Written by: Eric Jay Sonnenschein
Synopsis: In Ad Nomad, the Case Histories of Dane Bacchus, we enter the world of pharmaceutical advertising, where corrupt and ingenious creative minds market powerful medicines and sophisticated devices with more flair and guile than is used in promoting corn flakes, cars, and mouthwash. In these pages, you will find driven account people, maniacal creative directors, art directors and copywriters pushed to the brink of mental mayhem. Ad Nomad is a coming of age novel about a second-career seeker that describes the quest for self-actualization and the struggle for survival with muckraking naturalism and surreal humor.
In Australia there s a series of shows named Gruen (insert various second title here), which looks at advertising through the eyes of advertisers. It's fascinating to watch a panel of copywriters de-construct election campaigns, publicity spin, and the latest coke ad - and disagree so often! And while I wouldn't be in a rush to join the profession (unless in was Mad Men era minus the misogyny and racism) it's become something of a budding interest of mine. So imagine my delight when Eric Jay Sonnenschein asked if I'd read and review his book Ad Nomad - which is all about advertising and provides a not-so-pretty glimpse into the realities of that world.
Ad Nomad is a BIG book, like, 600 pages big, and while I think this is probably enough to put a few of you off I'm going to talk you down off that cliff and explain why the size isn't really an issue, and why you should perhaps in actual fact give this book a go. This book is split up rather neatly into 7 sections, all of which read almost like individual little books. There is most definitely a larger story that binds them all together, the story of Dane Bacchus entering a late-in-life career change into advertising and trying to keep from leaping off tall buildings as a result, but each section deals with a period in Dane's life post-career change. Section one is his hunt to re-educate and find the elusive advertising job, part 2 is his first job, part 3 is his second job and so on. So even though you have 600 pages of Dane Bacchus to explore, there isn't really that overbearing feeling of "oh my god, this book is monstrous and is going to devour my soul before I devour it". Which is good. But in the end, what is 600 pages if the book is well written and interesting? Exactly.
Dane Bacchus is an interesting character and I think I kind of hate him! Although I commend him for being proactive and deciding on a career change at 44, his ego is so large (and yet his self-esteem is so low) that it seems like the only way he would have been happy from the get-go is if he'd been offered a job as CEO, and even then I'm not so sure he'd really be satisfied. Dane spent his first career teaching at a university and struggling to make it as an author. Needless to say he never had success with either, or at least, not the sort of success that brings in enough money to support your wife and daughter. Once he decides on advertising (known to make people money, but also be creative) he struggles between his low self-esteem (can he keep his family fed?) and his ego (MY idea is the right idea, even if this is only my second day) and becomes almost unbearable. He questions everyone's expertise, argues over content, and locks horns over people's personality traits or quirks. At times Dane is completely in the right and I would be cheering him on when he finally stood up to the big-shot copywriters or the pretentious art director, but more often than not the disagreements came from his own insecurities or issues of ego. Now, I may have hated him a little as a person, but I loved him as a character. His fallibilities are, as always, interesting to read, especially when the novel is as much a character study as this one is.
As for the actual plot of the book, it may leave you feeling rather depressed. There is no glamour, no quick fixes and while Dane does a pretty decent job working his way up the advertising ladder it's filled with hard work, long hours and the animosity of clients and co-workers alike. It gels very well with the impression I've always been given that advertising is a finnicky career, and the reality that Sonnenschein imbues in this book is at times both hilarious and upsetting. Along with Dane's persistent search for the ad that will make him famous, this book touches on the minutia of office life - leaking air-conditioning, pervasive cigarette smoke, strokes in toilets, and the variety of characters which can be found in any work environment- the co-workers who gossip and spread rumours behind your back, the boss who hates you for no discernible reason, the lay-about, the old-timer, and the person with the inappropriate crush. You can change the career and go up a pay-grade or two, but at the end of the day a job is a job, and those tedious details will follow you everywhere. Which is not to say that no job can give you fulfilment, but if you expect your career to change your life you will likely find that reality hits hard.
Sonnenschein is a strong writer, and Ad Nomad is extremely well-written. At times the names of characters border on the ridiculous (Buzz Dingblatz for instance) and Dane's ego actually becomes unbearable (an issue with porn for instance) but the humour, insight into the industry and interesting questions raised around creativity and creativity in a business setting are strong enough to let those smaller issues slide. So don't let the size hold you back, take it one section at a time and be sure to report back on how you felt about Dane and his quest for ultimate creative control.