August 25, 2009

Dear CS people at our sister agency

I am not a copy vending machine.

When you change my copy before it gets to client, and then client doesn't like it, what is it that you'd like me to do now to fix it?

Bloody creative vampires. You suck the life out of everything.

(Sorry--needed to get that off my chest.)

August 24, 2009

Grammaticus Interruptus

So... you're saying Scandinavians are lousy salespeople?

August 19, 2009

More than verbs.

Since a lot of what I do is adaptation into English, I often come across a few conundrums that drive me a little batty. Now, I know every writer is different, and our toolboxes never look quite alike. But there are some basics that were driven deep into my copywriter brain from the get go, and I have a hard time breaking my own rules.

And number one on my list is the use of verbs.

Way, way back when I landed my first agency job, my hard-nosed (and temperamental--and I mean temperamental) CD would burst into my back-room office, holding a copydeck that looked like her red pen had sprung a leak. Most of the copydecks were newsletters--simple projects to cut my junior teeth on. And there, at every article headline, she'd scrawl the word "verb" (usually followed by a half-dozen exclamation points). She would change "New hotel offers 10% off" to "Get 10% off at new hotel". Or "Golf Course gives a free round when you book 3 nights" to "Enjoy a free round at Golf Course when you book 3 nights".

At first, I thought it was a whole lot of wasted ink over six of one, half-a-dozen of the other.

But then it clicked.

I'm talking to someone. Or, rather, the hotel and golf course are addressing a client, engaging them to take action, calling on them to sit up and take notice. And here I was, writing newspaper headlines when I should have been opening a conversation.

I've never forgotten the lesson. In fact, I'd guess that 95% of my headlines begin with a verb--and the other 5% have probably been changed by some well-meaning client or other.

So imagine my dismay when I have to adapt headlines like "The card that gives you more" or "A great deal for members". I call these painting captions--something you'd find under a work of art at a museum, like "Vase with fruit" or "Mary at the waterfall". Descriptive, yes, but flat and unengaging. It's the brand talking to itself. An empty bit of copy.

And, more often than not, I get out my boxing gloves and change it.. "Save more with the new card" or "Get 50% off--a great deal for members". I have to talk to the audience, tell them what they can do, take them by the hand and lead them down the path. I have to start the conversation.

Advertising isn't about features--it's about benefits. And benefits are all about what WE can do for YOU. So leave the captions to the paintings and bring on the verbs.

Cause I'm just going to change the dang headline anyway.

August 6, 2009

More than words.

I posted awhile back about Kurt Vonnegut--an absolutely brilliant writer who crafted every page of a novel perfectly before ever moving on. No edits for him, just a carefully constructed rhythm of words that evoked exactly what he wanted to say. And it led you along right through to the end--open mouthed, amazed and wanting more.

Now I'd never say advertising is anything like a phenomenal novel, but I think writing principles are generally the same, no matter the media. Words are meant to evoke, to provoke, to lead and tempt and seduce. The choice of words, their order, their rhythm--even the careful placement of a comma--all these work in tandem to pass a message. To communicate.

And that, after all, is what advertising is all about.

So when I get a copydeck back, either from client services or from client, that's been hacked and twisted and uncarefully rewritten, I sincerely get my knickers in a bind. I'm not sure just how to explain why a two-syllable adjective was needed here, or why the next sentence shouldn't have a comma right there. I just know it. I feel it. It's more than words on the page. It's more than just bullet points on a brief.

It's about lulling the consumer into reading. Making music out of words so that their mind floats from one word to the next like notes. So yes, I make a big deal out of a comma change, out of adding more words to this bit and taking words out here. Don't go playing in my copy--let me know what you need, and let me reconstruct. I've got the rhythm in my head. I'll play with the changes, try them out, move them around. I'll find the fit.

Just, please--leave my dang words alone.

August 2, 2009

Brief Truths

Our sister agency briefed us last week on a new project. The account people over there tend to be a lot more formal when writing up briefs, which include yawners like secondary audience descriptions, estimated price per piece and drop numbers per segment. This last brief even had the word "tertiary" in it. How often have you used that one in a lifetime?

But no matter. These things can be mammoths of 5 to 6 pages, so I highlight the good parts and doodle around the other stuff.

What gave us all a big reason to pause, though, was the entry for the big one--the main objective. That's the part you compare all your concepts to, the words that drive you in the right direction from the get go. This part should be short and sweet. It should have one, and only one, main point. It needs to be the guiding light for all the other information you need to include in the piece.

Oh, and it needs to be, you know, true.

Because this is what we got:

"We understand your company".

As in, the reason to pick us is because we understand your business. We get you. We feel your pain.


I've yet to meet anyone outside of advertising who actually "gets" what a copywriter does. Not even my friends are 100% sure of what I get paid for, except that I write stuff and it's perhaps like the brochure that came with their toaster. So I have no expectations--and would be highly dubious--of any company that wrote to tell me they get what I do. It would be an insulting generalization, and a communication cop-out.

Even worse, when we asked sister company for proof this was true, they replied a few days later with "Um, nothing more there--sorry. You'll have to work with what we gave you." Which, really, just enforces that the whole main objective had no wheels to begin with.

So here is what we've decided to work with: We don't get your business (gasp!), but we really know ours. So bring us onboard and we'll take care of our end so you don't have to.

Short, sweet and with a benefit, to boot. How hard was that?

Apparently, very. Creative briefs are meant for the creative team. They're supposed to be concise and pertinent to the message. They're supposed to present a logical challenge, not a creative conundrum. Yet so many are written to please the client--a kind of client Valium, promising big answers to boardroom questions.

But we're writing to consumers. People who couldn't care less about marketing objectives, business challenges and the competition. People who just want a little something to make their lives easier, better, more interesting, even fun.

The main objective isn't supposed to answer a client concern--it's supposed to give consumers a reason to pick you. Mess that part up and you might as well put all your money on the forth horse in the second race.