proved to be his life’s calling, earning a crust as one of history’s great actors.

sir alec guinness

3. Helen Gurley Brown

The legendary editor of Cosmopolitan, Helen Gurley Brown, can boast a similar copy background to Peggy Olson from Mad Men. Working for years as a secretary for Foote, Cone & Belding; Brown got her big breakthrough when she won a writing competition for Glamour Magazine. From there, she was given a stab at copywriting, but had to continue her secretarial duties whilst whipping up new copy for the next three years.

Eventually, she was headhunted by a rival agency and jumped ship for double the money. But then in 1965, Brown became the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, a position she held for 32 years. Her assertion that women could have it all – love, sex and money – made her a central figure in the sexual liberation movement of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Her influence can still be felt at Cosmo, and in the women’s literary industry as a whole.

4. Salman Rushdie

Ever wonder where Aero got their ‘Irresistabubble’ slogan? From the same man who penned The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children. Salman Rushdie spent more than a decade working as a copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather and Ayer Barker, working on campaigns for the likes of the Daily Mirror and American Express amongst others.

In 2008, Rushdie revealed that he’d originally got into the copywriting game at the end of the 60s, when an old friend who recently entered the ad world drove by in a flash sports car with a young, blonde secretary in the passenger seat.

5. Terry Gilliam

Before animating for the Monty Python bunch and directing a series of critically-acclaimed films, Gilliam worked as a copywriter for an LA ad agency. The sixth Python was, perhaps, not the best copywriter the industry has ever seen though, flouting the rules wherever possible – arriving late to work, taking lunch breaks lasting a few hours and then heading home early.

terry gilliam copywriter

Gilliam quit copywriting and moved to England after one of his clients, Anderson Split Pea Soup, upset him. Apparently, the soup people ran a series of Gilliam’s newspaper and radio ads solely in a region where the product wasn’t stocked, and then dropped the ads due to an (unsurprising) sales plateau. But Anderson Split Pea Soup’s loss was comedy’s gain.

6. Hugh Hefner

Before he got his big break in the world of publishing, the original playboy, Hugh Hefner, was a humble advertising copywriter. Starting off at the department store Carson, Pirie, Scott; Hugh would earn $40 a week, creating the in-store copy. A year later he started raking in $60 a week when he switched to become the promotion copywriter for Esquire.

It’s said that he spends days in his famous grotto, surrounded by models, yearning for the simpler days of writing copy in a dingy office in downtown Chicago.

7. Rick Moranis

Remember nerdy accountant Louis Tully from Ghostbusters, Lord Dark Helmet from Spaceballs or the main chap from the Honey I Shrunk the Kids films? That’s Rick Moranis. The slightly rubber-faced, lovable loser from just about every film between 1984 and 1994, Moranis is something of a cult hero amongst IMDB surfers.

And before his big Hollywood break? Moranis worked as a copywriter, the quintessential awkward, nerdy copywriter.

8. Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller recounts his tale of writing one of the 20th century’s great works of fiction, Catch-22, in the most romantic fashion. Apparently, whilst working as a copywriter for the Merrill Anderson Company in New York, Heller’s mind just plucked the novel’s opening line out of thin air. From there, Heller wrote the first chapter by hand, without pausing for breath.

It took another eight years for the novel to be published, and all the while Heller continued to write copy for various agencies. Upon its release, Catch-22 became the bestselling paperback of 1961, but only earned Heller roughly $.03 per copy sold. It wasn’t until 18 months after the book’s release that Heller could pack in the copywriting game, when Catch-22’s film rights were sold for a princely $100,000.

joseph heller copywriter

9. James Patterson

James Patterson’s career can be split neatly into two halves. The first half is when he turned down the opportunity to study for his Ph.D. to take a copywriting gig with J. Walter Thompson. The second half is when he quit copywriting in 1996, wrote more than 100 bestselling novels, outsold Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined, and accumulated a personal wealth of more than £550m from book sales.

Personally, I am hoping that my career trajectory takes a similar route to that of the world’s leading thriller novelist.

10. Herb Peterson

Admittedly, Herb Peterson may not be a famous name, but this former copywriter created a legacy which no modern student could live without. After spending years thinking up slogans for D’Arcy Advertising in Chicago, Peterson opened six McDonald’s franchises in California. From here, he trumped anything he created during his time as an ad man, inventing the Egg McMuffin, the incredible hangover cure we’ve all shamefully relied on once upon a time.

So, next time you’re in a meeting with your digital marketing team, and you’re eyeing the awkward-looking copywriter with unkempt hair and a slightly-crumpled jumper, just consider how they may, one day, change the world just like Herb Peterson did.

If you want to take advantage of Banc Media’s current crop of Hefners, Hellers and Browns, send us over an email to [email protected].

Image credits: Wikimedia Creative Commons: [1] [2] [3]