Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The copywriter is dead. Long live the copywriter.

The below was written in response to a LinkedIn advertising creatives group discussion titled "Is the copywriter dead?":

I know deep down that copy’s as important as ever. It’s just the copywriter who’s fallen on hard times.

Of the two primary creative disciplines, it’s we copywriters who deal with the human construct of language, with all its rules, nuance, and general inconvenience. Visual artists work in a medium incumbent to anyone blessed with the ability to see. Sure, art directors have rules too, however fluid and subjective they may be, but they’re rules nonetheless. (And the best of these artists, well, their importance cannot be overstated.)

For years I had no idea what the French meant by, “The King is dead. Long live the King.” It was just their dramatic way of saying the succession from one ruler to the next is instantaneous; the moment they wheel out the old man’s coffin, the scepter is passed to his son. And so it goes.

I guess it applies to writers now. Strategy is the big thing in agency land these days, and that requires --gasp-- words. Ask your favorite art director to whip up, say, a social media strategy by end of week and you’ll be disappointed, I assure you. So we copywriters find our focus shifting — but, by and large, shifting inward toward pitching new business from prospective and existing clients, not outward to winning new customers for those clients.

Language isn’t disposable, though sometimes it can feel that way. Last time I checked, even on smartphones, pressing the shift and punctuation keys was free of charge. I’m not sure which is more despairing: no one wanting to use them, or no one giving a damn either way.

Writing isn’t easy. To learn, to teach or to perform. If it were, most of us would do it well, or at least demand quality of others. The disastrous effects of a spiraling education system are spattered all over our media. Poor grammar is ubiquitous, particularly on TV, which only legitimizes and perpetuates low standards for the next generation. We hear it in ad voiceovers for the world’s most successful companies. We see it writ large across our HD plasmas in campaign tags. And don’t get me started with my medium of choice, the web. There’s little question our craft has been devalued.

The irony is, for those reasons alone I should never be out of a job. Yet after freelancing and traveling for six months since my last agency CD gig, I tossed my hat into the ring this spring and started looking again. I’ve discovered that ‘Creative Director/Copy’ has become a pariah of sorts. “How can you call yourself a creative director if you haven’t mastered CS3?” If you have to ask that question, I promise, by definition you won’t understand the answer.

Of course I’m fluent in all creative disciplines, or I wouldn’t have run entire creative teams handling the accounts of some of the world’s best-known brands. But the perception of copy has definitely changed. There’s something new and worse about how words and their providers are received by agency management. Now I’m not na├»ve. I know writers have claimed this for decades, or at least since the days of Bernbach and Ogilvy. But after 15 years in this business, I’ve earned the right to say we are now witness to brand new levels of apathy.

On my portfolio site I have a series of thoughts on language called The Truisms. One of them reads, “Never say, ‘The copy’s approved, but where’s the creative?’”

We are the original creatives. We cannot forget that, even if some around us do.

Managing people — whether creatives, clients, end-consumers, vendors, executives or significant others — is done with words. Always has been and always will be. And that’s why I’ll never lose hope.

The copywriter is dead. Long live the copywriter.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Strategy Tragedy

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 6th Century B.C.


It’s time to set the record straight about “strategy,” the most misused word in the history of business, and quite possibly, the English language.

Because its meaning has been confused, tangled, and re-tangled for decades — an affliction that's only worsened with the explosion of the web — let's keep this simple.

There are three primary components to brand planning (and marketing in general). No more, no less — and they occur in this order only:


1. Objective — A concrete goal to be achieved by a stated time.

Ex.: By Q3 2011, Sun Tzu Arts, Inc. will top Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Companies” list in its category.


2. Strategy — Rules put in place for the expressed purpose of fulfilling the objective.

Ex.: Every external and internal brand touchpoint, whether existing or forthcoming, must reinforce Sun Tzu Arts’ “innovation heritage” positioning and provide two-way communication with its audience.


3. Tactics — Where and when resources are allocated to realize the objective.

Ex.: Dozens of initiatives across the entire Sun Tzu Arts media mix and internal operations, including:

  • Commit Human Resources to increasing employee retention to 95%
  • Engage a social media monitoring service to provide brand managers with weekly reports and quarterly trends
  • Redesign e-commerce site to include media tags and share functions for all products
  • Hire a VP, User Experience
  • Institute a loyalty rewards program
  • Redeploy corporate blog to showcase brand managers’ thought leadership on “innovation heritage” within and outside the company
  • Executives speak at two conferences per quarter, minimum
  • Free smartphone app with first-in-segment features — including direct access to store personnel, limited-edition products, mobile QR code discounts, and pre-press-release news — made available only to app users


Of course, the above are purely hypothetical and constitute about as basic a three-tier process as I can imagine. I kept it simple because there’s no reason it shouldn’t be.

And unless something seismic occurs within the competitive landscape, the consumer market or the organization itself (usually bad, like BP’s oil spill fiasco, Toyota’s widespread safety recalls, and Facebook’s privacy predicament), brand objectives do not change until they’re fulfilled. I mention this because, when strategy comes before the objective — or, heaven forbid, tactics come before strategy — the knee-jerk reaction when a tactic fails is to kill the objective or strategy. And that’s precisely the kind of myopia that plagues brands which, not surprisingly, run around in circles, confuse consumers, waste money, lose talent, and never win.

To that end, I constructed a mnemonic. Now let’s say it together:

“Strategy is the rules, Tactics are the tools. Strategy is the rules, Tactics are the tools. Strategy is the rules, Tactics are the tools.”