Great Copy, Part 7.

Sometimes you see a commercial that presents words in a way you’ve never quite experienced before. For example, The Man Your Man Could Smell Like for Old Spice, or the great Errol Morris Miller High Life campaign. Both stand refreshingly alone in terms of syntax, structure and language.

I think we can add the great work to that list:

Creating a unique voice is one hell of an achievement. It means you didn’t just come up with a new thing to say; you also came up with a whole new way to say it. How often does that happen? Not very.

But the copywriter Gavin Kellett (we should also mention the excellent art director, Nik Studzinski, who did so much to bring these words to life) managed an even greater feat: the spoken words can translate to the page, so when you read the press ad, you can still hear the crazy voice coming through loud and clear.

Let’s look at the details:

A headline that reads ‘I AM NOT YOUR BITCH’, but still makes complete sense with the ad.

A headline that’s actually the last line of the copy.

An opening that’s ridiculously intriguing: ‘He doesn’t even want these photocopies‘? Who? What photocopies? Why are you being so obtuse?

A story that doesn’t reveal its point or meaning until the very end, an end that you’ve already read, but found so strange that you decided to go back to the start and discover what the hell it’s on about. Most ads set up some kind of question right at the start, then answer it in the first sentence of the copy, using further words to beef up the sell. This one treats you like a cat, dangling the string just out of reach until it’s good and ready to reveal its intention. Ballsy stuff.

Talking of the story, that’s a pretty juicy narrative to fit into 80 words. You go from a photocopying errand to unhinged insanity in less than 30 seconds, before hopping over to that nice little punchline for A fine and rewarding journey.

Instead of paring things down to as few words as possible it repeats ‘Tell him’ five times. The tone of voice demands it, but another writer might have ended the piece at ‘Tell him you’re not his bitch’. Doing so would still make sense; it just wouldn’t be great.

So conventions have been broken all over the place in an edgy, funny, irreverent corporate communication that works far better than it has any right to.

And now you know: you may not be your boss’s bitch, but Gavin Kellett’s writing made you sit up and beg,

Going too far

Burger King got in hot water this week for this International Women’s Day ad.

If you can’t be arsed to read the copy it explains that most professional kitchens are led by men, so BK wants to address that imbalance with a female-centric recruiting initiative.

Under many other circumstances they might have been lauded for this provocative headline that enticed people to read about their effort to combat a sexist situation, but this was International Women’s Day 2021, a time to tread very carefully, so no matter how well intentioned or ultimately ‘helpful’ this headline might have been, it was also tone deaf, cloth-eared and click-baity.

And a reverse-Twitter pile-on followed, with the women who pointed out the cloth-eared-ness receiving sexist vitriol from some stupid men. So, inevitably, BK eventually admitted their mistake and removed the Tweet, while continuing to defend the initiative itself:

I find this interesting because I fully believe Burger King, from its Mouldy Whopper to its nice soft rebrand, is looking to become the nice guy of the fast food market. And they’ve done a good job of that thus far, with provocative ads that are underpinned by a consistently positive brand intention.

But they got this one wrong. And when you’re trying to be provocative, that can happen. Unfortunately, you don’t know how far you can go until you’ve gone too far, and that is what BK did. They went a touch too far on the provocation they thought would be required to get this ad and its initiative noticed. But working out the position of that line, even when it is constantly in motion, is an essential part of the job.

Back when I started at AMV I was given a range of Sainsbury’s ads to write. One brief explained that they did not sell bruised bananas, so I came up with a very provocative headline: ‘Sainsbury’s believes that it is right to discriminate on the basis of skin colour’. But you’ve never seen it because the only people (until now) who knew about it were me and my then-art director. We didn’t tell anyone else because we knew it was a wrong ‘un, whose correct destination was the bin. Even in 1998 it would have caused quite the shitstorm, and rightly so, but it would never have run because even if we”d shown it to our boss and he’d been insane enough to approve it, too many other people would have killed it before it reached the public.

I’m sure we’ve all thought of ideas, visuals and headlines that have walked that fine line between ‘provocative enough to be noticed’ and ‘too far – here come the pitchforks’. I recall an ad in the 1990s where a hostage was returned at a checkpoint. He was bundled into the back of his rescue car, whereupon he got all relieved that he could feel its lovely upholstery. (I just found the Campaign article about it, headlined: The expensive ad that was a lesson in bad taste – Both APL and Rover refused to see that hostages do not sell cars.) But I doubt the people involved were attempting to make a big ad for a boring car that would be incendiary enough to get banned. They just got the line wrong.

