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Is the art of copywriting dying out?

Does adland focus more on visual creativity to the detriment of the written word, John Tylee asks.

Channel 4: ran ad campaign for 30th anniversary in broadsheets last year

Channel 4: ran ad campaign for 30th anniversary in broadsheets last year

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Creative Adrian Holmes, founding partner, Holmes Hobbs Marcantonio

"With attention spans so short, agencies and clients seem to think they don’t need copy any more and that images are much more important. The fact that copywriting is so difficult has only hastened its demise. And it’s not only print advertising that’s suffering.
Well-crafted dialogue has all but disappeared from our TV screens. While copywriting remains highly regarded in the US, we’ve deserted the written word as clients go for easily adaptable global campaigns with copy that’s banal beyond belief. However, the pendulum will swing back, because the need for clients to write telling sales pitches for their products won’t go away."
 

Creative Steve Harrison, former worldwide creative director, Wunderman

"The problem begins not in advertising but in a secondary-education system that leaves school-leavers badly prepared for degree courses. If youngsters can’t structure an essay or use correct spelling, punctuation and grammar, then there is little hope for the kids who emerge from the country’s advertising courses. Moreover, where once agencies placed emphasis on training, there is little effort nowadays to pass on craft skills to junior creatives. So the craft of copywriting is all but dead in most agencies. Little wonder that those agencies advise their clients against any route that requires more than a few words of superficial copy."
 

Creative Richard Figueira, digital executive creative director, JWT London

"Copywriters will always be important because, in advertising, we’re always wanting more stories and good storytellers are great to have at any time. But copywriters will have to be more flexible and understand that different clients need different creative solutions and that the creative process has become much faster. They must also realise that, for a very long time, we told people what brands did. Now, consumers expect brands to be acting in the way they have been talking. Getting people to believe what a brand says about itself can be tough, particularly in the technology sector. That’s where the writer comes in."
 

Creative David Abbott, former chairman, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"A lot of people say they don’t see any great print ads any more and I think that’s probably true. I certainly don’t see standout print work as often as I did 20 years ago. It’s not that the written word is disappearing. How can it? But there’s very little charming and persuasive copywriting because advertising is narrowing its target markets. As a consumer, I don’t miss it. But as an ex-copywriter, I would love to see more print and TV writing with the ‘wow’ factor. People don’t take as much trouble with writing as they once did."

For most of its history, British advertising was renowned for having a way with words. Today, many wonder whether it has become lost for them.

Among those lamenting what they believe is the absence of the written word from much of today’s creative output are the founders of Holmes Hobbs Marcantonio, whose roots go back to a time when creative departments abounded with talented wordsmiths.

Now HHM wants to see the written word regaining its importance within an industry they believe undervalues it.

Alfredo Marcantonio, who was inspired by David Abbott (one of the greatest copywriters of his generation) to become a creative, compares long copy to "an ageing star".

"It is rarely asked to appear in advertising," he complains. "Its public appearances are limited to charity fundraisers, raising awareness of an environmental problem and putting its weight behind a political movement or public service."

His agency partner Adrian Holmes, described by one of his former employees, Mark Wnek, as "one of the greatest advertising writers of all time", is equally disturbed.

"Our copywriting muscles have withered," he remarks. "The punchiest headline-writers need to be able to produce long copy as well and I fear that a whole generation has lost the ability to do that."

Steve Harrison, Wunderman’s former worldwide creative director and a multi-award-winning copywriter, believes the source of the problem lies beyond adland. "We have a secondary-school system that is producing a generation of youngsters who, compared with their counterparts 30 years ago, are illiterate," he contends.

However, Peter Souter, the chairman and chief creative officer of TBWA UK – and the author of the ITV series Married Single Other – claims the industry has been the victim of its own success at hiring creatives preoccupied with images rather than words.

"The success of TV series such as Homeland prove consumers want to be entertained and moved by great writing," he argues.

Indeed, Liz Harold, the managing partner at the industry headhunting company LIZH, suggests that even in these straitened times, good copywriters remain in demand. "The written word isn’t going away," she says.

Some, though, believe that while the industry needs copywriters as much as ever, the way they work is having to change in a communications world in which the internet, blogging and social media now play pivotal roles.

Tim Delaney, the Leagas Delaney chairman, is regarded as one of the most elegant copywriters of the past 30 years. He says: "You only have to look at the number of long-copy ads for holiday cruises in The Daily Telegraph to see that copywriting is still around. And the fact that the ads run all the time must mean that they work.

"Nevertheless, it’s true the skill isn’t respected as highly as it used to be because people think they can communicate in more visual ways."

Certainly, examples of brilliant long-form copywriting, such as M&C Saatchi’s acclaimed MI6 recruitment ad and Channel 4’s celebration of its 30th anniversary (created by the former Collett Dickenson Pearce duo Indra Sinha and Neil Godfrey), stand out like an oasis in a desert.

"[The MI6 work] is a beautifully written ad, but I don’t expect to see hundreds more like it," Jeremy Sinclair, M&C Saatchi’s founding partner, says. "We’ll still need good copywriters – but, instead of 40 words to play with, they’ll have four."

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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