Category Archives: Press Advertising

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?


Borrowed Interest: why it’s the lazy person’s alternative to an idea

Borrowed interest. This is where you import an idea, a headline, a visual treatment or something else irrelevant to the product or service you’re selling from somewhere else.

It used to be something that only your local builder, minicab or beauty parlour did. Because they didn’t know any better and it, sort of, looked like the advertising they saw from the big boys.

They’d nick the campaign line from famous brands, so you’d get Betty’s Hair Art Refreshes the Styles that Other Salons Cannot Reach. Sid’s Plumbers. No Other Plumbers Look like us, or Plumbs Like Us. And so on. You get the idea.

Or they’d nick a line from a famous song. Or use a naff library shot image to create a lame visual pun. Much easier than understanding what your customer needed and presenting a compelling reason why they should buy from you rather than somebody else.

Nowadays, because of the democratising of the ad industry, where sales promotion folk do ads, where ad folk do dm, where dm folk do PR, we’re starting to lose our craft skills. On the agency side and on the client side.

And this has resulted in Borrowed Interest creeping into the work of agencies (and brands) that seriously ought to know better.

So what’s wrong with it?

The problem is, it’s usually done because the client/planner/suit/copywriter/art director can’t be bothered to delve deeply enough into the product or service they’re selling. It’s hard work to get inside the head of your target audience and understand their specific motivations, needs and desires.

(Another reason why so much work these days looks like it’s aimed at 19 year olds, even if it’s clearly a product for 50 year olds.)

So instead of isolating a really interesting and compelling idea that’s firmly rooted in a consumer benefit, you get an idea that is simply bolted on to the product. The dimmer suits and clients go “Oo, that’s clever!”  because you’ve turned the title of a film or song into a headline for weedkiller.

This means that you lose the opportunity to say something really distinct and ‘ownable’ about the thing you’re supposed to be selling.

Instead of crafting a bespoke advertising solution (much as I hate that word, it’s appropriate here) you’re simply taking an off the peg idea and sellotaping it to something far more interesting.

It’s lazy and it’s ineffective. And it’s everywhere.

It’s really no different from your local car repair shop’s calendar with naked women all over it. In fact, it’s arguably worse than that. Here’s why…

But what about celebrities, aren’t they borrowed interest too?

Social psychologists have studied this phenomenon. And it’s crystal clear that using celebrities harnesses the power of what these boffins call ‘association’. So if you associate your product with a celebrity (or a sexy naked woman) it will share the goodwill that the celebrity engenders in the audience already.

If you’re selling a service where you’ve got nothing physical to show, like a bank, it’s often an interesting solution to create an ownable character (think of the LLoyds TSB people, for example, now dumped. DOH!) or import a celeb as the face of your faceless brand. Santander have got Jessica Ennis and Jenson Button all over their stuff at the mo. This probably does good things for the brand, especially when banks and bankers are so unpopular, as they are currently.

But a problem arises when you don’t buy out the celeb concerned. I was convinced I was looking at a Santander ad the other day, but it was Jessica wearing her Prudential hat. Big mistake, allowing your brand’s pet celeb to work for a direct competitor. DOH, DOH, DOH!

But as long as your celeb is saying something relevant about your product and ‘fits’ with your brand values then it’s often a good way to bring your brand to life.

And we all like a bit of domination

Cleverer brands often use another psychological technique called Authority. Endless experiments have shown that we defer to authority figures. Doctors, headmasters, tall people (really), generals, royalty…

So if you’re selling toothpaste, get a dentist to talk about its benefits. Even better, get a celebrity dentist.

Selling makeup, get a Hollywood makeup artist (or film star) to talk about its benefits. Selling insurance for old people, get a famous old person to endorse it.

I won’t insult your intelligence by listing the big brands that do this all the time. Just turn on the telly.

Of course, you have to choose the right person. Pick someone who’s completely irrelevant to your product or service and, although, you may get a little bit of traction through the association principle, you’re basically slap bang into good old-fashioned borrowed interest territory.



How long should a headline be?

If there are two feedback comments that are guaranteed to get a direct response copywriter’s hackles up, his teeth clenched and his knuckles gripping the table edge whitely, it’s these two. (In fact, if you know a copywriter who doesn’t get intensely annoyed when he hears them, he or she is clearly not a direct response writer.)

