Opinion: Perspective - Why we should worry about copywriting's demise

Cynics that we are here at Campaign, you can imagine how we interpreted creatives' reluctance to take the new IPA copy test (page 8). Of course: they were worried that they might not make the grade.

And as it turns out, our headmaster, Robin Wight, wasn't exactly convinced that the copy test (in its latest incarnation) is the best way to assess writing genius.

But the underlying point remains: writing has slipped down the creative agenda. It's not a new thing. We've been mourning the demise of long copy (occasionally, when we remember to think about it) for years now.

Every now and then, creative directors will send me long-copy ads they've found and loved. They talk of them with a deference, awe even, as though they were relics from another age.

But the debate has moved on. We're not just mourning the death of long copy. Now we're mourning the demise of the skills to write even short, pithy copy, and it's infectious. Scriptwriting for commercials has also suffered, in the UK at least - the best US agencies seem to keep the art alive.

Of course, we live in a visually orientated world where a picture can, as the cliche says, paint a thousand words - and it had better, because who's got time to read a thousand words these days? Except that - as the Telegraph's coverage of the expenses scandal has proved - if it's interesting and relevant, we can and will read.

We also live in a world where clients want more for less, and they want it faster than ever. Perhaps crafting copy has become too much of a luxury.

And, of course, we live in a world where agencies are chasing awards, and mostly international ones. The less copy an ad has on it, the more likely it is to win an award, isn't it?

And we live in a world where some of the best creatives around didn't grow up speaking English as their first language and are more comfortable creating ads with fewer words and stronger images.

Ad students are rarely taught copywriting as a specialism. According to the IPA, colleges encourage students to think almost entirely conceptually. And there's less money in agencies for on-the-job training in copy, technology has killed the typographer and every TV ad needs to work as a cheaper cut-down, so where does that leave a well-honed script?

So the reasons for copy's decline are clear. The question is whether we should care. Does it matter that words aren't as prevalent and that the skills required to produce great copy aren't as valued?

No. And yes. No, because the way we consume media, the amount of media we consume and the sheer volume of ads that are clamouring for our attention have combined to reduce our tolerance for spending too much time with ads, whether they've got long copy or not.

And, no, because even in the days of fewer media and more words, an awful lot of copy-led ads were poorly written and unengaging. The debate about copy all too often assumes that in the good old days all those long-copy ads were of Bernbachian quality. Of course they weren't.

But in a world where more and more agencies (creative, media, everyone) are trying to nudge into content creation, the idea that that transition can be made without a flair for words is patently ridiculous.

A senior ITV executive who's seen the script written by the ex-Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO executive creative director Peter Souter and commissioned by the broadcaster told me the writing is simply fantastic; ITV has big hopes for it.

But I wonder how many of the new generation of advertising creatives will be able to help their agencies nudge into the content arena without the writing craft skills, honed over time, to do it well?

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