The author of Copywriting tells us how useful it is to have a way with words…
AVA: Your book, Basics Advertising 01: Copywriting, defines copywriting as “the creative process of writing text for advertisements or publicity material”. What would you say your most successful taglines have been?
RB: Blimey! Straight in with the ‘famous straplines’ question. Which I rather dread as, although I love the chance to play with short copy and impress with witty one-liners, the bulk of my work is for specialist marketing communications and long-copy projects, rather than high-profile mass advertising campaigns. And that’s one of the problems with the job of the copywriter, as most people assume it’s all about a few short, hard-hitting advertising headlines and slogans like “Go to work on an egg” and “Because you’re worth it”.
Well, the truth is that copywriting is far more varied than that. A powerful strapline is important but that’s only the tip of the proverbial. Copywriters get involved in all sorts of marketing and promotional items and activities: from direct mail packs to corporate brochures and from radio ad scripts to newsletters. Wherever you see words – whether they’re on a billboard, a cereal pack, a letter from your insurance company, a sales leaflet for a clothes store, a marketing brochure for a new car, a website for a holiday company, etc – they’ve all been crafted by a copywriter.
That’s not to say I don’t do straplines: for a local micro-brewery called Prescott Ales (named after the Prescott Hill Climb motor racing track), we created a visual identity featuring beautiful old sports cars with the strapline: ‘Great British Lubricants’. For another ale, this time brewed in the USA to a pre-Prohibition recipe, I came up with: ‘The beer they tried to ban’, to reflect the fact that all forms of alcohol were outlawed during the period of Prohibition. The thinking behind my line was that drinkers would most likely want to try something that had previously been banned by the authorities. The thrill of the illicit…
More recently, I was smugly and possibly unduly proud to have come up with a witty and thought-provoking line to express the idea that a certain international IT company had a strong track record in new thinking, and a suitably long history of fresh ideas: ‘Innovation: it’s nothing new’. Oh, the sheer paradoxical wit of it!
AVA: How would you describe the role of the copywriter in the overall advertising process?
RB: It’s a key role, a pivotal role, a vital role. I would say that – I’m a copywriter. But then I’m also an art director, as most actively involved copywriters are. We have a gift for language that we assiduously develop (while subsequently making sure that we avoid pretentious words such as ‘assiduously’ in our text) and the ability to come up with strong creative concepts. It also helps if you have a basic understanding of marketing and what motivates people to buy a product or service.
So, the fundamental role of the copywriter is to develop smart, clever, persuasive ideas – often working in tandem with a designer or other art director, thereby forming a ‘creative team’. The ideas that we generate are not just words: they are usually expressed in visual as well as verbal terms. I don’t believe you can be a really good copywriter without having a profound visual sense.
Being good with words, knowing how to spell correctly (it’s spelt: c-o-r-r-e-c-t-l-y –apologies for one of my many dodgy jokes), how to use punctuation – including placing an apostrophe in all the right places (the English language: it’s not difficult when you understand its complexities!) – that’s all part of the craft of writing.
Such things can be learnt, and my lovely book on copywriting does give you some top tips on correct usage, demonstrating how you are allowed to begin sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’ despite everything your primary school English teacher told you. And that it is ok to split your infinitives, if it sounds better to so do (which would really sound better and more natural as “to do so”.)
The craft of writing is one thing and then there’s creative flair. That needs a certain type of mind and a way of thinking that can also be encouraged and developed. Often the best creative advertising concepts come from an unusual combination of ideas that spark off each other to create some new meaning or a clever and intriguing interaction.
Our role as advertising copywriters is to try and make sure that our ‘target audience’ makes the connection with our ideas. Indeed, the best advertising enables the individual members of that audience to put the pieces together in their own minds (to make that connection for themselves) and then, as a direct result, begin to identify warmly and positively with the product or service we’re promoting.
AVA: How important is visual impact? If the copy is good, how much rests on the layout/typography/colour etc?
RB: Often the best ads are the perfect combination of the visual and the verbal. Even pure copy ads rely on excellent typography and effective artwork to get their message across and to enhance that message. Typography is the clothing that words wear.
Many ads have, of late, favoured a strong visual approach. For example, those formulaic designer clothing and perfume ads that are styled simply with a moody photograph and a brand name. I’m not a big fan but then it seems to work as yet another example of style over substance.
