A picture paints a thousand words. But not the words ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. And that’s more than just a great put down for uppity art directors, it shows us something important: good writing produces shades of meaning that other forms of communication just can’t reach. Maybe that’s why the slogan, the most rudimentary technique in advertising, is also the most enduring. When the internet has gone the way of VHS, the copywriters will still be there, with their feet up on their tables, chewing the ends of their hi-tech pencils, just trying to nail the line.
Here’s how you do it: take a sheet of lined paper and put numbers in the margin. Then express the thing that you want to say as many times as possible, in as many different ways as you can. When you run out of ideas, keep going. Write any old gibberish if you need to. Write till you can’t write any more, or you run out of time, whichever comes first. Now re-read your list. Most of your lines will be some combination of obvious, done or clichéd. But two, maybe three, will be OK. Take them to your creative director. If he’s good he’ll tell you they’re all shit. Repeat the process for as long as you can bear.
If you do it this way, and a lot of the best copywriters do it this way, you’ll quickly develop a healthy disregard for the idea of ‘talent’. The words are doing the work, you’re just fitting them together. Cracking a line is like cracking a safe – there are a thousand combinations but only one unlocks the door. There’s something pleasing about this: for an industry in which quality is generally supposed to be subjective, this is one instance where it’s possible to get it 100% right. For any brief there will be one best solution to the equation ‘the greatest possible impact/the fewest possible words’.
Some will say that writing is just a small part of what we do. These days it’s all about the idea. This has never made any sense to me. What is an ‘idea’ apart from a few words in a row? The two things are impossible to separate. There’s an alternate reality where Nike went with the line ‘Everybody Do Sport’, it’s also one in which they sell far fewer trainers. Turns out the difference between a good idea and a bad idea is nothing but words either.
Maybe this was why David Ogilvy claimed copywriters had the “most important job in the agency”. At any rate, it’s nice to know that amongst the client meetings, the conference calls, there’s one bit of our job that feels like craft. Magical is not too strong a word for five words that, when pasted on a billboard, can change the way that hun-dreds of people behave. And as every wizard knows, spells don’t work unless you get the words exactly right.
‘Gordon Comstock’ is a creative based in London. He tweets at @notvoodoo