Interview: Porsche Ad Writer John Doessel - Ad Patina

Interview: Porsche Ad Writer John Doessel

The Man Who Wrote Porsche Ads

A few weeks ago I posted a bunch of Porsche ads on my Instagram. I woke up the next morning to a message from someone saying, "Had the honor of working on Porsche print ads for 7 years." It felt like someone famous started following me! I immediately shot over a Direct Message. A reply came just as fast. What ensued was a fury of messaging back and forth, culminating in a coffee date the next day. Yup, serendipitously, this person happened to live practically next door to me! Long story short, I was incredibly fortunate that my routine Porsche post led to this remarkable interview.

What a treat this has been. There's more to come... For now, I hope you enjoy our conversation. I sure learned a lot - and love Porsche ads more than ever :) 

Nick Federowicz: Tell us briefly about your career background working on Porsche ads...

John Doessel: Hey Nick. I was a copywriter on Porsche Cars North America for about 8 years (2015-2023). I worked at Cramer-Krasselt then and work at Carmichael Lynch now. Which, coincidently, was the agency that held the Porsche account from 1999-2008. So, yeah, I’ve been immersed and surrounded by Porsche my entire advertising career. And I’ve been fortunate to do it with the same creative partner (art director) the entire time – John McKenzie. “The Johns.” More than just our names, we also have the same experience growing up around the brand. Our dads always had one in the garage. The fascination began early and it's a decades-long love and passion we brought to the work every day. 

NF: Wait hold up... before we get to my questions, tell me more about the Porsche in the garage... 

JD: Yeah. My Dad bought a Guards Red ‘86 Turbo-look Cabriolet when I was 7. A few years later he sold it and bought a 1996 C4S 993. Then did the same for a Guards Red 2006 Turbo. And now has a 2013 Grand Prix White GT3. We still both think about that C4S… 

NF: Love that story - and picture! Okay... question time. The design of the print ads you wrote copy for is similar to the look of Porsche ads going back to the late 1990s. What agency created that campaign and why do you think this layout has been a constant format for so long, even through agency change?

JD: I believe Goodby Silverstein & Partners established the white background, image-on-top, headline-and-body-copy-beneath design. Carmichael then really made it famous. And, yeah, it stuck. Because, like so much of what Porsche does, it was simple, elegant, and then… timeless.

NF: Did you feel a sense of responsibility to continue the great copywriting these ads are known for?

JD: The sense of responsibility to the brand and the work was established long before my first day. Like I mentioned, I grew up with these cars in the garage, posters on the walls, and Excellence magazines on the side tables. I had a personal responsibility to contribute at a high level. I was contributing to the Porsche advertising canon. 

NF: Sounds like a dream job for you... Tough to get? 

JD: Writing for Porsche is a grail job in advertising. The interview process reflected that. Part of the process was a “Porsche writing test” which was there to make sure you knew your way around a headline and could continue the high-standard and legacy of the brand. I’ve never had one of these for another brand. One of the questions was, “Write a headline that convinces someone with 2 cars in the garage, and a boat, that they needs to buy a $60,000 sports car.” My line: “Never look back. Unless it’s at the engine.” A bit of insider engineering knowledge. Nice construction. On tone. It must have worked…

NF: Well that headline is genius. I would've hired you on the spot and given you an advance on your year-end bonus! I'm sure the agency appreciated that you "got it" - I imagine they were very-knowledgeable about Porsche ads.

JD: Oh yeah. My first day a “bible” got set on my desk. It was every Porsche print ad ever made. Scanned, printed, and organized in a 3-ring binder. HEAVY. Man, that thing was awesome. I read the heck out of that. Organized in a perfectly chaotic mixture of chronological and by model. Fallon. Goodby. Carmichael. Us. It was always the Carmichael era ads that stuck with me most. Probably because those were the ads I was seeing when I was at my most automotive impressionable age. The headlines were smart, insightful, witty. Wry-smile-inducing. And the staccato, sharp, lean body copy. They had a big impact on my writing style. And what I brought to the Porsche brand in my 8 years.

NF: That's my kind of "bible"... And sounds much neater than my system for organizing ads. Being an adman, do you have any old Porsche ads at home? 

JD: I feel embarrassed. No, I don’t. Well, until you make me one! I do have an old dealer poster of a 964 though - “Compromise is for politicians.”

NF: I can definitely help with getting you an old ad ;) 

NF: How do you come up with the perfect words and phrases to capture a reader's attention - and capture the spirit of the model?

