It was the late ‘90s and I found myself riffing poetry for a then start-up company calling itself ‘Crumpler’. These bike couriers had realised the bags they’d sewn for themselves to carry packages were a better business proposition than making deliveries. They needed to put out a brochure and I was working as a magazine editor in the same studio with the graphic designer who’d dreamed up Crumpler’s logo. “What do they want me to write?” I asked the designer. Two messages came back: 1) the Crumpler boys liked the Beastie Boys album, Paul’s Boutique; and 2) “Do what you want.” So I riffed some poetic product and company descriptions in the style of the Beastie Boys. The Crumpler boys loved it and a creative partnership that lasted a decade was born.
Writing that first Crumpler catalogue was the moment I realised creative writing could have a relationship with business (even if I didn’t understand the business side well enough – I undercharged and got stuck with it). And for a writer more used to penning poetry, creative journalism and fiction, I couldn’t have received a better copywriting brief than do what you want. The Crumpler team and the designer set the themes for catalogues, swing tags and other marketing paraphernalia, but I was left with the fun task of moulding the brand’s voice.
By accepting written material that bore almost no relationship with the products they were selling, Crumpler took an enormous risk. But it paid off. The copy’s irreverence matched the Crumpler boys’ personalities, and so the Crumpler ‘voice’ represented both the brand’s and the founders’ sensibilities. Strongly Australian, the voice still worked in a global market. What it meant for Crumpler as a commercial entity was an authenticity that became the envy of other brands. So much so that many businesses took Crumpler’s ‘strategy’ (it was anything but) as a starting point for developing their own brand’s voice.
I have an MA in creative arts (poetry) and I’m studying now for a PhD in English (fiction). I’ve published three books of fiction and poetry, as well as stories, poems and articles. But, along with tutoring, copywriting for businesses has financed (much more so than freelance journalism) my creative writing habit.
I’ve found that progressive businesses value true creativity. For one company, I wrote a chaptered story with a health theme. The firm serialized it via their monthly e-news. I also wrote poetry for that company. This creativity in its e-news demonstrated to its clients a creative approach to business solutions. And the company’s growth has been exponential.
In any copywriting I do, I try to maintain harmony between my creative self and my clients’ needs. Which isn’t easy. When I started writing for Crumpler, it was a revelation to realise that skills I’d developed through writing poetry and fiction could have a business application. And bringing those skills to clients’ copywriting needs is a challenge I still enjoy, despite having moved deeper now into my poetry and fiction writing.
Many artists consider it a sell-out to work in the world of business, particularly marketing. And I initially had similar concerns; it took me a long time to reconcile the fact that I was writing crazy poetry for Crumpler (and getting paid for it) that I’d have happily adapted for my own creative and mostly non-commercial purposes. But what ended up happening was my commercial work with Crumpler (and other brands) informed my creative work – and vice-versa.
When I look back at the now long-termish relationship between my creative writing and business writing, I see I’ve struggled with ethical questions and questions of artistic purity. Initially, I didn’t take any jobs that weren’t what I considered fun. Then I didn’t take any jobs for businesses that I considered greedy. Or too corporate. I wrote mostly for not-for-profits, welfare organisations, tourist bodies, government, food and wine organisations, fashion clients and sporting clubs/businesses.
But, underneath it all (due to a weird combination of my politics and religious views), I see that I held until my early thirties a notion that profit-making businesses were inherently evil. That was until I worked part-time at a food and wine magazine. I met people who were in business, but loved what they were doing. I genuinely got the sense that, for 80 per cent of them, they would keep doing it even if the bottoms fell out of their profits. After that working at the magazine, I’ve met many top quality, non-greedy, passionate people who run businesses for many other reasons than just profit.
I look back at my immature self and laugh. I still have strong ethical boundaries around the organisations for which I write copy, but I don’t believe all profit-making businesses are spawns of Satan. Some are, but, hey, they can tempt me all they want, my keypad will be dormant.
But, for others, I’m open for the poetics of business.
Paul Mitchell is a past Going Down Swinging contributor and features in issues No. 19–No. 23, No. 28 and No. 30. Paul’s books are Dodging the Bull (short fiction), Awake Despite the Hour and Minorphysics (both poetry).