The write rules

By Andy McLeod, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 23 September 2011 12:00AM

D&AD's original Copy Book was both a celebration of, and guide to, great copywriting.

Nike's iconic 1998 ad by Wieden & Kennedy

Nike's iconic 1998 ad by Wieden & Kennedy

As D&AD reissues its classic with new writers and more work, Campaign showcases its pick of the extra content.

I'm not a copywriter any more, so I don't write copy. Mind you, I never did write much anyway. I was always too busy trying to get people to read the headline.

I was never quite optimistic enough to expect them to read the long bit underneath as well. Let's face it, when flicking through this book, more people will read the headlines on the ads than will read the copy.

And this is a book about copywriting, for copywriters. About as much of a shoe-in as you're ever going to get.

So I always tried to avoid writing lots of copy. The best piece of copy you can write is less than ten words long; it's a headline. And for me, a great headline is just the truth about a product expressed in an arresting way.

My favourite lines aren't clever at all. They just express a clever idea in a clear and concise way. There's nothing particularly clever, as a piece of writing, about "Use your vote, you know he'll use his". It's just a clear expression of a relevant truth.

But I'm bloody proud of it.

When we started the Marmite "you either love it or hate it" campaign, we didn't think in terms of what would be a clever headline.

We thought about what the truth of the product was, and then we wrote it down. It might be a clever observation, but it's not a clever piece of writing. We were just expressing the truth that had somehow remained background, bringing it forward into the public eye.

"Skoda, no really, Skoda" just took what everyone thought they knew about Skoda cars - ie. that they were rubbish - and applied it to what the truth was - ie. that Skoda had just made a brilliant car.

So for me, smart writing is simple writing. It's about communication. The quicker the better.

Andy McLeod is a director at Rattling Stick

Again, there's nothing clever about this headline, but we felt pretty clever about having helped make the waiting list a reality.

Not a clever piece of writing as such but the truth, succinctly told. Our payment for this campaign was a lifelong get-in-free, access-all-areas gold card to the Ministry of Sound nightclub. We only made it down there once.

Richard Flintham and I would argue about anything if it meant better work came out of our office. So Marmite was made for us. He loved it, I hated it, and we knew we were on to something that could run and run. The ads we launched with maybe weren't as good as many that came after, but as a brand property it has stood the test of time.

DAVE TROTT

I was always taught, 5 per cent of people who turn to your page read the headline.

And 5 per cent of the people who read the headline, read the copy.

If that's true, the copy is 5 per cent of 5 per cent of the ad.

In which case, who are we writing the copy for?

Dave Trott is the creative director at CST The Gate

MALCOLM GLUCK

How copy was once written. Is it any wonder no-one writes like it today?

Well, try.

If you are a tyro advertising copywriter in the third millennium, what you are about to read will strike you as the droppings of a dinosaur. But it is said the study of dinosaur dung is useful (it even has a name, coprolite paleontology) and may provide important clues as to how life has developed. In that spirit, then, I shall continue, mindful that no-one writes long-copy ads any more, or even writes ads (as opposed to causing them to be created via teamwork). It is also probable that newsprint is doomed.

Modern advertising is, then, as like the business I worked in from 1963 to 1992 as the iBook I write on now is to the yellow writing pad and the Faber HB pencils issued to all Doyle Dane Bernbach copywriters when I joined that agency's London office in 1966 (supplemented by an office-issue Remington portable typewriter, Roget's Thesaurus, the Pocket Oxford Dictionary and, at my own expense, Fowler's The King's English). Overlooking the gender in the last book, and even as the England football team were winning the World Cup, I was studying Fowler on "mixed metaphors", "enumeration", the "spot-plague", and "unequal yoke-fellows".

