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: “My name is Joe Di Stefano and I am a writer. Or is that abundantly obvious.” The text below followed:
The most basic thing you should know about any advertising copywriter is: Can they write. Can they string a sentence together.
Does it flow into a paragraph. Does it set up and deliver a compelling argument. Every piece of copy should set you along a path where there are no diversions, no forks in the road, no off-ramps. Just the straight and narrow.
Let’s face it, if I can’t get you all the way to my phone number over 250mm away, then I don’t deserve a job as a copywriter. It’s even more challenging these days when so many clients and, surprisingly, advertising people believe that nobody reads long copy any more. How ridiculous.
You’ve just read 117 words. Is that too long?
Per-capita Australians buy more magazines than anywhere else in the world. The same goes for books. We devour them. And they’re not the kind of books you can digest in one sitting. Authors like Stephen King, Barbara Taylor-Bradford, Danielle Steel, make doorstops look more like paperweights.
I suppose there’s the catch. People read what interests them. And we copywriters have just become too lazy at our trade. However, before one word is written, an ad should first contain something more important: an idea. The bigger the better.
David Ogilvy says a big idea is one that lasts 30 years. I don’t have that long to wait. How do you judge a ‘big idea?’ Well, here’s an example on which to test your judgement.
The following didn’t happen to me, but it was introduced as a true story.
A client, let’s call him Mr McNeil, proprietor of McNeil’s Nails, one day went to brief his new advertising agency. Now, Mr McNeil, a small, bespectacled man, was very proud of his nails. He wanted to express this to the public. The agency listened attentively. The walls, lined with numerous awards, looked on, impressively. The Account Director took copious notes. Even the assorted cream biscuits, sitting untouched in the middle of the table seemed ready to go to work.
‘What this needs, is a big idea’ burst forth the Creative Director, disturbing the concentration of the assorted creams. He was excited. It was decided they would meet again very soon.
Two weeks later, Mr McNeil is ushered into the boardroom. He is greeted by the Account Director and Creative Director. This time however, the assorted creams don’t receive an invitation. They are replaced by plain, sweet biscuits which act the same way plain, sweet biscuits act all around the world: they just sit there.
The Account Director formally welcomes the client and presents his introduction. The plain, sweet biscuits are impressed. The Creative Director now swings to his feet, adjusting his expensive Country Road sports coat. A shaft of light descending from the ceiling catches his gold watch and sends a beam of light racing out over the awards, highlighting his name. ‘Mr McNeil, what this agency is about is nailing the big idea.
‘We promised you one, and I believe we are about to deliver.’ The room thick with anticipation, takes a deep sigh as the monitor flickers to life. The client’s eyes are glued to the screen, as the opening scene plays on his glasses. The commercial opens on a desolate, barren landscape. A hot sun hangs sluggishly in the cloudless sky.
The camera pans across the scene as wisps of dust are blown about playfully by a dry wind. In the foreground, the camera finds a wide, roughly sawn piece of timber firmly staked upright into the ground. Slowly it pans up, a pair of feet come into frame. The left is resting on the right and both are fastened securely together by a rather large nail. A small trickle of blood escapes from the wound. The client’s mouth falls wide open.
‘What the…You can’t…No, no…no’.
Mr McNeil reaches for the remote control and stops the commercial. The screen responds with a blank, black stare.
‘You … you can’t be serious surely. I … I can’t accept this.’ The Account Director and Creative Director look at each other aghast. ‘But, Mr McNeil…?’ ‘I’m sorry,’ says the client. ‘I’ll come back, one week from today for your final recommendation.’
And with that, Mr McNeil leaves the agency.
A week goes by. The client arrives promptly. Again he is ushered into the boardroom where he coolly greets the Account Director and the Creative Director.
On a small plate in front of him is not assorted creams, nor are there any plain, sweet biscuits. His stern gaze is met by tasty-cheese squares and dry biscuits. Mr McNeil pushes them away.
The biscuits start to go stale almost immediately.
‘Shall we get on with it, gentlemen,’ he says. The Creative Director begins: ‘Mr McNeil, we have taken a close look at what we presented and I believe we have come up with something better.’
‘I’m glad to hear that,’ responds the client, now relaxing slightly. But only for a moment. The commercial opens on a desolate, barren landscape. The hot sun hangs sluggishly in the cloudless sky.
The camera slowly pans across the scene as wisps of dust… ‘Wait… Stop this… Look, I told you… I just can’t…’ The playful dry wind is paused.
The Creative Director stands. ‘Please, Mr McNeil, just give it a chance. We have changed it. ‘It’s great. Just watch it to the end. Trust me.’
Mr McNeil falls silent. He’s a reasonable man. ‘OK,’ he says. With any luck, his wife may like it. The camera continues to pan across the scene. In the distance, we hear running feet and some shouting. The sound becomes louder and louder. Mr McNeil leans over the table, intrigued. With his eyes fixed to the screen, he reaches for a cheese square.
The Creative Director smiles. Along the horizon, we see a man running. He is dressed in a loose sheet. Over one shoulder he carries a cross made of roughly sawn timber. In hot pursuit are two Centurions finding it hard to keep up.
In a mid shot, we see the two of them, obviously short of breath and struggling.
One turns to the other and says: ‘I told you we should have used McNeil’s Nails.’
Fade to black.
Now, is that a big idea? If not, why not? I’ll leave you to struggle with your own conscience on that little question.
It all depends, on your definition of a big idea. Which brings me back to me. If you think the Colonial Mutual ads (the stark black and white animated series), or the successful Twinings series (among others) are big, then I may be for you. If not, then you’re probably not right for me.
To all those people who have read this far, you’ve just proved that people do actually read long copy advertisements.
Even ones that contain 1209 words, or another way of putting it: 6773 characters, set in 9 point.
To the two of you, can I just say: ‘Mum, I’ll be around to see you on Sunday just after lunch. And Gabrielle, I shouldn’t be home too late tonight.’
Thanks and see you soon.