Recently, the DMA revealed the results of their copywriting census in an e-book called Why Your Copywriter Looks Sad, launched at an event at Google’s HQ in London.
It was humbling to see that I and my co-founder Ben Locker were named in the book as ‘copywriters who copywriters rate’ – surely more for our work with PCN than for our portfolios, which are both modest. However, having watched our online directory of copywriters grow to 1500 members over the last three years, it was disappointing to see the DMA stating (most recently in Campaign) that ‘There is no national society of copywriters… There isn’t even a database, anywhere, of copywriters practicing [sic] in Britain’. If we really haven’t managed to create either of those things, I hope what we have can serve in the meantime.
Also, although I have the utmost respect for the copywriters who contributed to it, I did have reservations about the overall tone of Why Your Copywriter Looks Sad – the ‘misery’, the ‘end of an era’, the gin-drinking to forget the working day – which isn’t a world I recognise.
Most copywriters I know look pretty happy. And that doesn’t surprise me, because copywriting is the best job in the world.
If you’re a copywriter, it really is a wonderful thing that you do. Your medium is language, your potential infinite. Every time you sit down to write, the awesome power of words is yours to wield. Through something as insubstantial as letters on a page, you turn mere objects into objects of desire. You plant thoughts in readers’ minds and make them grow into actions. You take half-formed ideas and make them whole. You shine light into the shadows, bringing clarity where there is confusion. You are the music maker, the dreamer of dreams.
Yes, you’re a hired hand, not an artist. You serve the man, the almighty dollar. But you still use the same tools as the poet, the novelist, the crusading journalist, the screenwriter, the pop lyricist. You write for a living, for God’s sake. If that doesn’t excite you, what will?
Don’t blame the client
To be fair, Why Your Copywriter Looks Sad does acknowledge that copywriters ‘love what they do’. Turns out it’s the suits and clients (to whom the book is implicitly addressed) who are holding us back from greatness, with their timidity, deafness to poetry and unreasonable amends.
There’s more than one way to look at this issue. The sulky-teenager view is that we’re victims, lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, crushed by the wheels of industry. We really want to do good work, but nobody understands. Why won’t the world listen?
The self-help view is that we have to take responsibility for what happens in our lives. As long as we blame others for our situation, we’ll never change it. And arguably, that should be easier for professional communicators than it is for many others. As Don Draper says, ‘If you don’t like what people are saying about you, change the conversation.’
The truth, as ever, lies somewhere between these two extremes. There are things we can change, and things we have to accept. But wherever we stand, and wherever we want to be, I don’t see what we gain by insulting those who pay our bills – apart from an indication that we might be in the wrong job.
If the suits are getting in the way, then for me that’s an argument for the copywriter being ‘in the room’ more often. At my ‘level’ of copywriting, I often deal directly with the founder of a firm – a firm they built by perceiving, and meeting, customers’ needs. Sometimes, I even get to talk to those customers. If I then go away and write copy that fails to speak to them, I can’t really blame anyone but myself.
Things aren’t what they used to be
Another theme of Why Your Copywriter Looks Sad is that copywriting is basically going down the pan. Heaven knows, as a forty-cough-year-old man, I’m no stranger to that feeling – I get it about everything from pop music to my poor old knees. But I try to keep a sense of perspective. Some things are better, some things are worse. Some have changed so much that comparisons are irrelevant. And some were of their time, never meant to hang around.
Around 50 years ago, adfolk like David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and Howard Luck Gossage resolved to create advertising that did something more than hammer home a cretinously simple message through repetition. Today, we rightly revere their vision, their determination and the excellent work they inspired. But we still have to see it in historical context.
In 1950s America, advertisers could realistically contemplate tactics like broadcasting their ad on all TV channels at the same time, so viewers had no escape. Setting forth from that cultural desert, Gossage et al were pioneers, discovering the lands that we now inhabit, and take for granted. For those who came after them, like the bands who followed the Beatles, there was simply less new stuff left to do. Once ‘Lemon’ had been written, it could never be written again.
