Five things the best copywriters do

Debi Bester, writer in residence at the DMA, reveals five things the current crop of copywriters think the next generation should do.

Debi Bester: writer in residence at the DMA
Debi Bester: writer in residence at the DMA

At the wrap of the beta class of the DMA Future Writers’ Lab, the writers were set a final challenge - rewrite the handbook on copywriting for the 21st century.

An hour later, the first 20 pages of that handbook were written, and they’ll be added to by every class that participates in the Labs over the next year and published as a tribute to the next generation of copywriters.

A sneak peek makes for interesting reading. Some of the advice echoes the mad men from the past, with a focus on craft mastery that’s as relevant today as it was 60 years ago. But much of the advice comes as a backlash by writers against the new working model in agencies, with its plug-and-play resourcing, too-tight deadlines and copywrite-by-track-change ethos.

Leafing through the scribbles of the workshopping exercise (some annotated with emoticons, others written in Txtlish), I’ve pulled out five of the things this generation of copywriters think the best of the next generation should do.

1. Walk in the customers’ shoes

Don’t just read about "the customers" in the brief. Insist on attending the focus groups (even if it is after hours and through one-way glass). Better still, break out of your time-sheeted production cycle back at the copy factory and go and meet them where they’re at home.

Talk to them, or rather listen to them. And observe their problems, values, behaviours, priorities, social connections and, most importantly, unmet needs. Get closer to them than your client does and you’ll discover the secret to unlocking value for both their customers and their business.

2. Do the factory visit

Don’t rely on the brand guidelines, website and briefing to understand your client’s business. Interrogate it for yourself. Visit it as a customer and buy the product.

Chat to brand fans (and detractors) online. Interview employees and managers. Even shadow someone doing a job that’ll give you invaluable insight into the problem at the heart of the brief, whether that’s making pizzas, stacking shelves or clinching deals.

A client worth their salt will welcome your curiosity as long as they can trust your discretion and sense of responsibility.

3. Use the art and the science tools in your writers' toolbox

When last did you borrow from the conventions of art to answer a client’s brief? Stella Artois’ The Black Diamond immersive theatre experience reinforced its premium appeal.

The British Heart Foundation’s "angina monologues" used comedy to talk about a serious subject. The Lego Movie literally played across borders, grossing $500 million worldwide. And that’s the point. Get copywriting right and it becomes a product consumers will pay for.

Then there’s the "science bit". When last did you turn to the human sciences to inform and inspire behaviour-changing communications? Indeed, one of the Future Writers’ Lab sessions focuses on how five of the over 90 behaviour changing techniques (BCTs) developed by University College London can be applied to the craft of copywriting to activate response. Get the copywriting right and it can design brands into consumers’ daily habits.

4. Fall in love with data

Say the word "data" and traditionally a class of copywriters will imagine a bunch of pointy heads spouting numbers… and yawn. But data is the new copy. After all, wowing your customer starts with knowing your customer.

So, copywriters, seek out data planners. You’re the new creative team. Harness the data culture we live in and use it to fuel the kind of copy that reaches millions, one person at a time. After all, data has rewritten the copywriters’ brief.

Pre-digital, it was simply to use data to write copy that targets the customer to respond to businesses. Post-digital, it’s expanded to using data to rewrite the way businesses respond to customers. Little surprise we’re seeing copywriters joining the Future Writers’ Labs from client as well as agency side, drawn from departments as diverse as research, where they’re writing customer narratives, to sales, where they’re writing asynchronous conversation tools.

5. Don’t just tell the person you’re talking to, but the person they’re talking to

All the textbooks, from Ogilvy on Advertising to Hey Whipple, teach us how to sell our brand to the person we’re talking to. In today’s social economy, we need to think beyond him or her, to the person, indeed the people, they’re talking to.

Firstly, because every customer is a brand now and their brand comes before our clients’. Secondly, because every customer is a media owner now and their media channels are more powerful, and more credible, than any our clients can pay for. And thirdly, because every customer’s always on the lookout for content that can build their identity, their relationships and their influence.

So, copywriters need to learn to craft messages so powerful that they’ll spread one-to-one to millions. And for that, there’ll be a few more guidelines in the "book on copywriting". Or maybe a few more chapters.

Debi Bester is writer in residence at the DMA

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