50 Thoughts on Copywriting

If you write ads for a living, chances are you have an opinion or two on how best to create them. These are mine. 50 notes, notions, truths and truisms gleaned from over 25 years as a fully paid-up member of the wordsmith community. Whether you’re a fresh-faced young gun, a rising star or a grizzled old vet like me, I’m confident there’s something here for everyone.  Adopt or discard, agree or disagree, as you see fit.

Your job is to… marry an essential brand truth to a universal human want, need or desire, and do so in a way that’s clear, persuasive and impactful. Every. Single. Time. No biggie.

Free Beer If you’ve got something great to say, go ahead and say it. If you mess about trying to be cute, you’ll end up burying the lead. Free beer is free frickin’ beer.

People will read a long copy ad If every single word contained therein commands their interest. Conversely, 15 words of turgid dross will have them charging the exits.

Don’t get fancy Never use a flowery word when a plain one will do. This thought was first coined by George Orwell. I’ll leave it at that.

Oxford Comma? Yes.

My friend, the reader The best copy reads like a reasoned argument between friends. Getting the reader to consider you as such is the first step in convincing them to take what you’re saying seriously.

Your briefs are showing Beware of copy that too closely replicates the support points on the brief. One of the skills of a copywriter is to be a master of disguise.

People don’t hate ads, they just hate crap ads No one likes a dull, long-winded, predictable bore. Your job is to be the opposite.

Know your history Advertising does a lamentable job of honoring its past masters. If you aspire to be a copywriter of any note, acquaint yourself with the greats who have come before you: David Abbott, Julian Koenig, Paula Green, Dave Trott, Mary Wells, Carl Ally, Tom McElligott, Bob Levinson, and a host more.

A single-minded proposition should never contain the word “and.” The first sign of a wooly brief is a wordy proposition. Demand clarity before you put pen to paper or digit to keyboard.

Bells and Whistles are no substitute for Ideas and Impact You’re not in the entertainment business, you’re in the business of selling products, brands, and services that benefit from being entertaining. There’s a difference.

Department of Redundancy Department Scan your copy for unnecessary repetition.

Pun and Done Lots of headlines involve some sort of play on words. But the outright pun is a creature unto itself. If you opt-in, go all in. Like Gray Jolliffe’s ‘Out of the flying plane into the foyer’ for Swissair. So bad, it’s brilliant.

Note to Self A great headline or turn of phrase WILL come to you just as you’re drifting off to sleep and, no, you WILL NOT remember it in the morning. Keep a notebook by your bedside table.

Advertising is nothing but an opinion We work in a very subjective, flawed industry that’s susceptible to the whims of caprice, bias, and ego. It was ever thus. 

Campaigns that don’t get noticed aren’t campaigns They’re a waste of money.

Rewrite until it’s right Draft, scrap, do-over, re-word, re-write, finesse, fiddle, futz, trim, edit, and hone. Wordsmith that sucker until you’re only left with what’s absolutely necessary. 

Write the opening and closing line first Okay, so this is a personal preference, but to my mind, if you know where you’re starting from and where you’d like to end up, the journey in-between becomes a lot more manageable.

Here’s to the new ad, same as the old ad Web, games, interactive, social – the writer’s lot has changed a hell of a lot over the last 20 years, but it still boils down to the same thing: well-made arguments, concisely written and persuasively told.

Be skeptical Beware of anything that is supposedly about to “change everything.” It’s almost certainly not.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda It doesn’t matter how badass the concept is – if it hasn’t run, it isn’t an ad.

An ad is only as good as the client who buys it It’s a crap-shoot, really. We live for the client who “gets it” and appreciate those smart enough to be sold. But occasionally you’re handed a complete half-wit. In which case, you’re screwed. 

Hunt for Truffles To unearth a great idea, you first have to determine an area worth exploring. Once you find a patch you believe will bear fruit, start to dig. Don’t just scratch away at the topsoil, really excavate the possibilities. Burrow down deep enough, and you may hit gold.

Run to the sound of gunfire If people need help, raise a hand, jump in and don’t wait to be asked. You’ll find the favor returned when you need it.