It can be an effective solution, if your client has the funds, to simply pay Cheryl Cole or David Beckham a vast sum to seemingly endorse your product, as their aspirational image is enough to make people go out and buy the stuff to emulate their heroes.
However, copywriting is far from dead! And don’t forget that it is usually the creative team, including the copywriting art director, which comes up with the entire ad concept, even if there are very few words in the finished execution.
One great example of a clever ad using a witty visual pun is a poster and magazine ad for Hellmanns Extra Light Mayonnaise, where the image of the jar has the label slipping down the sides of the jar.
When they first see that ad, some people think there are no words there at all, as there is no heading, no body copy, just the pictured label. However, the entire concept for that witty lower-fat image stems from the words that are on that label: ‘Extra Light’ and the clever idea sparked for this reduced-calorie mayonnaise.
AVA: Can you tell us a bit about your career and how you got into this industry? What made you first interested in a career in advertising?
RB: I suppose I fell into it sideways. I graduated from Bristol University where I studied English Literature (a fine opportunity to read some good writing, think deeply about it and then try to write something good yourself) and then I did another degree for a year over in Ohio, USA in American Studies, which is an odd hotch-potch of American literature, art, history and popular culture.
Back in the UK it was the early 80s (as it was in the USA) and we were having one of our periodic recessions with very few jobs about. I applied for positions in publishing houses and advertising agencies and got nowhere (same old story: no experience = no job offer), so I took a lowly-paid job on the sales desk at Philips Lighting in the glamorous setting of West Croydon.
I then sneakily wangled my way into their marketing services department, realising that my skills were more suited to that side of the business. (In my previous sales desk role I had almost brought the production line at Ford’s of Dagenham to a standstill due to the late delivery of a batch of headlights!)
It was helpful that their small marketing services department employed a freelance copywriter for some of their PR tasks as well as a PR agency for other promotional activities. It gave me a chance to see at first hand the kind of work they were doing and realise that I could do it as well – if not better. (Sorry, I’m not being cocky, it’s just you do have to have some sense of self-belief if you’re going to succeed in this business.)
Fast-forward 18 months to gaining a job at a financial services company in Shepherd’s Bush, West London where I ended up in charge of their marketing communications team, responsible for all the company’s UK and international advertising and marketing literature.
That role put me into direct contact with some of London’s specialist communications agencies, and what I thought were going to be some high-powered, creative figures with towering intellects. Luckily they weren’t quite so intimidating and I found that I could contribute my writing skills and my creative ideas without feeling out of my depth. I was just a little short on practical experience, which you can only gain over time.
After three years, that greater knowledge and experience encouraged me to go freelance and offer my creative communication services, and particularly my conceptual copywriting to some of those same London agencies.
You can tell how long ago it was, way before the era of the Internet, when only City boys (and there were very few City girls) had mobile phones (which were the size of a large brick) to go with their red braces, and when the state-of-the art communications device was a big, clunky and very expensive fax machine!
As a start-out freelancer, I couldn’t afford to buy a fax machine back then as they cost about £2,000 (which believe me was a great deal of money in the early 1980s), so I had to hire one at an exorbitant monthly fee from BT to send over my copy that I’d written on my very basic electronic typewriter. (Oh, how times change in this industry – I now no longer charge my time out in guineas and I’ve stopped writing my bills in Latin.)
AVA: Who do you think your book is most relevant to? And in what ways can it help people?
RB: Writing is all about communication so I would suggest that my book on copywriting is suited to all kinds of people, whatever their current profession or the career they wish to pursue. My book aims to show people how to write more clearly and persuasively, as well as providing some cracking examples of many other writers’ work, and a few lame examples of my own.
There are helpful sections on the creative writing tools you have at your disposal. There are also tips on grammar and punctuation. But, most of all, I’m trying to provide inspiration, some practical encouragement that will help all kinds of people realise their own creative potential. I don’t want to stifle people with rules but free their imaginations, so they can express themselves fully and enthusiastically.
AVA: Why is copywriting an important skill for those not in the advertising industry?
RB: As writing is all about communication and ‘copywriting’ is writing with a distinct and sharpened sense of purpose, anyone who needs to communicate verbally will benefit from learning more about copywriting and adopting some of our techniques.
