Peter Carnevale is a Senior Copywriter at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco.
1) How well did your schooling at the VCU Brandcenter prepare you for the realities of working in advertising?
It was as thorough as any schooling could prepare one for the real agency world. I recall Geoffrey Roche, my first boss, telling me after I’d been working for him for three months or so that I operated “like a three-year guy, not a three-month guy.”
In certain ways, the schooling was a little idealistic and a little bit too black and white. But I’d much rather go to the idealistic school than the opposite one.
It will also always be “the Adcenter” to me. I’m stubborn.
2) What is it about San Francisco that makes it such an engine for great advertising creative?
Its wholehearted embrace of crazy. Close proximity to forward-thinking businesses is also a huge help. Culturally, it seems to embrace creative thinking, from the Beats to the Dead/Jefferson Airplane enclave to the Dead Kennedys and Flipper and probably much further back (and not primarily music – I’m just uncultured).
Howard Gossage was the first to really put SFism into advertising, and there seems to be a general spirit of people pulling for the town, even from outside. The fact that the landscape and surrounding areas are pretty stunning doesn’t hurt.
3) What are some of the differences you’ve noticed between writing ads in Canada and writing them in the U.S.?
They’re mostly executional, to be honest. Human truths are human truths, but sometimes your ads are limited by timing, production budget, and other extraneous factors. I have yet to attempt to write anything with hockey in it in the U.S., but I’m not a sports guy by nature so I always stuck out as a fraud in Canada anyway.
My post-Canada experience has been at larger agencies, so there tends to be more cooks in the kitchen. Both agency- and client-wise. So in the end, you have to shepherd your work through more people, which can be both good and bad.
I’ve been away from Canadian advertising for five years now, but it seems from afar that there aren’t any traditional agencies really embracing digital work in a silo-free way. Granted, very few do in the states either, but from asking friends back in Toronto it seems like there hasn’t been a lot of progress in that regard. Of course, I could be completely wrong and hope I am.
4) Craft-wise, what are you better at today than you were two years ago?
Two years ago, I’d never made a single piece of digital advertising. So I’d have to say I’m better at that, certainly. Still not good enough, in my opinion, but that just gives me something to strive for.
Otherwise, I’d say I’ve gotten better about managing myself and the process better, though I still have a lot of work to do.
5) Do you have any unifying theories that inform your approach to copywriting?
Make it good.
That sounds simplistic, but it’s really the only consistent approach I take. Beyond that, I try to write from the brand’s voice rather than my own. I don’t always succeed.
6) Of the campaigns you’ve worked on, which is your favourite and why?
I’d have to say a GM Fleet campaign I did in Toronto. It was such a dead simple idea, and so much better than what we were assigned (re-write headlines to existing photographs that didn’t make sense for the brief).
It was the perfect combination of good work, pulling favors for production and stellar account management. I honestly thought at one point during the presentation that the AE would get fired for fighting so hard. Thankfully, he didn’t, but he did wind up leaving (for Grip, coincidentally enough).
That being said, I’d love to replace every single piece I have in my portfolio with better work.
7) To what degree are you able to bring your interest in political news into your work as an ad writer?
I have a very hard time separating my absorption of news from the opinions I form based on what I read. So for the most part, I try not to bring it into my work. My friends and family are the hapless victims of my perpetual ranting, and I think it would be incredibly unprofessional to project my opinions onto any of my agency’s clients.
I suppose it keeps me abreast of current events and vaguely understanding economic situations, so that helps me not seem like an idiot from time to time.
I do try to work on pro-bono causes I feel passionately about when possible.
8) Given America’s burgeoning military industrial complex (with its estimated $651.2 billion budget for 2009), do you find there’s a lot of industry pressure to work on weapons brands?
They use lobbyists, not ad agencies. They have such a small target market: the U.S. Congress and their appropriations bills. (To a large extent, their additional markets are defense departments of other countries. Still pretty targeted, no pun intended.)
Big brand campaigns for companies like Lockheed Martin are pretty non-existent, unless they’re feel-good glossing over of their real revenue streams.
I wish I had a good smart-ass remark for this.
9) When you look at the varied landscape of North American advertising, what do you think we could be doing better, generally?
We should be more interesting. There’s a vast sea of sameness out there. I don’t always love work from Europe, but they take risks and do stuff that stands out. The biggest trap we seem to fall into in North America is following whatever formula happens to be in vogue at the time.
10) What’s one lesson about writing you’ve learned the hard way?
The stopwatch is your friend and legal copy is your enemy.