Laura Silverman is a writer. She writes advertising campaigns, copy, content, editorial, speeches, brand strategy, names of things, slogans, taglines: she can “traffic in content,” “boil down a stream of consciousness to a gleaming nugget of information,” or “spin new concepts and transform existing ones.” (You can find all the details here.) And she has her own blog. She lives with her director-cameraman husband, George Billard, in a hamlet in the woods two hours northwest of Manhattan, and in between writing taglines for Gap or campaigns for Rolex, she tries to find time for a novel she’s been working on for five years.
Silverman grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in Santa Cruz, California, with a father who was a professor of Spanish literature and a Spanish-language teacher mother. “My mother was of Mexican-American descent, my father was a Jew from Brooklyn,” says Silverman, “and they met in Spain in 1949, right after Franco reopened Spain to tourists.” The family went back to Spain to live in Madrid every few years each time Professor Silverman earned a sabbatical, so his daughter grew up speaking Spanish fluently. When she speaks English, it’s at New Yorker–style top speed—not to mention with deadpan delivery and comic timing: after she graduated from Harvard with a degree in comparative literature, she says, “family expectations were high—so I moved to New York and went to work in the fashion business.”
Those expectations weren’t actually so easy to shake. “In some sense I spent 25 years disappointing myself pursuing a successful career in advertising, “ says Silverman. “I wasn’t really raised to value that.” Surprisingly, perhaps, during that career Silverman held only three staff jobs, none of them lasting more than a couple of years—copy director at the high-end department store Bergdorf Goodman, a similar position at Coach, the bagmaker, and finally a creative vice-president at Saks Fifth Avenue. In between those, and for a number of years since now, she’s worked without let-up as a freelance copywriter, sometimes with advertising agencies, more often directly with clients. “I don’t do well in a corporate structure,” she says. “I’m too blunt and confrontational.”
Silverman knows why she’s in demand. “I understand language. My writing is very tight, very concise, very targeted.” There are other valuable qualities she brings to the table. “I’m very organized, very timely, I work very quickly. I’ve never missed a deadline in my entire career, so I’m very reliable. And I’m very frank about what I think the client needs.” In a world where the work is fast by nature, people come to her for an even quicker turnaround. “Most often I’m coming in to solve a problem,” she says. “I’m helping to create a new voice or positioning for a brand, which ultimately an in-house team will execute.” Whether it’s trouble-shooting, or last-minute finessing, or big strategy work, she has some clients she’s worked with on and off for years. Occasionally she’s hired on a retainer but, she admits, she gets bored fairly easily. “I like to work on different things and solve different problems for different clients.”
This kind of detachment, though, doesn’t mean Silverman isn’t invested in the final product: it must be well written, she says, it must “meet the goals, be compelling and engaging.” Stylistically, she adds, “the goal of the commercial writer is to be chameleon-like, to be able to adapt or invent your style as a client’s needs dictate”; but she still brings her own slant to copywriting. “I often use literary references, cultural references—I bring in my personal passion, which makes the writing more alive.” This married perfectly with the ethos behind the Japanese brand Takashimaya when it opened a Manhattan branch. “It’s a very eclectic, ethereal, sophisticated, high-end store that curated all kinds of beautiful merchandise from all over the world, and they gave me and the design team that I worked with a very free hand in creating a voice,” epitomized by Silverman’s line Takashimaya is not a store. “We were saying, ‘It’s transcendent. It’s a world apart. A sensory experience that takes you to the four corners of the world.’” Her work on their catalogue, Silverman says, was “just a lot of flights of fancy, where I could go off on any extension I wanted.” So she’d describe a dinner party to sell napkins and glasses:
Is an unmistakable sound. In a room reverberating with voices, laughter and music, the delicate clashing of crystal against crystal is as recognizable as the lure of diamonds, the scent of caviar. Understated yet incredibly powerful. Japanese handcut crystal tumblers and old-fashioneds in four refined deco-inspired patterns…
Dinner at eight
And you arrive and greet your friends and you kiss an old flame and you have a glass of wine and you walk out onto the terrace and inhale the early evening air and you laugh at a strange tale and you sit down to dinner and inhale a thick chop and more wine and you wipe your mouth, deeply satisfied. Italian linen napkins with hemstitched edges…
“It was very poetic, and very literary,” she says. A lot of clients, she adds, feel you have to talk directly about the merchandise, but what she thinks is more successful “is to create a world that prospective customers want to inhabit so greatly that they buy into merchandise.”
People are reading less and less, says Silverman, so that a lot of advertising is about brevity now; at the same time, however, she’s also seeing a whole artisanal/ handmade/ rarefied/ human-hand-really-crafting-an-object approach to advertising aimed at very high-end consumers in magazines like Departures. “It’s more narrative-driven copy that really tells the story behind something,” she explains. “There’s brevity, like Nike’s ‘Just do it’ mantra, but there’s also telling a real story behind a brand. These two positions coexist and yet are poles apart.”
