Try to imagine a crossover between Mad Men and Black Mirror, but it’s all set in the hilariously dense awkwardness of The Office. Those are exactly the vibes that newly risen author Ennis Ćehić manages to achieve with his debut short story collection ‘Sadvertising.’ A bundle of fifty stories (having started as a whopping eighty, that he has to notoriously cut down), the book encompasses the complicated absurdity of modern living under late capitalism, and specifically that of consumerism, advertising and technology. Walking the line between satire and existentialism, ‘Sadvertising’ blurs the rigidness of what modern office life is, by exploring the nooks and crannies of the lives of advertising folk.
As a term, ‘sadvertising’ has existed for a while now and is, surprise, a blend word between the words sad and advertising. “It’s also been used to analyse the stages of advertising – was there a period where we focused more on happiness and joy and then we kind of moved into more sad materia,” explains Ennis. “I think the first time I heard it, I immediately knew that’s the title, it can’t be anything else. It’s sad advertising.”
Ennis has always had aspirations of becoming a writer, however, it took him a long time to take the leap and commit fully to the attachment, which, according to him is a common occurrence, especially for people that work in the advertising industry. Starting his industry journey as a creative marketer, he later worked for CHE Proximity, SAMPLE Brew and Proximity Worldwide. He looks fondly back at his time spent full time on the job, but that’s exactly where the aspirations for the short story collection came to fruition.
“It kind of emerged out of office frustration. I was working really late hours on a project we had to launch and there was this feeling of fatigue, of being overworked, a lot of bickering, a little bit of fighting and from that the frustration. I had to take a break from that.”
That frustration was exactly what made him ask the key questions that started his writing journey:What if one shatters the precious work beliefs built by people in advertising? What if you have an experienced designer with no empathy, or an art director lacking in imagination? These were the questions that made the work environment lighter for Ennis and helped him really tune into the irony of life in the industry.
“I knew what the voice of these stories was and I was writing stories about copywriters that want to be poets, people who write books during meetings, the bickering that happens between colleagues. That was the genesis of the book and how it started for me.” A large portion of the inspiration for ‘Sadvertising’ came from existential questioning and took shape by putting the modern condition under a relentless microscope.
However relentless, it was not meant to critique the advertising industry, but to look at the modern condition through the lens of people who work in advertising, or those addicted to consumerism, or what our relationship is with technology.
Prior to ‘Sadvertising’, Ennis won an award in Melbourne, called the Next Chapter, which gave him a monetary prize and provided him with mentorship that enabled him to complete the manuscript for the collection within a year and start pitching it to publishers. Following that he moved back to Sarajevo, where he’s originally from, to begin the writing process. He now lives in Sarajevo full-time with his partner, where he draws a lot of inspiration from his surroundings and is relishing in the change of environment.
“When I won this award, I said to myself that I needed to leave and it was almost like this journey to write this book in my homeland. I don’t know why I just kind of had to do it, I had to move back to Bosnia. It also gave me an opportunity to extricate myself from my life, so I can look at things from a distance. Sometimes in order to understand the world you live in you have to take a step away from it. I think being in Bosnia allowed me to look at the industry, at consumerism, at technology in a really different way. Those things, as effective as they are, are not the same here as they are in the West.”
The Balkans are undoubtedly a very different place when it comes to all of these areas of life, especially having in mind the historical context and the long struggle during the Soviet Union. The pace of technology and development of the industry are quite different, and however booming more than before, the environment still seems timid at times. Having a look at the Western parts of the industry, through the lens of somebody born in Bosnia, but also upon return, looking at the Balkans through the lens of somebody who has worked in Australia for 12-13 years are both very unique perspectives. Undoubtedly, both of them affected Ennis’ writing process and the end product of ‘Sadvertising’.
Not only did he enjoy experiencing Sarajevo with his newfound perspective after moving back from Melbourne, he also loved being exposed to advertising in a language that wasn’t English. “You can look at it with different eyes from a few points of view. I think ‘Sadvertising’ is really a book about Western consumerism. So it’s almost strange that I had to do it from a place that used to be socialist.”
Connecting the stories thematically particularly was a big challenge for Ennis. “Sometimes you need a circle around your thoughts to make the idea stronger. And I felt that I needed to concentrate thematically on advertising, consumerism and technology, so all my stories tend to be based around that. I once wrote a story about a couple that gave birth to a ball of time instead of a baby and I just didn’t know where to place it. Systematically, I think the creative thread that runs through it is about the why and how and the drudgery of office life in late capitalist environments. I just wrote so many stories about incidents within the creative industry space.”
This all ties into the reason why the sense of place is completely eradicated in the book. Most of the stories are places in a “nondescript office,” which to Ennis makes sense, since it would talk to people all over the world that have felt the heartbeat of the industry. One doesn’t need to detail the streets of Paris to understand the satire and existentialism woven through the book.
Albeit the name and implications, as well as the general topic the book covers, Ennis explained that ‘Sadvertising’ is not meant to be a critique on the industry at all. “I’ve always found, historically speaking, a lot of books that presented the advertising industry in a very disturbing light. Cocaine sniffing creative directors, this and that. I really didn’t want to focus on that.” Ennis has a strong attachment to the industry, as he finds the process of creative development particularly existential, especially branding, which to him was like ‘creating purpose’ and giving meaning to an inanimate object.
“Yes, there is some teasing of the industry. But my intention with the stories in ‘Sadvertising’ was really to seek the most absurdist conclusion to all narratives. And sometimes you don’t really need to stray from reality too far in order to see the absurd, you just have to tweak it a little bit.”
One prime example of that within the short story collection is a story about a chief creative officer that walks through a level that he’s never been on before. “People are gobsmacked that he’s walking through the office! And it’s just this heightened sense of absurdity that already exists. I never intended to critique the industry, it’s a celebration of the industry!”
Looking at the future, Ennis is working on a novel that he got the inspiration for while writing ‘Sadvertising’. As a migrant, he knew that he didn’t want his debut book to be a migrant story, but he also knew that the publishing industry will sooner or later squeeze one out of him, so he decided to name the novel “Here’s Your Migrant Story”, which explores exactly migrant literature. Again tapping into the meta narratives that are realistic, but out of pocket enough, he is playing with structure and genre.
So, is ‘Sadvertising’ an actually sad story? Well, just as sad as living under late capitalism must be, while working in one of the most fast paced and critiqued industries of the world. But what the short story collection reminds us is that everything, including advertising, is made of tiny humans that all contribute to those absurdist narratives. Certainly sad, but equally funny, energetic, conflicting, frustrating and awkward. A deep dig into the “Why?” of the self, ‘Sadvertising’ is a perfect bundle of all of these traits and more, just enough to expose the funny face of modern life to all of us.