So it happens, and it’s clearly not a new thing. On one side the BK headline was obviously a bit too much for a lot of people, but on the other, many would say that the work our industry produces is too bland. And in the current world of social media, brands are even warier about putting anything out there that might scare the horses (unless they’re Brewdog, or anyone else who makes gratuitous provocation an essential element of their communications). The consequences are now too great, and the odds of crossing the number of Twitter accounts required to start a backlash are growing by the day. People understand social media gives them the kind of agency they did not have even ten years ago. Wielding that new power can offer quite a buzz.

So I guess Burger King needs to read the Twitter room a little more accurately next time, but I hope this incident doesn’t put them off future attempts at provocation.

We need to make stuff that gets noticed; it’s one of the fundamental parts of the job, and it’s becoming rarer because ‘too far’ is now in the eye of an increasingly unpredictable, noisy and powerful beholder.

I hauled myself up out of the ditch and built me an ark out of gopher wood and pitch. Sat down by the roadside and waited on the rain. I am the hunter of the weekend.

Best movie posters of the decade.

Separate the elements of your favourite song.

Have fun with maps and colours.

The origin of Nokia’s Snake (thanks, J).

Inside a Polar Bear den:

Great Copy, Part 6.

Yes, I’m shooting fish in a barrel again. But this is a series about great copywriting, so that’s what you get. I’ll find some more obscure stuff later, but in the meantime, let’s see what happens when a fly lands on your food.

Before Charles Saatchi was the county’s preeminent art collector (while I’m mentioning his good deeds, for balance I’ll remind you that he is also a famous wife choker), he was a damn good copywriter. Have a look at a few D&AD annuals from the late 60s and early 70s and you’ll find many examples of his brilliance.

But the finest is this one, and it’s an object lesson in how to write persuasive, impactful, memorable copy.

First off, it’s factual: ‘This is what happens when a fly lands on your food‘. He could have said,’This will turn your stomach‘, or something equally attention-grabbing, but it would have reduced the strength of the information. The facts are bad enough, so just get out of their way and present them, clearly and starkly, to the reader. Every additional attempt to be sensational would dilute those facts, so lesson one is, if you already have a rocket launcher there’s no need to stick a pea-shooter to the side of it.

Lesson two: use simple words. Aside from the very basic ‘probably’ and ‘usually’, the only one with three syllables is ‘excrement’, and it’s the right one because (see above), he’s being factual. Technically, ‘faeces’ is also correct, and shorter, but fewer people would understand it. This is an ad for everybody, so don’t shut anyone out with self-indulgent ten-dollar words that make you seem clever but make the ad seem more remote.

Of the 72 words, 57 are monosyllabic. That makes them easy to understand, but also helps the punchy, direct rhythm. Rat-tat-tat… it, stamp, suck… jab, jab, jab. There’s nowhere to hide from the relentlessness…

…Or the evocative descriptions: Good and runny, like a soft boiled egg, only, y’know, revolting; Stamp the vomit, a phrase you hoped you’d never have to read because now you can never forget it; Suck it all back again… Yes, like a vomit-and-fish-finger milkshake.

And let’s give a big hand to the repetition of vomit. Usually the aim is to avoid repeating outstanding words because doing that looks unimaginative and the repetition reduces the impact, but in this case, writing ‘vomit’ twice in eight words drives it home. (In addition, he couldn’t have just used ‘it’ because in the previous sentence ‘it’ refers to the food, so the extra ‘vomit’ is necessary to avoid confusion.)

Like all good stories it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and the end is the best part: And then, when they’ve finished eating, it’s your turn. Such a sardonic, caustic conclusion. You are in line behind the vomiting fly. It is in charge here, doing all sorts of disgusting things to your food until it decides that it’s finished, and hands the plate back to you. Are you really going to let it do that? In modern parlance, are you going to be a fly’s bitch? Or are you going to cover your food up, keep it hygienic and beat the fly?

Then there’s the non-endline endline. As we now live in a world populated by guff such as, ‘Tomorrow’s future, today’, or ‘Making progress together’, let’s appreciate a simple set of instructions that aren’t trying to be clever: Cover food. Cover eating and drinking utensils. Cover dustbins. So now you know what to do to prevent to prevent the vomit-stamp-suck described above. Clear? 100%.

