CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/COPYWRITING - John Tylee investigates the idea that copywriting is an advertising skill in decline

Fings ain't wot they used to be when it comes to finding good copywriters.

Ask almost any agency and the answer is the same: you just can't get the staff these days.

Not even Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the agency whose creative output was personified by David Abbott's finely crafted wordsmithing, is immune from the problem. Last week the UK's largest shop took the unprecedented step of appointing Tim Riley as its first head of copy as part of a concerted effort to ensure copywriting doesn't join thatching and coracle-building as a dead or dying skill.

Whether or not this actually matters is an open question. Greg Delaney, the chairman of Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, admits to seeing, "fewer and fewer written ads I really want to read".

But is the dearth of good copywriters just the price of progress? Why should creative wannabes take time learning to craft a sentence when a Mac will express their ideas more quickly?

"Pencils? a seasoned creative director remarks with heavy irony. "Aren't those the things you pick up at awards nights?"

But while there's almost universal agreement that good writers are becoming the hen's teeth of the industry, there's sharp divisions on how much sleep agency creative heads should be losing over the fact.

"You may not like it, but we live in a visually driven world, John Hegarty, Bartle Bogle Hegarty's global creative director, says. "It's not dumbing down, it's just different. But it means that the days of the long copy ad are over."

Rubbish, Andrew Cracknell, Bates UK's executive creative director, retorts.

Booming magazine sales, the explosion in text messaging and the fact that people are writing letters again are all testament to the continued importance of the written word.

"It's significant that many new commercials, like those for Nike and Levi's, are without voiceovers. That's not necessarily wrong, but it's a sign that creatives are having to find other ways of communicating because they can't write dialogue and are frightened by it, Cracknell says.

Some believe an agency's interest in copywriting will always be determined by the shape of its client list. As Gerry Moira, the Publicis executive creative director, points out: "Being able to write like Oscar Wilde doesn't matter if you're turning out ads for Asda. There's also a widespread view that copywriting shortcomings are easily fixable as long as the creative director exercises proper quality control.

Simon Dicketts, M&C Saatchi's executive creative director, says: "Just because we don't have a head of copy doesn't mean we don't think it's important - even if it's only four words on a poster."

Art colleges have tended to take the rap for the death of copywriting.

But senior lecturers believe they are often made scapegoats for a failing education system and agencies that fail to encourage bright young copywriters.

Tony Cullingham, who runs the copywriting and art direction course at West Herts College, is staggered by the inability of students - many of them already holding degrees - to articulate their ideas.

But, most of all, he blames the system by which agencies check out potential recruits. "When my students go into agencies with their books they often don't see group heads, but young teams who aren't interested in copy and well-written headlines, so they come back believing that writing doesn't matter any more."

One of Cullingham's students, a potentially brilliant copywriter, has opted to switch to veterinary sciences having grown tired of trying to find an agency job. "Fifteen years ago he'd have been snapped up," Cullingham laments. "He could have been the next Tim Delaney."

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