DDB was a terrifying place for an unlettered lout such as myself who, though raised from an early age on a diet of words, had received his most meaningful educational excitements in public libraries. Under the tutelage of copy chief John Withers, and shaking in my Chelsea boots (for in offices along the copy department corridor scribbled three further wise men, John Salmon, Dawson Yeoman and David Abbott), I spent three months working on one piece of copy for Mothercare. I was paid £26 a week, to go up to £30 a year later when Mr Withers decreed that I was fit to remain. He taught me about split infinitives and dangling modifiers, the double entendre and the negative pun. He also introduced me to grand cru classe bordeaux.

I approached copywriting, prior to DDB, as Robert Graves had advised Alan Sillitoe on the writing of poetry: compose a strong, irresistible opening line which is unrelated to the title (for which we may substitute, for our purposes here, "headline"), and write a powerful narrative middle which makes a seductive case for what it is you wish to get across, and to finish always have a memorably witty ending. DDB forced me to refine these vague admonitions. DDB taught me how to think, not just how to write.

Working at an agency where Socratic reasoning was the norm, I soon learned not only to apply Occam's razor to every sentence (every thought) but to make a piece of copy a compulsive delight to read. I learned that if a line (let alone a word) could be taken out and the copy still stood up, if it did not suffer in any way, then it could be quashed.

I had fallen, with Mr Withers' help, under the spell of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the late Victorian writer and critic. On the pinboard in my office, in 72-point upper-case type, there was stuck Quiller-Couch's great injunction "murder your darlings". In zealous sanguinary style, I became a serial murderer of my own and anyone else's copy (when I became that Tyrannosaurus, the copy chief).

What relevance, dear old fart, I hear you asking me, can this possibly have to the age we now live in? In the age of texting, Twittering, Facebook, MySpace, e-tailing, and ads where the propositions are not based on a rational appeal to a reader via a genuine advertising idea but an emotional bludgeoning built around computer-generated imagery aimed at a viewer which even from the back seat of the Odeon starkly betrays the horrible grubby fingerprints of planners all over it, the craft of copywriting is, surely, more or less dead.

I have not seen a print ad or a TV or cinema commercial in the last 20 years which would have been signed off at DDB (let alone the early AMV or CDP).

Indeed, I am told that copywriters no longer have offices where they can write undisturbed and relish their solitude but sit at something called a workstation in an open-plan office in front of a computer terminal. How it is possible to write in such a bustling hell is beyond me. But then I've never had to try.

My approach (in my own office) was to scribble down several dozen opening lines, before committing one to the typewriter wherein lay rolled a virgin sheet of saffron yellow copy paper. The sentence sat there, stark and accusatory, under the headline which I typed in first. This was then followed by a frenzy of writing on the pad as I more or less listed everything I had to say. I then paused. I stretched my legs. I did clues in The Times crossword. I cleared my mind of the task in hand for several minutes.

I then attacked the main body of the copy again until a second and longer pause came when I would, with the help of a telephone, organise an evening with a distant young lady, at the theatre or dinner at a restaurant. I then typed up what I had written on the pad, made a few amendments and corrected typos, and tried out a few end lines.

Which brings us to lunchtime. This was a prolonged mental exercise lasting three hours, and several bottles of lovely wine were consumed (with possibly calvados to follow) in the company of one or other of my colleagues. On my return around 3.30 or 4pm from this daily habit, which was essential to create as much distance as possible between me and the copy (thus removing my ego from it and creating a more objective stance), I would see that what I had written in the morning was tosh. I would throw it away (among the myriad of things DDB provided for its copywriters was a green metal waste-bin).

This ritual was repeated for three or four days; slowly, a curious process had taken place in my mind: I discovered what it was I wanted to say and roughly how I wanted to say it. Occasionally, to add to the essential breaks in the daily writing routine (The Times crossword proving so feeble as to last less than 15 minutes, say), and distant young ladies being intransigent or unbiddable via the telephone, I would go and chat to an art director or perhaps one of the prettier media buyers. The former were the more culturally challenging (art directors really were art directors in the days of which I speak). They would ask how I found the latest Philip K Dick, or what I thought of Bill Evans' left hand on Round Midnight on his latest EP, and if I had anything original to say about Adrian Mitchell's new play or Stanley Spencer's monstrous hangings at The Tate. We rarely, if ever, discussed advertising.

