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On the Campaign couch

I am 40 years old and have just discovered this amazing world of copywriting. Is it too late for a career change?

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It’s odd that you’ve just discovered copywriting because, at exactly the same time, I’ve begun to think that copywriting has more or less disappeared altogether.

I know that most copywriters think of themselves not so much as writers of copy but more as generators of ideas. When a wordless, award-winning poster gives public credit to the copywriter, it’s not as barmy as it seems. The best television scripts are conceived or imagined rather than written; in fact, an ability to write compelling prose can be a bit of a handicap when working in a visual, narrative medium.

Everything online needs writing of a kind but not necessarily writing. And the common practice of creative pairs taking it in turns to be the copywriter, which gets a few traditionalists huffing and puffing (me included), is perfectly OK when what’s required isn’t word-writing but idea-conceiving.

Words are needed only to convey the idea you’ve had, which, when realised, may require no words at all to be understood; which in itself is a skill, certainly, but not what anyone means by copywriting.

So the only medium that continues to be open to that rare ability to use joined-up writing in an evocative, persuasive, engaging manner – more than a headline or a strapline – is print. And print, I’m saddened to report, doesn’t seem to want it any more. Print seems to have thrown in the towel.

The decline of copy has been a self-induced decline. Bad art directors disliked seeing their purist layouts disfigured by a lot of ugly words so they reduced them to design elements – displayed not to make them appetising and easy to read, but set in tiny, geometrical boxes and, more often than not, reversed out of pale yellow.

Unsurprisingly, research then revealed that few people read this copy – which in turn confirmed to copywriters that trying to make good copy was a waste of time and to those same bad art directors that copy had no place at all in modern advertising.

I now have in front of me a double-page spread, in colour, for an expensive new car. It has a headline but carries no copy. The reader is simply instructed to visit the website.

Why are there no words? This space cost about £30,000. That’s £30,000 invested in the hope of intriguing, informing, inspiring, persuading the maximum number of readers that this £100,000 car is interesting enough: first to find out more about; then to try out on the road; finally to buy.

The decision to include no copy cannot have been made for reasons of economy. For your £30,000, you can include as many words as you like at no extra cost. So an assumption must have been made, by both agency and client, that with the richest language in the world at their disposal, they could find no words, about a £100,000 car, that would make this car more desirable.

Here was a heaven-sent opportunity for the craft of copywriting to remind us all of its power and potential. Instead, client and agency alike, they funked it.

How can any client forgive their creative agency for such a supine surrender? And how can anyone calling themselves a copywriter accept this shameful admission of defeat?

So, to return to your question, my apparently discursive rant prompts a possible solution. I suggest you collect half-a-dozen current print advertisements that contain little, if any, copy; that seem to believe that their only function is to divert readers to a website.

Then add words. If you’re as talented as you think you are, your words will speak for themselves. And some creative director somewhere, already furtively aware of his department’s frailty, might just give you a chance to do it for money.

But, sadly, I have to say: don’t bank on it.

Do you ever worry that some of the creative crafts skills are being lost as work is turned around so quickly these days?

I don’t think it’s anything to do with time. Compared with most other publishers, online and off, we still have oodles of it. I think we’ve become so obsessed with The Idea that we’ve forgotten to take pride in the detail.

‘Ask Jeremy’, a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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