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Whatever happened to proper advertising?

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Last week I wrote a piece for Creativepool, suggesting the role of the copywriter had become sidelined to the extent that designers were now the 'creatives'. I also wondered whether this wasn't just an attack of paranoia. Well, it wasn't.

The column appeared in several Linked-In groups and the reaction was rapid and voluminous. Copywriters (and others) from several countries took time to add stories, opinions and comments. Almost without exception, their experiences and observations reflected my own. Clearly, throughout the industry, and on an international basis, those providing the words for advertisements are no longer regarded as part of the creative process - existing merely to fill the 'Lorem Ipsum' space in the layout.

There were some eye-watering tales too. One fellow worked for an agency where the title 'copywriter' had been outlawed and replaced with 'content creator'. Another was frequently told he wasn't needed on certain projects as 'the text will be pretty straightforward'.

Excuse me while I leave the room and howl at the sky.

I suppose this shouldn't surprise me. On a daily basis, I spot advertising campaigns full of mangled grammar, incorrect punctuation and even spelling errors. For a while, I imagined the poor client had been assigned a very shoddy copywriter - now I see it's quite likely the whole project was executed without a professional writer having any involvement at all. 

But this is not a whinge on behalf of beleaguered copywriters, so much as an example of the disarray in which 'real' creativity finds itself. Witness the role of the art director. Or rather don't, because it has almost vanished. Although many agencies employ folk to build artwork, websites, brochures and logos - and call them 'art directors' - they are mistaken. These people, talented though they may be, are designers. The title 'art director' has been co-opted and handed to anyone with Apple Mac skills. There was a time, not so long ago, that any creative agency of worth would employ real art directors: visually conceptual professionals with the ability and experience to imagine and develop an entire campaign based on messages and propositions. In partnership with a copywriter, their role was to deliver the 'ideas'. Often using nothing more than marker pens and layout pads, the work would evolve until finally it was ready to executed by a designer. The word 'partnership' is key here, because an art director and copywriter would usually team up on a permanent basis and take on the briefs which best suited their style.

In one response on LinkedIn, a copywriter described how he now receives an email from a designer, pointing him to a completed layout on a server which is 'ready for the copy'. This is astonishing to me, because such a system completely bypasses the notion of the idea, or the concept. It is more akin to a sausage factory than a creative process.

I fear this is economically driven. Some of the larger advertising groups still adhere to the copywriter/art director model (understandably, the team may well include a digital brain too). This is because their accounts have larger budgets, from clients willing to invest in creative time. But for the smaller agency, delivering a campaign as cheaply as possible is all too often the priority, driven by clients with a 'don't get it right, get it done' approach. In better times, those demands could be resisted in order to protect creative integrity. Now, I fear, that is a luxury neither party can afford.

I have never been resistant to change  - as long as the changes improved the quality of creative work or, as in the case of new software or the internet, make the creation of great advertising easier. However, I cannot believe the sidelining of copywriters, the re-assignment of the art director's role and the devaluing of conceptual thinking, can ever produce better work.

Essentially, we are in real danger of eradicating the creativity in advertising and the 'art' of campaigns. Too many agencies are conspiring with clients to comodify copy and design, painting them as inconvenient hurdles to be overcome as quickly and cheaply as possible.

This may be a model which makes good business sense, but it is also an attitude which will eventually leave us all wondering 'Whatever happened to real advertising?'

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant 

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