Cutting Up at The Cut

My first real job in advertising was at The Leith in the early 1990s.

Then, as now, it ruled the roost as the premier creative shop in Scotland. 

Which is not to say that there weren’t rival agencies giving them a run for their money. Faulds, 1576, and Marr Associates were all producing award-winning work regularly. Creatively speaking, Auld Reekie was firing on all cylinders.

Proof could be found every Friday evening. That was when every agency creative, account director and strategist worth their salt would meet in the Cumberland Arms for the weekly gathering of the tribes.

The place would be packed to the rafters. If you opened the main door anytime after six, a minimum of three punters would tumble out. Such was the seething mass jammed therein, on colder evenings, of which there were many, the heat emanating from the place would instantaneously steam up the lenses of any new arrival wearing spectacles. Once inside you’d squeeze, twist, “hello” and “hiya” your way toward the bar, a journey of some fifteen feet that would take upward of twenty minutes to navigate. 

It was worth it. Finally armed with a hard-earned pint or glass of vino, you’d be free to discuss everything and anything with anyone and everyone. Imminent pitches, new work, old work, good work, crap work, moves, gossip, banter, outrage, and slander, all were talked out with great animation far into the evening, or until accumulated intoxication rendered conversation unintelligible.

Evenings such as this taught me that where there are beer and wine to be had in friendly environs, the will to do great work will quickly become evident.

So it proved last week when I attended my first Copywriters Unite gathering at The Cut Bar in London. The brainchild of Vikki Ross, Copywriters Unite does exactly what it says on the tin. 

For three hours, close to 40 copywriters of every stripe came together to put the world of advertising copy to rights over a beer or two. Young and old, fresh-faced and battle-hardened, they came from near and far to find common cause in a shared passion, and to maybe earn a sympathetic ear for those times when it’s just you and a cold keyboard at seven in the evening with a traffic manager tapping their feet outside your door.

The fact that I could just descend from out of nowhere and slip seamlessly into the chats, rants, woes, and laughs spoke to the universal nature of the topics: The thrill of a great headline, the buzz of a wonderfully turned piece of prose, and the urge to share a new bit of nonsense or bizzaro source of inspiration.  

It was ever thus because it’s what we do. It’s our craft. The fire behind flame that keeps us all sane.

And as long as it never goes out, we’ll be okay.

We’ll always find a new TV spot or poster to cheer, to raise a glass to, and say, “I wish I’d done that.”

Advertising has changed irrevocably since my days in Edinburgh.

The nature of what we do, how it’s delivered, and where it’s seen, is now completely different.

But the drive to create something fresh and different, and, just as importantly, the desire to talk about it over a beer?

That hasn’t changed one bit.

For more information on CopyWriters Unite get-togethers up and down the UK, follow @vikkirosswrites and @copywritersunite on Twitter

Must-Read Writers: Clive James

There was only ever going to be one candidate for my first piece on “Must-Read Writers.”

Not Dickens or Orwell or a contemporary favorite like a Hornby or Fry, much as I love them all.

No, there could only be one. It had to be Clive James. 

Clive James has been reminding me of how a well-honed argument must necessarily read on a page and play in the mind since I first made his acquaintance more than thirty years ago. 

Rightly acclaimed in the UK and his native Australia as a cultural gem, he is, for some unfathomable reason, all but unknown in the United States – a situation I hope to rectify in some small way over the forthcoming paragraphs. 

But how best to capture a man who’s variously a critic, novelist, essayist, and poet? Well, as luck would have it, the beginning will more than suffice. 

James rose to recognition in the late 70s on the back an autobiography of his formative years growing up in Australia. Blessed with a belly laugh on every page, and unashamedly playing fast and loose with the truth, Unreliable Memoirs is a hoot of the first order.

Here’s the first line.

I was born in 1939. The other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment that did not affect me.

It’s like that the whole way through. There’s gold wherever you dig. When he goes to live with his Aunt Dot in Jannali, it is set down thus:

Memoirs Short 2

Prior to that James had cut his teeth writing a weekly column of TV criticism for the UK’s Observer, reinventing the genre in the process. Clocking in at around a thousand words apiece, each one is a bite-sized master class of vacuum packed insight laced with snot-snorting humor.

Here he is nailed re-runs of Star Trek:

Star Trek

I must have read that a hundred times. It never fails to draw a guffaw. Collections have been compiled into various volumes, Visions Before Midnight being the best of them, an aspiring copywriter could do worse than read every single one.

By the 1990s, James was in front of the camera himself, either as a guest, or more likely, hosting popular shows like Clive James on Television and becoming a much-loved television personality in the process. 

But he was still writing prolifically, contributing essays and critical pieces to the likes of the New Yorker and the Times Literary Supplement. These were many and varied – a mark of the man and the mind – and it’s here that a deeper dive into his work pays the most dividends.

While it’s near impossible to excise a fragment without doing an injustice to the whole, I’m confident that the opening paragraphs to this essay on George Orwell will have enquiring minds seeking out Even As We Speak for the entire thing. Once you’ve got one collection of criticism the games up. You have to have them all.

Orwell FINAL

There’s an old advertising adage that says make the usual unusual and the unusual usual. James pulls the same trick with his criticism. He’ll unearth an artist buried deep into obscurity and render them instantly relevant and unforgettable. Bruno Schulz would be one, J. B. Morton another. He’ll then pull the reverse trick and throw tangential light on someone you thought you knew all too well but actually didn’t have the first idea on. A piece on the actor Tony Curtis, from Cultural Amnesia, springs to mind.

