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.


  1. "The brand talking to itself." Yea, verily.

    And I'm groovin' on how you chose Van Gogh not merely as an illustration of a painting-getting-captioned, but also as a comment on the oft-maddening creative process. *puts down his glass of absinthe*

  2. Off topic but my work filter won't let me on your site anymore. Remember the dirty old man and your knickers episode?, well he ruined it for the rest of us it seems.

    Thankfully I am almost full time with a creative shop now BigCorp can kiss my back pockets.

    Im not a writer, but I do understand that lesson of verbs. Good stuff as always.

  3. Jake: Erm... yeah... that's exactly what I was going for! ;)

    jeaves: Do tell more about your new job! Was it worth the switch? Are you enjoying yourself? You should start a blog so we can follow your agency exploits...

  4. I have taken the offer for the little agency. I won't be starting fulltime for probably 1-2 months to get some personal things squared away. I have started in some aspect as a freelance transition agreement. So I have an email, iphone and visit the office once a week just to breath in that creative air I call it.

    This shop is basically myself on the client service role, as well as one cd, 2 creatives on print/ad, 1 web/digital, and 1 more intense digital online applications person, and of course the token in-studio pet dog.

    Very straight forward work for the most part, but I am going to love it. Currently do a lot of bigger agency overflow work, regional stuff and a minor role in some multinational work.

    I hope to blog about it, hopefully from the beginning so people can see it build.

    It's my BiggyCorp position now that has added "teenie" to its taboo topics on the global network. But googling Hussy Cheerleaders in Chocolate is fine by them.

    Thanks for asking

  5. I think copywriters often forget who their talking to. You have to keep reminding yourself your writing this for a specific person on the other end.

  6. golublog: They're always talking to the almighty "you", the consumer. And you're right--we should never forget that. It's a one-to-one conversation, always.