While we’re on the subject of the non-endline, what about the non-headline? It’s 72 words long. Is it the headline or the copy? Yes. Can you stop reading? No. Is ‘This is what happens when a fly lands on your food’ the headline? Maybe, but it’s also the first sentence of the body copy, so you’re in, reading about fly vomit. Sorry about that, but as compensation, you’re also armed with a way of preventing this horrible situation from happening to you. Quid pro quo, Clarice.

And here we are, fifty years later, with every word still utterly relevant, presented in a layout you still can’t ignore, and written a style that would work perfectly on any one of the 18000 days that have happened since it first ran.

This is what happens when a genius writes your ad.

Green light, Seven Eleven. You stop in for a pack of cigarettes. You don’t smoke, don’t even want to. Hey now, check the weekend.

Kurosawa’s 100 favorite movies.

What would happen if a nuke went off in your area?

Type words; have pop songs sing them back to you.

A map of what’s musically popular around the world.

How Queen Elizabeth 1 locked her letters to the King of France:

David Bowie on not playing to the gallery:

The difference between acting on stage and acting in movies:

How Good Are You?

The other day I was reading this excellent dive into the nature, consequences and acceptance of mediocrity, and it got me thinking: when it comes to creative advertising, how do we know how good we are?

You might think such a thing can be (and often is) measured in awards, but even something so (kind of) objective isn’t exactly clear. How recently did you win them? Did you come up with the central idea? The endline? The choice of editor? The choice of edit? Was it for craft or concept? Did you only ever win in print? Does that make you worse? Better? Just different? Was it an easy year? Has your award-winner stood the test of time? Do your ’75 international awards’ include easier pickings like New York Festivals? Does a Bronze at Creative Circle really place you above someone who simply didn’t bother entering their work in an obscure category they might have dominated? Is a Graphic Design Silver at D&AD better than a Pet Food Digital Silver at Cannes? Remember when the internet was just getting going, and any shitty rich banner could win a Pencil?

And if you know how to game all those awards, to the extent that you win 20% more than the team next door that doesn’t care about them, does that make you better? What if you only win awards but are crap at pitches? What if you have many shiny prizes but have never made anything truly famous? What if you’ve made several truly famous things but won no awards?

What if you can only crack one in ten briefs, but when you do it you win every prize going? What if you manage a solid 7.5/10 on every brief? What if you’re always asked to work on pitches because you always win them, but your work never gets made, so you never win a single award?

What if you’re brilliant at creativity but shit at management? What if you win all the awards going but your start-up tanks? What if you’re too mercurial to and impatient to nurture younger teams? What if you’re amazing at developing juniors but shit at developing award-winning ads? What if you’re great at both, but you’re dreadful in client meetings?

We’ve all seen what my former AD used to refer to as ‘shit survivors’: the people who manage to rise through the ranks despite an absence of any discernible talent. Many of us have also seen hidden geniuses: the ones who consistently come up with the brilliant leaps of imagination but are poor at claiming the credit, selling themselves, or working out who or what could get them a raise or promotion. Being ‘good’ is a decent guide to career progression, but is no guarantee. Nor is being ‘shit’ a guaranteed impediment. Nor is being rude, mean, sexist, racist, or the owner of a pair of wandering hands.

A few years ago I worked with someone who was far and away the worst CD I’d ever met. He was awful at communicating, had dreadful standards, was pitiful at inspiring the people around him, and was basically a talentless, tedious, annoying arse (by the way, if you’re one of the CDs I’ve worked for over the last few years and think I’m talking about you, I’m not; I’ve slightly disguised the culprit, but he/she is 100% real). At one point at got so bad that, despite being in a freelance position, I actually complained to his boss, who explained that she was not going to do anything about him because everyone else liked him. Now, this was not true; every other creative who worked under him also thought he was a dildo, but the account people and strategists liked him because he was very adept at knowing on which side his bread was buttered, and how to ensure the butter was that lovely French stuff that has little salt crystals in it. Does that mean he was ‘good’? In a sense, yes; in another sense, no.

In many cases gumption is just as important as conceptual brilliance. A person that is good at getting things made and thinking up the things to make is incredibly valuable, but also very rare. But you might be more likely to find them in a team: the thinker and the doer, both equally essential. Is one better than the other? I think many of us would see the concept creator as the more valuable, but when it comes down to it, the gumption partner is just as important.