Anxious to have an opinion on everything, one was forced to become extremely diverse. DDB therefore became my university. Writing copy there was an intellectual experience. It was like being on a drug. I was daily so stimulated I would have paid to work there. (By the time I reached CDP, alas, I was so totally blase as to write copy in my sleep.)

Usually it took two weeks for a long piece of DDB copy to settle itself down and become a promising shape. For a short piece, and if I had the luxury of the time, it took three weeks. Of course, some pieces of copy were more urgent, and took only two days, but this was the exception. Never did I discuss with anyone else what I was writing. Only when I was satisfied with it, to the extent that over a week of playing with it I had been unable to change a significant word, would I show it to the art director. Only if it passed that test, and now daring to think I had achieved something succinct and profound, did I dare offer it to Mr Withers or ask Mr Abbott or Mr Salmon or Mr Yeoman for an opinion.

It seems to me now that the biggest problem to overcome with writing advertising copy is keeping it natural, fresh, and seemingly effortlessly arrived-at; as if the words had just been baked and were still warm to the touch. If taking three weeks to write a piece of copy results in a mannered and remorselessly self-conscious read, the writer has failed. What is the secret of writing copy which does not make you feel a failure?

Reading it out aloud to yourself. Again and again.

I read out loud a lot of what I write today, even when I am turning out 25,000 words in a month. A lot of the time I am pacing my study, arguing with myself.

A man in the street who talks to himself is listening to a fool. A copywriter who talks to himself is having a conversation with a genius.

Malcolm Gluck is an author and co-founder of Priestley Marin-Guzman & Gluck

A simple trade ad to reveal that a younger hip audience reads the newspaper. In those days, John Barnes, the England forward, was young and hip.

Wives bought their husbands' shirts in those days and so the client introduced a range with varying sleeve sizes. I blush to read it now, talking to women as if they were just adjuncts to a male lifestyle.

DAN WIEDEN

I find most personal thoughts on ad writing complete and utter drivel. I'm talking about my thoughts, not some luminary's. So my advice to those of more tender years would be precisely the advice I now give myself on this issue: if you can't write something startling, don't write anything at all.

Dan Wieden is the co-founder of Wieden & Kennedy

LEON JAUME

Copywriters are taught early on that no-one chooses to read their words. But things are actually a bit worse than that.

People do choose to read, and pay to read, someone else's. You're not simply a rival, you're a gate-crasher, an interloper.

You're stumbling on stage and grabbing the mic from the headlining act; you're barging on to a table for two while a first date gets under way.

You're a bad man. Or, it goes without saying, a bad woman.

And the person who can best help you win over the audience that doesn't want you there in the first place isn't another copywriter, it's your biggest adversary: the journalist.

Observe his methods. A good columnist knows his role in his readers' lives. Each time you write copy, you have a role. What is it - friend, hustler, sage, wit, teacher, seducer, alarmist, expert? When you know your role, you have your voice. Then you can tell your story.

It doesn't matter whether you write a few terse sentences or a grandiloquent saga, it should have a narrative. You're not making a list, you're telling a story. Even if it's in the form of a list.

And don't be ponderous or precious. Your ads should feel immediate and fresh. Train yourself to write faster. Journalists' disdain for advertising is well-founded on the basis that half-a-dozen entire newspapers have usually been written and read in the time it takes a copywriter to burnish a few words.

Don't fossilise your ads and constantly revisit them. Do what your readers do. Throw them away and leave your mind open for the next one.

Where appropriate, have fun. Words written with joyful relish are more likely to be read that way.

And, despite the years of tradition, don't feel obliged to end with a pun or a witty flourish. Sometimes, just finish.

Leon Jaume is the executive creative director at WCRS

The Copy Book - How Some Of The Best Advertising Writers In The World Write Their Advertising is available now at www.taschen.com

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

Article tags:

Related articles

X

You must log in to use Clip & Save

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus

Additional Information

Campaign Jobs