Here’s what the head of a large digital advertising agency was recently reported as saying, “We don’t do story. We facilitate the handshake between buyer and seller.”
An unusual stance? Actually, it’s increasingly popular in today’s data-rich industry. Why waste energy on the tools of persuasion, runs the argument, when you can glean results simply by streamlining how the customer makes a transaction?
It’s a long way from the classic “Mad Men” view of advertising. And it sounds particularly ominous for that arch-practitioner of the persuasive arts, the copywriter.
Not that suspicion of copywriting is exactly a bright and shiny new sentiment. “No one reads copy” is an art director’s barb so old that it was probably being thrown across the monastery table when they were working up the Book of Kells.
And, of course, Somerset Maugham had a point when he said a writer should “write with the brevity of a postage stamp—then cut.” British television’s most successful long-running car campaign of the ’90s only ever used two words: “Papa” and “Nicole.” And around the same time, I was happy to pick up a clutch of awards as the “writer” of a Peugeot car poster, which featured no words at all, except for the make and model.
But what’s happening now is less about the cut and thrust between writers and art directors, and more about a philosophical divide between wizards and logicians. The good copywriter’s subtle and varied box of tricks? Old school, say the machine heads. They contend that well-told stories are yesterday’s game—a dying art in an industry where selling has become a science.
And yet, here’s the thing: If we could cut open the advertising consumer, what would come tumbling out before anything else would be tiny, diamond-sharp nuggets of copy. We try harder. Beanz meanz Heinz. Just do it.
We’d even find that some words had not only stayed inside us, but that they’d actually changed the world too. If 30-odd years ago, the Polish electrician Lech Walesa had called his new union the All-Gdansk Shipbuilders and Shunters instead of the simple and iconic Solidarity, my guess is that East German border guards would still be goose-stepping round Checkpoint Charlie.
So words, the best words, still have power and always will. But are we really seeing fewer of these powerful words than we once did? I think we may be, and here’s my theory as to why.
It’s not because the people who could produce them have disappeared. It’s because, ironically, our industry has a heartier appetite for copy today than ever. And almost everyone who knows where the commas should go (along with quite a few who don’t) is very, very occupied with feeding it.
With margins too often trumping magic, quantity is tending to overwhelm quality. That is something we need to watch. Because if we want to create messages that ignite emotions, we need fine nibs as well as broad brushes and smart algorithms.
And although it may be true that a picture is worth a thousand words, it takes only seven words to express that thought. Try doing it with a picture—let alone a sales mechanism.
Hugo Kondratiuk is a senior copywriter at gyro London