We're all writers now. How recession damages copywriting.


There are many signs that something is going wrong. The scarcity of invitations to join the staff of a particular agency; the lack of requests to pencil out dates in your diary and the distant memory of those top-dollar, overnight emergency briefs.

Only fool wouldn’t come to the conclusion that the industry’s finances are sinking faster than Simon Le Bon’s yacht. Still, any seasoned freelance copywriter has seen all this before. Recession follows boom as surely as a belch follows a can of cola and things will surely come right. And they will.

But in the meantime, what’s happening with the clients, the agencies and firms once so ready with their copywriting budget? To some extent, they are simply producing fewer campaigns or even going out of business. But those who aren’t are making a very risky decision. They’re writing their own copy.

When compared with design, art direction and web development, copywriting has always faced an uphill struggle. Most clients are happy to admit they cannot draw, cannot use Adobe CS5 and have not the faintest idea what HTML even stands for. But they can write. That is to say, they can place fingers on keyboard and produce words. Occasionally, they may even scribble sentences on paper with pens. This creates an unrealistic confidence. If they can write a letter or a shopping list, they reason, they can write decent copy.

So why is this so risky? It gets the job done, it’s quick and easy and, most importantly, it avoids those inconvenient fees. Well, if marketing and advertising is about anything, it’s about communication. Advertisements are created to convey a proposition, a reason to buy, a message to buy into. This demands a compelling message is first identified, then summarised and finally conveyed in an attractive and compelling way. Jumble the vocabulary and the message is confused, ramble and the message is wooly, fail to understand how people read advertisements and the message is lost.

Worse still, if a ‘writer’ misuses grammar, misunderstands the nuanced meaning of language or, heavens forbid, misspells any words - then the credibility of an ad, a product or a brand can plummet like HMV’s share price.

This week, a large print ad appeared in Metro, the commuter freesheet. It sat proudly to left of the TV listings and was a lovely bright yellow, all the better to catch the reader’s eye. Full of natty product shots and calls to action, it seemed to be working quite hard - until one noticed the headline, resplendent with a massive spelling error. It was only three words long. That’s a third of the headline shouting ‘We are so incompetent, we cannot even write our own sales message’. Is that a reason to buy or a reason to be very wary?

Equally, I have worked with many people in advertising and marketing agencies who, although quite smart and quite capable, could not spell for topheee. One colleague would regular email to say the lottery syndicate hadn’t been ‘two’ lucky that week.

Clearly, most people in business can write, but that in no way guarantees the can write copy. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that only copywriters can write copy. The clue’s in the name. When others ‘have a go’ in order to save money, the perceived saving is often as false a Cher’s nose.

Copywriting has been defined as ‘the art of arresting the reader’s attention just long enough to persuade them to act’. That is as perfect a description as one could hope to find “it’s that simple, it’s that difficult”  and only a few people can do it well.

Magnus Shaw - blogger, writer & broadcaster





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