JD: Every writing assignment has a headline brief. (Or should…) Something that, strategically, every headline should point back to. So, personally, I always start by pinning that up somewhere whether digitally or physically. Then, I write and write and write. Most of what comes out is crappy half thoughts. The stuff I like, I put a little * by and come back to it later. Most of the time, those * lines have a nice idea to them but aren’t yet constructed in the best possible way. So, you start to mess with them. Write it backwards, chop it in half, etc. Until you find the best expression of it. For example: “Kills bugs fast” may have started as “insects beware.” Same idea. Different expressions. One of them, a lot better.

NF: Love that example. Are you ultimately coming up with headlines all by yourself? Or do you get feedback along the way that helps your idea?

JD: The writing is all me. Then, a more senior Creative Director would do the culling, selecting, tweaking, etc. This process is pretty iterative and collaborative, really working together to nail the best expression of the line.

NF: The imagery to go along with the copy is always incredible and impeccably coordinated. Were you provided the photography before you started writing? 

JD: We were. In my time on the brand, all the photography was handled by Germany and made available to us on an asset database. We would pick the image that best accompanied the selected headlines.

I was always envious of Goodby and Carmichael’s ability to shoot the perfect image for their headline. Look at the “leash breaks” one, or the swing set ad, “Sold in 1973”, or “hours a Porsche spends parked...” There was always a super-tight connection between line and visual on a conceptual level. Not just model.

NF: Let me get this straight… You come up with the copy based on a brief and then choose the image to along with?

JD: That is the usual cadence. Line. Then image to accompany. In the case of the older agencies, they had more control over that image. They often photographed it themselves. In our case, headlines got approved. Then we paired the best possible already-photographed image with them.

NF: Is it more-challenging to create that way? Did you sometimes wish you had the photography first? 

JD: Hard to say. I’ve written to specific images before. It can be helpful. Both ways work. Line then image is just more conventional. 

NF: Do you have a say in which photo is used along with your copy? Was this your partner John’s responsibility/call, since he was the Art Director? Briefly tell us his role in the process of creating a print ad… 

JD: Yeah, so we’ll have a batch of approved lines for a specific model. The art director then puts the lines into layout. A big part of that job is image selection. My partner is great at understanding the spirit of the line and working from it. For example, in the “Goosebumps, all rise” 911 Turbo ad we did, he intentionally chose a powerful, very sovereign parked, posing photo of the car. In “Like liquid through a crazy straw” for the 718 Boxster, he wanted it to feel like a little droplet of water moving at speed. Always using the image to fortify the line.

NF: What did you enjoy most about working with your partner? 

JD: Well, first off, he’s really good. Conceptually. Executionally. All of it. On top of that, we just have a ton in common. Alma mater. A passion for watches and automotive. Even our name! The partnership is going on 9 years. It works really well.

NF: Porsche has an illustrious past. How much did Porsche want you to incorporate their history into the copy? Or was it more about conveying the latest advancements and technology?

JD: It depends on the model.

For a car like the 911, we’d dial up the heritage. Sure, every new 911 is faster, smarter, more efficient, etc. But people are buying a 911 because of its 60+ year legacy, timeless design, eight generations, etc.

For a car like the Taycan, the first fully-electric Porsche, that was more of a tech advancement story. The electric cars are in a bit of a Silicon Valley arms race with Tesla.

So, both.  

NF: So the brief you get (directly from Porsche I assume) suggests what to focus on? 

JD: A hybrid of Porsche and the strategic leaders at the agency. Yes. 

NF: And you now have your dad’s original ‘86 911, so that must influence your writing too? 

JD: That’s true. In 1997, he sold it to a friend who then sold it to a friend who sold it to a friend. So by the time I was working on Porsche, we weren't really sure where the car was at or who had it. But one day we got a call. 2019. It was the owner. He was looking to sell it and climbed back through the previous owners to gauge interest. It made it all the way back to us. (somehow.) And it was a no brainer. So we bought it back together, and I now own it. It’s a family vehicle! 4 seats. My wife and I enjoy it with my son and daughter in the backseat. My son is now the same age as I was when I was in the same back seat. Cyclical. Crazy.

As far as influence, being around the brand for 20+ years before working on it and understanding the irrational effects it has on people was huge. You can’t teach that stuff.

NF: Oh man what a story! So glad the car made it back to you. Can I get a ride in it :) 

JD: Anytime! 

NF: The classic line, "There is no substitute." is present in many of the print ads you worked on. Did Porsche have you include this statement in all the ads?  

JD:  I always loved that signoff. No one told me to use it, or not to use it. But to me, it was a key part of what made a Porsche ad a Porsche ad. So when it was my turn to write them, I used it. Pretty religiously. I would always craft my body copy in a way that worked towards it and used it as a strong departing thought. 

