WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE COPY TEST?: It used to be the industry’s 11-plus - now it’s little more than a piece of adland folklore. And with the flood of graduates now, who needs it?
By ELEANOR TRICKETT, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 26 March 1999 12:00AM
Want to see a grown creative director cry? Lock him in a room for three hours with a bare lightbulb, a sharpened HB and a worn, photocopied sheet with the legend ’J. Walter Thompson: copy test’ printed on the top.
Want to see a grown creative director cry? Lock him in a room for
three hours with a bare lightbulb, a sharpened HB and a worn,
photocopied sheet with the legend ’J. Walter Thompson: copy test’
printed on the top.
The copy test, as fond reminiscences would have it, sorted out the men
from the boys. Thought you wanted to be a copywriter? Reckoned any fool
could write a soap-powder slogan? Beware. You had to choose your agency
well, else you’d end up in Room 101 composing an autobiographical poem
that mustn’t rhyme, but scan perfectly, divulging your innermost
peccadillos to heartless creative directors.
No wonder it fell out of favour. The copy test existed, of course, to
put would-be writers through their paces in the days before the steady
influx of creatives from advertising degree courses.
There were two kinds: an 11-plus verbal reasoning type with grammatical
and logical posers (to which many people were subjected - not just
copywriters) and the full-blown ’can you really write?’ type.
Nowadays, it is almost completely out of fashion, although Jaspar
Shelbourne, the executive creative director of J. Walter Thompson -
former home of a particularly vile test - quips: ’Even back in the 60s,
JWT was considered quite out-of-date for doing it. But if an agency such
as Mother brought it back now, it would be seen as a trendy and new-age
thing to do.’
The argument for the invalidity of the copy test today seems to stem
from the fact that there is now an inexhaustible supply of advertising
graduates flooding the marketplace. The misty-eyed nostalgia for the
days in which journalists, historians and librarians brought their
writing skills to the creative department is quickly brushed aside by
the reality that, if you have new writers who have been taught to write
ads, they can get on with the first brief straightaway.
’The way the business has evolved, it’s very lean now,’ Shelbourne
’Back then, you didn’t really expect much from someone for a while -
people learned on the job and experienced an amazing learning curve
Now, we’re looking to hire people who can hit the ground running.’
These people are in steady supply nowadays, coming as ready-made
Once competition became more fierce, recruiting from outside the
industry became the exception rather than the rule, and the copy test
made way for a system based on the quality of a writer’s portfolio.
Paul Weinberger, the chairman of Lowe Howard-Spink and known dissenter
against today’s narrow recruitment procedures, explains: ’The copy test
fell into disrepute. JWT was the one agency known for it, but then Dave
Trott more or less single-handedly introduced the portfolio system.’
Tim Delaney, the executive creative director of Leagas Delaney, argues
that the copy test tested the wrong things. ’The copy test has been
discredited as an example of how lunatic advertising can be - using
literary terms of reference to recruit copywriters. The people setting
the tests were middle-class people trying to make writing look more
important than it was. If you apply for a writer’s job with one good ad,
the reaction should be: ’good - write 12 more.’’
Simon Kershaw, a copywriter and creative director at Craik Jones,
defends the test against critics who say it measures the wrong skills:
’The copy test is about thinking, not just about producing prose. We
still need people who love to write, and thinking is a given. There is a
danger in always looking at people who know how to produce adverts.’
Patrick Collister, Ogilvy & Mather’s executive creative director,
’People do need to know how to think, but the copy test sorts it out.
Some people have criticised the questions that ask you to do things like
describing how a watch works, but often you have to do that in an ad
So there is a pay-off. Relying solely on the portfolio system may ensure
that you have good teams writing good ads, but it also means that the
gene pool of writers is growing smaller. ’I haven’t ever set a copy test
- they just aren’t relevant as a filter of someone’s ability to write a
30-second TV ad,’ Tim Mellors, Grey’s chief creative officer, says.
’But it’s a shame that we are so regimented towards the college system,
as you don’t get the freshness, and very few renegades slip through. You
see 20 blokes and they all look the same.’
JWT’s Richard Saunders, who became a copywriter after six years as a TV
producer, agrees: ’The portfolio is limiting on the copy side; writers
are coming in with a very narrow experience of life. It’s a shame that
they don’t perhaps come from journalism, TV, that sort of thing. There
is a temptation not to hire someone just because they don’t have a
However, taking on industry outsiders takes time and patience, even
though a change may seem refreshing. Larry Barker, the creative director
of BMP DDB, says: ’There is an ever-decreasing circle of people who have
been reading D&AD books since they were 14. But when you take
unconventional teams it is a considerable investment in time. We are our
own worst enemies. It is no coincidence that there are fewer Salman
Rushdies these days.’
A significant factor in the dwindling importance of a copy test is that
long copy is far less popular and common than it once was. Ads are being
written from left to right these days, rather than from top to bottom,
and the traditional skill of producing long, well-crafted copy has
arguably slipped below the line.
’A copy test is vital to direct marketing agencies,’ Kershaw says. ’You
can have a communication that is just a letter - but it has to be
brilliant. You can’t just transfer a brief on to the letterhead.’
Evans Hunt Scott’s chairman (and a copywriter by trade), Terry Hunt,
adds: ’We run copy tests at Evans Hunt Scott, but these days they’re
usually extended over a placement period. We’re looking for more than
art school cleverness; we want writers who have stamina as well as wit.
A knowledge of grammar is also quite handy. Last year we gave a copy
test to someone who was working as a washer-up and found a talented
A further death knell to the copy test is the increasing sense that
copywriters don’t necessarily have to have a Martin Amis-sized grasp of
grammar and syntax to be a good writer. Writers work hand-in-hand with
art directors and aim to create a homogenous idea rather than a drawing
and a subtitle. As Mellors says: ’Knowing how to write is important for
a journalist, but not so much for a writer.’