Teams can also be broken down into ‘brilliant creative’ and ‘brilliant PR’, the latter being the one who gets pally with the CD/traffic/Eliza at Creative Review and ensures that they not only get the best briefs, but also the opportunities to let the industry know about how they turned those briefs into great ads. Is one of these people better than the other? Indeed: both are.

Another essential skill is the ability to spot where the tide is going, and how to make the most of its motion. It might make sense to burn bridges and annoy people in the aim of winning awards earlier in your career, but then you have to be aware of what’s coming over the horizon. You want to stay at your agency even though they’re making staff cuts, so it might be better to be mediocre and popular rather than brilliant and disliked. And if you want to start your own agency, it might be harder to persuade a great account person and strategist to join you. Then again, if you don’t have enough good ads behind you, they might not care if you’re nice or not. So should you avoid heated arguments that make your ads 9/10 instead of 8.75? Impossible to say, but I can easily name brilliant creatives who were kicked to the kerb, and more mediocre ones that have climbed to the very top of the tree. Which was ‘better’?

So there you go. Nothing conclusive to help you in any way, but perhaps some food for thought. There’s no definitive good because the job, and advancing within it, requires many different skills and a bit of luck. So if you have yet to win a D&AD Gold or a Cannes Grand Prix, make your peace, scan that horizon, and find another path to whatever it is you’re looking for.

You might be much better at something that’s much better for you.

Here’s a little song I wrote. You might want to sing it note for note. Don’t worry, be happy. In every life we have some trouble, but when you worry you make it the weekend.

Frances McDormand interview.

Draw an iceberg and see how it would float.

Immerse yourself in the American Office.

The beauty of chrome car badges.

Search for film screenshots.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls:

Richard Foster: A Personal Tribute by Nick Bell

It would appear that one way of measuring the man (or woman) is by the calibre of people who want to mark his passing. In the case of Richard Foster, you can find Tony Brignull’s eulogy in Campaign, Paul Burke has added his to The Drum, and I now find myself in the position of hosting one from someone who worked under him, learned a lot, then took those lessons into the leadership of other agencies: Nick Bell.

Over to you, Nick:

A loving tribute to the man who helped make me.

Two things happened recently that moved me to write this.

First, I read Ben’s excellent analysis of David Abbott’s ‘Would you like to sit next to you at dinner?’ for The Economist.

Then, just a couple of days later, I received the awful news that Richard Foster, my immediate boss in my days at Abbott Mead Vickers, had died.

There are many people ahead of me in the queue to write about Richard – friends, peers and colleagues who were closer to him and who knew him better.

But just as when David died in 2014, I have been feeling a significant sense of loss these last days – the loss of a man who profoundly influenced not just my career but also my life.

And so I want to pay my personal tribute to Richard.

Not just Richard the outstanding writer who, together with his long-time creative partner John Horton, created so much outstanding work, including not a few excellent Economist executions.

But Richard who gave me my break at one of the world’s greatest agencies and who, through his guidance, so informed what I was able to go on to do.

Richard hired Greg Martin, my art director partner, and me in 1987.

We had been working for Mick DeVito and Derek Day at the then Ted Bates and, with Mick and Derek resigning to set up their own agency, we were desperate to get out.

We would have been happy to take a pay cut from our lofty £13,000 a year salaries to work at Abbott Mead Vickers but when Richard called to offer us the job, he also offered us a rise to £18,000.

Heady times!

But as much as it felt an achievement to secure a job at the great AMV, Greg and I soon realised the hardest part was still to come.

As well as being, beside David of course, the most talented writer in the agency, Richard and his art director John Horton were one of three Group Head partnerships in the creative department (they call them creative directors these days).

Richard and John took this responsibility, like their work, extremely seriously.

And Greg and I were about to find out just how seriously.

We had been fortunate enough to be granted places in the AMV creative department and in Richard’s and John’s group, now we had to prove we were up to it.

And for me, a so-called writer in a ‘writer’s’ agency, this meant being under the exacting wing of one Richard Foster.

There are so many stories I could relate that would give a sense of what it was like at that time for an aspiring young writer to work into Richard.

I’ll share two.

Within weeks of joining AMV, Greg and I wrote a press ad that subsequently made its way into the D&AD annual.

It talked to the durability of a Volvo car and was a picture of a guy getting into his Volvo outside the Stock Exchange accompanied by the headline ‘The clever money is in galvanised steel.’

Richard and John liked the ad, David liked the ad and so did the Volvo client.

It was going to run – whoopee!

But first, I had to write the copy.

This I did or rather thought I had until our next review with Richard.

