Plenty of writers like their rituals. A special pen or notebook, a particular font or page layout, sometimes even a favoured paper. But when it comes down to it these talismans are largely there, says Nick Asbury, to help banish the fear that “it’s just down to you and a blank page, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You hear writers talking about the mechanics of writing, how they like to use a pencil and paper, that they like to work in the evening or early in the morning. And I don’t really do any of that. I’m very basic – I open a Word document, sit at my messy desk and start writing.”
Asbury has been writing for 17 years now and is part of a small group of people who usually refer to themselves as copywriters but, in fact, do something a little different. What they do is still relatively new, so the well-heeled advertising term is the neatest fit – Asbury is, more accurately, a writer for branding and design. Since going freelance ten years ago he has worked with an impressive list of studios including The Partners, NB, Build, johnson banks and Hat-trick in London and Music, Mark Studio and The Chase in Manchester; while producing a range of self-initiated projects with his wife Sue as Asbury & Asbury, from his base in Cheshire. And his ascent has proved timely – in 1999, three years after first starting out, the Writing for Design category made its first appearance at D&AD. Asbury now has two Yellow Pencils – one for the work shown on the previous page – and has had five other projects in-book.
Following a degree in English, Asbury was keen to work with words and was aware of advertising copywriting, but had dismissed it as a career option. “I had no idea about this other world of writing, that was slightly behind the scenes in a way, to do with design and branding,” he says. “There was kind of a shift in the 1990s – writing always used to come from the ad agency; all the writing brands put out was done by ad copywriters. But branding and design people, strategy people began to take over. Writing became more of a branding discipline.”
At his first job, selling classified ad space for the Local Government Chronicle in London, Asbury encountered classic sales techniques – building towards ‘the ask’, selling ‘benefits not features’. In retrospect, this grounding in old-school methodology helped him to develop and hone his later writing. “There’s quite a tradition of salesmanship in copywriting,” he says. “And lots of long copy ads are based on the principles of selling. David Ogilvy started out in door-to-door sales and took those principles and turned them into copywriting principles.” Helmut Krone and Julian Koenig’s Think Small ads for the VW Beetle in the 1960s epitomise the technique. “They’re almost ticking things off – this car doesn’t use as much petrol, repair costs are cheaper – there’s a skeleton of information to work with and it’s been woven into this nice flowing copy,” he says. “Copywriting used to be like that – now it’s more fluid and shifting in terms of what defines good writing.”
Before setting out as a freelance writer, Asbury was a partner at Other Creative, a consultancy formed in 1997 with fellow writer Mike Reed – now of Reed Words – which combined writing and design. “Throughout that period there was this rise in ‘tone of voice’ as a phrase that clients, in particular, recognised,” says Asbury. “It was really useful in terms of kicking the door open and getting writing into the discussion. Now it’s recognised that writing needs to be a part of the branding process.”
That language was being considered as important a choice for brands as a colour or typeface was refreshing – not least for writers – but it also resulted in the growth of a particular style of brand-speak. As clients realised they could become more familiar with their customers through their written communications, a trend emerged for chatty banter and overwrought, chummy prose. It was tone of voice but with the tone turned way up.
“The big downside has been this obsession with tone, as if it’s all down to the ‘way’ you say things, rather than what you actually say,” Asbury suggests. “In so much writing these days it’s like the brands are ‘doing’ tone at you. If you take the tone away and just write down in the simplest form what you’re trying to say, I think a lot of the time people would realise they’re not saying anything, they’re just trying to be a bit matey and wacky.” Working towards this “simplest form” is something that Asbury is good at, and it also hints at one of his main interests as both a writer and reader: poetry.
I definitely think the main thing I do is condensing language, concentrating it down,” he says. “Which is a real overlap between poetry and copywriting. They’re both about concentrated language. Often through necessity with copywriting you’re trying to get something into a small space,” he says, recalling how he cut his teeth as a trainee copywriter of recruitment ads. “You had a fixed-size quarter page ad and they gave you a stack of A4 on the role, salary and benefits – you had to get it down to one hundred words.”
