Copywriter/Associate Creative Director
Cindy Hammel '02 English, Creative Writing Major
Living in Dubai
Life as a copywriter/associate creative director
CES: What was it like living in Dubai?
CH: A Turkish writer at my last agency compares Dubai to a teenage girl: She wants it all. She wants it now. She wants it to be the biggest and the best. She wants it to sparkle, and she's graced with that youthful optimism that she can do anything she wants, without much thought to the consequences later. An American writer I worked with calls it Islamic Vegas.
They're both right. It's a city full of contradiction, opportunity, a lot of sand and SUVs, posh clubs next to traditional mosques, some conservative censorship in the press and movies, abayas sharing the same beach with bikinis, loads of expats, a bunch of malls, glamour, some incredible architecture, a few camels, a whole lot of construction, and some grim human rights issues.
To be fair, every international city has it's dark side. It's very quickly grown from a little fishing village into an international curiosity and an oasis of tolerance in an otherwise turbulent Middle East. Dubai's surprisingly westernized, bilingual in English and Arabic, and I often felt safer there than I do in many US cities.
The best thing about living in Dubai? The friends you make. When my creative director was talking me into coming out, he compared the town to that bar in Star Wars. Everyone really is from everywhere, and they're usually pretty open-minded and up for the adventure; and learning how to navigate that kind of cultural mash-up is crazy. Work-wise, the city's starved for talent, so no matter what industry you're in, you find yourself taking on more responsibility and bigger projects than you'd have access to just about anywhere else.
In Dubai (and advertising) you work hard and play hard. 90% of your ideas get shot down somewhere along the way, but then you remember it’s just advertising, hit the beach, keep writing, and watch the camels go by.
CES: Tell us a little bit about life as a copywriter/associate creative director.
CH: The creative department in any ad agency is made up of teams. A copywriter and art director.
So we'll get a brief, or seven, and go off to brainstorm—come up with as many ideas as we possibly can. When we stumble on something that gets us excited, or laugh till we pee, odds are we're onto something that doesn't completely stink.
Once a route is selected, I write whatever needs to be written and my partner makes it look pretty—makes it ready for client presentation. Then a few hundred meetings later, your baby's gone from a scribble on a napkin to production and you're on set with one of the best photographers in Europe, playing with Ferraris. Or hearing that a Queen loves your script, and four months later you're shooting her on green screen, trying to explain why you need more than three takes. Those are the wonderful ego-boosting moments when I can't believe people pay me to do this.
Granted, it's not all pixie dust and lollypops. 90% of our ideas get shot down somewhere along the way, but that's the reality of creative work just about anywhere. I also write the less glamorous brochure copy, or have to bang out 50 headlines for an ad I'm not exactly fond of and it's due yesterday. Sometimes we work with world class directors, and sometimes my art director has to figure out how to make something nice out of a mediocre product shot and whatever graphic design magic he can whip out in a few hours.
I think the hardest part is having your ideas shut down, or seeing something you love turn into some compromised beast you never anticipated. It can be hard on the creative soul. You have to learn how to navigate lots of opinions and obstacles, many of which make absolutely no sense and all you can say is, "Let's see what we can do."
On the flip side, there's something really great about working in a creative environment, with the banter, and the collaboration (and a little healthy competition) amongst other writers that make you jealous. And production's the best. Call time's at 5 a.m. so we can shoot at sunup? Great. That's what coffee's for.
CES: What's a typical day like?
CH: I show up at an office every morning that feels a little like a studio—full of absurd deadlines, creative souls, comedians, designers, planners, and account managers who are all in place to try to create something nice for a brand.
On any given day I could be researching Formula1™ and pit stop lingo, writing radio and TV scripts, brainstorming with my Art Director, trying to come up with something that's both on brief, and creative-funny-surprising-beautiful-insightful enough to get the Executive Creative Director excited. Sometimes you're mixing genres....say rap and hamburgers, or film noir and SUVs.
Then you have the meetings: debating strategy and presenting ideas, campaigns, webisodes, scripts, or whatever you dreamed up to the account management team. Then on to the client. Sometimes the client is the marketing manager. Sometimes it's the CEO. Sometimes in a pitch, it's a full room of 50 suits.
Last year when we pitched a global restaurant chain, the agency team consisted of 5 people: me, a creative director, the managing director, head of strategy, and head of new business. The hotel ballroom was full of Arab men—every franchise owner in the Middle East. There were 4 women in the room: myself and Julia, our new business director, and the American woman from global on the client side. That was an unusual day.
If your campaign has already been approved, you're in production and the day looks a lot different...
We have to decide, is it live action? animation? What about style and mood? If it's a photo shoot, is the style more Annie Leibovitz or David LaChapelle? What's the period? What's the casting style? How does the wardrobe look? Minimal, or more like Rococo frosting? If it's animation, is it painting? Pen & ink? 3-D? Polished or rough? What's the soundtrack like?
If we're shooting, I'm on set working with the director or photographer, making sure everything goes right. Ideally it's just a matter of getting out of the way and watching your darling come to life. At other times you're scrambling around with the producers, redoing wardrobe, fixing props, rewriting dialogue that isn't working, saying weird things like "those shirts look too new," or you're just helping the client understand what's happening, or squeezing in that version that wasn't approved, but you're sure they'll love it once they see it. For me it's the best kind of stress with a lot of improvising and just asking yourself, "how can I make this better?"
