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If I know in advance that few people will read this entire article, why should I sweat the details?

Imagine a conference session at next year’s Clio Festival, or perhaps an upcoming 'boards magazine creative workshop. In one room, the latest industry superstar is presenting on how we need to break down the walls of today’s media discussing how we’re all now in the pure ideas business, and what we need to do to win back the hearts and minds of clients.

The room is, of course, packed. The trade press and bloggers are front and center, breathlessly recording every word for an industry consumed with reading technology’s tea leaves, horny to determine the future of sponsored communications.

Down the hall, in a smaller room, a copywriter is talking about, yes, copywriting. Five people attend, four because they work for the poor guy and the fifth because the other session turned him away.

The war, you see, is long past lost. The alphabet is stone cold—copywriting is dead. People don’t read. Not your art director. Not your account director. Not your brother. Not even your client.

Sure, today’s print ads may still have body copy. But unless you’re working in Singapore or maybe Mumbai, it’s simply something that fills up that unsightly gap between the headline and the logo, often not even presented until after the campaign is approved and shot. Even then, at best, the production process might allow for a cursory look at a PDF, with someone on the client side hurriedly scanning the copy, with no expectations other than to ensure all the bullet points in the “reasons why” section of the Creative Brief are included.

A laundry list, as opposed to copy. Selling points strung lazily together by a series of ands and buts.

And, since laundry lists are easy to compile, you can’t blame a copywriter for defaulting to this course of action, rather than spending the hours it will take to properly craft an argument.

Taking the more difficult route might actually be the path to sanity.

Because frankly worrying about words, even if no one else seems to anymore, can be the one thing that keeps you going.

After all—as ridiculous as this question might be—isn’t it writing that made you want to become a copywriter in the first place? That act of putting one word in front of the other, trying not to trip, can remain the one constant in a career otherwise buffeted by technological change and the whims of clients.

Turning your office door searching for the perfect seven words to put on a billboard, or going home at night wondering about the opening line of body copy, is a struggle as comforting today as it was on day one. Even when you fail to sell the best campaign on the table, there are words that remain to be written. And you are free to throw yourself at them. Because if the client is no longer scrutinizing the copy, the good news is that you can likely sell your most artful effort.

Of course, when you do sit down to the task, the same relentless questions are there, waiting to be answered.

Is “perhaps” right for this client, or “maybe”? Should I use a dash or semicolon? Are three lines better than four? Should I succumb to the temptation of sentence fragments?

(And what about parentheses?)

True, this is hardly the stuff of the next lead story in Adweek.

Equally true, when you’ve finally wound the argument so tightly that there isn’t any room left for one more phrase, when all 50 or 550 words are working together (on the same page, as it were) to best articulate the brief, when every single comma is happy, there is little to mark the accomplishment.

It’s not as if you can run down the hall holding a paragraph aloft, sharing it like you might a sudden new killer tv concept. Rather, you quietly print it out, reading it one last time as you stumble away from the agency’s last black-and-white printer, knowing that it’s perfect, and not caring that you don’t even know why you know that it’s so. You slip the sheet to a colleague and return to your desk, hoping they find the time to politely read it before the art director dresses it up in font and kerning.

When the ad runs a few weeks later, when you’re long past wanting to read it anymore, maybe there will be that one person out of a thousand who does take the time to read the whole, bloody thing. (Late train, time spent waiting in the dentist’s office; one can only hope.)

And if they do, all those hours of sweat and anxiety are consumed in mere seconds.

But that’s perfectly fine. That’s the deal.

All along, you’ve suspected that if advertising’s various disciplines were to occupy offices, New Business would enjoy the corner suite with windows straddling both walls and the most expensive lamps; and Strategic Development, Media and Creative Direction would be right down the hall, jockeying for adjacency.

But Copywriting? It wouldn’t even rate a cubicle. In fact, it would be in the broom closet. No, make that the broom closet in the boiler room in the parking garage. Look around your agency. If there are 100 people, how many are asking you if the copy is as good as it could be?

Why would they?

