Category Archives: Doordrops

Has copy become simply space filler?



Last week, a client referred to a piece of copy I’d written as ‘content’. As in, ‘I’ll see if anyone has any more comments on the content then get back to you’.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t care less what my clients call my output. I’m simply happy and grateful that they’ve chosen me to help them out. So if they want to, they can call my work Pea Soup with a Cherry on Top. (I’d rather they called it brilliant, cutting-edge, highly-effective, a bargain at twice the price etc but let’s not be picky.)

What I do is write lots of words that sell lots of stuff. (And I’ve lost track of the number of times people have asked me what a copywriter is. So it’s a stupid job title anyway.)

But this was the first time I’d heard the term ‘content’ used in a non-digital context. It’s been fairly common for a while to call website copy ‘content’ but not advertising or direct mail copy. The client was actually referring to a sales letter I’d written.

But does this throwaway client comment actually mark a sea-change in the advertising/marketing industry? (This isn’t a rhetorical question, I’m genuinely interested to know.)

Has the power of well-crafted, strategically powerful copy been completely relegated to a position of simply space-filler?

Has the designer and mac jockey finally climbed to the top of the perceived heap, so that pretty pictures and impossible-to-read typography are now the dominant consideration when you’re trying to sell your wares?

Has copy simply become that annoying stuff that goes in the boxes on the wire-frame marked ‘copy here: 50 words max’?

Even worse, are the words on a website now considered simply SEO fodder?

You see outfits calling themselves ‘communications agencies’ or ‘creative agencies’ or ‘marketing agencies’ everywhere now.

But scratch the surface of their glossy website and, remarkably often, you’ll find they don’t have a single copywriter on the team.

Not one. Not so much as a fresh-faced junior straight out of college.

Never mind a senior, highly experienced writer running the creative side of things.

(In the olden days, the copywriter was king. And it was very rare indeed that an agency would have an art director as the top dog in the creative department. In fact, if you’ve ever seen Mad Men, you’ll know that for a long while the writers simply sent their copy down to the art department who added some nice visuals to the copy. They knew their place.)

But things, as Bob Dylan pointed out, have changed.

Call me old-fashioned (you won’t be the first, I promise you) but how can an agency selling advertising or website creation services possibly be the real deal if there’s nobody in the building who can write some great copy?

More strangely, how can clients look at the agency and think they’re going to get some great emails or a fantastically compelling website or superbly effective advertising if the agency doesn’t have a writer on board?

Odd, isn’t it?


Inserts: It doesn’t matter what your message is if nobody can read it.

Because I’m in the business of writing and designing inserts, amongst other things, I look at inserts.  Whereas most normal people shake them straight into the bin.

Which is why an insert has to be very, very eye-catching: very instant with its messaging. It needs to say STOP! LOOK AT ME! DON’T BIN ME I’VE GOT SOMETHING INTERESTING FOR YOU! Arguably even more than the regular advertising in the paper it comes in.

An insert flopped out of my newspaper on Saturday.

It was green. Very green. It was an A5 single page flyer, printed both sides. Green all over.  A sort of appley mid-green. There were some line illustrations on the front which were white (reversed-out is the jargon phrase).  And therefore very hard to see.

The main headline was also white. And therefore also virtually invisible. (Perhaps just as well as we’ll see in a second, it was so terrible.)

On the back was the body copy. White. In a sans face. Utterly impossible to read.

The whole thing was so recessive, so technically incompetent that it made me angry for the poor client who bought this appalling example of design.

The client was something called So let’s look at what had to say.

Main headline: Everyday legal services – what you don’t need.

Question one, pens ready please. What the hell is an everyday legal service? Who uses legal services every day apart from the police? You use legal services once in a blue moon when you’re buying a house, writing a will, divorcing your husband.

Question two: why are you telling me what I DON’T need? You’ve got a nano-second to tell me why I should read this green monstrosity. So tell me what you’re offering me! And just in case I don’t know what ‘outrageous hourly fees’ means you show me a picture of clock. Apparently I don’t need expensive premises either. So you show me a picture of, er, a picture.

Onto the back. The headline is: What you do need. Now, one of the tried and tested techniques for inserts is to make sure that the main proposition, the main offer, is clearly visible front and back because you don’t know which way it will fall out of the publication.

This one fails in this respect because if it lands backside-up I’ve no idea what’s being offered to me. I’m told I need a Computer. Some tea/coffee (Optional). Be still my quaking sides. And a Phone. But not what I might need them for.

The body copy starts with “If you’re shopping for everyday legal services…” Finally, a bit of a clue. (But of course most people will not have got this far.) The authors clearly love this phrase. The fact that we have no idea what it means has whizzed over their bewigged heads.

After much waffling, no sub-heads to help us, it gets to the point. “We’re an online service which means you don’t even have to leave home to deal with legal matters such as wills, powers of attorney and a wide range of other issues which we can’t be bothered to mention.” (I made that last bit up.)

So it’s actually quite an interesting service. Cheap lawyers online for your less complicated legal needs like wills. But the vast majority of people will never know what they’re missing because the instrument of communication, as a lawyer would probably call an insert, is such a disaster of copy and design in every conceivable way.



The Red Cross and The Reciprocity Principle

A door drop thumped emphatically on to the Nobodyscrolls doormat this week, from The Red Cross.

Stuffed to the gills with goodies to try and persuade me to give to this most worthy of charities. This was a direct response pack put together by somebody who really knows what they’re doing. Lovely jubbly!

As well as the letter—nice and long, two sides of smallish type, long PS. Weak headline, weakish opening—takes a while to get to the point but its heart’s in the right place.

Demands that I give a fiver upfront though; an ‘early close’ we DM folk call that. This one’s in the first headline so you can’t get much earlier than that.

But what the pack really majors on is reciprocity. This is a tried and tested sales technique that relies on me giving you something in order for you to (unconsciously probably) feel obliged to give me something in return. In this case, your hard-earned fiver.

(There are loads of interesting studies on how the principle works. Cialdini is the name to Google here.)

So how do they leverage the reciprocity principle? By including in the pack a bookmark, two greetings cards for me to use, two floral drinks coasters and a biro!

All in an envelope with a huge window so I can see the goodies before I even open it.

Now this pack will have cost A LOT. But the people who put it together know precisely what they’re doing. Because they know that the more gifts they include for me, the more likely I will be to donate to them in return. The ROI will work.

How do they know? Because they’ll have tested in small increments.

Put one gift in, response goes up. Put another one, response goes up again. Put some coasters in? Up again. And so on.

Until they get a killer ‘control’ pack that does the business for them time after time. It becomes harder and harder to beat.

And that’s when they call me in. Please.