How the Friends reunion reminded us of the enduring formula of the writers' room
A view from Jim de Zoete

How the Friends reunion reminded us of the enduring formula of the writers' room

Group writing may not suit every brief, but for the right project it’s a brilliant way to inject energy into the process and raise the game when it comes to the craft of copywriting.

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about the decline of copywriting, which breaks my heart. We don’t do ourselves any favours as an industry by constantly putting ourselves down.

What must it be like for young people starting out in an environment that is continually comparing you unfavourably with the previous generation? Plus, I don’t really buy it – there’s some beautiful writing out there. I defy anyone not to smile at Burger King’s "Another Whopper" on the side of a bus, or B&Q’s "Mind. Body. Soil".

That said, anything we can do to inject more creativity, craft and dynamism into the writing process has got to be a good thing.

In the recent Friends: The Reunion documentary there was a fascinating glimpse into how the writers’ room for the seminal series operated. It was a behind-the-scenes moment during filming. The writers were bouncing ideas for lines off each other trying to make the joke land better with the audience. They quickly came up with a new punchline for Joey, who, having lost heavily in the casino, heads to the buffet claiming: “Oh, here’s where I win all my money back.”

Perfection. The writers' room, where a group of writers work together to craft the script, is a staple of US TV.

There’s a reason why this formula endures, particularly for comedy. With a storyline and characters in place, and a showrunner with the final creative say, getting groups of writers to put aside ego and work together can be the quickest way to a funnier, sharper script.

The writers’ room approach has huge potential for creative work at agencies, and not just for comedy. At Across the Pond, we have many clients from the tech sector, so we’re continually working on making extremely technical and complex products accessible and engaging for a mainstream audience. Quantum computing was the subject of our recent Google spot "The quantum frontier".

Once the team had cracked the idea, we worked together as a group of writers to create the script. This had several benefits, given how technical it was, the process of explaining it to each other, over and over again, meant we got to something that was genuinely understandable, much faster. And by doing that, we also had a collective sense of it, which gave us the confidence to keep improving on each other’s writing. There was a real sense of group ownership and freedom. It was liberating.

This wouldn’t have been possible using the traditional method of putting a lone writer and an art director in a room until they came up with a final execution. By contrast, group writing can be a much more dynamic, collaborative process. Done right, it enables writers to have fun and forget about ego to tell the story in the most effective and compelling way.

In my time, I have worked in a traditional copywriter/art director pair, as a copywriter on my own, and as part of a writer’s room. At the BBC, our ECD used to form a "scrum" of multiple writers for Six Nations rugby briefs. All of these methods have their merits.

Group writing may not suit every brief, but for the right project it’s a brilliant way to inject energy into the process and raise the game when it comes to the craft of copywriting. Also, it’s inspiring. It gives writers an insight into how their peers write and think. How many times have you genuinely been privy to that?

As advertisers we must compete with the best that Hollywood has to offer, and so compelling writing is more important than ever. And for an industry that prides itself on doing things differently, maybe it’s time we mixed up the way we approach the wonderful craft of copy?

Jim de Zoete is executive creative director at Across the Pond

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