Any given brand or client can have as many as five or six messages that they’re trying to cram into a very small phrase. That means the writer has to prioritize and condense so as to find a way “to deliver that writing in some kind of emotional stream,” says Silverman, “so it goes into the consumer’s mind in a way that it doesn’t feel like advertising—if possible.” The trick, if that’s the right word, is a message that delivers something beyond “buy this.” It’s a tribute to Silverman that a lot of her ad work is based entirely on the words, with no images as such at all. One holiday campaign she did for Saks came about because there was no budget to shoot anything, she says. “I shaped snowflakes into symbols—the female and male symbols, I think we did a heart and a peace sign—and each had a little message in tiny type, like ‘Saks loves a women’s right to shoes.’” The “Saks loves” idea underscored Saks as a fashion authority and helped give it what Silverman calls “an editorial point of view.” And, she adds, “it warmed up the store, making it feel a bit more irreverent, less stuffy and middle-aged.”
Rare is the time, however, when a copywriter can just turn in a few well-honed words and go home. “Usually it’s a collaboration,” Silverman says, “and different people are weighing in. It’s also highly subjective, so what one person thinks is funny, another might not.” One of those rare “just do it” moments, though, came with a tagline Silverman wrote for Bergdorf Goodman in New York: The only city in the world, the only store in the city. It was used in their advertising for years. “They were all about being the ultimate New York store,” she says. “I just came up with the line, and it was universally accepted.”
“I’m not responsible for the visuals,” says Silverman. “I’m all about the writing. But I may say, for example, this is the image I’m picturing and this is the line that would go with it, though generally I’m working with broader concepts than that.” For a Gap campaign she’s working on now, Gap had already shot the imagery. “I don’t know whether they were piggybacking on another photo shoot or what,” says Silverman, “but basically they had shot all these images and didn’t yet have a concept.” She ended up having to help them “back into” the concept to work with the images they had. “That’s not uncommon in this business,” she adds, dryly.
In recent years, Silverman has had to market herself very specifically with stress on current lingo in order to respond to the perception that there’s something new about writing for the online world. “People say, ‘Oh, have you written for websites?’ as if it’s different from other writing,” she says. “Essentially what I do is come up with ideas. I’m a creative. It doesn’t make much difference to me whether I’m working on a TV ad, a print ad, or something that’s going to go in a digital space. It’s all coming from the same place.” Of course, it’s part of her own “content” now: when she moved out of New York City, a few years ago, she got inspired to start a blog that she calls Glutton For Life, giving expression to her love of cooking and entertaining (back in the early ’90s she considered doing a cooking/crafting show with MTV).
The blog writing is a little bit of a bridge between her two worlds of writing. “If writing a novel is playing the oboe, then writing a blog is playing the recorder: they’re the same, but different. I play both instruments,” says Silverman, “so I know what I’m talking about.” For the blog, where she posts regularly, around five days a week, she creates recipes, interviews chefs and writers, reviews books and writes about film and cultural events. It’s a labor of love, she says, but the commitment is a struggle, too. “I’m always trying to figure out how to prioritize.”
Struggle to juggle
The big struggle for Silverman is juggling her commercial work with her own novel writing, where in essence, she says, she is “trying to capture some aspect of the human condition in a way that’s more intellectual, more emotionally engaging, and certainly more languid.” Though she brings the same brain and sensibility to both types of writing, “if you have to stop and take time out to do a job the difficulties of getting back in the groove are huge,” she says. “It’s horrible. It’s a terrible challenge.”
The novel, she says, is about three generations of a family and the lies that tear them apart and keep them together. “I would say my biggest challenge with it is being able to separate,” she adds. “I’ve tried saying ‘I’m only going to work on copywriting Monday through Wednesday, and then work on my novel Thursday to Friday,’” but it doesn’t really work. “And I’ve tried mornings and evenings only, but if I’m on deadline for a project and haven’t finished it the day before, when I wake up I have to keep doing it.” So far, the best solution has been one that appeared after she took a novel-writing class at the New School. “I met a couple of people there whose work I liked, so we formed our own group. We meet every couple of months and read one another’s pages. Just having that deadline is the best thing for me—I just power down and grind it out because I have to.” She and the other two—Maija Makkinen, a translator who writes in Finnish and English, and Amin Ahmad, an Indian writer who’s a little further along (he recently got an agent and a two-book deal)—mail their work ahead of time, read, and then get together in person or sometimes over Skype. “I need to get it finished,” says Silverman, but at the same time she is also pursuing an idea she has for a cookbook. “At best I’d say I’m multitasking, at worst I’d say I’m horribly fragmented and struggling!”
Leaving the city
Letting go of the commercial work for Silverman isn’t in the cards for now. “You think I’d have done it before, but I do enjoy it. I can’t say I hate my work or anything like that,” she says. “If I did I would probably have forced my way out of it sooner.” She likes the collaborative aspect, and the fact that she also has the freedom to work alone.
She met her husband, George, six years ago; it was a couple of years after that they decided to move full-time to their weekend house upstate. “I think both of those things have really given me the security, and the freedom, and the confidence to pursue the kind of writing I really want to do,” she says. ”Living in the country and not getting shoved on the subway every day helps my writing. For one thing, my creativity has just exploded.” When people ask, “What do you do up there? How do you stay busy?” Silverman tells them the days go by in a blink of an eye, but the distractions are different. In the city she was constantly running out, going to the gym, meeting people, shopping, visiting museums. “It was very energizing and stimulating, and a lot of people do creative things there,” she says, “but all the writers I know say that they have to leave the city in order to really write.”—LUCY SISMAN