At the most basic level, if you are seeking a job and need to craft a great CV and an appealing covering letter, you’ll benefit from knowing how to organise your thoughts and set them down clearly for the person who will be receiving your application.
In my book I talk about a ‘hierarchy of information’, a method to help you structure your communication so it is clear and direct. I preach the gospel of precision, all dressed up in a bit of style and personality. We aren’t robots: we want to engage with other people, so communication should be a combination of entertainment and information. The best copywriting and the best advertising does just that.
AVA: What is the most vital thing a piece of copywriting should achieve?
RB: It’s vital that copywriting should achieve direct communication that really engages with the reader, viewer or listener. The best copy provokes a response – makes a connection that sets the mind working. This doesn’t have to be a particularly profound response, but it really does need to be something more than a mere message.
The ideal ad gets the recipient of your communication to meet you half-way. Your ad concept, for example where a headline builds on an image to make it resonate with added meaning, should encourage the members of your audience to put your ideas together themselves by carrying out a very rapid mental equation. In that way, the message becomes more personal, immediate and interactive. That level of engagement is what makes great advertising work so well.
AVA: In your experience, is a simple, straightforward message always more effective than trying to communicate complex ideas?
RB: Simplicity can be very powerful. It can deliver that straight-talking approach which makes you trust the product. Bluff O2 adverts are voiced by Sean Bean since, of course, a roughty-toughty Yorkshireman who’s fought in the Napoleonic wars won’t stand any nonsense with his mobile phone contracts.
Another of the most successful and oft-repeated lines concerns those Ronseal products that do “exactly what it says on the tin” according to the cor-blimey geezer builder bloke in the ads, and it’s now become part of the English language as a means to describe any straightforward product.
And yet, at times, we are asked – or the brief demands – that we try and convey far more complex concepts, especially if it’s a specialist business-to-business ad for an informed audience. But, even if it’s a new medicine, for example, we still try and keep our messages direct and immediate for an educated audience of medical practitioners, although we might need to use elements of their specialist language or jargon.
One thing to avoid is putting too many messages in your advert or your audience are liable to get confused. Some clients have a habit of trying to say everything all at once and, at times, you have to do battle with them to get them to agree to limit the benefits and agree their product’s primary USP (unique selling proposition) or some other simple and immediate emotional hook.
AVA: Can you give us a few examples of your favourite advertising slogans?
RB: I like a witty strapline and many of them feature a clever play on words: ‘The car in front is a Toyota’, ‘Have a break, have a Kit-Kat’, etc. And yes, I am a big fan of witty wordplay and puns when they work well, as these do.
I even persuaded the well-known American copywriter and author, Luke Sullivan, to take out his blanket ban on punning from his book ‘Hey Whipple, Squeeze This’ when I pointed out that he’d featured some clever puns within the examples of great ads in his first edition.
One copy creation that I really admire is the notion of ‘Pro-Age’ from Dove, tying in with their ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’. I just think it’s so clever and original, and yet so simple, to take the idea that other products had been claiming for ages, ie ‘anti-age’ and then to turn that thought absolutely on its head. This phrase is telling you that here are some products from Dove that are on your side, making you look good and feel better about yourself, whatever your age. How refreshing. (How Heineken! To quote another effective ad campaign for a generic and otherwise undifferentiated lager.)
AVA: And what about placement? What are the best places for ads to be noticed?
RB: Wherever people are likely to be most receptive. With the fracturing of media, the rise of digital marketing (and an increasing danger of information overload), there has been a push to try and focus more precisely on individuals within your target audience. That’s not always easy, but sites like MySpace do seem to permit a greater degree of message personalisation, which has formerly been restricted to carefully-targeted direct mail shots.
Some of the old ways are still the best in terms of widespread recognition: that’s if you have the funds to buy the space. A 30 second TV slot in the middle of a popular show like X Factor is still a sure-fire way to get your product in front of millions of people (even if some of the audience have popped out for a tea or a wee break!). In the same vein, you’ll often see major poster campaigns being used, paradoxically, to promote websites, so it’s clear that the old ways still work and have their part to play in the media mix.
