freelance writing tips from an advertising master

If, as Ernest Hemingway once told a reporter, the one essential tool of a good writer is “a built-in, shock-proof crap detector,” then Bob Hoffman, CEO of Hoffman/Lewis advertising in San Francisco and St. Louis, possesses one of the most finely-calibrated, jewel-movement, brass-cased crap detectors in service today.

Hoffman’s blog, The Ad Contrarian, covers today’s advertising scene. He offers cogent advice based on over 30 years of experience in the ad business. He doesn’t suffer fools, gladly or otherwise, and doesn’t mind saying why not. Hoffman believes that advertising “has one simple purpose: to find something interesting to say that will make someone buy your stuff.”

Hoffman’s free book, The Ad Contrarian: Getting Beyond the Fleeting Trends, False Goals, and Dreadful Jargon of Contemporary Advertising, is the distilled essence of that principle, both in format and in content. Here’s a quick review that I hope will convince you to order your own copy and read it in a single sitting, and then go apply his insights in your own writing.

Even before you open the book, you’ll start learning something valuable. The book is small — 5′ x 7.5′, and only 65 pages — and it’s very nicely put together. The cover has a satin finish and crisp resolution, the pages are thick and off-white, and the font is very eye-friendly. We writers tend to forget that design and production convey a message that’s just as important as the one conveyed by the words inside. It’s an increasingly rare treat to come across a book that reminds us by example.

The contents are divided into 16 chapters in two parts. The first part, which accounts for two-thirds of the book, reprints classic entries from the blog, covering topics such as how to aim your message, avoiding clichés, and the difference between puzzles and mysteries. (If you’re thinking, “Reprinted blog entries? I might as well just go to the blog and print them myself!” remember, the book is free and you didn’t pay for the paper or toner cartridge. Also, go back and reread the preceding paragraph.)

There’s a lot of good advice for freelance writers — who, like ad people, are in the business of finding something interesting to say that will make people buy our stuff — to be found throughout this part of the book:

“A strong brand is a by-product. It comes from doing a lot of other things right. For example:

  1. “Make sure you’re selling excellent products.
  2. “Make sure you’re taking good care of your customers.
  3. “Make sure your ads demonstrate how you are different from and better than your competitors.” (p.11)


“Most information about business problems is not conclusive on the surface. It requires a special intelligence to examine imprecise, unfiltered, often contradictory information and come up with a correct analysis.” (p.23)

“If the message is right, who cares what screen people watch it on? If he message is wrong, what difference does it make?” (p.28)

The second part of the book lays out Hoffman’s three principles of Performance-Based Advertising (PBA), which help you identify prudent and efficient advertising techniques. I won’t give them away here, of course. But you’ll actually find them pretty handy and relevant for writing, too.

Do yourself the favor of acquiring this little gem. I think it will end up on your writing reference shelf between Strunk & White (it’s taller) and Zinsser’s On Writing Well (it’s thinner).

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.