Experts. I’ve always been very wary of them.
Especially the self-proclaimed sort.
Probably my favourite quote about writing to make money is William Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything”. The great Hollywood screenwriter, script doctor and undeniable expert is not saying no one in LA has a clue about film making – only that if they all knew for sure which stories would do great box office, no duds would ever be produced.
It was only a few years ago that I finally heard the old joke defining an expert as “a has-been drip under pressure”. Proper dictionaries almost all say it’s someone “very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area”.
Knowledge or skill. Not both, you notice. Critics and pundits who have never practised at the highest level of what they’re talking about will like that.
This musing was prompted by a self-proclaimed charity copywriting ‘expert’ slagging off my mailing concept a mutual client wanted to use. In trying to add gravitas to his opinion he made great play of his experience. I’m always sceptical of those who boast, “I’ve been doing this for 15 years”. Doing something badly for a long time only makes you expert in getting away with it.
And if almost anyone wants to play the vintage card adversarially, I’ve got the Crocodile Dundee in New York response. I’m thinking “That’s not a knife, this is a knife” when I casually mention working on my first charity account coming up to 40 years ago! (I don’t mention it was Help the Aged. Why hand out ammunition for obvious ripostes?)
Between then and now, I remember most of my howlers – remarkably few, thankfully – and quite a lot of things I could have done better. Reassuringly, the success stories far outnumber the failures.
All of it informs what I produce today.
Returning to our expert's protests... the client got their way and I wrote the copy. When the results were in, the client asked the expert why he thought my copy had pulled a response rate over 50 times better than his last effort.
I’ve got a few ideas about what could account for some of the difference (the concept for a start – that was suggested by the client, list quality, timing, production budgets…) but not all of it. The main reason is simply that his letter copy was amongst the worst I’ve ever read. Self-indulgent and trying to be way too clever. And visually, his mailing practically ignored what makes the charity appealing.
But, for once, he didn’t bother to give his expert opinion. Instead, he resigned the business – criticising the client as he did so.
That might very well be the reaction of “a has-been drip under pressure”. But I’m no expert.
INT. DAY. The kitchen of a house in Somerset. There’s a funeral reception, but the mood is far from gloomy. Two men, one a decade and a half older, stand at an island, centre stage. A new bottle of red wine is opened; it’s clear from an empty bottle and glances from other mourners that it is not their first. They are alternately deep and shallow in conversation.
A week and a bit ago, following my mother’s cremation, I had a long chat with a playwright over quite a lot of red wine. My cousin’s bloke and I reached the ‘what do you do?’ exchange quite early.
I explained as best I could the many things I’m involved with, but fell back on “Basically, I’m a copywriter”.
As still happens with surprising regularity, I had to explain what that involved. Paul commented on the restrictions of being told – or asked – what to write. It’s not a problem, I said. In fact, constraints can be helpful. There’s the appropriate language for the product or service; the legal, decent, honest and true regulations; client preferences; and even budget restraints. They all serve to concentrate the wandering mind.
He asked about how I deal with writer’s block. (Googling Paul afterwards, I saw he’d had plays on at The Royal Court and similarly impressive venues and stuff on the BBC and Channel 4 earlier in his career…)
For me, Writer's Block is never really a problem; having that brief helps. You can always re-read it to get going again; look at the research; google some rivals’ work... Even if the brief is nothing more than “You know the sort of thing” – as is sometimes the case – it still helps, because Mike and I will only accept that as a brief if we DO actually know. Then, previous experience comes to the rescue. And there's working with an art director. If I’m ever lost for words, Mike is only too happy to help out. (And should he ever struggle, I'm there with visual suggestions.)
An award-winning short story writer I know has some simple advice for wannabes asking about becoming a “creative writer”: “Write something. Anything.” And if I’m procrastinating when I begin a job, stream of consciousness typing works. Screen after screen of thoughts, half sentences, single words.... For instant Big Ideas (you know the sort that old Ad Guys bang on about), a dog-dick (ancient studio slang for big Pentel marker) on a layout pad is a great stimulus.
Copywriter and playwright both manipulate feelings, but I’m lucky because I can always start by writing instructions telling the reader, listener or viewer what I want them to do next, before writing the reason. Not an option the playwright has. He’d be in danger of being as annoying as those waiters who, as they leave your food, say: “Enjoy”.
EXT. NIGHT. Two men, one leaning on the other, walk towards a hotel. One has a clear sense of purpose, to steer the other to the sanctuary of his room. The younger tries to steer the older one towards noises coming from a pub off. The older one hesitates for a moment, then sticks to the brief.