Curtis

The result of all this good stuff is inevitably an expanded horizon and an insatiable desire to chase down a new found interest in the nearest second-hand book store. In this way, James has been a gateway drug to such heady talents as Philip Larkin, Eric Roth, Alan Coren, Robert Hughes, and Peter Porter.

Latterly, he’s devoted more and more of his time to poetry, age and poor health almost certainly providing the impetus for this piece.

Clive James

Such writing endures. Poetry or prose, wisdom or wisecrack, it reminds you of how far you fall short while affording you a clear view of the heights to attain. It’s a tough climb but, with luck, some small part of the greatness will rub off on you.

And that’s why I made Clive James the first in this series.

We often wait until our heroes are gone before we shower them with praise due to them while they’re with us.

Clive James has more than earned mine, and I don’t doubt, in good time, yours, too.

If this post manages to garner just one extra reader, I hope it’s him.

Thanks, Clive.

What the hell happened to car advertising?

Car advertising was once the benchmark for all that was good in our industry.

Decades of brilliant creative work for the likes of VW, Volvo, BMW, Porsche, and others had established a gold standard that everyone sought to uphold and emulate.

Not any more.

This is what passes for automotive advertising today.

Conceptually, it’s dead on arrival.

But, let’s face it, it’s the dialogue that really challenges the will to live here.

If you can bear it, here it is in full:

Do
Do your thing
Flee that nest
Find your inspiration
Seize that moment
Be extraordinary
Spread your wings
Mazda
Feel Alive

If someone told me that an AI algorithm had spat out this dross after ingesting a billion glib car clichés, I frankly wouldn’t be surprised. Nor was I surprised to learn that the same copy had been used on almost identical spots for the CX-3, 6 and 9. Four ads for the price of one. Result!

Contrast this lazy thinking with work for the same brand from Gold Greenlees Trott in the 1980s.

Mazda 1

Mazda 2

Tough, no-nonsense reasons to buy augmented by an arresting visual.

Would that today’s stuff was as well put together.

So what happened? How did this sorry state of affairs come to pass? And, more to the point, how can we get back to doing great work for, let’s face it, great brands?

As a refresher, and entirely chosen at random, here are more examples from a time when joined-up thinking and smart ideas were the norms.

VW 1 Price

Volvo 3

Porche 1

VW Van 1

2CV 1

Each one is built on a single-minded thought.

Each one demands our attention.

Each one communicates persuasively with economy, wit, and confidence.

And, of course, each one has a look, an attitude and a personality that’s theirs and theirs alone – you’d be hard-pressed to mistake a VW ad for a Volvo or Citroen for a Porsche.

These ads built on one another. They accumulated value and incrementally raised expectations and properties around the brand over time. Today’s ads do none of these things. Bereft of any conceptual merit or sense of longevity, they merely piss away a tidy budget down a hole of invisibility.

Where the responsibility lies for the whole Mazda CX-5 debacle is anyone’s guess. Who knows, maybe everyone’s chuffed with it, and sales are through the roof.

Somehow I doubt it.

The whole thing smacks of a subjugated creative team. Of countless valiant attempts to get better work approved to no avail. Just one look at the script tells you it was micro-mandated by committee and crippled by fear.

Yes, never forget fear.

Fear of being different.

Fear of standing out.

Fear of being provocative.

There’s absolutely no reason why today’s car ads shouldn’t be as good as those of yesteryear. The creative talent is out there. It’s ready, willing and more than able. But for it to shine, we first need to rid ourselves of all the managers, planners, researchers, experience gurus, cultural anthropologists, and other schmucks who get in the way.

Throw them in the back seat and tell ‘em to be quiet. Give the keys back to the creatives, turn off the GPS, and let them take us places we’ve never been before. Down roads unfamiliar and avenues unusual. The further off the beaten track the better.

The work will improve, brands will be built, and sales will rise.

But best of all:

Car advertising will be back.

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.

Scotland the Brave

Scotalnd The Brave

In the spring of 1997, Britain was in the throes of a general election.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had re-invented Labour, and the party was insurgent.

The incumbent Conservative Party, on the other hand, were in a mess and up against it.

The country had grown weary of its failed promise of trickle-down prosperity, principally because it was all a sham.

Never more so than in Scotland where Labour had always polled well.

So it was an either brave or deluded Conservative campaign chairman that had decided that the line for its 48 sheet poster campaign north of the border should be thus:

Your Best Bet For A Better Scotland – Vote Conservative.

It was a type-only affair, modestly laid out, boasting a small box with a blue tick in it.

Crucially, there was a lot of white space. And this was to be its downfall.

It was late one Saturday night when I saw the posting.

It sat on a small rise above a well-known pub in the west of the city. The pub’s clients, worse for wear from a night of drinking, were falling out on to the streets.

Here my imagination takes over and attempts to join the dots on what had latterly happened prior to my arrival on the scene. 

A punter is taking a moment to get his bearings, clear his head, and is maybe looking to hail a cab when he spies the poster.

It doesn’t exactly chime with his polictical views.

What happened next to again subject to conjecture. My best guess is that our hero ran home and was back in a thrice with a can of red spray paint. I say this because when I happened upon the board that fateful night it read:

Your Best Bet For A Better Scotland: Vote Conservative MY ARSE!

An early example of guerrilla marketing perhaps?

Brand takeover?

Possibly.

What I do know is that the size, position, and general air of anarchic chaos of the daubed addition had transformed the world dullest poster into a potential award-winner.

And that I laughed my socks off.

Especially as the cad who had applied the amendment had had to scamper up a pretty steep incline to do so.

But as we all know, getting great creative to run is never a walk in the park.