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English Works: Creativity in Advertising

Alumnus, and novelist, Scott Muskin reveals the joy in being a Mad Man
September 29, 2016

Alumnus Scott Muskin

Alumnus Scott Muskin
MFA alumnus Scott Muskin

Alumnus Scott Muskin (MFA 1998) is a creative director with Olson, the largest advertising firm in Minnesota. He leads a team that regularly fashions ads for McDonald's and Target. He helped create the theme and video of the winning pitch to bring the Super Bowl to Minneapolis. But the creative project he's most proud of, he says, is his Parthenon Prize-winning 2009 novel The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson, Mama’s Boy and Scholar. (The award's final judge, author Tony Earley, called the novel "a vibrant, unruly stew of a book.") Muskin is currently working on a short story about falling in love with a horse: "It's complicated," he says.

Describe your job. What do you enjoy most about that work? Would you recommend advertising careers to students of literature?

My job is very fun, and I am very lucky to have it. It's also a ton of work and stress. Basically, I make sure the writers and art directors working for me understand their task and have creative space to do it—I try to give them all the coaching, pushing, and insight they need to make amazing ads, whether that be a billboard, a TV spot, or a social post. Then I craft the presentation argument that sets their work up to look even more amazing. It's mostly that, and also management of budgets and clients and internal partners. Sometimes I actually write. There are no hours, really, but when it's at its best, there's also a sense of no boundaries—and that's very compelling for a creative person.

"Professor Michael Dennis Browne
used to say 'no surprise in the writer,
no surprise in the reader.' It's true in
advertising as well." - Scott Muskin

You got into advertising with an advanced degree in . . . creative writing. How did that happen?

It was honestly random dumb luck. I felt incompetent working as an adjunct professor (teaching comp and literature, not fiction), so went to work as a catalog copyeditor using skills I gained working at Milkweed Editions right out of college. That catalog job progressed into marketing copywriting for Target, and being from Target made me valuable to agencies. Publishing a novel maybe made me more interesting, but honestly had little to do with it.

Do you find that the skills you use for fiction writing and for your creative work at Olson intersect at alland how? What do students of writing and literature bring to the advertising world?

[Professor Emeritus] Michael Dennis Browne used to say "no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." It's true in advertising as well. Fiction writing at the novel level taught me how to sniff out the trite and the pedestrian, how to craft a voice somebody actually cares about, and how to embrace emotional truths. Those are all very helpful in advertising, especially these days when brands are dying to be "authentic."

Also, the idea of getting your butt into the chair and doing work, every day—it's true in advertising too.

What doesn't apply is the hyper-personal privilege that comes from being artist. Fiction writers and poets and memoirists deserve to revel in their creations, and treasure them, and fight like hell for them. Literally no one else will. But ad copywriters and art directors are not artists. They are problem solvers—they simply have an artful gift for doing it. I have become ridiculously good at killing my darlings--nothing is precious in advertising. It takes lots and lots of attempts to get something good, and the knives come out with way more frequency, and way less sympathy, than anyplace else.

You often post Mad Men quotes on your Twitter feed. What part of its portrait of the advertising career felt real to you and what felt fake?

I resisted that show for a long time—it felt way to close to home. But now I really love it, and re-watch it often. The writing is a compelling blend of satisfying quips and deep human insights. To me, it's the best thing on television, aside from Hogan's Heroes reruns.

As far as how they capture advertising, I haven't really worked at a firm at Don and Roger's level—but for the places I have worked, the agency process depicted in the show is pretty spot on. The stress and the self-doubt and drinking, but also the account-creative relationship, the theater we try to create for presentations, the ultimate power and ultimate frailty of the client. And how a great idea can change a brand, and a career, forever. So yes, a lot of it rings true. I squirm, and nod, at many, many scenes. I also appreciate how well the show documents the struggles Peggy and Joan face: a lot of those are unfortunately still with us.

The show rings false when it tries to go too far in the advertising-as-life metaphor. Advertising is a business. Life is life.

Are you still finding time for fiction writing?

I struggle to find time to write. It's probably just me being lazy. But also I know I'm not a natural: writing comes hard and slow for me. I feel like I need to dive in completely to be successful; the 200 words a day thing just doesn't feel right for me. I have a lot of emotion about it, honestly. I miss it. But when my creative and political self is spent after nine hours in advertising, I feel more compelled to make up something with my eight-year-old daughter, or just go for a walk with her—that's a creation more worthy of my talents.

I am, however, working slowly on stories. A friend's father, who has practiced clinical therapy for 40 years, says one story is the best depiction of depression he's ever read. So I got that going. And I am slowly, slowly working on a short story about a tornado and falling in love with a horse. It's complicated.

What books are you reading or have you recently enjoyed?

Haruki Murakami is like comfort food—his short stories, especially. I've been reading Vonnegut lately (Galapagos and others) and just being so pleased to rediscover his cranky-ass mastery. I have recently taken many late-night moments of solace from fellow alumnus Jenny Willoughby's magnificent first collection of poetry, Beautiful Zero. I just read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time, out loud to my daughter, and both of us remain transported.

But Alice Munro is a lifelong partner for me, to be read and reread and reread again. Her Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage is dog-eared next to my side of the bed. She remains a teacher in the joy and catastrophe of being human—I don't even think of her as a writer, actually. That's not fiction. It's alchemy. It's divination.