1 The headline’s too long

2 The copy’s too long

Just typing these makes my heart beat a little faster, a small bead of sweat pop onto my brow. My fight or flight instincts immediately switch to red alert. Or at least orange. I’ll save red for when I have to deal with these ludicrous assertions face to face. In fact, to save my anger boiling over right now I’ll just deal with the first one in this post, lest I resort to unwarranted profanities and turn the keyboard blue.

So, here we go, deep breath.

What does The headline’s too long actually mean? Is there some intergalactic law of science discovered by Newton or Hawking that dictates how many words one may use in a specific context? You know, an immutable law like “nothing can travel faster than light” or “if you’re in a wheelchair and speak with a synthesised robotic voice people will think you’re as clever as Einstein”.

Naturally if there’s a physical restriction on the space you’ve got to print your headline, like the character restrictions in an email subject line or an SMS message, then of course, your headline can indeed be too long. Because it won’t fit.

Other than that, I can’t think of any sensible criteria for making such a judgement.

Clearly a headline that’s 100 words long might be hard to read or follow. But, having said that, there are endless examples of hugely successful multi-layer headlines which are simply split into overlines and underlines. I’ve written a good few in my time for proper DM clients who understand the real rule about headline length, which is this:

A headline should be as long as it needs to be

I appreciate this is a bit glib and prompts as many questions as it answers. But it’s true, too.

So, Simon, how do you know how long it needs to be? Well, in a direct response environment you can test alternatives and see which generates the most response: DM, EDM, Google Ads, Banners, DR press ads and inserts, for example. Easy.

And of course, if you’ve got someone like me writing this stuff for you, you’ve got a vast amount of experience to draw on to get you off on the right foot.

Your headline says whatever needs to be said to a) catch the reader’s attention and b) interest him enough to carry on reading. Your beautifully crafted body copy and subheads then takes over and whisks him forward on a magic carpet ride of persuasive magnificence until he (or she) is practically begging you to sell them the doodah you’re waxing lyrical about. Hopefully.

So if your offer is a bit complicated, then your headline might need to be a bit longer. If it’s a simple sell, your headline can be shorter.

In an awareness environment your headline might serve a slightly different function. Often it’s simply about impact and memorability. Direct response is about making the sale, awareness ads are simply about getting your name lodged in the potential buyer’s brain.

Here are a couple of interesting examples of awareness type headlines.

One of the most famous headlines ever (why???) was in a press ad for Rolls Royce by big Mad Men style agency Ogilvy & Mather. I’ve written about this in a previous blog. The headline (which was actually “borrowed” from a similar ad by Peugeot) was:  “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls Royce comes from the electric clock.”

This headline is 18 words. And there’s a secondary headline directly underneath it, adding another 29 words. That’s near enough fifty words. Is this too long? If you think so, tell me why. I’d love to know.

I suspect that the people who say the headline’s too long these days are looking at the piece as a work of art, not a piece of sales material.  Or more likely it’s simply one of those silly, handed-down-from-generation-to generation ‘rules’ that nobody stops to question. (Like Nobody Scrolls.)

Which brings me to the second example for your perusal. The VW press ad headlined:


Is this too short? Probably not. Firstly, because it didn’t exist by itself. Unlike the Rolls Royce headline, Lemon works totally in conjunction with the picture. Of a cute ickle Beetle.

Lemon, means a bit of a failure, a bit of a klutz.  So you see the car, you see the headline. You ask yourself “why are they slagging off their own car?” And so you read the ad. Job done. The body copy rewards your interest by telling you that it’s a lemon because VW do loads of quality checks and this one didn’t pass.

So if your picture and headline are working together they can share the burden of the communication. Arguably, the Rolls Royce line doesn’t need to say “In this new Rolls Royce…” but who am I to criticise The Greatest Headline Ever Made (again)?

But the conclusion we draw from these two examples is a simple one. The headline needs to be as long as it needs to be.

In short, there are only two sorts of headlines. Ones that work and ones that don’t.


Catalogues aren’t ads

More and more often, I see catalogue copy written as if it were in a press ad. (And get asked to write it like that, too).

