CAMPAIGN PRESS ADVERTISING AWARDS 2003: Where now for long copy?

Is Wight right? By depending too much on images, are advertisers denying themselves - and their clients - the use of a powerful communi cations tool? Five top industry players present their own contributions to the long-copy debate.


I really enjoyed Robin's piece but I don't agree with where he ends up. I do think he's right when he says that, for him, a lot of contemporary advertising is shallow and fails to complete the sale. But I don't agree that long body copy in press ads is the answer. Because the media environment has changed so much.

Most of the ads Robin praises (and I'm fond of them, as well) were produced at a time when things like newspaper supplements were new, rare and intrinsically interesting.

These days, there's much more competition, and the general environment is therefore much less attractive. For instance, if you read the Sunday supplement editorial now, let alone the ads, it's a tacit admission that you've just had an incredibly boring weekend.

This is not to say that press ads are wrong, of course - they've just got to work harder and quicker these days. Or that there's no place for long body copy - I just think that the place for it is when people are requesting more information, when they're already half-sold.

If there were more writers with David Abbott's skill ... if the environment were less crowded ... if people were more receptive to our sales messages ... Too many ifs.

Long body copy in press ads was right then, but it isn't right now. Times change, media change, consumer tastes change.

Do you want to take a bet? In five years' time, someone will be writing a piece lamenting our lack of skills in the area of writing 30-second TV ads. Because that's gonna go next. But - to quote Robin - so what?

This industry has always been good at adapting to changing circumstances. (It has to be.)


Long copy died when the Sunday broadsheets got too fat. That was where David Abbott plied his crafty trade and was an award-winning machine.

In those pre-fcuk days, advertising was less "in yer face" and people were more hookable by a gently witty headline/visual combo, more willing to meander a while among some elegantly wrought "grey lines" (as art directors called copy, even in those days). Tantalisingly, Mr Abbott's famous letter to Campaign bitterly excoriating the fcuk campaign could almost be regarded as long copy's tombstone.

Yet, so brilliant and broad is the silver fox's oeuvre, that it also contains answers and antidotes to these facts. How do you get people to read copy today? You have to stop them in their tracks: when was the last time a press ad truly managed to do that in this world of proliferating distractions? The answer is, a shocking 12 years ago when the RSPCA ran a message featuring the page-turning, finger-paralysing image of a pile of dog corpses. In an increasingly visually oriented world, what is the future for words? An answer is, make them so pithy and perfect that they become visually coruscating, as in The Economist poster campaign.

Whither long copy? The charming current M&G Investment campaign suggests that there are some products and services that can still hold consumers' attention in a longer exposition.

Broadly though, Pascal had it when he said: "I have made this letter long, because I did not have time to make it shorter." Today, doing what we do well means doing it as short-windedly as possible.


Whoever said "a picture paints a thousand words" did writers a great disservice. This very powerful statement has been abused by the ignorant to undermine the written word ever since.

When I started off in advertising, I sweated blood over headlines and body copy. It took me ten years to learn the art. I'd take three weeks to craft a piece of body. I knew what kerning was. I laboured over type mark-ups for hours. I wrote to fit. I read my body copy back to myself in a mid-Atlantic accent. (David taught me to do that. Try it. If you want to get your rhythm and sincerity levels right, it invariably works.) These days my copywriting skills are a little rusty. And so are the rest of the industry's. What went wrong?

Some time around the mid-80s the ad business decided that a picture paints a thousand words. Which is true. And, therefore, that words were not necessary.

Which is false. Meanwhile, market forces required we produce ads at a speed too fast for great copywriting to be included on journey. Agency fees got cut. And as a result the on-the-job training that good copywriting needs went out the window. Technology killed the typographer.

Awards have played a big part in the demise of copywriting too. An attitude has prevailed for several years now that the less copy an ad has on it, the more likely it is to win a gong. Bollocks.

I agree with Robin. I think the written word is a powerful tool that is underused in advertising these days. As a result, the business and the ads that we produce are not what they used to be.

Would David Abbot get a job in advertising today? Would David Abbot want a job in advertising today?


I'm drawn to the words of the great Frank Carson: "It's the way you tell 'em". As we all know, great ads are about great ideas. That's as true today as it's always been. What changes with time is the way we tell these ideas.

We are definitely in a period of "put the idea in a succinct endline and visualise it in five ways for an award-winning campaign". But the craft of writing is far from dead. The first ad in the most recent D&AD Annual is a Guardian ad containing 100 or so beautifully written words by Gustave Clemenceau (aka Nick Burrage and Luca Bertolozzi). And I'll wager the first TV entry in this year's annual will be a fantastically written John Smith's commercial. (Do you "'Ave it"?)

There is, without doubt, a place for body copy in today's world. The train platform, for one; where yet another delay will have you reading your palm, not to mention ads for travel insurance. Also, if you're advertising a product that's of genuine interest to the reader, they may well continue into the body copy. "Free gold bar, read on for details," springs to mind.

But for the vast majority of brand ads, I don't believe Mr J Punter has the time or inclination to delve into the smaller print. After all we're bombarded with images and messages.

As a punter, I loved BMW's "Shaken. Not stirred". The headline, the image, the idea. But nothing stirred me to read the body copy. The copy worked as a visual, telling me without the need to read that there's a lot to a BMW engine.

Will long copy rise again to dominate press advertising? I'm not sure it will. As for Mr Abbott, of course he'd get a job today. He has fantastic ideas.


Robin Wight has written 1,733 words in defence of long copy. Those who agree with him will have read every word. Those who should heed his advice will have turned the page.

I'm sure the latter will be in the majority. The reason? I suspect it's because the industry has paradoxically become too professional and at the same too amateurish.

Let's begin with professionalism. Until recently, this industry was a refuge for misfits with a creative bent. People, in fact, just like me.

When I started, aged 29, I knew nothing about O&M Direct. However, I did know I wanted to make a living by writing. I had the good fortune to work under people who tolerated my failings.

Nowadays I wouldn't have got passed personnel. I had no professional qualifications and had never been on a marketing course. Indeed, when asked if I had a book, I fished out a copy of Heart of Darkness, which I was reading at the time.

Ogilvy taught me to write. By that I mean they taught me to persuade people by using empathy, clarity and charm. I was a professional salesman.

I still am. However, most of today's newcomers would be nonplussed if you suggested that this was how they made their living.

Few make the link between their efforts and the commercial world in which their agency's clients operate. As such, they see little point in salesmanship.

Unfortunately, no-one encourages them to think differently. In fact, as long as they elicit Robin Wight's "wry smile from the consumer" or, better still, a knowing wink from the lads in the next office, they are happy and, more's the pity, so are their bosses.


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