Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk Blog.
Now, imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say?
“Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce…
Martin Gillan, Copywriter.
Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…
Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)
Oh no, no, no, I could never write inside a book, not even in pencil. In emergencies my bookshelf is within arm’s reach and is full of good stuff: screenplays, lyrics, poetry, illustration books, old Lürzers Archives and a few advertising books. The D&AD Copy Book, a book about the DDB Avis campaign, Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads?
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
The old Carling Black Label ads made me want to get into advertising. Never made me want to drink Carling though.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
Advice: don’t be rash, be patient and put the time in. Early in my career I was in too much of a hurry and moved agencies when it would’ve been better to stay. Dave Dye’s blog will set you off in the right direction and Paul Arden’s books will give you the right attitude.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
Mostly silence. Mixed with Nils Frahm, a German composer, who plays very sparse plinkety-plink piano. Not his words.
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe. I’m from the Midlands and it was the first book I read with characters who talked like people I knew.
John Updike’s Rabbit novels give me the exact opposite of Alan Sillitoe’s. They parachute me into the post-war life of a very ordinary small-town American man coming to terms with being a very ordinary small-town American man.
Portrait of a Young Man Drowning by Charles Perry is a white-knuckle ride through the psyche of a Brooklyn juvenile delinquent teetering on the edge of sanity.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
When I was at Fallon, I wrote a script for Budweiser which the ECD Richard Flintham (Cadbury’s Gorilla, Sony Balls etc.) said was great. He’s a man of very few words and excruciatingly long pauses, but with the highest standards and best taste of anyone I’ve ever worked for. Nothing came of the script… but the compliment from Rich was enough for me.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
Two Playmobil advent calendars and a Lego Submarine Base. Covid induced panic Christmas shopping.
Who was your teenage crush?
Julia Sawalha in Press Gang.
Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Fish and chips out of the bag by the old harbour wall in Harwich, before boarding the ferry to Rotterdam. It’s become our family tradition. A last salt ‘n’ vinegary taste of England.
What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?
I quit drinking 12 years ago… which is about as far as that sentence goes before people wander off and find someone more fun to hang out with.
If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?
In all honesty I don’t want to meet David Attenborough. I think it would be an incredibly awkward encounter for all involved. And anyway, aren’t private jets bad for the environment? See, I’m already feeling anxious about this trip and making up excuses why I can’t go. Next question please!
What’s in your pockets?
€7,22. A very crumpled pack of tissues. House keys. A hole created by the house keys.
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
I work in notepads (Moleskine since they became popular) and I have a box of them going back to the beginning of my career. My notepads occasionally make an appearance on a very sporadic blog on my website. It’s the notepad equivalent of an archeological dig.
Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your desk and recycle?)
Only Dave Dye’s blog, really. The 2000s were the golden era of advertising blogs. Then the blogosphere went quiet. It’s all podcasts now, isn’t it? And Dave does that, too.
Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?
Both. Coffee to get the engine running, topped up throughout the day with tea.
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
It’s shaped like a Ukrainian hand grenade. The safety pin is the handle. Combat green.
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
Detective Arthur: Master Sleuth by Mary J. Fulton and illustrated by Aurelius Battaglia. I still have the book and I still kind of want to be Detective Arthur. He had a great office chair.
Your favourite word?
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?)
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
I love the promise and adventure of a good second-hand bookshop. No trip to England is complete without a visit to Astley Book Farm. www.astleybookfarm.com
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
I do like a bit of country. Tom Russell’s California Snow is a novel in 4 minutes 53 seconds.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
Not Tom Russell. 1980s school disco standards. No guarantee though.
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
As I write I mouth the words and sort of play air harp with my fingers. I’m not sure if it helps the writing, but it does mean I always have a lot of room to myself in coffee shops.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
Searching for illustrators for an Irish mortgage company. Not very copywritery, I’m afraid. TV scripts for a UK boiler company. Also, something for Aldi Ireland.
Can you describe the last photograph you took?
It was a photograph of the Playmobil advent calendars which I texted to my wife to check they were the correct ones. It’s no David Bailey.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
It wasn’t so much about writing but reading. Richard Grisdale, a brilliant copywriter and my first group head at Saatchi’s, recommended a few books I should read, and that set me off on a literary journey I’m still on today. It started in 1994 with Dead Babies by Martin Amis.
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
A note which read, ‘Mathilde is asleep’.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
What’s the one about every first draft is shit? I don’t know who said that, but it’s comforting. Henry Miller also had some good rules.
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
Bill Bernbach. I don’t get the impression he was a much of a Don Draper, but he’s the father of modern advertising. George Lois seems like he had a lot of fun on the job.
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
Bugsy Malone. Written and directed by an ex-copywriter. Lots of heart, great songs.
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
Miss Gammon. She was my teacher when I was 11. She was somehow otherworldly, empathetic, romantic, creative, human. Big red hair. She wrote ‘Happiness always’ in my end of year autograph book. I’ve always liked that. It’s a good strapline.
Who is your favorite artist?
I’ve been scratching my head for 20 minutes and I don’t have one. That’s bad, isn’t it?
Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens?
I’m partial to a nice big train station coffee shop. Glasgow Central was always good. Early mornings at the Starbucks in Borders bookshop on Oxford Street used to be a favourite. That dates me. At least I didn’t say Lyons Corner House.