Sean Doyle, creative director at TBWA\London, knows how to write great headlines. He’s won a fair few awards for his, after all. We asked Sean about the art of headline writing, what the Economist got so right, and what the future holds for copywriting.
Why is headline writing harder than other types of copywriting?
The shorter the line, the harder it is to write.
Body copy: difficult.
Headline: really difficult.
End-line: really, really difficult.
It’s hard finding a 3 or 4 word sentiment that hasn’t been used before.
It’s easy to do the formulaic stuff (X redefined, Live your life, Because there’s only one you, I am me, all that vague, meaningless, invisible nonsense), but to get a truly memorable, sticky set of words: it’s difficult.
Off the top of my head, good endlines from recent times that I can remember are:
Airbnb. One less stranger.
Expedia. Travel yourself interesting.
New Zealand Trains. Dumb ways to die.
They don’t just sit there, invisible to everyone outside the organisation and its advertising agency. They stand out. They stick in the mind because they sound new and a little odd.
Why did the Economist get it right?
There’s a school of thought – nobody will admit to buying into it, but many practise it – that says the more intellectual you sound, the more substance you’ll appear to have.
That’s wrong. We’re supposed to be trying to communicate here, not baffle people into thinking we must be intelligent because of our complex language.
The really great thing about the Economist work was that it talked to people, not ABC1s or whatever. The Economist appealed to the human being in a CEO, not the CEO. And CEOs are just like anyone else: they don’t want to look at ads, they’ve got a life to be getting on with. They appreciate a bit of wit, they’ll notice something if it’s simple and put to them clearly, they’ll remember it if it’s new and sticky and interesting or amusing.
Proof that the Economist got it right (awards aside) was the sheer amount of great posters they put out there. Year after year, there were at least a couple of corkers in the campaign. 100 posters in and they still hadn’t run out.
There was no actual brief by the time I got to work on it.
There didn’t have to be. The brief was just ‘Do more great posters’. But that was fine. The standard was clearly set.
Simple. The only difficulty was trying to live up to stuff like ‘It’s lonely at the top. But at least there’s something to read’, and ‘I never read the Economist.’ Management trainee, aged 42.’
How do I work?
Two good quotes I always have in mind when working.
‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’
‘Brainstorm now, edit later.’
I write down any old garbage that’s relevant. Nothing gets ruled out. I write and write and write. Then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Words and phrases churn around and, somewhere along the way, they start to form into nice lines.
There’s no Eureka moment. It’s just hard work. I write down the right thing to say, then I simply rewrite until it sounds good. I firmly believe that the harder you work, the better the work is.
As a rule, write the way you speak. The chattier it is, the more human and less corporate you sound.
I always remember this cracking old ad for some clothes shop’s closing down sale. (Not the most exciting brief.) They came up with this:
50% off during our closing down sale.
Oh sure, now you’ll come in.
And here’s some great body copy from an old Minneapolis agency, Fallon McElligott. It was for the American Association of Advertising Agencies. It brilliantly scuppers the notion that advertising forces you to buy things you don’t want.
Some people would have you believe that you are putty in the hands of every advertiser in the country.
They think that when advertising is put under your nose, your mind turns to oatmeal.
It’s mass hypnosis. Subliminal seduction. Brain washing. Mind control. It’s advertising.
And you are a pushover for it.
It explains why your kitchen cupboard is full of food you never eat. Why your garage is full of cars you never drive. Why your house is full of books you don’t read, TVs you don’t watch, beds you don’t use, and clothes you don’t wear.
You don’t have a choice. You are forced to buy.
That’s why this message is a cleverly disguised advertisement to get you to buy land in the tropics.
Got you again, didn’t we? Send in your money.
What does the future look like for advertising copywriting?
Copywriting is such a neglected craft that, ironically, there’s never been a better time to be a copywriter. If you’re one of those weirdos that loves writing and agonises over the right choice of words, you’re in a great position. You’re in a minority. You have less competition. And brands will always need good, powerful, memorable words accompanying them, whatever the medium of the month is.