Close-Up: Return of the art of advertising conversations

Despite the clamour for visual-led advertising, it appears dialogue is being written back into the script.

Words. They went out of fashion a few years ago. The industry was so dazzled by drumming gorillas and coloured balls that dialogue became a bit redundant. The general aim was to make an ad that was indistinguishable from a music video. High-impact TV ads were the ones that made viewers gawp at the screen, transfixed by pretty images, and rush to download the accompanying soundtracks from iTunes.

Perhaps writing a script that could tell a joke or make an emotional impact on an audience in 30 seconds was just too difficult. Or maybe the sort of humorous repartee shared between Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins over a Cinzano just wasn't enough to get consumers buying beer or TVs any more.

But dialogue isn't about to be written out of the script just yet. In the midst of the dizzying CGI/HD/3D parade, some dialogue has fought its way through to the screen. Perhaps viewers have had their fill of visuals, and want characters and some good old-fashioned storytelling back in the ad break.

Paul Whitehouse is fronting tightly scripted ads for Aviva. M&C Saatchi's new campaign for Direct Line sees comedians including Chris Addison and Alexander Armstrong exchange entertaining verbals, while Morgan Freeman's dulcet tones are parodied in SFW's More Th>n ad.

Oh, and Aleksandr has taken the nation by storm, thanks to a series of ads that owes as much to a strong script as anything else. (In fact, the writing proved so successful that the wordsmiths behind the campaign were able to turn the meerkat's musings into one of the bestselling books of last year.)

The industry's great copywriters are coming back in from the cold. We've asked a few of them to give their verdict on the latest twist in the plot for the scripted ad.

- Luke Williamson and Yan Elliott joint creative directors, WCRS&Co (co-wrote Orange 'Rob Lowe' Gold Spot)

Writing and shooting dialogue is exciting. Each delivery of a line can skew a script into another direction. Everyone has to be concentrating, playing their part, for the script to be a success.

It's not just down to the actors: writers may have to rewrite on set, directors have to nail the performance and then the editor has to provide the timing. The process is fun and a well-received final result is incredibly rewarding for everyone involved. So why is good dialogue in advertising such a rare thing?

First, it's not as easy as it looks. Both writing and performing dialogue comes with a high-risk warning. The calibre of acting required is more likely to be found in the film industry than the advertising world and this can put extra pressure on the writer, casting director and director. It's a risk only some are prepared to take and only some revel in.

An added complication is the trend for ads that can run globally and translate internationally. There are obvious problems for dialogue in the one-size-fits-all strategy. A simple request, "Could I bum a fag?", might get you into trouble Stateside.

Then there are the media and cost implications. The reality is that some dialogue does benefit from more time. With the Orange Gold Spots, we created 65 seconds to play with by combining the time allocated for general copy and the five-second spot used to ask people to turn off their mobiles. This allowed us the space to develop characters and get to know them properly. Some might regard that as a luxury but the impact and potential of well-developed characters actually make it a sound investment.

Strong characters and narrative allow a consistent brand engagement. They allow ownership of an adaptable space where the client can voice whatever issues need to be addressed. Just look at Rodney and Del Boy, characters who people love, selling all sorts of stuff, and, because we love them, we listen.

- Dave Buchanan deputy executive creative director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (wrote Aviva 'goth')

Trends are usually provoked by "what wins".

When the sumptuous Sony "balls" hit the screen, everyone wanted "visual". When Hovis went "big", everyone wanted "big".

To be "back in vogue", pure, unadulterated scriptwriting will need a big winner before everyone jettisons all else.

So why aren't we awash with great, dialogue-based scripts? Quite simply, it's tough. As a scriptwriter, you're totally exposed.

Yes, you have directors, you have actors; but if the words you put into those actors' mouths don't work, they don't work. You can't fix that in post.

You can rewrite a voiceover, rewrite a caption, re-order vignettes, re-edit non-narrative-based scripts, re-record or totally change soundtracks.

You can't change dialogue. Dialogue demands that both writer and client commit early. And that's tough. What client doesn't want to facilitate options?

Time is also the enemy.

In this multiple-time-length media world, does that "great gag" really cut down to 20 seconds, bearing in mind the "science bit" takes seven?

When every syllable counts, economy of word is paramount and a tough skill to master. Even tougher in the days of e-mails, texts and Tweets, where expedience triumphs over craft.

And could the guys who write The Wire really hack writing for B&Q with Clearcast breathing down their necks?

But those exact same reasons that make scriptwriting in advertising tough are the very reasons that make it worthwhile.

Be brave. Put your head above the parapet, negotiate that minefield and see how good you really are, on your own.

Make them laugh, make them cry, intrigue them, hoodwink them without the use of CGI or this month's special effect.

There is simply nothing more rewarding for a scriptwriter than to see the viewer moved purely by their own words.

- Nick Kidney head of copy, Bartle Bogle Hegarty (wrote Johnnie Walker 'the man who walked around the world')

The well-written script may have flirted with extinction in recent years, but it never actually died. Every now and again, lurking between all those splendidly big visual blockbusters, I'd see the odd bit of great writing like Orange's Film Board or Malibu's "seriously easy going" ads and be thankful there were still a few people who seemed to know what a pen was for.

If there has a been a return to more dialogue-based ads in the past year or two, no-one told me, but I can only hazard a guess as to what may have brought it about. Maybe it's a recessionary reaction to the very kind of big-budget, Hollywood-style production that you couldn't move for before the economy went belly up. Maybe it's also why, with less cash around, so many advertisers have turned to characters to entertain us. After all, if you can't tell an epic tale, why not tell a funny one?

I like the meerkat as much for what he says as what he does. Ditto Johnny Vegas and Monkey. And it's probably why someone at John Smith's has had the good sense to reunite the much-loved beer with the much-loved Peter Kay. Even ads I thought were going to be funny and turn out not to be, like the current Aviva spot, show that a good idea coupled with good writing is still hard to beat.

So, yes, perhaps we are seeing a renaissance of ads that rely on the pyrotechnics of the written word rather than just pyrotechnics.