NF: This tagline goes back to ads from the 1970s. Do you know the agency and/or person responsible for it?

JD: I always thought the origin of the line was Tom Cruise in Risky Business… 

NF: Your job is ultimately to sell Porsches. How is this best accomplished through print advertising? (i.e., what aspect of the product do you feel resonates most-powerfully with someone potentially in the market?)

JD: Sports cars are an incredibly emotional product. And also, an incredibly irrational one. A third car. 6 figures. 2 seats. So, our job is to appeal to the heart over the head. Sometimes that requires leaning on the brand’s history and the timelessness and everything you’re buying into when you buy a Porsche. You’re not buying a car… you’re becoming part of something. 

And other times, it’s selling the feeling. The feeling of putting the pedal down on a 911 and having your head joyously jammed into the headrest. The feeling of parking, walking away, and looking back at it. The feeling of lying awake the first night it’s parked in your garage. Feelings that no other car give you. Want one yet?

NF:  How do you view Porsche print advertising - from its importance in the past to its relevance today? 

JD:  I think it’s very important to the brand and its history. Even though Porsche isn’t doing as much print as it used to, it’s still a writing brand. Instead of print publications, Porsche headlines and body copy are now appearing in Instagram feeds. The same craft can be applied there. Should be applied there. 

NF:  If print advertising made a comeback, and Porsche asked you to redesign their campaign, what’s one thing you’d do? 

JD:  That’s easy. I would return to the classic Porsche print ad look. White space. Image on top. Porsche Franklin Gothic type. I think the new work, with full bleed imagery and new font, lacks a lot of uniquely Porsche personality.

NF: Oh wow, love that typeface shout-out! 

NF: You wrote some incredible ads that many people have probably never seen before. Did they all make it into magazines? If not, where did they end up? 

JD: That’s true. A lot of the model-specific print ads I did were for dealer marketing materials. Meaning, we would develop a suite of assets and equip dealers with them to use as part of a model launch. If they wanted.

It’s hard for me to say if they used them or not. After the ads got the green-light from Porsche marketing, I never really heard from the ads again. (Unless I was lucky enough to stumble across one in an Excellence magazine, Road & Track, Dupont, etc.) My guess is a majority, unfortunately, did not run. During the time I worked on Porsche, dealers were placing a higher emphasis on social media over print. Which is a bummer given the amount of time and craft that went into them. I wish more people saw them all!

NF: We have to do something about this. I have an idea…

JD: Let’s hear it… 

NF: Definitely a conversation we'll have! 

NF:  So did you know when one of your ads was approved for publishing? And were you told what magazine it would be in? 

JD:  For Motorsports, we knew. I was fortunate to work on the brand at a time when they were not only competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans … but winning. We would prepare victory ads in advance of the race. (All races, not just Le Mans) And if/when we won, the ads ran the next day in newspapers and the next magazine run, such as "Leaderboard. Drawing board. Repeat."

Motorsport was also my first ever approved and run headline. “Bound for history. Not by it.” A nod to Porsche’s rich motorsport history and what the 919 Hybrid was poised to add to it. (The 919 Hybrid was fairly new and unproven at this time…) 

NF:  This is the next ad I’m gonna hunt! And you need to get it framed :) 

JD:  I actually got the proof framed for my Dad for Father’s Day.

NF:  Well-done! 

NF:  What's your favorite "vintage" Porsche ad? Feel free to name a few! What's your favorite print ad you had a hand in creating? 

JD:  Oh man. There’s a lot. But I always come back to this one: 

“The hours a Porsche spends parked. You don’t get those back” 

It has everything. Line. Image. Model.

LINE: It’s not overly written. Or witty. It just punches you in the gut. Makes you feel stupid for ever leaving it in the garage. Why would you leave a Porsche parked?!?!?

IMAGE: It’s not parked in a driveway. Or even a garage. It’s in a barn. Tucked away. For way longer than it should be. More hours wasted. Makes the line hit harder.

MODEL: It’s a C4S. Which, I’ve always liked the styling of. But more than that, it brings some product truth into the line. This is a 4-wheel sports car you can conceivably drive year-round. Even more hours you can’t get back.  

Perfect ad. 

My favorite ad I did was for the 911 Turbo. “Goosebumps, all rise.” I think it perfectly captures what that car is. King-like. Superior. Capable of commanding follicles. And also, an instance where the posing, majestic photography works in harmony with the headline. Good ad.   

NF: Did this one ever make it into a magazine? 

JD: Doubt it. Dealers didn't have to push the Turbo too hard… 

NF: We’ll have to do something about that…

JD: Agree!

NF: Like I said, we'll be talking more...