F. Scott Fitzgerald. Dorothy Sayers. Don DeLillo. Joseph Heller. James Patterson. Salman Rushdie.
What do all these people have in common? Most obviously, they’re all bestselling, decorated authors. Also, at some point in their careers, they were all copywriters.
Before you run with that information, I’m certainly not suggesting that marketing writing and literary writing are the same. Far from it. But they aren’t mutually exclusive, either. If anything, the fact that so many successful writers have straddled the worlds of commercial and literary writing—not to mention journalism, academia, and more—should suggest that the boundaries between them are far more porous than many in the business of marketing would have you believe.
You’ve probably heard some variation of the thinking that the best copywriters are more like mercenaries than writers. They’re fast, fierce, and practical. They know how to use words well but don’t fuss too much over them. They understand their job is closer to sales than to art, and that thinking of it as the latter puts you in the company of dreamers and layabouts.
In his influential book Confessions of an Advertising Man, David Ogilvy said it like this: “If you are a writer of novels, or plays, or poetry, you can write and take your own time, generally speaking. But in advertising, you’ve got deadlines, you’ve got to have the idea, and it’s got to be a great one, and you’ve got to have it Tuesday morning.”
I can think of a few responses to this. First, I’d press him on what constitutes a great idea. Second, if there weren’t any deadlines in the worlds of literary publishing, playwriting, or academia, there’d be no books, plays, or academic journals. Ogilvy’s point is largely rhetorical, in line with his swaggering persona, but the sentiment that ad and marketing writing are more rigorous than other writing forms still persists.
There’s some truth to this generalization, but I suspect that most copywriters defy this mold on some days, and fit within it on others. That’s how people work—not like robots built from bad LinkedIn posts. I also suspect this generalization may end up harming not just the copywriters being squeezed into this mold, but the companies doing the squeezing.
Rather than perpetuate simplistic and outdated ideas of what marketing writers should look like, based largely on their ability to meet deadlines, it’s high time for writers to be valued on the basis of their perspective and their Experience. I capitalize the latter because I don’t just mean their job or hallowed agency experience, but also their experience in writing and in life. They should be valued for the unique passion they have for the written word.
I’d argue that the ability to treat writing as a professional craft is rooted in a belief that it’s beautiful. If that belief goes deep, great writing can grow out of nearly any soil. The writer Annie Dillard was once asked by a student if they had what it takes to become a successful writer, to which Dillard simply replied: “Well, do you love sentences?” If your next potential copywriting hire can truthfully answer yes to this question, their writing will almost inevitably bear fruit for your brand. But of course, there are other factors to consider.
Perspective is paramount
Good writing, like other creative forms such as photography or painting, begins with perspective. Journalists might call it an angle, photographers a point of view, and academics a framework. This is a complex process of determining who you are—for brand writers, who their brand is—and where you stand in relation to other important objects: your future and existing customers, competitors, critics, and more.
Picture a Plein Air Painter standing in a field with one eye closed, their brush held out before them, measuring the spatial relationship between the trees, bushes, and clouds in their line of vision. Like good painters, good writers can find a perspective that holds the objects in the field—customers, competitors, critics, etc.—in spatial harmony. Without this perspective, a bush may end up the size of a bus, a tree as tall as a chair.
Every writer has their own unique perspective, of course, but the good ones know how to appropriately adjust its aperture for the purposes of their current writing task. Their ability to do this—to quickly and confidently find the perspective which allows them to write in a way that sharpens, deepens, or propels your brand—is essential to their value.
How does a writer develop their own perspective, and their ability to find the correct perspective for your brand? You’ll have to ask them. Every writer takes their own journey to hone their craft, and should be able to articulate that path if pressed. They’ll probably be thrilled to do so.
Experience with a capital ‘E’
This brings us to the next essential element of a writer’s value: Experience. Experience is always important, of course, but it’s uniquely vital to writers, in that their creative output is usually closely related to what they’ve seen, where they’ve been, and who they’ve met. Not just what they know about their professional field, but about the world. A writer with lots of agency experience will have a different body of work, process, and perspective than one who has transitioned from journalism, publishing, or creative writing. And that’s OK.
What matters is whether they’ve developed the ability to understand the context your brand lives within, the point of view from which their writing needs to come, and the ability to put it all to words on paper. The Ogilvy school of thought is undoubtedly based on the simple necessity for writers to be able to consistently and efficiently produce good work. This makes sense. But a good writer produces good writing, regardless of the medium, outlet, or application, whether they’ve been writing poems in a cave or copy on Madison Avenue.
Everyone’s a critic. Some are good at it
In Ogilvy’s description of a good writer, there’s also a conspicuous absence of the writer’s critical or strategic input. Not every copywriter should be involved in high level strategy, of course, but writing by its nature is strategic–even your most junior writer needs to understand their audience and strategic objective. A good copywriter can sniff out bad strategy, because they’re the one who has to commit it to paper. They’ll be the first to know if that dog won’t hunt. And they may even tell you about it.
That critical perspective should be welcomed. It’s another part of what makes a good writer—their “built-in shit detector”, as Hemingway put it. If you want a critical perspective, hire a good writer. A writer who doesn’t ask questions may be useful in the short term, in that they won’t slow down the momentum of your moving train. But a writer who can see the swerves in the tracks ahead, or when your train is headed for a treacherous tunnel, can help you avoid derailment.
The uncertain future of creativity
What constitutes creative output is becoming increasingly murky. Rather than asking ‘will robots replace copywriters?’ we should be asking how we can better tap into the rich talent and experience of the writers in our midst. The answers will undoubtedly yield new and interesting ways of approaching the written word in marketing, even as new tools emerge to aid (or impair) that process. The words that end up on the page are only as good as the process taken to discover them. If that process incorporates perspective, experience, and passion, the words will go far beyond the page on which they’re written.
I’m not saying to treat your copywriters like precious geniuses who need two weeks in a cabin to write a tagline. Rather, treat them like professionals whose unique and occasionally peculiar perspective deepens their ability to understand the perspective of your brand. Treat their experience as vital to the craft they have developed, even if that experience doesn’t fit within a traditional trajectory. Finally, help them locate their passion for writing within the context of your brand, and allow them to express it.
Before quitting to write his first novel, Americana, a dark satire set in a New York ad agency, the author Don DeLillo worked as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather. DeLillo probably would have gone on to write Underworld and White Noise either way, but I can’t help but wonder what amazing brand stories Ogilvy’s rigid perspective may have cost him?
Cover image source: 4kclips