This is very wrong.

If you’ve got as far as looking in a catalogue for a certain product, you’re already a good way along the path to forking out for it. What you’re looking for is information about the product or service that will convince you that you’ve come to the right place, and to reassure you that the product you’ve found meets your needs — whether it’s a table, a skirt, a case of wine or a Lego set.

So when you’re met with some glib, lame copy that the writer obviously thought was ‘creative’ or ‘clever’, instead of easy-to-assimilate facts about the product, it’s just intensely annoying. And it actually gets in the way of the sale.

Imagine if you’re looking for a new coat on the High Street. You’ve decided that, oh I don’t know, Next is the place you feel might have the very one you’re seeking. You go into the shop. You find a sales person.

You ask him to show you where the raincoats are. He tells you a joke before you’ve finished speaking. And laughs at his own brilliance.

You ask him whether they’ve got it in a large. He tells you another joke. Equally as unfunny and irrelevant as the first one. You realise the conversation is all about him showing off. Not about you proceeding to the till, a happy customer.

You ask him how much it is. He responds by quoting the company’s new TV ad, word for word. You  kill him with a swift chop to the jugular.

See what I’m saying?

I suspect this new trend for writing catalogue like this might be a horribly inevitable spinoff from the obsession with Tone of Voice as discussed in my previous blog. Dimwitted marketing folk think that all their communications must speak to you as if you were a fifteen year old LA punk, so that their brand is cool and edgy and all the other yawn-worthy adjectives that they hurl about.

Clarity is lost in a fog of bogus TOV-driven ‘creativity’. (As my friend and fellow practitioner Bill Fryer says, if it doesn’t sell it isn’t creative.)

Again, it’s all part of their fundamental misunderstanding about what a brand is. Let me repeat. A brand is something that is created in the minds of customers who have experienced your product and formed an opinion about it. It is NOT something that you create through copy, design, advertising and all the other communications tools at your disposal. These things create an initial demand. But they don’t create a brand.

The same malaise is creeping into direct response advertising, too. A lot of this is to do with the gradual erosion of the distinction between what is ‘above the line’ (traditional media-based advertising) and what is ‘below the line’ — sales promotion, direct marketing, in-store and so on.

Most agencies now declare themselves to be ‘integrated’ and offer the whole lot in one lovely expensive package. (WIth a silly Brand TOV document thrown in for free, naturally.) Unfortunately this means that we’re losing the craft specialists.

So advertising people think they know all about direct marketing, and create and write it as if it were the same thing. So it’s usually very bad direct marketing.

And below the line people think they can do advertising. And it’s usually very bad advertising.

And, of course, the poor client who traditionally could quite rightly assume the specialist agency knew what it was doing, is left to make a judgment that he is possibly unqualified to make.






The clowns have taken over

In the crazy, mixed-up, back-to-front and upside-down world that is advertising at the moment, creative directors will often comment on copy that’s been written for them by saying “Hey, fantastic tone, brilliant!”

This is meant to be a compliment. It means you’ve managed to write very accurately in the house style of the particular brand you’re working on.

Each big brand has its own Tone of Voice book, that tells you how to talk in its own unique language so the brand stands out. But, hilariously, mostly these TOV guides all say exactly the same thing: warm, quirky, human, not jargon. Short sentences. No exclamation marks. And so on.

So by trying to stand out they end up sounding like all the rest. So they’re not unique at all.

Some are sillier than others. Virgin Holidays is probably the most extreme I’ve personally come across. You have to write as if the customer is a rock star and continuously praise and flatter him. I suppose it’s meant to be ironic. It’s actually just really, really annoying to read.

More importantly, a lot of the time this fixation on Tone gets in the way of the communication.

Often the agency and client are so obsessed with getting their TOV jokes and stylings in, the offer/message of the advertising is completely obscured. Virgin Holidays are an excellent example of this madness.

The copy will start with some vacuous nonsense about how ‘The waves on the beach will rush out to greet you. You look fantastic in swimwear’ and so on. And you don’t get to the point of the ad, some discounted package holidays, until three or four paragraphs later.

As if the reader cared about any of this guff. She’s looking for a deal. Companies like Virgin are doing their utmost to make sure she can’t find it.