I also have a somewhat grudging admiration of sneaky ambient advertising as long as it isn’t seen as an invasion of privacy or personal space. Cheeky messages that appear in clip-frames over gents’ urinals or even on the back of a toilet door can really hit home – and talk about a ‘captive audience’!
AVA: In the conclusion to Basics Advertising 01: Copywriting, you talk about the importance of keeping your ideas fresh by working on a variety of accounts, and always keeping your audience in mind. How did you learn to adjust your language and tone to appeal to different target groups?
RB: I think we all adapt the tone of our language in our everyday lives, even if we don’t always consciously recognise it. Think about the tone of voice, your choice of language and your demeanour when you’re talking to your friends, to your parents, to your teachers, to your work colleagues or to your boss. There are bound to be some subtle and not so subtle variations.
Creative copywriters can’t afford to be ‘one-trick ponies’ when it comes to style and mood, so they need to read widely and practise different styles and tones of voice for their very different audiences, who could range from teenage girls to pensioners, from expectant mothers to mining engineers. (And yes, you could have an expectant mining engineer, but I’ve never been briefed quite so specifically!)
AVA: The advertising industry must have changed a lot in the last few years. Have the advances in digital media and the Internet helped or hindered those in advertising? What are the best and worst things about these developments?
RB: I think that some confusion has arisen in the world of digital media where technical competence is often confused with creative ability. Some people have forgotten that content really is still the most important element: you must have information presented in an entertaining and emotionally compelling way to make people sit up and take notice, to get your messages across. This fact means that you still need excellent copywriters and graphic designers, even if they must now adopt new media forms to express their creativity.
AVA: What advice would you give someone who is interested in advertising as a career but who is just starting out? What are the best ways to get some experience?
RB: Practical experience is so important. You must try and get on any suitable work placements to gain that experience and insight into the industry in all its manifestations and to see what roles you might be best suited for. You don’t have to go directly for the top London ad agencies where competition is fierce and egos often brittle.
I keep reminding my own students that there are many more work opportunities out there, beyond the relatively few, well-known ad agencies. Think about regional ad agencies, design consultancies, PR companies, publishing companies and event management organisations who all need creative copywriters. Think also about jobs on the client side, where every medium to large company has its own marketing services or marketing communications department and often its own in-house design studio as well.
AVA: We currently have an author writing a book for us on idea generation. What do you do when you get completely stuck and need to come up with some fresh ideas?
RB: I’m happy to say that my mind appears to be wired in the slightly weird way that is required for the lateral thinking demanded by copywriting and conceptualising. When searching for fresh ideas – or new ways of putting old ideas together – it always helps to have an inquisitive mind that is fascinated by all kinds of facts and theories.
By reading widely and observing freely in order to absorb images and information, you create a major resource to draw upon in times of need. A suitably-charged brain can then make the necessary connections and link things in unusual and surprising ways. And thankfully, our brains can soak up so many details and yet never become fully charged.
If you do become stuck, then it’s probably best to give it a break and walk away from that particular project for an hour or so, or even overnight if you have the time. You can still be working on other projects while letting your brain work unhindered on the one that’s causing you problems.
The brain is an incredible tool that can seemingly work unaided if you give it the freedom to do so. It’s all about being alive to the creative possibilities. One tip I give my students is not to discard or deride any initial ideas. Yes, you have to be critical – but not too critical at the outset. Even a seemingly terrible idea can sometimes be looked at from a different direction or turned on its head to create an excellent new concept.
And when it comes to headlines or straplines, it helps to set down your thoughts quite freely. You can always go back over those verbal ideas, review them and tweak them until you have created something more polished and suitable. The creative process is one of editing and adjusting until you’re happy with the finished product.
If you have the chance, take a look at the hand-written manuscripts produced by famous poets in the throes of creative production. See how many crossings out and revisions they make to adjust a word or improve a phrase to their eventual satisfaction. And even then they’re not always satisfied, revisiting their poems in later years to make yet more adjustments!
There are times when an idea or a phrase simply pops into your head fully formed. Which is great. But there are many more times when those ideas have to be worked on and shaped. You have to be persistent and patient to create the best ideas.
AVA: Who do you look up to in the advertising industry? Is there anyone in particular who has helped or inspired you?
