A few years ago I worked as a freelancer writer in advertising. To demonstrate my wares I actually wrote ads that explained my skills. This is #1 of 3. The headline read: “Another 1,000 words by joe Di Stefano, couldn’t he have been a writer instead.” The text below followed:
A friend of mine is a photographer whose favourite joke goes like this: “What do you get if you cross a photographer with an art director?”
The answer is “a really bad photographer.”
After telling it, Lee would roll around, his hands clasping his stomach, big bubbles of laughter escaping from his mouth. And you’d get the same reaction from any photographer within earshot. It’s a telling comment on the strange sense of humour that photographers possess. However, when it comes to writing and writers in advertising, the ultimate comment comes from David Abbott.
During a talk at a Melbourne Art Director’s Lunch (where a lot of photographers were congregating in groups, pointing at art directors and sniggering), David Abbott was going through a few of his advertisements.
Up came a series of Volvo advertisements circa 1980. Among this series was one particular advertisement. The picture showed a hitchhiker holding a placard.
It read: “CAMBRIDGE. VOLVO PREFERRED.”
There is actually no headline as such, the first couple of sentences are picked out in bold type.
They read: “It was a bitterly cold morning and I was thankful for the Volvo’s efficient heating system. I had slipped Mozart’s clarinet concerto into the stereo and was looking forward to a pleasant drive when I saw the hitchhiker. His placard intrigued me and breaking the habit of a lifetime, I stopped.”
Now, as he came to this advertisement, which would have been written more than ten years earlier, David Abbott stopped, in mid sentence.
His weight shifted from one foot to the other. And although he had crossed his arms tightly, one hand managed to escape and reached up to tug pensively at his chin.
Everyone in the audience remained quiet and waited.
His white hair seemed to grey as we watched. The advertisement, held on to the white canvas by an invisible beam of light, just sat there, unmoved, trying not to be noticed.
It failed miserably.
David Abbott turned to the podium and was about to resume, yet no words came from his mouth, which just hung there for a short time, wide open. No sound.
Just silence, which rushed out and mingled inconspicuously with the audience.
Once again, David Abbott slowly turned to face the screen. He took a couple of steps closer, his neck craned forward, his eyes focused sharply.
There it was.
It suddenly hit him hard in the face, distorting his features, pushing the edge of his mouth up in an attempt to appease the slight pain in the back of the head.
“There was always something about this ad I never liked,” he said trying to maintain that cool, British composure. “It still annoys me. And there it is again.”
A slight hum of disbelief spread nervously about the room.David Abbott paid no attention to it. “Damn,” he said.
His head shaking. One hand found its way in to his pocket, the other concentrated on an itch just behind his right ear.
What on earth was he doing? Here was an advertisement that had earned the praises of the industry and deservedly won numerous awards. Writers would take it to their clients as an example of beautifully crafted copy. Art directors used it to prove the simplicity of powerful communication.
Every piece fitted together comfortably and securely. Even the logo appeared quite at home sitting there happily at the bottom of the advertisement. In fact, it was more like a story, an anecdote, as told by a friend. One that sold you on a Volvo.
David Abbott, however, shook his head. He stepped up to the canvas and pointed at a spot on the screen.
What was it?
Too much copy? Was the picture wrong?
“Please don’t get me wrong. This is one of my favourite ads, but …”
Again he looked back. Every eye in the audience followed.
“If you look closely at the start of the second and third sentences …. It’s only a little thing I know, but …”
His finger reached out to point at the offending spots.
“Here, see that? The second sentence starts: ‘I had slipped…’ ”
His finger then unwillingly dragged itself across the canvas to the beginning of the third sentence.
“And here it reads: ‘He slipped into the passenger seat.’ ”
Again he found that itch behind his right ear.
“I should have used another word, rather than repeat ‘slipped’.”
Every eye in the audience went from the offending word and travelled the short distance to David Abbott’s face where they landed in amazement.
Here was a man who could easily have said nothing, basked in the glory and envy of all. But not David Abbott. Even 10 years later, he was still editing, still refining, still crafting. And writing is a craft.
It is not just there to fill space and look appropriate.
If it shouldn’t be read, it shouldn’t be written.
Believe me it does take time, even though most agencies surprisingly don’t charge for copywriting.
So who cares about it?
Well, I do. And obviously so does David Abbott.
No wonder his advertisements are so readable. No one complains about his long copy.
You see writing is just like sex, if you don’t enjoy doing it, then neither will the other person.
A writer should be able to write. And more importantly should love to write. If you don’t, go off and be a suit. Lord knows you’ll find a lot of like-minded people. Now, if you agree with me and have enjoyed reading this, then I believe I’ve done a fairly good job.
If you enjoyed the Colonial Mutual stark animated – series of advertisements plus the successful Twinings campaign and would like to use me, I’ve done a very good job.
Then, if you were to pick up the phone, dial my number and offer me work, I’d consider this a very successful advertisement.
Please note, I’ll even take calls from photographers with any more jokes on art directors.
Thanks and see you soon.