Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Jim Murphy  | Freelance Creative Director/Copywriter

Interview :: Jim Murphy
by Juanita Berge, 1 Nov 2009

Jim is currently a freelance creative director/copywriter with clients in Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey. He works with ad agencies, design firms and direct clients providing strategy, concepts and copy for everything from ad campaigns to outdoor to radio to web banners. His website is

PCG: How did you get your start in this field?

JM: I became an advertising copywriter as a result of great good luck. Soon after I graduated from St. Joseph's University, I met a man named Bill Hallahan, who was a partner and Creative Director at a small Philadelphia agency called Garceau, Hallahan & McCullough. In addition to his agency work, he was writing a textbook on how to teach copywriting. It was going to be a correspondence course. For some reason, he liked me, and I became a sort of guinea pig for his course ideas.

Every day for months I went down to his office, and he taught me how to be a copywriter. He didn't pay me anything, but then I didn't pay him anything, either.

After four or five months, I had a little portfolio and went for a job interview at Food Fair, a local supermarket chain at the time. The job was writing the newspaper ads for "Bone-in hams for $.59/lb." and that sort of thing. Even then I knew that was not the kind of advertising I wanted to write, but it was a real advertising job. So I accepted the offer at $125/week. Then I went back to Garceau, Hallahan & McCullough to give them the happy news, Bill Hallahan offered me a real job there. I jumped at it. But then I had to call the Food Fair guy back and tell him not only that I had accepted another job, but also that it was for less money. Tough call, easy choice. I was in the game.

PCG: Is there a process you follow when writing for a new client?

JM: In the course of my career, I have written for virtually every type of client – industrial, consumer packaged goods, corporate, B2B, real estate, travel, telecommunications, financial services, etc. While I don't have a rigid, formalized "process", every assignment invariably begins the same way – with panic.

Then I study. I try to learn all I can about the business. If there's a coherent, insightful brief (a rarity,) even better.

Though I'm a writer, I try to think in terms of concepts and not just clever headlines. Sometimes, if I'm working remotely with an art director, I'll do a rudimentary Quark layout (I only know one layout) and drop a stock shot in there to communicate the idea. Art directors just love this. Not really.

Other times, I just start typing, hoping I accidentally type something good before I realize it. Occasionally, this even works, and you get some traction with an idea and then try to refine it. While I love doing this and it is fun, it is also work. I can't remember the last time I had a flash of inspiration and an idea jumped into my head without effort. To me, making ads is like solving problems – what's the best way to communicate what this client is trying to say? What's the best way to cut through the clutter?

PCG: What have been some of your more challenging jobs?

JM: As a freelance writer, the biggest challenge I have is when I get an assignment for an industry I don't know anything about and have to show ideas two or three days later. Thank God for Google! A few years ago, I got the job to write an annual report for a company that was doing very high-end research on cancer cures. I had to learn immunology in about five weeks. I was terrified the whole time, but the client seemed pleased.

A whole different sort of challenge is when you work at a place where everyone is really good. When I moved from Philadelphia to Ketchum in Pittsburgh, all the creative people seemed terrific. The pressure to do high-quality work was pretty intense.

PCG: How has copywriting changed over the years?

JM: The most dramatic change in my career has, of course, been the computer. Before computers, I absolutely hated having my copy changed. I thought it was because I was a genius. When I started using a computer, I realized that I really hated having my copy changed because I didn't want to retype it. Now, with cut and paste, I'm much less precious about it.

Another way copywriting has changed is that nobody reads anymore. For many clients, bullet points are the answer. Bullet points are the opposite of copywriting. Plus, now there are web banners, e-blasts and all the other new media with slightly different disciplines. But essentially, the job has remained the same – trying to make people read, watch or listen to something against their will.

Jim Murphy | Freelance Creative Director/Copywriter

PCG: You've worked for some heavy-hitters in the advertising industry. A stint with Foote, Cone & Belding, then with N.W. Ayer, both in NYC. What can you tell us about the ad game at that time?

