To land his first copywriting job, my father was asked a question that still resonates today.
In my father’s recently released memoir on his 50-year career in advertising, “Pickett, Plunkett and Puckett,” he mentions a test he had to take in order to qualify for a job as copywriter on the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. In the early ’60s, Sears, Roebuck and Co. (and its iconic catalog) literally was the textbook for retailing in the United States. Called the “Wish Book,” the Sears catalog contained anything and everything (even houses!), and it was a staple in every home—kind of the Amazon of its day.
However, the Sears catalog copywriter job was hardly glamorous and wasn’t supposed to be. Sears was about as old school as could be: dress codes, pneumatic tubes and a cafeteria.
All his pages detailing the inner workings of the Sears marketing department are fascinating, but, for me, it was the test my father took that stands out. Anachronistic now, back in the day, psychological profiling was used at companies all over America to determine whether an applicant was the “right fit” for the job and company. Back then, folks entered into a career hoping—nay expecting—to work at a given firm the rest of their lives. The companies wanted that too, and so, standardized tests, however futile, were developed to ensure its likelihood.
My father singles out one question from the test: Would you rather write the play, star in the play or sell tickets to the play? My father rightly guesses that the company is not looking for big creative egos at Sears and answers “sell tickets to the play.” However, like any writer, what he really would have liked to answer is “write the play.” These days, I’m guessing that’s what every aspiring writer would like to do. Honestly, the way things are now, I’m betting quite a few young creatives would rather star in the play as well.
It’s easy making fun of this archaic test, so corny and out of touch. But the question is pretty damn interesting when you think about it. From day one, copywriters have wrestled with their urges to be creative versus their mandate to sell. Even now, the challenge is still a major aspect of the job. Whether one works at a conservative shop or some eclectic boutique, all on staff struggle with creativity. The lame rejoinder of “well, you gotta do both” is generally where everyone nets out. Sears had no such dilemma, which makes my father’s anecdote provocative nostalgia.
In the end, my father writes that he fared poorly on the test but somehow landed the job anyway.
The Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog stopped printing in 1993, and the company struggles to remain relevant. However, some of the lessons from its storied past remain.
Steffan Postaer is Executive Creative Director of gyro San Francisco.
Follow him @Steffan1
He blogs regularly at Gods of Advertising.