Great Copy, Part 5

This makes me laugh every time I read it.

There are times when I’ve had to sing Happy Birthday to myself to remember my own name.

Old what’s-her-name in the corner with the acrylic jumper and mohair face.

Even if your typing speed is measured in minutes per word rather than the other way round…

It’s that wonderful rarity: a very long copy ad in the D&AD annual that’s actually worth reading (come on, have you ever really ploughed through 1000 words about a boot?), all the way down to the bottom of the coupon, where you’ll find something daft about stamp collecting.

The writer took a dull brief and made it into something far more enjoyable than anything printed in whatever newspaper it appeared in.

Although I would like to explain why it works so well by using forensic analysis of specific words and phrases, that process doesn’t really hold up here. It’s just a spoof of those ‘Get a great memory in days!’ ads that appeared with tedious regularity back in the 1980s, but with an enormous amount of product spec woven in amongst the excellent gags.

That’s it.

Funny writing is great writing because it’s so hard to do well, but so memorable (appropriately enough) and engaging on the rare occasions anyone manages to pull it off. When did you last read something properly funny from anywhere in the advertising industrial complex? Not a TV or radio ad, where the performance and visuals can boost some so-so writing; I mean a print ad where there’s nowhere to hide?

In researching this ad I emailed its writer, Kevin Baldwin (erstwhile generator of mean things for Anne Robinson to say on The Weakest Link), who had the following insights to share:

When I joined Cogent Elliott in Solihull during the 80s – my first proper agency job – the place was already producing really nice work on the Epson account, mainly created by a talented writer called Jim Mulligan. (Jim made the move to London before I did, but seemed to disappear fairly soon after that – the young art director he moved with, Paul Brazier, hung around on the London advertising scene rather longer.) It wasn’t a long-copy campaign – rather, a series of clever one-offs – but as a junior writer I felt rather daunted by the quality, and I remember being nervous when a brief for the next execution somehow ended up on the desk I shared with my then art director Martyn Dean. How it came to us, I’m not sure – maybe Jim was on holiday that week.

Anyway, the brief was for a computer printer to be used in offices, and its main selling point was the high quality of its output. The ad that resulted was ‘Fifteen ways to sharpen up your business letters’ – with fourteen examples of witty letter-writing, and of epistolary howlers to avoid, with the Epson printer as number fifteen. That ad was a bugger to write for a number of reasons: 1) I’d never written a long-copy ad before; 2) finding the examples of clever letters was hugely difficult in those pre-internet days, and I had to do a lot of hunting around in various Birmingham libraries (kids today don’t know they’re born, etc etc…); and 3) there wasn’t a lot of time to put it together. Two things helped, though – a David Abbott ad headlined ‘How to write for The Economist’, which was a selection of style tips which could have been very dry to read but obviously wasn’t in his hands, and the old Parker Pen ads written by Tony Brignull. For that first execution, I basically tried to mimic their tone of voice in those ads.

The ad was well received, but at that point it wasn’t clear that it was going to be the starting-point of an ongoing long-copy campaign. We thought it was probably just going to be another one-off.

Then we got a brief for another printer. The proposition this time was its speed – painfully slow by today’s standards, but back then an ink-jet printer which could produce two full pages of type in a minute was considered an ink-jet sprinter. (You see the path the ad could have taken there…) We came up with a DPS which was just solid type, to demonstrate the printer’s output in sixty seconds – and without planning to, realised we’d come up with another long-copy execution. The tone of the writing was different in that second ad – it was much more silly and playful than the first, as the joke was that we were just trying to fill up the two pages with any old nonsense. Looking back, it set the tone for the playfulness of the ‘Super-powerful memory’ ad later on.

That ad got more attention from the first, and one of the DJs on Radio One (unfortunately I can’t remember which one) actually read out some bits of the copy on air. We suspected we might be on to something with a long-copy approach – and then someone from the planning department pointed out the bleeding obvious, which despite its obviousness hadn’t occurred to Martyn or me, that a campaign which effectively celebrated the printed word was perfect for a range of printers.

After that, it was clear that a long-copy campaign was the way to go on the Epson account. (Sorry, Jim.) After one more DPS execution in the Sunday supps, the media plan switched to full pages in the broadsheets, which felt like the natural home for the campaign. The ads ran more regularly and picked up something of a following; we even got fan mail from readers of the ads, which is something I’ve never experienced since. I mention that not to show off (well OK, maybe a bit), but in anticipation of a point I’ll come to shortly.

Each execution was devised around a particular feature of the printer we were promoting – a quiet model led to an ad about the taciturn US President Calvin Coolidge, for example – so when we got a brief for a PC with a (then) powerful memory, we took the same approach. Even though the ad was to be for a PC rather than a printer, we thought it would be silly not to stick with the long-copy approach as it was going down so well.

So – how could we talk interestingly about memory in a long-copy format? What hook could we hang the ad on?

The answer was there on the front of all the broadsheet newspapers which our ads were running in (usually the bottom-right corner of the front page). There was a direct response ad which had been running for years, offering a way to improve your memory. Every reader knew it, everyone had read it – and better still, the copy had a set-up and a style which was a dream to parody. It featured an exchange between two characters, one of whom astonished the other by his ability to remember names, places etc. The ad always featured a picture of a grey-haired man looking composed and pensive – so that was ripe for mickey-taking too.

Thus, the ‘Super-powerful memory’ ad was created. We picked apart every aspect and angle of the copy and wove as many daft jokes as we could around it – even down to the coupon at the end. It wasn’t intended to be a direct-response ad, and we didn’t expect people to return the coupons for more information (though many did) – it was just that because the ad we were lampooning had a coupon, we need to incorporate one as well to see it through to its conclusion.

We knew exactly who we were writing for. We were getting enough feedback to know that we’d built up something of a following among the broadsheet readers – and even if they weren’t all actively looking for the next ad in the series (as some said they were), they knew and enjoyed the style and approach of the work by then. And as mentioned, the ad we were parodying ran so often then that they would definitely have got the joke. We were just trying to entertain the audience we knew we built up by then, and in doing so to make them feel better-disposed towards Epson as a brand.

That was our ultimate aim, of course. Computer printers were (and I guess still are) cold, uninteresting-looking pieces of functional equipment with little to differentiate them. We wanted to make people feel warmer towards Epson by entertaining them. And it translated into sales.

There were even times when the campaign had to be paused for a few weeks because Epson couldn’t ship over product quickly enough to keep up with demand.

The only other point I should mention is that the Epson campaign was probably the only time in what might laughingly be called my career that the client gave the creative team free rein to do what we liked. They saw quickly that the work was working, and just stood back to let us get on with it. At that fledgling stage, I assumed that pretty much all clients would be as hands-off as that, and respect the agency enough to go with their recommendations in full.

Little did I know that it would never happen again. And little did I know I would never write a campaign as successful as that again.

Thanks, Kevin, for both the ad and the background.