What can poetry learn from advertising?

David Nobay

“Poetry should hail the nearest Uber and get the f* out of the immediate, festering vicinity of adland”

David Nobay (or ‘Nobby’ to those who know him), is one of those people for whom the term ‘titan’ genuinely applies. He’s the rare kind of person whose charisma fills the room, despite not uttering a word. He’s also the kind of person whose delivery of a line of copy for a beer ad could have you believe Tennyson was in the room, thundering through his stanzas from opening hook to punchline.

Nobby started in advertising at the age of 19 as a copywriter at O&M Direct in London. He founded Droga 5 in Sydney, and in 2016 he launched Marcel Sydney and joined the Publicis Creative Board. Besides being one of advertising’s most awarded copywriters, Nobby is also a playwright, painter and poet in his own right. Which makes him the perfect person to answer the question – what can poetry learn from advertising?

Well, just for starters, there’s brevity. Poetry rambles on. Meanders all over the place. Good body copy, by contrast, is pithy. As stripped down and brutally utilitarian as an Aero chair.

No self-indulgent, non-sensical, verbal flower show. Left to right; a good ad-argument. Powered by the pistons of tried and tested formula…A.I.D.C.A…say it with me..”Attention…do I have YOUR attention?” “Interest…are you interested (still?)?”…”Desire…what’s in it for ME?”…”Conviction…why should I believe you?”…”Action: what do you want me to DO?”

Now drop and give me 50. And puke.

OK, for the terminally literal amongst you…I’m being sarcastic. Poetry can and should learn zero from advertising. Poetry instead should hail the nearest Uber and get the fuck out of the immediate, festering vicinity of adland. Preferably, with skates on. Attached to nuclear-fueled drones.

Poetry is, or certainly was last time I had a gander, part of the reassuringly murky bogland of “art”. And, if the last 30 years have taught me anything both conclusive and faintly encouraging, advertising is most definitely not art.

Many, I concede, have done their damndest to prove me wrong. Some, if only momentarily, have even succeeded. More have gone bat-shit crazy in the ascent. Yes, some of our industry’s most iconic moments have leveraged the artist’s deft brushwork…from Sony to Guinness; British Airways to Honda…but in its marrow, it was not art. It was artistic. Because advertising is procured (and, increasingly, prescribed) by our clients. Nothing wrong with that. Love clients. Gorgeous people. But, alas, kryptonite, when it comes to true art. Clients, for instance, require constant reassurance that their investment is on course. Even after completion, they demand scientific verification that the result is worthy of release. And their precious fees, rewarded by tangible results and response. Again; entirely understandable.

But artists, by contrast, only start when they sense something in their soul is bursting to escape. Not when the phone starts ringing. And, crucially, they only stop when they, and they alone, feel their journey is complete. Not when an email instructs them to.

Personally, it’s what I love about the process (or not) of both painting and writing. No-one tells me to do it. No-one tells me when to stop. The twist being, no-one pays me. Well, sometimes they do. But only “after the fact”. They are not involved in its inception or conception. They are unnecessary and, vitally, so are their opinions.

This is the poets’ wager: untethered from the chain-mail, claustrophobia of opinion and, yet, unprotected by the pillowy cushioning of a secure, legal contract.

There are times, of course, when for me I have watched both worlds collide and collude with the skill of the alchemist. Hence, I assume, your original request for a perspective.

Almost 20 years ago, three of my poems were filmed by the, then, director du jour Gerard De Thame for The New York Times brand campaign and, with a perverse irony lost at the time on my arrogant youth, so generously voiced by the greatest living (then, alas, now deceased) contemporary American poet, Maya Angelou.

More recently, eight of my poems were realized by eight Australian filmmakers for the ABC project “ARTBREAKS”.

This particular project probably came closest to subverting the inherent divide in my two worlds, as each collaborator was left entirely free to improvise and interpret my words at will. In this case, the client (ABC TV) valiantly avoided the temptation to intercede and the result, in my opinion, more than rewarded their integrity.

But such marriages are, as the wonderfully Australian saying goes “as rare as hen’s teeth”.

And perhaps we’re better for it.

David Nobay, A Curate's Egga still from ABC Artbreak’s ‘The Scimitar’s Arc’

David Nobay, A Curate's Egga still from ABC Artbreak’s ‘Felled’

David Nobay, A Curate's Egga still from ABC Artbreak’s ‘Felled’

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