David Ogilvy once said something like ‘people don’t buy from clowns’. And I’m starting to think he had a point.

Sometimes it’s clever not to be clever

I love the John Lewis press ads. They’re a perfect demonstration of my mantra that ‘what you say is always more important than how you say it’.

They simply state the offer, in ordinary, everyday words. They show a beautiful photo of the product concerned and rely on elegant typography and a standard layout format to carry the John Lewis brand message.

They don’t try and do a clever headline to impress their mates or try and win awards. If the proposition is ‘Get three years’ free guarantee on all Apple Macs if you buy before June 31′, that’s what the headline says.

I’m sure many advertising creatives would consider these ads ‘uncreative’ for being so straight forward. And many clients think that they’re not getting their money’s worth from their agency unless each ad has a pun and ‘an idea’.

They’re both wrong.

The creators (and brave client) responsible for these ads know that, as with editorial, it’s the content of your message that counts, not the typeface it’s written in. And that’s what makes these ads miles cleverer than the rest of the dross that passes for advertising these days.

Now that’s what I call a great headline

When did a piece of advertising of any sort actually stop you in your tracks? When did you last see a headline that was so compelling, so shocking, that your jaw dropped and you had no choice but to read the ad?

This happened to me yesterday with a small press ad, black and white, cheap left-hand page space.

I Wish My Son Had Cancer

There’s no way anyone could turn the page once their eye has been caught by a headline like that. Certainly not anyone with kids. Certainly not me.

Perhaps you’ve seen it?

The ad was for a charity promoting awareness of a condition called duchenne muscular dystrophy. The point of the ad was simple and very moving. A father of a young boy wished his son had cancer rather than duchenne MD. Because cancer is often curable and DMD isn’t. So his son was condemned to an early death.

Brutal, sure, but a sentiment any parent can readily identify with.

Naturally there’s been a lot of huffing and puffing by Outraged of Welwyn Garden City about the ad. But it did its job. It made me aware of the condition. It made me feel sorry for the little boy and his family.

(And of course it generated lots of PR too, an excellent and beneficial side effect to maximise the effectiveness of the media spend. Maybe deliberately. Good for them.)

Amid all the self-congratulatory, trendy and utterly invisible rubbish that advertising agencies pour into our media today, this little ad stands out as a blazing beacon of what powerful, memorable advertising is all about. Finding a genuinely compelling story and stating it simply and clearly.


What makes a great advertising headline?

One myth that needs to be nailed into a lead coffin and buried at least six feet under right now is this one: good advertising headlines involve a pun.

Where this nonsense actually originated I have no idea, but practically every junior creative team I come across (and far too many senior ones as well) seem to think that all you have to do to create a great print ad is write a pun. Their portfolios are full of them. The press is full of them.

My own theory is that this misguided belief stems from a lack of understanding that a great headline depends on a great thought.

A great headline contains a great idea that resonates with the reader. And if it’s a great thought, it doesn’t really matter how you write it—the actual words you use are secondary to the idea it encapsulates.

Or, as any good copywriter knows, WHAT you say is always much more important than HOW you say it.

Think of the famous Rolls Royce press ad: “At 60 mph the loudest noise in this new Rolls Royce comes from the electric clock”. 

This headline contains a beautifully engaging thought.

The feature it’s communicating is simply that this car is unbelievably quiet.  But to turn this feature into a headline that emotionally resonates with the potential buyer, the headline brings it to life—by painting a word-picture that puts the reader right there in the sumptuous, leather-clad driving seat. You can almost hear the delicate tick of the clock as you read it.

But because the line has a strong idea, you could actually write it in any number of ways and it would still be just as powerful.

It’s what the headline is about that counts.

The lazy headline writer who simply looks for a pun has failed to grasp this basic truth and believes that the HOW is more important than the WHAT. So they aim for what they think is amusing wordplay instead of doing the much, much harder job of finding a fantastically engaging thought that brings to life a clear, relevant and hopefully unique, product benefit.

Learn the awesome power of The So What Test

When I’m training bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young creatives how to create effective advertising, or telling junior clients how to evaluate and comment on creative work, I often tell them about the power of The So What Test.