Also, the 60s brought many changes, not just in advertising. The era of the Mad Men wasn’t inevitable; it was a once-in-a-lifetime alignment of individual genius, historical moment and (yes) clients’ willingness to experiment. If we judge our worst against their best, the outcome should not surprise us.
Quality and quantity
But should we really feel so bad? I‘m neither a writer nor even a scholar of ads, but I do sometimes blog about them, and when I do, I never have to look far for great work that, to me, seems like it would stand up in any era (examples here and here).
Every generation reinvents copywriting, taking the best from the previous generations and adding their own stamp to it. What constitutes ‘great work’ changes over time. It has to, or people would stop listening.
Maybe the problem today is that there’s too much chaff, not enough wheat. Too many channels filled up with too many words, and too many marketers paying too much mind to mechanics and measurement, not enough to messages.
But we are where we are, and our media landscape is what it is. It’s still true, as Gossage famously observed, that ‘people read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad’. But their cognitive resources are spread more thinly now; there are simply more messages vying for their attention, in more channels, more of the time. Smartphone in hand, people quite simply never stop reading, one way or another. It’s only natural that marketers should enlist the copywriter to pursue those readers wherever they go – which means more words in more places, a tougher struggle for share of voice and, inevitably, the need to write more quickly.
A visitor from Mars, or even the NHS, might be surprised to hear copywriters bemoaning the state of their profession. In terms of the sheer amount of material being written, it’s surely never been healthier. We’re seeing more time, effort and money go into the written word than ever before, and it’s content, storytelling and conversation that hog the headlines. If that makes us sad, I dread to think what a ‘design is king’ movement would do for our fragile mood.
Look beyond London
Of course, for some, all that other stuff is the wrong sort of copywriting. In fact, it isn’t even copywriting at all, just content. If only we could make it go away somehow, or educate stupid clients out of commissioning it, then proper copywriting would be free to return to its old-school glory.
Let’s be clear. Quantity doesn’t equal quality, and may compromise it. But at PCN, our view is simply that there are many kinds of copywriting and many types of copywriters – all doing a valid job, and all worthy of the name.
Crucially, many of them ply their trade outside London, quietly and diligently working to improve the quality of marketing comms at every level without winning awards for it. While ‘more than half’ of DMA census respondents are in London (and all the writers in their Madmen v Mavens video, as far as I can tell), just 15% of our members are based there. If fresh ideas are needed, could they come from the 1000+ copywriters outside the capital?
When we founded PCN, we considered vetting prospective members based on the quality of their work. But we quickly realised it went against our aim of serving working writers. In our view, if you write something for a client and get paid, you are a copywriter. You might not be able to take on every job, and your services might only suit certain clients, but the same is true for everybody. We all specialise in the things we’ve been asked, or are able, to do.
If you come to our copywriting conference (and I hope you will), you’ll be able to walk up to anyone in the room and start a conversation about the work you both do. It doesn’t matter if they work for Sapient Nitro and you work for sole traders in Shropshire. You will still have far more things in common than points of difference. That’s the spirit behind Vikki Ross’s #copywritersunite hashtag, and it’s exactly what we want for PCN too.
If things do need improving, we have to do it together. If we want those who pay the piper to call a different tune, it can’t be a case of copywriters vs clients. If we want to learn from our elders, it can’t be old hands vs young guns. If we do want copywriting to be a profession, it can’t be London ad writers at the ‘top’ vs SEO or web content writers at the ‘bottom’. In fact, to be honest, it would be nice if it wasn’t anybody vs anybody. (And I’m not the only one who thinks so.)
For what it’s worth, we believe copywriting is in great shape. There’s a world of copywriters out there – our members – who see clients as partners, changes as opportunities and ‘competitors’ as collaborators. As a profession, copywriting is alive with possibility – there are so many ways to write, so many ways to find inspiration, so many writers to meet and learn from.
So if copywriting is dead, I say ‘long live copywriting’.