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So you're a copywriter? You poor bastard

by Dom Megna

Computer Keyboard
I’m a copywriter but I also like to think I’m a pretty clever writer. When I get a brief the first thing I do is try to solve it with clever words.

There are many copywriters like me. Many are writers, too. Of blogs, short films, books, poetry, lots of half-finished stuff – often to prove to ourselves, as much as the world, that we can write proper. But what most of us are best at is copywriting. Copy for advertising. To use words to influence and sell. And that’s great. The best become immortal.

Writing anything of lasting substance that’s not copywriting is considerably more difficult.

So while during office hours we stick to our knitting, we will often try and blur the lines. Mainly this means asking ourselves a question at the start of the process:

How can I take the philosophy of this brand or product or service and serve it up in a clever literary way?

Lately that question often leads to one answer – the manifesto.

The rise of the modern manifesto has been due to the perfect storm – they were relatively uncommon (and mostly very good). Copywriters felt more commoditised than ever, so became increasingly eager to prove how good they were, and, notably, manifestos were an easy sell. What marketer doesn’t love their product or brand values spoken in reverent tones?

Now manifestos have gone beyond the hype video to something a lot more widespread and popular. Inevitably this has led to average. The worst have become conventional and formulaic and the words are solely to blame. Here are a couple of examples off the top of my head - ‘Here’s to the dreamers, the battlers, the late-night warriors…’ or this one, ‘Whatever happened to <insert something great about the good old days that our product will promise to bring back>?’

It’s copywriting. Not writing.

Copywriting coaxes. Writing demands to be read. Manifestos are generally lofty and their purpose is to move you. The writing means everything. Maybe that’s why we’ve seen some of the more beautiful pieces written by writers. Apple used Walt Whitman and screenwriter Tom Schulman in Your Verse, while OPSM used Dr Cornel West for Style is Why. Granted, West is a philosopher, but clearly he can write a bit. The point is these are two excellent pieces not written by copywriters.

In fact, this opens up a whole new debate – in adland we’re willing to pay for just the right piece of music, so why not the right piece of writing?

Possibly because the copywriter won’t allow it. And that’s fine, as long as the copywriter is willing to step up and do it themselves. Someone at Bozell in London did it in the ‘90s for The Independent with a spot called Litany. It’s arguably the best of the lot. After watching it I’m quite sure every copywriter I know will think ‘I could’ve written that.’

Another example is the Leica 100 piece from Saatchi’s in Brazil. It won a Cannes Grand Prix in 2015 and is another brilliant piece of writing. Arrogant as shit but beautiful, and written by copywriters who clearly spent a lot of time getting it just right. The big difference with this piece is that it’s not just a lofty philosophy but a pointed message about the product itself. This is what makes it even more remarkable.

Manifestos can be astounding but like any worthwhile piece of writing they require great skill. Poor manifestos are as easy to write as they are to sell. But they’re also very easy to ignore.

Whether you’re a creative or a client, next time you find yourself writing or assessing a manifesto, ask yourself – does it sound like it’s been written by a copywriter? If the answer is yes, start again. If you want your audience to make it to the end, make sure it reads and sounds like it’s written by a writer. As a copywriter there’s no better feedback to get. 

If you’re a copywriter and can’t make it sound like a beautiful piece of writing, no matter how hard you try, just move on.

No-one will realise how much inner turmoil you went through. You poor bastard.

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