Radio is still a writer’s medium. It’s awesome to have an A-list director and a crew of 100 working on your TV or video spot. It’s really cool to see top designers and programers bringing a web site or an app to life. But it’s equally amazing to sit down with a small team of a producer, a sound engineer, and some great talent to pull off something like this.
If you have a good idea that the client doesn’t buy, don’t throw it away. Keep it in a file somewhere. If it’s really a great idea, you’ll find a home for it sometime in your career. Aaron Sorkin’s built an amazing reputation doing just that. Even when his copy’s produced. Works for him.
Consider how much detail the artist puts into what is eventually obscured. He makes a nice little crosswalk, a cue, and a couple taxis. Then covers them up with a hot dog stand and silhouettes in the foreground. That doesn’t mean he was wasting his time.
I’ve seen a lot of portfolio students resist experimentation with tag lines, headlines, certain visuals and even media because they didn’t think they’d be necessary. They have an idea of what the ad should be, so they stop working as soon as all their requirements are met.
The truth is you won’t know if your ad needs a tag line until you’ve spent some serious time coming up with a sheet of the best lines you can write. And as much as you love that visual you came up with, you’ll never know if it’s the best until you try to come up with at least three that are even better.
Put in the time and effort to paint that crosswalk and those taxis. Who cares if they’re covered up? It doesn’t mean you wasted your time. It only makes the finished piece better.
A copywriter in his first semester, on his first assignment came to me for advice. He was trying to do a campaign for Invisible Fence, a kind of invisible barrier for dogs. One of his ideas was to show a patch of ground the dog had mischievously dug up. The dog would be next to the big hole smiling innocently.
“The dog is smiling?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said the student. “See?”
I looked at his Sharpied sketch. Sure enough, the dog was smiling.
“Would this be a photograph?” I asked.
“What does a real dog look like when it’s smiling? Not a cartoon dog. A real dog.”
He hadn’t learned to think visually yet. Thinking visually isn’t just coming up with a cool image and putting the client’s logo in the corner. It’s the ability to know exactly how an image is going on a page or a screen.
In portfolio school, some of my classmates had an idea for a TV spot that opened on a marshmallow.
“How are you going to know it’s a marshmallow?” asked our professor.
“Because it’s a marshmallow.”
“How will I know it’s not a pillow?” asked my professor. “Or a cloud?”
“Because it’s a marshmallow! It will look like a marshmallow because that’s what it is!”
But sure enough, when we saw that marshmallow on film, it was surprisingly hard to tell it was a marshmallow. Maybe Pytka could have pulled it off. But not us. We hadn’t learned to think visually yet.
For more tips on thinking visually, read this article by Hal Curtis.
Years ago I read an interview with Dan Wieden. He said for years he’d been trying to write like Whitman (or was it Faulkner?) and hadn’t got it right. Maybe Wieden’s new Levi’s campaign fulfills that desire in some small way.
Today, I came across the I Write Like site which purportedly analyzes writing and compares it to other literary greats. A few paragraphs from one of our AE’s documents came up with Arthur C. Clarke. Repbulicans and Tea Partiers might be thrilled to know Obama’s Inauguration Speech came up as being George Orwellian. Text from a Sarah Palin speech I found online might have been penned by Dan Brown (minus the cliffhangers). Here’s what I received after plugging in a block of text from my journal:
I’ve never read any of his work. I’ll have to swing by Barnes & Noble tonight. Any recommendations?
My point in bringing this up is that it’s good to emulate. It’s good to have heroes. It’s good to try to write or art direct or crack jokes or present to clients or play bass or start companies in the same way that some other great person is able to. Not forever. Just until you’re able to find your own voice. (And we’ve got plenty of time to practice finding our own voices. I just read this morning that Carl Sandburg didn’t become famous until he published “Chicago” at age 36.)
Unlike most prose, poetry is less about telling a story and more about using language in unexpected and creative ways. Poetry avoids cliches. It evokes images. It leads you down a path you hadn’t planned on traveling.
And isn’t that exactly what you want to be doing as a copywriter?
I love Sandburg and Rilke and Basho. Shakespeare’s a given. Two of my contemporary favorites are Robert Hass and Billy Collins. Go read a collection. It will make your pen fantifluous.
Copywriters: the next time you’re absolutely stuck with your copy, try this.
Go pick up a novel of a writer whose style you admire. Say it’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez – he’s about as unmarketing-speaky as you can get. Open to any page. Now copy the words of the page into your own notebook.
When you’re finished, start writing what you need to say about your product. You’ll find you’re doing it in an entirely different voice.
You can do this with Hemmingway and Steinbeck as easily as you can with Dan Brown and David Sedaris. Go ahead and try some poetry. Works with Sandberg and Billy Collins, too.
Art directors: Do the same by taking out a big book on fine art. Or photography. Or design. You don’t have to recreate each painting. But you can try. Sketch out the composition. Study the shadows and the colors. Spend a half hour with a particular style. Then jump into your layout while it’s fresh in your brain.
Small trick. But it works. And it’s much better than staring at a blank page, or just writing and laying out what you think the client (or the awards show juries) expect.
I once knew a creative team where the CW was a little more adored and befriended by agency leadership than the AD. Not sure why. Just the way it was. (It wasn’t me, by the way.)
At one point, the AD was frustrated enough with the situation to talk to our ECD about it. Hoping to convey her neglected value, she even said, “That [redacted] campaign we just did? [It had just appeared in Archive.] That was all my idea! I did the whole thing – he just changed one word in the tag!”
The reason I know she said that was because within a week, almost everyone in the creative department knew she had said it. That she would claim sole authorship on some work, however accurate, seemed, as one coworker put it, “so unprofessional.”
A couple morals to this story:
1. I have never heard a story about a creative who complained about anything to an ECD to their benefit. Complaining just doesn’t get you anywhere. Not even when it’s about your clients.
2. You can create an entire campaign on your own. But if you’re part of a team, you did the work as a team. A little humility is a good thing. (And if your partner’s not doing his or her share, it will show. You don’t have to put up any red flags. Your CDs are probably more aware than you know.)