Every other month, a brand-new, glossy Communication Arts appears in agency mailrooms. Issues of CA typically encompass about half of the average creative’s bookshelf, with the rest a diverse amalgam of other award annuals, weird tchotchkes and souvenirs from shoots.
With issues covering typography, design, illustration, photography, interactive and—the granddaddy of them all—advertising, they offer a platter of the best visual work created in a calendar year. Yet I can’t help but wish they offered one more annual. One more theme could round it all out: the first Communication Arts Writing Annual.
The antiquated adage is “no one reads copy.” In addition to being anathema to every copywriter, it’s also one other thing: complete bullshit. The real truth is that people will always read copy if it’s jump-off-the-page good. And despite what some naysayers want you to believe, examples of sharp writing exist all over advertising, penned by hardworking writers who deserve much more admiration than they’re receiving.
You’ll find linguistic pearls in the obvious locations: body copy and headlines. But if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll notice them everywhere. Such a pearl might take the form of an excellent short story on a Chipotle bag. Or a tweet that catches you by surprise with its spot-on sentiment. It could be a piece of copy set in eight points at the bottom of an ad, where the boring legalese has actually been crafted into something fun to read. Its writer knew few would notice, but still cared enough about every opportunity on the page to put in the extra labor.
Writers put in the work because they know how important the role of the words should be. And sometimes the writing is all there is to work with. Here’s a typical scenario: Your clients bought a limited-space ad. All they can afford is a cheap stock image, and you get a maximum of 50 letters for a headline. Guess what? All the pressure is on the writer to pen the perfect line within that pithy word count. That’s a Mount Everest–esque challenge. The same goes for a cheap TV spot that’s nothing but a voiceover and a shot of the product.
Another scenario that all writers know too well: the innumerable social media briefs cluttering up their e-mail inboxes. Many wordsmiths have undergone bouts of ennui arising from excessive social media writing assignments. Such assignments can be insufferable, with Lilliputian character counts and asks like “Let’s have our brand celebrate National Watermelon Day—even though we sell tools.” But every once in a while, a gem shines through, and you know that behind each one of these sparkling treasures was a writer who said, “Screw it, let’s make something good. I’m not letting anyone stop me.”
This is why amazing writing will always stand out—the writer puts in the time to carve it into a shiny jewel. This is when it’s obvious that 200 headlines were written to pare it down to the perfect three. Or when a writer clearly fought through an avalanche of killjoys to keep his or her favorite turns of a phrase from being thrown onto a trash heap.
Also, let’s not forget, words are cheap. I don’t mean that in the value sense. I mean a word is literally cheap. Though it may be awesome, an ad with a crazy visual solution that costs a fortune to produce can’t compete with the return on investment of a strongly written piece of copy. Just think about the budgetary frugality of Oreo’s “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark” tweet when the power went out during the 2013 Super Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Compare that with the attention it received—it was retweeted 10,000 times in one hour.
Because of the ever-increasing budget restrictions many clients place on us, we have to be more nimble with what we have. Sure, we all like huge budgets. (I love the heck out of them!) But in the more common case of a pint-sized budget, a stellar line or piece of copy is both very cheap and, often, just as effective. Great copy is the equivalent of an affordable all-you-can-eat Alaskan king crab buffet. It’s a lot of work and there are multiple hurdles—like shell fragments and the hot juice coating your tiny plastic bib—but your efforts will result in some big tasty chunks as a reward.
For the nonwriters reading this, I ask that you take off your headphones and pay attention. Art directors and designers: Have you ever told a writer, “Can you cut that copy down? It doesn’t fit with my layout.” I’m certain there were instances when your orders to the writer were necessary, but wasn’t there just one occasion—and you know which one—where you could have played around with the layout a little more to make a great line fit? No one is pointing fingers… or styluses… but think about it next time.
Writers are sometimes even told to be bad writers. Every writer has been instructed at some point, “You know, a few of those words are just too highbrow for our target audience. Can you dumb it down a tad?” That’s a tough one to hear. All good writers feel that if their ad forces just one reader to check a dictionary and learn a new word, they’ve succeeded at their job. We’re all trying to make Strunk and White proud.
For an example of a time when writing ruled, pick up any award annual from the ’80s. It was a writer’s paradise back then. Headlines were as common as Members Only jackets. Unfortunately, great writing is noticed and recognized far less frequently now. Part of the problem is the scarce supply of good writing assignments floating around. Writers are more likely to be struck by lightning while getting beamed up to a UFO than be handed a solid print or radio brief. Despite the fact that long-form writing has gotten more popular in the journalism world, no one seems to be asking for it in advertising.
Not that all great copy needs to be long. In most cases, it actually shouldn’t be. I’m not advocating for a deluge of words. A good writer needs to be a disciplined editor as well. Every word must pack a punch. In the digital age, short writing is king, and the master craftsman knows that writing can sparkle at any length.
So imagine you’re able to create something to be proud of—a piece of copy you can write with soul and passion. Well, it still has to sell to get produced. And we know clients kill all kinds of work, all the time. Most of your work never sees the light of day, as I mentioned in my column in CA’s July/August 2015 issue. So how are you supposed to get a great piece of writing produced in the first place?
Thankfully, there are still many on the creative side who do seek it out. And the more support we have to educate the writing grinches on why they should champion the words, the better are the chances for great prose to find its rightful place. Think of a time when you saw an ad containing a great line, then tore it out of the magazine to save—almost as if it didn’t belong there. It was too good for its media buy and deserved special recognition.
Those are the ads we should celebrate. Let’s show appreciation for the wordsmiths who overcame all the challenges by creating an award-winning series of solely copy-focused adulation. My proposal to Communication Arts is to be the trailblazer that every word slinger has longed for. This wouldn’t be an annual that you could quickly thumb through. You’d want to sit down and slowly enjoy each page, like savoring an issue of The New Yorker over a long period of time—but with more inspiration directly relevant to your job.
Recently, I began building a home for copy-focused genuflection at longlivecopy.com. I’ve been attempting to steadily contribute, but I could use your help. It’s difficult for just one person to comb the world of advertising in search of stellar writing. If there’s one standout example you’ve seen or written lately, please send it my way. Let’s find a home for the amazing writing in this business.
So how about it, Communication Arts? A CA Writing Annual in 2016? I’m signing up as the first judge. ca