Proudly offering him a sheet of typed A4, I breezily declared ‘Hi Richard, I’ve written the copy for the Volvo ad.’

Affording my effort his consideration, Richard soon lifted his eyes from the paper to me and replied simply ‘No, you haven’t’.

It was in this moment that I began to learn the standards I was going to have to live up to if I wanted to survive, let alone thrive at AMV.

And it was in this moment that I was first introduced to Richard’s red felt tip pen.

This pen was to become very familiar to me over the ensuing months and, in those early days, worked hard on my behalf.

On this first outing, by the time Richard had deployed it to eliminate anything he didn’t like there wasn’t actually any type left visible.

And as John and Greg slunk away, Richard spent fully ten minutes explaining to me that the drivel I had served up was woefully short of the standard of writing expected at AMV.

Richard explained how to construct a reasoned argument with a beginning, a middle and an end.

He pointed out the virtue of fact over supposition and waffle.

He taught me how to make one paragraph flow inexorably into the next.

And he suggested I spend some time with the Volvo and Sainsbury’s guard books.

Suitably chastened but highly motivated, I spent the next three nights holed up with said guard books and at my typewriter. 

(No Macs yet, of course.)

I pored over David’s and Richard’s famous ads.

I read and re-read their copy.

Their writing was so simple.

It seemed so effortless.

But as I came to understand, the appearance of effortlessness requires an enormous amount of effort.

I think it was fully seven or eight revises later that my copy was finally approved by Richard.

I was exhausted but elated.

Over the ensuing months, many more of my offerings were subjected to trial by red felt tip pen.

And then one day something miraculous happened.

Greg and I having had a double page spread for Sainsbury’s approved,

I wrote the copy and, now with improved confidence, was ready to submit it for Richard’s appraisal.

As ever, Richard gave what I had written his serious attention.

And then, looking up at me from his seat, he handed my sheet of A4 back to me and simply said ‘ Yeah’.

Those who knew Richard will know that his ‘Yeah’ was actually more of a deep ‘Yuuurhhh!’ and communicated, as succinctly as was possible, his approval.

It is difficult to convey how much of an achievement that moment felt.

In a few months I had been on an important journey.

I had listened, applied myself, learned and improved immeasurably.

A lot of young creatives today might well consider all of this quaint.

I’ve heard it – ‘What does it matter? It’s only body copy for a press ad.’

But this misses the point.

In my early days at AMV and with Richard’s guidance, it wasn’t just how to write a piece of copy that I learned.

I learned the virtue of simplicity, of discipline, of being succinct, of clear thinking, of standards, of excellence, of taking pride in everything you do and, yes, of the appearance of effortlessness.

I said I’d share two stories.

If you’re still on board, here’s the second.

Approaching Christmas one year, Greg and I were briefed to announce in a full page national press ad that Sainsbury’s, for the third year in succession, had been voted ‘Wine supermarket of the year’.

Our job, essentially, was to make a simple statement of fact interesting, eye-catching, witty perhaps in order to stand out and be memorable.

I cannot imagine how many ideas we showed Richard and John but concept after concept was rejected.

What we thought perfectly good ideas were deemed not to be so by our demanding group heads.

And then, to ramp the pressure up just a little, Richard announced to us that if we didn’t crack the brief by the time of the creative department Christmas lunch, we wouldn’t be going.

Greg and I were not sure whether Richard was serious about this but it certainly focused our minds.

For young creatives in the department, the Christmas lunch was not to be missed.

It was a chance to rub shoulders with the seniors, to have a few drinks (a few?) and a lot of laughs.

Nevertheless and despite our best efforts, as the day drew near we still hadn’t come up with anything that met with Richard’s approval.

The day itself arrived.

Surely Richard wouldn’t follow through on his threat.

Well, he certainly kept a poker face and as people began to get their coats on Greg and I were feeling mortified.

Suddenly, the department was empty save for one young creative team staring at blank layout pads.

And then – wham! – it came.

Remove the letter ‘e’ from wine and what have you got?

Imagine a mythical mahogany door deep in the corridors of Sainsbury’s head office.

Individual brass letters screwed into the mahogany prestigiously spell WINE DEPARTMENT.

But somebody has cheekily removed the ‘E’, leaving just visible the outline of where it had been.

Under this visual runs the simple, factual headline ‘For the third year running, Sainsbury’s has been voted Wine Supermarket of the Year’.