RB: I tend to look beyond the realm of advertising for my creative heroes. Advertising is a narrow field that draws its inspiration from other creative disciplines, so the people whose work I find most inspirational or worthy are those writers who can entertain while they inform, who inject their work with wit and fun, or in other words, humanity.
So, in that category I would place Bill Bryson with his hugely entertaining books on places and people. A man in love with language and possessing a terrific curiosity about all aspects of life, the universe, and everything it contains.
Then, more recently, thanks to my young children, I’ve enjoyed reading and listening to Terry Deary who is the originator and main author of Horrible Histories, among his many other creative activities. Here’s a writer who loves to convey ideas and information in a witty and engaging way for his young audience, with suitable asides for his older readers and now TV viewers.
Another writer I admire, who began his career in advertising copywriting (so there’s hope for me yet), is Peter Mayle, who escaped to France to begin a new writing career extolling the rural charms of Provence and generating a strong combination of desire and envy among his readers.
AVA: The television series Mad Men has bought a lot of attention to the advertising industry recently. Have you seen it – and did it feel at all familiar?!
RB: You mean the heavy drinking, excessive smoking and abundant sexual encounters? Alas, so rare these days. When I started out in the early 80s there were a fair few long and boozy lunches, although they did tend to wreck you for the rest of the afternoon.
Times have changed and there seems to be a much stronger and more serious work ethic these days. Not so much fun but probably a great deal more productive in terms of the volume of work being produced and also expected by our more demanding clients. (The rise of rapid e-mail communication has been a mixed blessing, in that it demands our instant attention and unfortunately suggests that work can also be produced instantly.)
AVA: AVA books now have an ‘Ethics’ section in the back. Have you ever been presented with a situation that gave you a moral dilemma? Being asked to represent a company whose work you don’t agree with, for example? Would this stop you from taking them on as a client?
RB: Luckily I haven’t faced such direct dilemmas. That might mean I have low moral standards, but generally my clients haven’t been gun-runners or drug barons. I have done a lot of work in the past for banks and building societies but they weren’t considered such social pariahs when I was working for them. And, unfortunately, if we’re going to use currency, we all need banks of one kind or another.
If a dodgy political party approached me to help them write their racist manifesto, then I would certainly walk away. Similarly, I wouldn’t take on the job of promoting hand-gun ownership, but those are easy moral decisions. Others might be less obvious.
One thing that offends me about some advertising to a younger and suggestible audience is the blatant use of shock tactics and inappropriate violence. And I don’t think that’s because I’m now middle-aged. My views on this issue haven’t altered in the past few decades. A video for French Connection showed two girls fighting, then kissing and then one of them head-butting the other. That is morally revolting – I think such cynical use of violence is offensive.
In another ethical arena, I used to do a lot of copywriting for Cadbury and worked closely with their personnel when editing an Environmental Report on their behalf. It was encouraging to see big business take their social responsibilities so seriously. Subsequently it was also good to learn that Cadbury had adopted a Fairtrade policy for the sourcing of their supplies. (Let’s hope Kraft, who have now taken over Cadbury, can maintain similar standards and even improve upon them.)
Some people label this kind of activity ‘green-washing’ and, at times, it might seem rather superficial (like supermarkets selling you polythene bags supposedly to keep the numbers used down, yet still placing so much of their fresh produce in rigid plastic packaging that can’t be recycled), but then, higher moral standards have to start somewhere.
AVA: If you had to sum up a career in copywriting in a few words, what would they be?
RB: The longer you do this job – which can seem like a great hobby rather than a plodding job – the more you learn, and there is always more to learn. However, over time, you can become a bit jaded, so you must strive to keep the freshness in your approach and your writing.
Try not to settle for second best from yourself, or others. Be positive and supportive in your bid to get the best from everyone. If you can improve a line or an idea, try to take the time and trouble to do it.
AVA: What are the best and worst things about the advertising industry?
RB: Best things about advertising: the opportunity to be creative on someone else’s pay-roll. Worst things about advertising: tough briefs and tight deadlines – which, when you’re up for it, are a challenging opportunity – and when you’re up against it, are a cause of late evenings and sleepless nights.
Many thanks to Rob for taking the time to answer our questions. His book, Basics Advertising 01: Copywriting, is available to buy from our website.