It’s all about making sure that your copy and concept is relevant and interesting to the target audience. If they’re going to read it and say, “Yeah, but so what?” your ad or mailer or flyer or website or e-newsletter will fail.

The So What Test is a remarkably useful tool to have in your utility belt—it’s so easy to get wrapped up in your finely-crafted headline and beautiful imagery that you don’t notice it means diddly squat to the people who are supposed to be engaged and captivated by your sales message.

Clearly the people who produced, and bought, the new BMW press ad didn’t perform the So What test.

The headline of this cracker is, wait for it, DESIGNED TO MOVE. (In capital letters, too.)

This is an advertisement for a car. A high performance, expensive, beautifully engineered German sports saloon, coveted by sales reps everywhere.

And the best headline they could come up with to sell you this car was “Designed to move”. As against a car that’s designed to stay still? A car designed to be a permanent museum exhibit? A car made entirely of butterflies wings so delicate that to simply breathe upon it would spell disaster?

The idiocy of this headline is jaw-dropping enough on its own. But the copy carries on in the same vein. It reads as if the writer has never seen a BMW, has never been given any information about why one might want to drop twenty grand on one, has no clue why a BMW might be any different from any other thing that’s designed to move.  Like a pram. Or a slug.

And to add insult to injury the copy includes the seemingly obligatory, utterly lame pun. Apparently BMW are jolly committed to “…deliver the The Ultimate Driving Machine. It’s the only thing we won’t be moved on.”

It’s not clever, it’s not witty. In fact, it doesn’t even make sense.

It’s a junior copywriter labouring (although clearly very little labour was involved) under the delusion that good copy is that which contains a pun, no matter how mind-blowingly crap it is.

‘So what’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.

What the hell is Brand Response?

Brand Response. One of the newest manifestations of ignorance, stupidity and fashion that is sweeping through the marketing industry.

In case you haven’t stumbled across it, Brand Response is a new term used by many marketing people and advertising agencies to describe an advertising campaign that is created to do a brand-building/image/awareness job and at the same time generate a bit of direct response. (I’m already getting cross, just writing this description, it makes me so crazy! Deep breaths….)

Now, the smarter readers amongst you (especially the ones who don’t work in marketing or advertising and therefore still have a modicum of common sense left between your ears) might be scratching your head and thinking “But surely all advertising affects the customer’s perception of a brand, whether it’s designed to generate a direct response or just awareness or image building?

Surely a customer’s perception of a brand is affected by every interaction she has with it—whether it’s watching a telly ad, reading some PR, sampling the product, talking to their customer service reps, visiting the website?”

And of course you’d be absolutely correct.

Direct response advertising doesn’t exist in a separate universe to any other sort of advertising. To suggest it does is patent nonsense to anyone who pauses to think for a moment.

You build a brand by getting the punter to sample your products and forming a good opinion about them, about your company, about the way you talk to him, treat the environment and so on and so on. Direct response advertising, like any other form of promotion, is simply one of the many ways whereby your customer can form an opinion about you.

Put simply, every ad is a brand ad. Whether you call it Brand Response or Direct Response is utterly irrelevant.

OK, so we can tick the ‘brand’ half of the equation. But what about the ‘response’ half? This is where Brand Response falls crashing to the ground.

It doesn’t work.

The copy isn’t long enough, it doesn’t focus on the consumer benefits enough. It doesn’t demand a response and rarely uses any incentives, closing dates or any of the other bog-standard, tried-and-tested tools in the direct response armoury.

Brand Response ads are mostly written by agency creatives who don’t know anything about how to write copy that is designed to drive response—a very different skill to awareness/award-winning/portfolio-packing advertising. (Sadly, this now includes most creatives in direct marketing agencies, too.)

These creatives are briefed by planners who don’t know the first thing about what makes direct marketing tick. The work is approved by a Creative Director who is only interested in the next awards ceremony. And the work is sold to the client by an account team raised on the mantra: Short Copy Good. Long Copy Bad. (I wish I were exaggerating here, but I’m not.)

Of course, the client may get a bit of response from the ad—simply because it’s got a phone number on—but nowhere near the response they’ll get if it were put together with the specific intention of driving response.

And of course its ROI (return on investment) will be simply too horrific to contemplate.