As a number of Adland’s great writers, including Tony Brignull, lament the decline of copywriting we ask ‘is great copywriting dead or has it just changed the way it looks?”
The DMA has backed a fantastic initiative, Campaign for Great British Copywriting, to inspire and promote better copywriting, supported by creatives from the past, present and no doubt the future.
Few of us would disagree that copywriting, as defined by those great ads of the past, is not what it use to be. But does that mean it’s in decline or has it just changed its form? What defines “:great” these days and even if that definition is now broader, surely we should all be championing raising standards.
The Creative Economy is the UK’s second biggest income, generating £71.4bn annually and the creative sector supports over 1.68 million UK jobs, 1 in 12 new jobs in the UK is now found within the creative economy. So it’s in our interest to raise standards across all the creative industries, staring with copywriting. (http://www.thecreativeindustries.co.uk/resources/create-uk)
I am with those that feel the quality of writing is in decline but I also recognise that there is a greater variety of styles, especially within the social media space, that adopts a very different style, and as copywriting is all about words and their meaning we should be careful to define what “great” or “quality” is.
So who’s to blame for a decline in the art and craft of writing?
This is a debatable area. Colleges turning out kids who are poorly trained? Clients who no longer value quality and think they can write copy, even though they barely passed their English exam? Economics, low budgets, tight deadlines and a “that’ll have to do” culture? No time to train young writers and few decent mentors?
I think all the above have contributed, but also the fact that advertising isn’t as sexy an industry as it was and attracts less talent, especially from courses like English, history and other subjects not traditionally related to advertising, the very areas many of the great copywriters came from.
From advertising to social media… copy can be great anywhere.
Advertising seeks to persuade, while much of social media is about connecting (emotional engagement) usually now as part of a CRM strategy, so it requires a different approach. A great poster headline doesn’t make a great Facebook or Twitter feed, or visa versa. A quick fire reply to a consumers comment may not be seen as your traditional piece of copy but it has just as much right to be considered as such.
We now live in a world where people like to read sound bites, which requires a different discipline. Twitter’s 140 characters has created a whole new challenge and language, as has text messaging.
And when it comes to advertising alone there are many channels - radio, cinema, TV, press, posters, and even postcards, all requiring a different approach.
Writers now draw upon a wider range of sources, not just old D&AD annuals. You are just as likely to be influenced by T-shirt writing or writers like Giles Andreae (Purple Ronnie, Edward Monkton) who himself was influenced by Spike Milligan.
One of the most popular pieces of copy at the moment is the KEEP CALM AND DON”T PANIC which has so many parodies from tea cups to t-shirts. Ironically it was produced in 1939 by the War Office to raise the morale of the public – and’s it’s still doing the job over 75 years later.
One word is not enough
The simple fact is, advertising (above, below, online) has now so many diverse channels of communicating “copywriting” is no longer a word that can sum it all, any more than “music” sums up jazz, classical, folk, rock, pop… To say copywriting is no longer great is like saying music is no longer great – which is academic and only justifiable form a set view point.
Great musicians like David Bowie, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were all considered inferior musicians by those that had gone before. Their fans will consider what followed, like rap, as inferior as well. Imagine what prog-rockers thought of punk!
If you look at other creative industries – publishing, gaming, TV, film, theatre, comedy, art and films you hear similar cries of “things are not what they use to be”.
Time moves on and so does style and form. Creativity is influenced by trends, fashion, culture, media and changing communication platforms. However, one thing that should dominate all areas should be quality, and that for me is what I define great as – achieving the best quality within its sector.
Musical purists may well criticize pop songs for their naff lyrics and simplistic musical structures but here lies the rub, the common consumer is not a buyer of quality or originality. However, that doesn’t mean we should adopt low standards.
Welcome to the world of Popvertising
The Guardian, Telegraph and the Times are very well written but The Sun outsells them all.
The reality is we now live in an age where brands try to emulate what consumers are doing on social media and have created a popular form of advertising (Popvertising). The art of writing a Sun headline is an art, just as writing a great Tweet is and just because it falls within the popular mass of communications doesn’t mean it’s of a lower value than a Guardian headline or a poster headline.
When it comes to writing most of us prefer to read Jeffrey Archer than Chaucer. How many of us can recall having to reluctantly read Shakespeare, Samuel Butler (The Way of all Flesh) or Thomas Hardy (Mayor of Casterbridge) at school when we’d rather be reading Marvel comics?
Many of the great ads were written for a small target audience (often intellectual – take the Economist as an example) and represent a very small percentage of the ads produced by agencies. It’s still true to say this year’s DMA, D&AD, Cannes, and the rest of the award winners represent less than 5% of the mass of advertising, so when we say “great” we are only defining the top work.
Campaigning for quality copy
Putting aside all the reasons why many believe that copy is not what it used to be, championing great copy can only be a positive. If we can increase the percentage of better written copy by just a small percentage it’d make a big difference. But we need to be less Oxbridge in defining what ‘great” is and accept new definitions.
I for one applaud the DMA”s backing of the Campaign for Great British Copywriting and hope it’ll stimulate similar campaigns for art direction, typography, ideas and production values – all of which have slipped over the years. As they say, actions speak louder than words.
Census – what’s your view?