“Ad agencies provide a good canvass for a murder mystery,” says Michael Craven, a 38-year-old associate creative director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, explaining the setting of his recently published first novel, Body Copy. “There are a lot of smart people, attractive people, people who are semi-famous and creative people who don’t necessarily make decisions in a rational way — and then of course there is jealousy and ego sometimes. There are some nice ingredients for a crime story.”
The Harper novel tells the tale of a former pro surfer turned P.I. who investigates the murder of the famous creative director at Gale/Parker, a fictitious Los Angeles agency known for its award-winning work. One chief suspect is an envious, not-so-celebrated local competitor.
“I love detective novels and always wanted to write one,” says Craven, a Jacksonville, Fla., native who studied English at the University of Georgia before beginning his advertising career as an assistant at Grey Entertainment in New York in the mid-’90s.
“I had a vague sense that I wanted to be a writer,” says Craven, who counts Ross Macdonald, Carl Hiaasen and friend James Frey as a few of his favorite authors. “But I didn’t know what kind of writer or really what that meant or how you made that happen.”
A friend at Simon & Schuster, where he first worked after moving to New York post-graduation in 1992, introduced him to someone at Grey and set him on a career path in advertising that took him to MTV’s in-house agency, then to TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa del Rey, Calif., and most recently to Crispin, where he began as a senior copywriter on Burger King in 2007 and now serves as an associate creative director on the Microsoft account.
“It’s big, intense and exciting,” says Craven, who shares the acd role on the business with his art director partner Dave Steinke.
Colleagues in the agency world may find some of the industry-related details in the book familiar, but Craven says the people and places in the novel are entirely made up. “None of the people are based on anyone real, [but] I think both the agencies and the people feel authentic,” he says. “Hopefully, it’s fun for people who are in advertising and people who aren’t. I found it was a fun way to show what advertising was like from the eyes of an outsider.”
Those looking for references to his current agency home will be disappointed. Several years in the making, the book was written while Craven was working as a freelancer in Los Angeles, not during his current tenure at Crispin, long one of adland’s hottest shops.
In fact, readers are more likely to see similarities to TBWA\C\D, where Craven worked in the late-’90s, in his depiction of the victim’s agency.
The book isn’t Craven’s first creative stab. Although he spent his early career as a writer at entertainment agencies in New York, when he first moved to L.A., he pursued a career as a TV scriptwriter and had some success, writing for ABC’s Spin City and You Wish, a short-lived sitcom that lasted for 13 episodes.
“It was fun to write in a different medium,” he reflects. “The process of TV writing, even though I didn’t know much at the time, is very collaborative and you spend a lot of time sitting around a table punching up each other’s scripts. Even though the show didn’t survive, it was fun and it was cool.”
After You Wish was cancelled, Craven began freelancing at L.A. agencies and eventually landed at TBWA\C\D. “It exposed me to a level of creativity I hadn’t yet been exposed to,” says Craven, who worked on the agency’s ABC business for about two years. “The whole environment was exciting and showed me the possibilities that happened in the industry. It was there that I decided this is what I am going to stick with — advertising.”
Craven’s drawn from all of his experiences, he says, and he’s learned from every agency he’s worked at, large and small.
“You have to do things in terms of your responsibilities [at small shops] that you don’t have to do at larger agencies and it’s good for you,” he says. “You have to answer the phone at the reception desk or make phone calls that a producer might ordinarily do. In the end, you learn the other sides of the business, but also learn a humility that helps you when you move to an agency where that is not the case.”
He is currently working on a second novel — another Donald Tremaine P.I. adventure — only this time, “the detective is more in the Hollywood culture and Los Angeles culture in general,” Craven says.
Though thoroughly dedicated to his advertising career, writing fiction provides him a much-needed respite from his day job. “I like to have a creative outlet on the side,” he says. “It really helps me to come back to the advertising with a new eye and renewed energy.”