Clients don’t come to agencies looking for wordsmiths. Search consultants intimate with every agency’s strengths couldn’t tell you which ones “write well.” Awards show judges are far too preoccupied looking for the next funny visual. And creatives’ bookshelves have far too many back issues of Lürzer’s Archive magazine to leave any room for Alastair Crompton’s The Copy Book.

And yet...

As dead as the craft might be, you still know in your gut that if you can find a way to take the reader from one selling point to the next without having them drop your hand and wander off, then you’ll have them. A provocative picture or funny joke makes them stop, but words insinuate themselves into the heart and mind. (Look, there’s that “heart and mind” phrase again.)

Try this the next time you’re working on print. Leverage whatever clout the copywriter title has at your agency to insist on a few extra days, then hide. Don’t worry about the fact that many of your colleagues won’t understand that you’re actually working. Hammer away at the Selling Proposition until it really is Unique. Throw away the thesaurus and all that marketing-speak and mission statement mumbo-jumbo, and make the product or company talk like a human being in a few sentences that can be read in the time it takes to travel in an elevator from the lobby to the twentieth floor.

Then invite the client into the boardroom. Read it aloud. Then read it aloud again. Ignore the others in the room who are looking around, bored out of their trees. Engage the client who lives this stuff, knowing they’re hearing their enterprise or product being described in a way they’ve always known to be true, but have never been able to articulate.

Maybe no one else in the room will see it, but a light will go on. This is the story they’ve been trying to tell. And there it is, finally on paper for the world to see. When they leave the boardroom, they’ll clutch these words greedily, like pirates receiving unexpected bounty.

Which raises an obvious question: When a client comes to realize the potential of copy, what then? Will they push the agency to heightened standards and, in turn, will the agency place a new premium on it? Unfortunately, when copy works, it isn’t noisy in the way a great ad campaign is. What follows is more subtle. After the ads run their course, maybe you see one of your phrases appear as a headline on the Web site, or hear another being used by the CEO to open a meeting.

Your words have become theirs. That, too, is part of the deal the copywriter strikes with the business.

Are today’s young copywriters interested in signing such a contract? When I look at portfolios, every student and junior writer has a few headlines, many visuals and, to make up for the general lack of body copy, one long-copy piece. But there is no joy in it. You can tell in how they present it, and how they’ve written it, that it’s there because a prof or CD has told them it’s something they need to do. Like eating broccoli. Invariably, when you actually read the entire thing in front of them, they’re surprised.

So. They’re not expecting anyone to read it, and they haven’t exactly embraced writing it. This is good.

Still, on the occasions I address a student group, and they lob the big unanswerables at me, like “What’s the biggest trend in the business?” or “What’s the future of mobisodes?” I gamely try to bring it back to the one thing I want them to get their heads around.

I say, take any number of ads from an awards book, complete with arresting visual, challenging concept and logo in bottom right. What if we added a few words beside that logo? Not enough to get in the way of the pristine art direction, or to deflate the idea by making it too obvious, but simply to introduce yet another layer. Three well-chosen words that might take the communication to a more resonant place?

But I can see that I’m losing them. And I really should know better. Because you can’t explain writing. And contrary to what the colleges are selling, you certainly can’t teach it.

It is what it is: a private act that no one wants to talk about.

So I switch gears and talk about the state of guerilla advertising, or some other topic that consumes them and the ad forums they frequent. Unenlightened, they go away, happy all the same.

I, on the other hand, leave diminished by the prospect of yet another class that isn’t deadly curious about language. About the one thing in the business that continues to provide me with the most satisfaction.

So it remains what it’s always been: A beautiful struggle to capture something on paper that is unyielding, that too few people will ever read.

Because writing is dead. ca

Editor’s note: Ernie Schenck is the contributing editor for the Advertising column and the author of The Houdini Solution: Put Creativity and Innovation To Work By Thinking Inside The Box.

Brian Howlett is partner and chief creative officer at Agency59, one of Canada’s most enduring independents. He loves many more aspects of the business than he hates and continues to actively write on a number of accounts. He is also chairman of the Advertising & Design Club of Canada. Prior to Agency59, Brian worked in Asia and the U.S. with a couple of the multinational omnivores.
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