Where now for long copy?

Following on from the Campaign Essay by Robin Wight last week, which posed the question 'would David Abbott get a job in advertising today?', five creative heads put forward a selection of their views on the role of long body copy in press advertising.

STEVE HENRY - Executive creative director, HHCL/Red Cell

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

Most of the ads Robin praises were produced at a time when things such as newspaper supplements were new, rare and intrinsically interesting.

These days, there's more competition and the general environment is, therefore, 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 a boring weekend.

This is not to say press ads are wrong, of course - they've just got to work harder and quicker these days. Nor that there's no place for long body copy - I just think 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 was less crowded ... if people were more receptive to our sales messages ... too many ifs.

Long body copy in press ads was right then, but 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. But, to quote Robin, so what? This industry has always been good at adapting to changing circumstances (it has to be).

MARK WNEK - Chairman, Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper

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 then). These days, the Sunday broadsheets are so huge, who's got time to check out all the editorial, never mind advertising body copy?

Tantalisingly, Abbott's 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. How do you get people to read copy today? You have to stop them in their tracks: when was the last time a press advertisement managed to do that? The answer is 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 to make them so pithy and perfect that they become visually coruscating, as in The Economist poster campaign.

Whither long copy? The charming M&G Investment campaign, while no Albany Life campaign, suggests there are some products which can still hold attention in a longer exposition.

Broadly, though, Pascal had it when he said: "I'm sorry this letter is so long, I didn't have time to write a shorter one." Today, doing what we do well means doing it as short-windedly as possible.

EWAN PATTERSON - Joint creative director, BMP DDB

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 has 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 an ad for The Guardian containing a hundred or so beautifully written words by Gustave Clemenceau (aka Nick Burrage and Luca Bertolozzi). And I'll wager the first television entry in this year's annual will be a fantastically written John Smith's ad. (Who can go to the pub these days without hearing "'ave it" or "top bombing"?)

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. 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. As for the vast majority of brand ads, I don't believe Mr J Punter has the time or inclination to read the small print.

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 be 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 David Abbott, of course he'd get a job today. He has fantastic ideas.

ROBERT CAMPBELL - Joint executive creative director, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

Whoever wrote "a picture paints a thousand words" did writers a great disservice. This powerful statement (ironically made up of six words, not pictures) has since been abused by the ignorant to undermine the written word.

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 wrote to fit. I read my copy back to myself in a mid-Atlantic accent (David Abbott taught me that).

Some time around the mid-80s, the advertising 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 advertising at a speed that was 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. Global advertising demanded dumb pictures.

And I think awards have played a 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 Wight. I think the written word is a powerful tool that is underused in advertising these days. As a result, the business and the ads are not what they used to be. And I'm not just talking about press ads. TV dialogue is in a pretty poor state, too.

Would Abbott get a job in advertising today? Would he want one?

STEVE HARRISON - Creative director, Harrison Troughton Wunderman

Robin Wight has written 1,995 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 time too amateurish.

Let's begin with professionalism. Until recently, this industry was a refuge for misfits with a creative bent. When I started, aged 29, I knew nothing about Ogilvy & Mather 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 and the consolation of knowing my ultimate boss, David Ogilvy, was 39 before he wrote a word of copy.

Nowadays, I wouldn't have got past personnel. I had no professional qualifications and had never been on a marketing course. When asked if I had a book, I fished out Heart of Darkness.

O&M taught me to write. By that, I mean the agency taught me to persuade people by using empathy, clarity and charm. I was a professional salesman.

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

Few make the link between their efforts and the commercial world. As such, they see little point in salesmanship. Unfortunately, no-one encourages them to think differently. In fact, as long as they elicit 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.