A bunch of handpicked wildflowers (randomly self-seeded by the wind) to a major fundraising campaign. It was just before the morning news last Wednesday when I turned on Radio 4 and heard Lenny Henry's unmistakeable tones. With this being the BBC, I knew it couldn't be one of his commercials for that hotel chain which makes him sleep outside surrounded by tourists who ignore him. It became clear that he was talking about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the appeal was on behalf of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). I won't be alone in being a bit surprised that Ebola has been labelled a Disaster and awarded that Very Serious TV and Radio Ads Status which allows politicians to force themselves on unsuspecting viewers ahead of elections or signifies a massive natural catastrophe. This campaign has a nice warm blanket coverage rather than saturation. I saw the BBC TV spot a few times and also spotted a press ad. It's double-branded with the DEC logo - so I suppose there might be a very, very slight risk of its being confused with their last appeal but only by people with the IQ of Fox TV viewers.
Is Ebola really this a 'Disaster' like the subjects of previous DEC campaigns? The 2004 Tsunami around wiped out more than 250,000 people. To date, there have been nearly 5,000 known deaths in four West African countries. The DEC's own website estimates the TOTAL cases as 10,000 cases and 13,000 cases (a 30% margin of error!?). It's the measured, preventative tone of the DEC's work and its timing which are especially praiseworthy.
The heroic nurse William Pooley returned home to the UK with the disease from volunteering in West Africa. There was a little Daily Mail-style panic mumbling about his presence being the precursor to us all being wiped out, but he was cured using experimental drugs in a Hampstead hospital and has now flown back to continue his work in Africa. If you are dumb enough to watch Fox TV to keep up with world news, you're dumb enough to believe their hysterical coverage. Such ignorance has had an effect in the US where a returned nurse has tested negative, yet her local authority want her in quarantine, effectively putting her under house arrest. I'm reminded of the 1987 blanket 'Don't Die of Ignorance' tombstone campaign about HIV - which did little good because most people were not affected and were unlikely to be unless the disease progressed beyond at-risk groups. Far more effective was the targeted work of the Terrence Higgins Trust - a fundraising client we worked with for around nine years - which pointed out that people could only be infected via bodily fluids. Now IS the time to fundraise and inform about Ebola because the outcome of exponential growth is potentially catastrophic - and there are very simply understood strategies and equipment your money can pay for.
On the DEC site I see that the BBC and ITV don't share a single fundraising film, but have their own individual appeals. I'll remove a dandelion from the bouquet for that - no matter what the reasoning. It's not as if Lenny Henry's BBC (2 mins 50 secs) spot could be usefully tested against ITV's (3 mins 10 secs) spot fronted by the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. They both told much the same story in much the same way... but ITV's shopping list ask had more heart than the BBC's. The £25, £50 and £100 requested would pay for the same things, but Chiwetel's script made it all sound more human.
Now press 1 and listen to interminable holding music while I tell you about this week's brickbat recipient
While Ebola might well threaten the future of homo sapiens at some time, this week's brickbat goes to a sector of society who have done pretty well to bring us all down financially while lining their own pockets. An award made from an ugly lump of demolished high street is heading to Britain's banks for their current advertising. The industry as a whole can share the award, but a special mention goes to three banks in particular. The first is Lloyds for having the brass neck to run full page press ads with the headline: 'Helping Britain prosper'. Satire's obviously not dead. Neither is being shameless.
Which brings is to the ludicrously mis-cast TV commercial for Cooperative Banking. A topless bloke (oh the irony!) with an indefinable and indescribable accent boasts that they sometimes refuse to lend. Hardly a USP these days, I'd have thought. Of course, the Coop couldn't possibly associate with customers who don't live up to their high standards - those of a bank whose Chairman was indulging in serious Class A drug use and much else besides guaranteed to excite the tabloids. Well at least, as a lay preacher, he was practising what he preached. In the deranged logic of this la-la-land commercial, the odd-voiced protaganist proves what a trustworthy bank he represents by having some guff about ethics tattooed on some part of his body. Wouldn't it be refreshing if the marketing geniuses holding this particular poisoned chalice realised that some of the audience might be aware of what actually had happened - and opted not to insult our intelligence?
Meanwhile Barclays is running a follow-up commercial to the irritating and smug one about the valuable assistance the bank gives to help a standing football team of blokes whose running days are over (someone's been watching Father Ted re-runs) to post updates on facebook. This has been superceded by a callow youth saying Barclays will be offering advice on body language to other callow youths so they can get a job. I'll tell Barclays here and for free what will enable people young and old to get a job: they and the other banks should get on with lending to perfectly viable businesses at a decent rate of interest. They could even advertise the fact.
And a nearly brickbat to... WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell who this week issued a warning to his shareholders that Ebola was "grinding down" confidence amongst major advertisers. Amongst the populations in West Africa, it's having a slightly more disastrous effect. Thankfully, one advertiser is spending quite a bit of money to tell us about it.
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