Common sense would tell you that a person with a degree in advertising and marketing would be a better than average ad writer. But then common sense would be wrong. Rarely can a person with a marketing degree write anything more interesting than a grocery list. Or at least that's been my experience, having hired more than 150 ad writers during the past 25 years.
Strangely, the college degrees that I've found to more often indicate writing talent are these:
1. Art history. Surprised? You shouldn't be. This degree requires a tremendous amount of writing. The successful art history student must routinely find words to express what is by nature inexpressible. "Explain the difference between the impact of Jackson Pollock and that of Pablo Picasso." Show me a person who can wrap their arms around that, and I'll show you a great ad writer in the making.
2. English. People who love to read and write will often major in English, even though they know there's little they can do with their degree after graduation. There are two kinds of people who graduate with an English degree. One is a natural editor, great at content evaluation, thought organization and sentence structure. The editor knows instinctively what to leave out. The other is a romantic in love with words, and he or she always knows what to include. Look closely at the cover letters accompanying their résumés. The editor's letter will be clear, concise and well organized. The romantic will be flamboyant in his or her use of colorful words and phrases. If your product is purchased intellectually, hire the editor type. If it's purchased emotionally--from gut feelings--hire the romantic.
The most important question to ask during an interview is this: "How many books do you typically read in a year and what have you been reading lately?" Anything less than 15 books per year is not acceptable. Extra points for the person who reads 25 or more, and nonfiction books don't count. You're looking for the person who reads poetry and novels and spends his or her spare time writing short stories and screenplays. Putting the right words in the right order to express the right idea in the right way is a skill not unique to advertising. Show me a hungry reader of great literature--something besides newspapers, business books and magazines--and I'll show you someone who can bang words together so the sound of them will ring for miles. Make no mistake: That's exactly what it takes to make your ads stand out from among the clutter.
I'm not suggesting that ad writers use a literary style in their ad writing, only that they create the same kinds of word-juxtapositions, elegant incongruities and joltingly vivid descriptions that distinguish the legendary authors. And writers can't hear these kinds of phrases echoing in their ears during the day unless they're filling their minds with them at night. Hire a hungry reader in love with language.
Be sure you interact substantially with each of your candidates in writing before you ever speak with them by phone or in person. Why? You're not likely to be impressed with a great writer during a face-to-face interview. Writing is their preferred method of communication, remember? And great writers are a different breed. As John Steinbeck wrote in his diary (published by The New York Times): "In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. He must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true." Wow. What a perfect description of a great ad writer.
Great writers were rarely the quarterback or the head cheerleader or the student voted most likely to succeed. They were usually misfit kids like the legendary screenwriter David Freeman, who recently said, "The goal of life is to take everything that made you weird as a kid and get people to pay you money for it when you're older."
Go hire a David Freeman, and your ads will start pumping out prospects like you never thought possible. You'll probably find your David working at a Barnes & Noble.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.
Roy Williams is the founder and president of international ad agency Wizard of Ads. Roy is also the author of numerous books on improving your advertising efforts, including The Wizard of Ads and Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads.