To succeed in advertising, you have to be at least a little contrary. You have to be tough enough on yourself to refuse the simple, easy answers everyone else thinks is just fine, and push yourself to deal with the tough ones.
In my first days as an advertising copywriter, I relied on my wits to get the job done. No matter what the assignment, a pun here, a little wordplay there, a couple of product features, and maybe a smart-ass headline and I was through.
For trade ads, my friend Ashley and I even developed a formula for the copy, and it seemed to do the job every time.
Then I got a new supervisor. At first I thought he was going to be a human red pencil, but he was just the opposite. He told me to read Emerson, whom he said had some very good arguments. And Locke, for clarity and rational development. And the New York Times Week in Review, to keep up with our culture.
Over the next few months, my copy changed. In content and style. It became more thoughtful, more interesting, more helpful. Even small things became more interesting, like how to tell the difference in real Italian salad dressings, and why some hot cereal makers tossed out the most nutritious part of the wheat.
Once I realized I wasn't going to be the darling of American industry by playing with words, I got better at thinking about ideas. I learned how to get at what Leo Burnett, the head of the big Chicago agency, called the "inherent drama" in a product. And in a customer's life.
Marketers of all kinds should probably be a little contrarian, as well. Are we perfecting products in ways people won't care about? Is the fashion industry selling something different than what their customers think they are buying? Why won't we know "the next big thing" until after it comes out? What does Forever 21 know that Neiman-Marcus doesn't?
Go the opposite way of your competitors. Zig while everyone else is zagging.