Why copywriters need to become more like journalists

It sounds illogical: journalists report the impartial truth, copywriters present the client's point of view. The so-called separation of 'church and state' is sacred. But what happens when copywriters are asked to create native advertising?

Copywriters: To survive we have to become hybrids
Copywriters: To survive we have to become hybrids

Native advertising includes everything from editorial pieces in the New York Times to a Buzzfeed post. And what we’re starting to see is agencies hiring journalists and newspapers creating in-house native teams.

This means copywriters – and agencies – need to get to grips with a format exploding in popularity, or risk missing out on something that’s tipped to claim 15% of display budgets this year.

But hold on. Are copywriters the right people to be writing native advertising? Journalistic writing is more than just a different style. It’s a different way of thinking before you even begin. Not selling but telling, to gain that all-important editorial credibility.

The problem comes from having one term to describe a huge and ever-widening range of ad formats. Native covers such a variety of writing that it’s impossible to say either journalistic or copywriting skills are the best fit. It depends wholly on context.

Suggested posts on Facebook or an amusing Buzzfeed listicle in the client’s tone of voice? Get a copywriter. An editorial piece on women's prisons for Orange is the New Black? A journalist might be a better bet.

Of course, that doesn’t take into account individual skill sets. Many highly skilled and experienced writers could easily slip between the two.

For the rest of us, it’s not necessarily about hiring journalists or losing work to them, but about adding journalistic skills to our bow. If you’re a good writer (and if not, why are you a copywriter?) you should be able to do it.

Pundits have been banging on for years about the end of interruptive selling and the bright new world of engagement.

This is our chance to show we’re more than capable of stepping away from traditional ad formats and creating content that’s genuinely interesting, entertaining and shareable. But we can’t do that unless we take native seriously and up our game.

For example, when a job needs a more impartial journalistic viewpoint, make sure you understand how to wield it. I’m seeing too many native pieces designed to slot in beautifully beside a newspaper’s editorial content – but written in a breathlessly positive, mindlessly banal style that is the hallmark, unfortunately, of bad copywriting.

It’s not good enough. We can, and will, do better. Because if we don’t, our clients will go elsewhere. And with social sites transforming into paid ad platforms before our eyes, there’s a lot to lose.

Ultimately, if copywriters are going to survive in this ever-shifting creative landscape, we have to become hybrids. This is our industry and our patch. Adapt or die.

Jen Bull is head of copy at Collective London

Image courtesy of See-ming Lee/Flickr