Never grow up Maintain an infantile streak and childish sense of humor at all times. Disregard those who tell you otherwise.

Ad nauseum Let poorly written ads be a constant reminder of what happens when you phone it in.

Harper Lee was right There’s no better way to understand a person or audience than to spend a little time walking around in their shoes. When you know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of your prose, you can tailor your language and tone accordingly.

Put yourself in the suit’s shoes While on the same subject, spare a thought for the poor soul who patrols the no-man’s land between client and creative department. They get flak from the former, friendly fire from the latter and all-out shelling from both sides.

Tell people what they need to know Not what they want to hear.

Ads … can invariably be broken down into two distinct types, the ones that Make The Every Day Extraordinary and those that Make The Extraordinary Every Day. Try it, you’ll see.

There are no bad clients. A client’s reputation may go before them but if you treat every job as an opportunity and deliver something great – Kapow! – suddenly it’s the business everyone wants to work on.

Proof, proof, and proof again Your proofreader is your best friend. They circle your typos, tweak your grammar, and ensure your syntax is sound. Keep ‘em close and get them something nice for Christmas.

Only 4% of ads are ever remembered favorably Make sure yours is one of them. 

Learn to sell A good ad is always hard to sell but no one should be able to sell it better than you. Watch how the best suits operate, then learn, steal and modify as needed.

The Copy Book The one book every writer needs to read from cover to cover. A wisdom laden tome for wanna-be writers, rising stars and senior pros who are having a bad day.

Expect the Unexpected You’re chosen one of the most volatile businesses to forge a career in. Always have a folio site that’s ready to share at a moments notice. 

Raise the dead Don’t be afraid to re-pitch a killer idea to a different client. Having said that, if it remains unsold after three attempts it may not be as great as you think it is. 

You’re only as good as our last ad Enjoy the occasions when you clean up at the Award Show. Come Monday, it’ll be back to an empty screen and a blinking cursor.

Ode to a Jingle The humble jingle is a little passé these days. Sure, they can be cheesy but when they work they stick like glue for years, decades even. “A million housewives every day open a can of beans and say ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz.’ See.

Congratulations, you’re a Behavioral Scientist Okay, so maybe not a scientist but you’re definitely in the business of changing behavior. To that end, a small mental investment in the field of social psychology is no bad idea.

The Mighty Mnemonic A mnemonic is an aid to memory, a visual trick or verbal device that helps the customer remember that this ad is for your brand and not that of a competitor. Another old-school trick that is needed now more than ever.

Go above and beyond Don’t stop at the brief, aim beyond it. Give everyone – the CD, Account Director and client – something extra to think about, an additional thought, a new media opportunity, or a one-off execution that no one’s considered. Never do “just enough.” 

Written a great headline? Good. Keep going. It’s the first step to penning one that’s truly exceptional.

Tune into radio When you’re starting out, radio is often the first opportunity to land on your desk. Grab it. It’s a 60-second playground of the mind, an excellent medium for framing an argument, and one seriously overlooked discipline. 

It’s grammar init? Observing the rules of grammar is to be commended, but then so is the ability to write in the vernacular of the reader. When the two square off against each other, back the latter.

The “Fuck Me” Factor There’s nothing better than an idea that’s so outrageously out-there and scarily unorthodox that it has even the most collected of account people peeing their pants just a little. Just make sure it’s tethered to a solid brand truth.

Ruffle feathers Don’t be afraid to be a maverick. Write from the heart and stand up for your work. Just don’t be an ass. It’s a fine line.

Mentor others Remember all those lovely people who helped you when you were first getting started? Exactly. Now it’s your turn to pass on the favor to the next generation.

It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on At its best, being a writer is the most rewarding profession there is, a dizzying hybrid of salesman, storyteller, psychologist, and poet. Better yet, unlike Art DIrectors, you don’t have to spend hours futzing around in photoshop or endlessly agonizing over fonts and colors and whatnot. You are, of course, free to stand behind them and offer up suggestions. They love that.

Write “50 things” Now it’s your turn.

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