To Save Advertising (Online & Off), Do We Simply Need To Bring Back The Copywriter?

It’s likely Michael Wolff is linkbaiting us to promote USA Today’s 2012 print advertising contest (in fact, it’s likely), but let’s play along.

Is copywriting dying? Does today’s advertising stink because today’s creatives can’t write? Let’s see what Wolff has to say:

Maybe this is the reason: There are no writers in advertising anymore. Johnny who can’t write has gone into advertising.

In fact, “copywriter” is a job that now hardly exists. The historical partnership between graphic designer and copywriter has, more and more, become a partnership between project manager and programmer, or videographer and editor, or media buyer and researcher.

If you are the person who actually has to write an ad — rather than conceptualize, or produce, or program, or pitch, or research — your career in advertising is not going very well.

Tick off the reasons: Advertising is all visual now; the real money is in making boffo videos; consumers don’t read; in the post-consolidation agency business, the bureaucrats have taken over from the creatives; in a big data world, you need to target, not convince.

Almost everybody in the advertising business will tell you that there are more efficient ways to influence the consumer than writing copy.

But here’s something else that almost everybody agrees on: It has gotten harder and harder to build brand, move merchandise, convey a message, leave a lasting impression.

Almost all the intellectual capital of the advertising business is still vested in campaigns, most of them print campaigns, from the early ’60s through the mid-’80s: The Silver Cloud (Rolls-Royce); Think Small (Volkswagen); We Try Harder (Avis); You Don’t Have To be Jewish (Levi’s Rye Bread); The Ultimate Driving Machine (BMW); The Absolute Bottle (Absolute); Just Do it (Nike); Macintosh introduction (Apple).

These are all word ads. They tell a story; they make a case; they offer a big idea; they change the way we think. And often it takes quite a lot of words — text-heavy copy. The more you get someone to read (the job of the copywriter), the more the reader is engaged with what you are saying — and selling.

Interesting. But I don’t buy it.

Yes, I believe advertising has entered a visual phase. It’s done so in the past, though without the added push of global viewership, which has driven a visual communication aesthetic in place of copy-heavy messages — especially in big, global campaigns.

But the death of copywriting?

Please.

Sure, copywriting has become a somewhat devalued skill.

If you don’t believe me, visit all the bid-for-work sites (stay too long, and your heart eventually breaks).

Or visit the current crop of copy-light websites and try to puzzle out what the product actually does.

Or worse, read a week’s worth of press release/pitches from my inbox.

Still, I can only laugh when I read sentences like the two below:

If you are the person who actually has to write an ad — rather than conceptualize, or produce, or program, or pitch, or research — your career in advertising is not going very well.

Tick off the reasons: Advertising is all visual now; the real money is in making boffo videos; consumers don’t read; in the post-consolidation agency business, the bureaucrats have taken over from the creatives; in a big data world, you need to target, not convince.

First, copywriters probably are the people conceptualizing, producing, researching and pitching campaigns. Or at least they should be. (There’s a reason Creative Directors are often grown-up copywriters.)

All those “boffo videos” Wolf mentioned? Somebody has to conceptualize and write them (for a lesson in humility, try to produce a video of any complexity without a working script as a starting point).

Yes, it’s likely copywriters will find themselves writing less print and more indirect copy projects, like audio/video/animation and interactive scripts, which become the foundation for something else.

That’s not bad. Consider yourself a screenwriter instead of simply a copywriter, and the whole gig feels pretty good.

Still, if you want to play at a level above glorified transcriptionist, you might want to learn to produce a passable podcast, write a video or conceptualize an interactive game/contest.

We saw this in miniature during the desktop publishing revolution.

For a while, traditional designers were pushed aside in favor of technologists, who were often less-accomplished than the designers they replaced. They could make the machines emit the right stuff.

Eventually, the tools evolved and real designers retook the high ground (those that couldn’t adapt simply fell away).

Today, marketing is undergoing a similar technological shift, though on a more disruptive scale.

Technologists — who often lack copy/design/marketing training — can make cool things happen online, but as you might have noticed, those cool things often violate the basic tenets of direct response marketing and copywriting (and good taste).

Besides, the best copywriters have never really worked at the level of words. It’s always been about concepts and big ideas (and story and provocation and surprise and benefits and vanity and even falling in love).

Maybe the words we write tomorrow will be spoken or interpreted in realtime instead of simply reproduced, but you know, somebody still has to write this stuff.

And while I don’t wholly agree with Wolff’s theme, I will applaud his final thought:

It may be that all we have to do to reinvent traditional media, save Facebook, even make digital media a decent business, as well as move more merchandise, is bring back the copywriter.

Hey Mr. Wolff, a lot of us never left.

Keep writing, Tom Chandler.