Spotting the good stuff: the role of the copywriter

Before they call us in, some of our clients are in the habit of briefing a creative team to come up with a concept. They’ve seen visuals and have selected a front cover; a dps layout and a couple of variants; a set of beautifully shot images. It looks the bee’s knees and right on brand. And then they brief the content. I simplify, but ‘about 2000 words to fill this please’ isn’t too wide of the mark.

But who are we talking to? What do you want to say? How do you know that it’ll take 2000 words and who said a brochure was the right vehicle in the first place? And now they have to brief all over again.

So when should the copywriter get involved?

The best jobs are the ones when the copywriter is first in and last out – thank you Mr Horberry for articulating this so eloquently.

  • First in because someone has to ask the questions, capture thoughts and opinions and turn ideas into words; this is the natural role of the copywriter.
  • And last because writing provides continuity and ensures coherence in the final execution.

Whether for digital, print, or presentation our writers are involved throughout the creative process.

What is copywriting?

A definition that I have liked for a while now and endorsed by Roger Horberry in his interesting book ‘Brilliant Copywriting’ is that it is salesmanship in print. This is a quote from the illustrious adman John E Kennedy. We’ve long chattered on about words that sell, but what about those that persuade and incite action. Roger is right (or is it just that I agree with him?); ‘selling’ is only half the task of the copywriter. If you take the construction of a rational logical argument based on a tangible financial attributes to its extreme you end up with copy that’s cold and pretty unconvincing. People rarely buy for wholly rational reasons and charm, humour and good ol’ entertainment all have a part to play in persuading our audience to act.

Is that a drum roll I hear? Enter the copywriter: professional persuader and story teller extraordinaire.

Size matters

I had an interesting meeting with a new client today. We often try and convince clients to try different approaches to engage their prospects and customers more. This client beat me to it. From the off they said that they wanted to tell a story to enthral the reader.

There was a time when whitepapers were long, technical pieces, often with a large element of blue-sky thinking; and case studies were quite in-depth reviews of a project. Driven by the perception of a time-poor audience, bombarded by thousands of marketing messages, we’ve seen pieces get shorter and shorter. But there are dangers in making everything shorter. Not only is there the risk of ‘dumbing down’ the message, but it can also take the human interest out of the story. Edited down to a curt list of bullet points, the customer and their story become implausible and impossible to empathise with. Simplified to appeal to a broader audience, the whitepaper can become nothing more than a glorified brochure—that’s fine, but not when you are trying to demonstrate competence and thought-leadership to technical decision makers.

At HN we aren’t bound by industry-standard terms. We look at each project and agree with the client what length, tone and level of technical detail is most appropriate to the audience and therefore be best at achieving their objectives. Why not have a look at our article The resurgence of storytelling, or give us a call and put us to the test.

We get mail

The other day an email landed in one of our inboxes and we passed it around in wonder; we couldn’t believe how long-winded and awkward it was. Here’s the opening:

In the midst of this dynamic, hyper-competitive global economy, understanding and addressing the ever-evolving needs and requirements of every customer is increasingly more complex yet essential. In response, a complete shift is happening in the way marketers are pursuing buyers and consumers, as well as addressing the needs of the sales channels. These realities provide immense challenges and opportunities for marketers.

Did you make it all the way to the end? If you were the recipient, would you continue reading?

To be fair, it wasn’t long ago that the trend was predominantly for a style of copy only slightly toned down from this example. We weren’t allowed to address ‘the business audience’ as if they were normal people who might appreciate plain speaking. There was a whole other language to use, ‘business language’; and it was unengaging, passive and wordy. Why say ‘in’ when you can say ‘in the midst of’? Why be satisfied with addressing customer needs if you can address both their needs and their requirements? Oh wait, not just address, but understand also. And we’re still in the first sentence!

The tendency to produce over-complex and verbose copy came, we think, from the belief that wordiness conveys seriousness and authority; and that adding adjectives makes copy more powerful. Neither of these beliefs has ever been true.

But things have changed. While each brand is doing it slightly differently, our clients are asking us for a much more relaxed style. They want copy that talks directly to their audience without fuss or embellishment. Have we writers finally managed to convince everyone that its possible to be both authoritative and concise? And that all those adjectives dilute the message?

Possibly; but I think the change really stems from accepting that people don’t expect, or want, to be addressed in a radically different way when they walk into work. It may never be appropriate to address the CIO or IT manager of a target company as if they’re your mate; but (in the UK and US at least) it’s become acceptable to address them as real human beings. That’s a trend we can only encourage.