JM: I worked one year at Foote, Cone & Belding in New York, and then 17 years at NW Ayer. Looking back from today's perspective, two things stand out – the smoking and the production budgets. While it was certainly post-Mad Men, it is only a slight overstatement to say that everybody smoked all the time. At that time, my "process" included lighting up a Marlboro every time I put a piece of paper into my typewriter.

But, in hindsight, it's the budgets on accounts like AT&T, the U.S. Army and Folgers Coffee that are truly breathtaking. One series of three commercials we did explaining the breakup of the Bell System and introducing the new AT&T cost $2 million just to produce – that was a lot on money in 1983! You always worked with the best directors, best music people, the best actors and voiceovers... the best of everything.

At Ayer, they had a huge casting department, and it was commonplace to audition people for voiceovers who were appearing on Broadway. Once, I used a very young Alec Baldwin to do the voiceover on an animatic for AT&T. (An animatic was a kind of primitive test commercial that was more like a cave drawing than a TV commercial.)

PCG: What are some of the campaigns you worked on that we'd recognize?

JM: It's been a long time since I worked on big, national campaigns. But the most famous, without question, is the Be All You Can Be for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. I cannot take credit for the line; a writer in my group at the time named Earl Carter came up with it. But I did write many of the ads and commercials and supervised basically all of the work.

Another fairly well known campaign I worked on is The Best Part of Wakin' Up for Folgers Coffee. I became Group Head on that account shortly after the campaign was established, but worked on it for five years trying to think of different ways for people to be asleep, smell the coffee, wake up and live happily ever after.

PCG: What's been your all time favorite assignment?

JM: That's easy. The U.S. Army. It's a great product. The people are outstanding. They bought good advertising. And you felt you were doing something genuinely important. As a rule Army commercials were shot at Army bases such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington and even in Germany. Whichever base was tasked with the commercial would send a liaison officer, like a Captain or a Major, to the preproduction meeting, and we would request what we needed – 10 helicopters, seven tanks, 500 guys marching over a hill, whatever. He would make notes, and when we showed up, it was there. It was as close to making movies as I'll ever get.

I never served in the military, but being around these people for five years made me very proud to be an American.

Jim Murphy | Freelance Creative Director/Copywriter

PCG: How did agency work change over the years?

JM: To me, the biggest change in the business has been the effect of technology on the perception of time. Time has been dramatically telescoped at every stage of the process. There seems to be less time to think, and certainly less time to produce print ads or broadcast work. As soon as it became possible to do something overnight, it became necessary to.

Another big change, it seems, is that there are no rough ideas presented anymore. Clients expect to see basically finished ads in an initial presentation. It's all a function of technology. It's not necessarily a bad thing; it's just a major change.

PCG: What writers do you admire and why?

JM: I admire anybody who can write a book. I've written many long-copy ads and 20-page brochures, but the idea of writing a book staggers me. More specifically, my favorite writers are Mark Twain, Bill Bryson, and at the moment, the novelist Daniel Silva. Not very highbrow, I realize, but the first two make me laugh and the third entertains me.

There are many advertising writers I admire. Foremost, is my mentor, Bill Hallahan, who taught me how to do this. Also, the late Hal Riney, who understood that style is content. There are also many ad writers whose names nobody would know, many of whose names I don't even know. One that comes to mind is whoever writes the TV commercials and print ads that have been running for several years for Dow Chemical – The Human Element. These are a stunning achievement, almost poetic. For a chemical company! I wish I had written them. They could very easily have been guys in hard hats pointing at factories.

PCG: What client would be your dream assignment?

JM: When I was at Ayer, everybody wanted to work on DeBeers Diamonds. They'd been doing great ads for decades. Plus, it was glamorous. But it always seemed to me to be a terrible opportunity. All you could do was screw it up.

I always wanted to work on accounts that had always done ordinary or even bad work. If you could turn them into jewels, then you could really shine. The downside of this dream, of course, is that accounts with a history of bad advertising usually have it for a reason.

It is a truism that clients get the advertising they deserve. Nike gets great advertising because they demand it. Other clients get lousy advertising because they permit it, or don't know the difference. A dream client would be one who, not necessarily loves everything I do, but one who values it and works with me to make it as good as can be.

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