A compromise is made, as Barker explains: ’I do bemoan the lack of word
skills these days - the standard is awful. But I don’t think that a copy
test will address that. Copy is now thought of as anything over 200
words, and the lack of ads which contain that many means that, in a way,
it’s dead. I’ve just tried to sell a long copy ad to a client who
countered: ’No-one reads copy any more. There’s no time.’’
HPT Brand Response’s Steve Harrison - the one-time creator of an
OgilvyOne test which had the direct marketing industry quaking -
disagrees. ’People say that long copy is dead and that no-one has any
time for it, but that’s ridiculous,’ he rubbishes. ’Look at the growing
book business; Waterstone’s, Borders. They’re all expanding and Amazon
is the most visited website on the internet. Yet the longest press ad
you see is 200 words.’
Even the more copy-test-friendly below-the-line agencies agree that it’s
asking a lot to gauge a writer’s ability on the strength of one,
stressful session answering impossible questions and, in the words of
Andrew Cracknell, ’attempting to come up with technological
breakthroughs in new product development’.
Rory Sutherland, creative director at OgilvyOne, says: ’Rather like body
copy itself, copy tests are mostly derided as old fashioned. There’s an
embarrassing whiff of the past about them, of the age of Notley’s and
World Press News. But they embarrass us in another way, too, by
reminding us of a time when creative departments applied a little of
their imagination to the business of recruitment.’
Shelbourne concludes: ’There is a large element of sentimentality around
the copy test. But then, some people wish we could return to the days
when everything was a 30-second Hamlet ad.’
CRAIK JONES SITS THE O&M COPY TEST ...
Simon Kershaw, creative director, Craik Jones
From the Ogilvy & Mather copy test:
Describe, as vividly as you can, a delicious dish.
Autumn. You are somewhere in France. Normandy, perhaps. Lunch started
late, and was leisurely, of course. Reckoning by the sun in the golden
poplars, it’s late-ish afternoon (who cares about the precise
You gently rock back in your chair, the cheese-board is taken away; as
plump as a cushion, you cannot imagine eating a morsel more.
Even the petit fours accompanying the coffee will have to lie ignored on
their little white plate.
That is what you believe. But whatever you think, some dishes cannot be
resisted. That is the measure of their magic.
On its way to your table is one such dish: tarte tatin.
You don’t know what’s coming up, and if you saw a list of the simple
ingredients for tarte tatin, you would hardly be impressed.
An apple pie? What’s so special about that? Ah, but when it arrives on
its large, round platter ... My God, it’s upside down!
Concentric circles of apple segments fan themselves out in a hot Busby
Berkeley routine, oozing caramel-brown scents of ... all that is plainly
good from the larder.
Butter, sugar, apple, lemon. And underneath that soft, sweet fruit is a
pastry which you know will melt on your tongue like a big, buttery
Fork gripped in a greedy mitt, drawn into an appley atmosphere, you are
AND VICE VERSA
Patrick Collister, executive creative director, Ogilvy & Mather
From the Craik Jones copy test: A. Prepare an argument in favour of fox
hunting. B. Prepare an argument not in favour of fox hunting.
A Think of the ghastliest people on the planet. Called Camilla or
Roderick, Edwina or Rupert, they give each other even sillier names like
Bunty or Jumbo, Kanga or Boy. As for their surnames, they collect
hyphens as easily as their labradors pick up burrs. The Ffulke-Wittes
are perfect examples of the species. The ’l’ is silent, by the way.
These are the folk who ride to hounds once, twice, even three times a
week. And thank God for it. Hunting removes them from normal life, where
we might bump into them.
But even better, hunting is dangerous. Aristos die regularly. Nearly 100
fatalities last year alone! In pursuit of the inedible, the unspeakable
are riding to their graves.
My case rests.
B Sturminster Rectum dozes for most of the year. But in winter, the
village can make it on to News at Ten.
Sabbing time. Nothing like the hunt meet on the village green to get
urban yoof away from its PlayStations and to action stations. And if the
hunt has a uniform, so have the sabs. Blue and black. Jeans, bomber
jacket and Doc Martens.
They head out from Brookside in droves. And what fun they have, slashing
the horses with their Stanley knives, beating the hounds with
Ban hunting and we ban a sport more destructive to our countryside and
more destructive of country ways than the pursuit of the fox. We put an
end to sabbing. Yes please.
THE INDUSTRY VERDICT
Andrew Cracknell ’I was a prime candidate to do them, not having a
degree, but I only ever did two. They are no use to anyone apart from
the agency for whom you did them’
’I do bemoan the lack of word skills these days - the standard is awful.
But I don’t think that a copy test will address that’
’Copy tests are crap. Why? I failed two of them. They are based on the
junior common room at Oxford, showing how clever people are. I got in
through the labour exchange’
’Copy tests were very formal, like re-sitting my finals. One I sat, in
the 70s, was for Smith Bundy to see if I could write catalogue captions
for Scotcade and letters for Oxfam’
Describe toast to a Martian in 50 words
Suppose you have two pounds 5 notes: persuade somebody to buy the one on
Assume you have no cash, no car, no credit cards or anything: write an
account of how you would spend a day in France
Describe the colour red to a blind person
Create an ad for an indestructible Thermos flask/indestructible socks/a
car that runs on air
Write, in as few words as possible, a notice for a country club to be
placed at the entrance to the swimming baths, requesting that squash
players shower before using the pool
Describe, in as few words as possible, what snow is like to someone who
has never seen it
Write a poem of any length on any subject - it must not rhyme but it
must scan perfectly.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk
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