Poetry and experimental writing have provided inspiration for both personal and client projects – often the more out-there the better. For example, Asbury cites David Markson’s book, This is Not a Novel, as influencing how he went about a brief from The Chase where he had to describe one of photographer Paul Thompson’s pictures in 1,000 words. “It does feed into the way I write,” he says. “I like experimental stuff because it’s a source of ideas, in a way. It gets your mind working in different ways. And by experimental I mean it’s questioning the boundaries of what the form is; what is a poem? What is a novel? Where’s the dividing line? I like that place where things overlap; there’s a playfulness to it. In the Markson book, each paragraph is a single sentence. They feel unconnected at first and it’s slightly hypnotic – it feels like things he’s ‘favourited’ over the years. But it was a direct influence on The Chase poster – disjointed sentences adding up to something bigger. My aim was that if you read this there’s no way you’re not going to want to see the picture – which was the real point of the exercise.”
One of Asbury’s first forays into writing poetry managed to brilliantly combine the poetic form with the language of business writing and became the self-published book, Corpoetics. “The frightening thing about poetry is that suddenly you can say whatever you like in whatever way you like,” he says. “When I came up with the idea for Corpoetics, I happened to be reading a book about poetry, and came across a part about ‘found’ poetry. It felt natural to ask how that would work with corporate writing. It was quite liberating; I didn’t have to agonise about what to say. Yet some of the poems are still quite personal in a strange way.”
Asbury would visit a company’s ‘About Us’ page and set himself the task of taking the words and channelling them into a poem. “As a copywriter I’m used to working with a brief, with a set of rules and limitations. I thought, ‘What’s the most corporate, de-humanised language I can find?’ and my first thought was Halliburton; they’d have the least promising material.” From this Asbury created a series of funny, insightful and even moving poems. It’s a theme that was picked up on and turned into a recent exhibition he contributed to at the Jerwood Space in London, where a range of designers showed personal projects (in an accompanying talk, Asbury introduced his ‘Fishages’ concept – a brand in search of a product, if ever there was one). Yet, interestingly, even though the creatives clearly had free rein to create what they liked, many adhered to self-imposed conditions. “Even though they’re personal projects there’s this instinct in designers that you have to impose your own rules before you start working.”
When Asbury isn’t working for a client, he’s making things himself – but again there are overlaps. As Asbury & Asbury the studio has made several interesting projects, the aforementioned Corpoetics; a series of mugs and set of swatches in the Pentone range – the Pantone system as applied to tone of voice; and their most successful effort to date, the Disappointments Diary, “a week-to-view appointments diary with a series of disappointing twists” which was designed in partnership with Hat-trick. No matey banter here – just a straight-talking, downbeat series of pages for the long year ahead.
Other ideas find their way onto the Asbury & Asbury blog, which is updated with irregular frequency. CR has reposted a selection of Asbury’s writings, such as his in-character Mr Blog, where he scoured the UK via Google’s Street View and blogged all the ‘Mr.’ shops he could find; the #clienttweaks hashtag instigated on Twitter with Mike Reed, which poked fun at imagined client intervention into some of the world’s most famous slogans; and A Cloudy Language, a paean to the idiosyncratic weather forecasts of the BBC’s Rob McElwee. Most recently, Asbury posted a thoughtful piece about how the new long copy ads from Apple were a travesty of the medium.
While he has numerous ideas ready to go, some are kept on the back burner for several years, just waiting for the right moment. They could form part of a future commercial project, or be turned into something that will be sold from his online shop. Either way, they will contain a great idea at the heart of the writing.
“People say you’re not meant to share ideas too early,” says Asbury, “that you’ll just get that quick hit of appreciation. And there are a few ideas I’ve held back. But you could keep a ‘New Ideas’ folder all your life – you might as well throw a few out there. I’ve got a slight faith that if you do things with a fairly generous spirit and because you find them interesting, this will gradually lead you to more interesting places.” Perhaps Asbury does have a ritual after all. 1