CES: What was your first job after college?
CH: I had no idea what to do with myself. So I headed to Walt Disney World, where I worked at a restaurant while I figured things out. I met some folks in PR, then my manager hooked me up with a friend of his in Imagineering, and 5 interviews later they were ready to give me a shot. I couldn't believe my luck. But 2003 was a rough year for tourism, so a company-wide hiring freeze killed that option. However, the Imagineering guys made me realize I could be creative and write for a living, and there were a lot more creative writing fields out there than I ever realized before. My English degree was actually completely relevant to where I was headed. I was stunned.
CES: Why were you stunned?
CH: When I was at Puget Sound, I remember having this division in my mind between the arts and humanities, and advertising. I associated advertising with PR, or marketing majors who get their MBA then grab a job on the client side, which is worlds away from the creative department.
I like art and movies and stories. Turns out, now I write scripts and stories and little one-liner jokes every day, and the perpetual line up of bizarre assignments send me into creative territory I'd never think about otherwise, which is fun. It's applied art. It's in the cross-hairs of art and commerce. It took me a while to figure that out.
CES: How did you get your start in this field?
CH: I actually met with a Puget Sound alum who's pretty famous in the ad scene. I was living in Florida at the time, and desperate to meet him. I remember after a few ignored emails, I called his assistant and told her I'd fly myself to Seattle, if he'd meet with me. That worked. A few weeks later, he took a look at my portfolio, said he could tell I could write, but couldn't tell if I could write ads, and suggested a few ad schools. I met a few of the writers. They showed me some of the stuff they were working on. This...this I could do; this looked fun. We kept in touch and two years later he gave me a job.
CES: What was ad school like?
CH: I went to Miami Ad School. Like most advertising portfolio school's it's a two-year program. At MAS, you spend the first year in classes in one city. Then the second year includes classes and internships at various agencies and MAS locations around the world. This international spin is what sold it for me. When you graduate you have a portfolio, some contacts that turn into amazing contacts later, and the ability to hit the ground running when you land the job.
CES: How did your time at Puget Sound prepare you for your career?
CH: The liberal arts approach is actually a great prep. In advertising, you have to be able to think laterally—connect completely disconnected things. Like how a brand manifesto is kind of a cross between a political manifesto or treaty and poetry. I might use a Dante scene to brief an illustrator. I've referred back to anything from a Sailing class to Buddhism in Physics. What I picked up from the choirs and studying voice, completely applies when I brief a composer.
You also have to be ready to become an expert in just about anything within a few hours. I worked on Ferrari World. I knew nothing about racing, F1™, GTs, pit stops, Ferrari history, or what makes that world so magnetic. So I crammed and was able to filter out the bits I needed along the way, to mix it with theme park language—keep the thrill, arrogance, and beauty—and still make it accessible to families. That could easily be an honors thesis, and probably would have been more interesting than the post-colonial travel stories I wrote at the time.
CES: What do you wish you had done or known during college that might have been beneficial to your career development?
CH: I wish I'd taken some art and theater classes. I wanted to, but I thought it wasn't practical, or I didn't have time in my schedule. Now I see that my vague interest then, completely relates to what I do now. Doing things that appear impractical or self indulgent are often far more productive than shushing your instincts.
Don't get so hung up on "What am I going to do for the rest of my life?" That's a paralyzing question and just doesn't make sense. If we could plan that out, life would be pretty boring. Curve balls happen, and that's half the fun.
Don't get so fixated on your major. It's a liberal arts degree. You'll come out capable of thinking, organizing, connecting ideas in original ways, and approaching things from fresh angles that someone else hasn't thought of before.
It's not about the major and the "shoulds." It's about doing what you love and trusting your instincts and—when you're motivated—running with it. If you love it, you'll be great at it. Do what you love now. It will go somewhere.
Don't let people put you in a box. English major doesn't mean "English teacher." If you spin a humanities degree into business world speak: You have a degree in critical thinking and analysis and a knowledge base of various styles of communication, and the ablility to argue and convince and re-think in an informed way.
CES: What advice do you have for students considering a career as a writer?
CH: The trick isn't to figure out if you wanna write. If you do, you probably know it. The trick is figuring out what you want to write. Once you know what, it's much easier to find the steps that will take you there.
So write stuff. Write stories. Write poems. Write scripts. Write satire. Write something real, like how you actually talk. Don't self-edit, at least not in the beginning. Copy your heroes then mix them up and see what happens. Don't fall into that pseudo-intellectual trap of trying to sound super smart. It never comes off well.
Want to know what it's like to write a press release? Write one. Write a fake one. Find a real one, and beat it. Get in touch with an editor at a small newspaper and offer to write a book review for free. Ask them for an assignment that takes advantage of your student perspective. What's the worst that could happen?
Want to write ads? Think of some ads you love, or find the good stuff on the One Show, CMYK, or Cannes Advertising Festival sites. Then open a magazine to any terrible ad, figure out what it's trying to say. Then write your own. Make it better, funnier, completely different. Turn it into something you'd hang on your wall.
Try stuff. Do stuff you'd never do otherwise. Seek out culture shock. Collect experiences. The more random moments you tuck under your belt, the more you have to write about later.