Breaking the world record for scamping up a layout, Greg committed it to a cardboard tube and we legged it down to the Halepi restaurant in Bayswater.

Bursting through the door, we sought out Richard who looked surprised to see us.

Unsheathing our layout, we spread it on the table over his Dolmades and Kleftico.

I cannot be sure but I think I remember Greg having the balls to announce ‘We’ve cracked it, Richard’.

As so many times previously, our submission was afforded due consideration before Richard looked up at us, smiled and said ‘Siddown’.

I think it fair to say Greg and I got very, very drunk that afternoon!

So what’s all this about?

Why am I sharing these stories?

Again, some might feel all of this unnecessary – a little too hard, perhaps.

Well, I can tell them for an absolute fact that they would be wrong.

Because there is not a doubt in my mind that if it hadn’t been for Richard’s  tough schooling and the standards he set me in those early days, I simply would not have been equipped to enjoy the career and achieve some of the things I have.

And don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t all hard yards and deadly serious.

Greg and I had some great times and laughs with Richard and John.

And they would give us huge credit when we’d earned it.

I remember Richard appearing in the doorway of our office one day.

He’d come back from D&AD judging and he was both proud and thrilled to tell us that work we had created had got ‘in the book’.

When I finally left AMV in late ’95 to take the opportunity of joining Leo Burnett as a creative director (group head in old money), in no time I began to truly value everything I had soaked up at AMV.

Honestly, the difference between the two agencies at that time was like falling off a cliff.

But I had a fierce resolve that all the hard yards and learning were not going to be wasted.

I was determined not to compromise on the standards that had become a part of me in my time at AMV.

A number of people inspired me in my time at this wonderful agency.

David, of course, with the tone he created for the entire agency and with the example he set every single day.

My partner, Greg, who frankly was better than me when we teamed up and when we won our jobs at AMV and who I was lucky to be teamed with in the first place.

Tom Carty and Walter Campbell who hit the agency like a tornado and inspired me not just through the work they created but with their work ethic, their friendship and their humanity.

And, of course, Richard.

So much of my learning came directly from Richard – from the standards he set me and the guidance he gave me.

In subsequent years I would bump into Richard at industry functions.

On these occasions he was unfailingly generous and complimentary.

‘We love your McDonald’s work’.

‘How the fuck did you get that Heinz Salad Cream campaign through?’.

‘Nick, your Smirnoff commercial is brilliant’, followed of course by a forensic breakdown of exactly why he thought so.

I last saw Richard a couple of years ago at a drinks reception in an art gallery off Piccadilly.

Inevitably, once he and I got together we talked too much shop.

Not for the first time, Richard told me how proud he was of the work I went on to produce both as writer and Executive Creative Director.

And not for the first time, I told him what a critical part he had played in this.

And then, just a couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Richard addressed to many of his friends from AMV.

I was shocked and deeply upset to learn that Richard was terminally ill.

I wrote to him.

I told him that if he still had his famous red felt tip pen, I’d be grateful if he would run it through every line of the copy he’d sent us.

Because, I explained, it was the only thing he’d ever written that I didn’t like.

Rest in peace, Richard.

And thank you for everything you gave me.

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.

Great Copy, Part 4

Art Director: Hy Yablonka/Tom Pfahlert,
Copywriter: Steve Garey, Photographer: Greg Booth.

I only came across this ad a couple of weeks ago. My former boss, Duncan Milner, had commented on a LinkedIn post that it was the one that made him realise he wanted to work in advertising.

I took one look and immediately understood why. What a headline. Could you ignore it, especially with that incredible image underneath? No. You’d have to read on and discover who had decided to idolise a pimp and why.

I had a dig around online and tracked it down to this exhaustive Chiat/Day blog, which said it was from 1969, which might explain the line, ‘You see a guy with a chick on each arm, a $200 custom suit, and you say: “Man, I’m going to be just like him…”

But I’m willing to bet that very few of my UK readers are aware of it. In those days most advertising awards were not as international (and homogenised) as they are now, so you got work that was full of local flavour, like this one, written for an LA charity about an LA situation by an LA agency.

And it’s not just the headline. The copy is full of the perfect amount of righteous indignation, understanding the kids and blaming the circumstances, including the people behind the ad. That’s unusual, and unusual things that make sense are more likely to stick in the mind.

There’s a deft turn where, without you noticing, ‘you’ stops referring to the kid and starts referring to the person reading the ad. That takes good writing. As does the ending, where it says, ‘if the little reward we can offer you isn’t enough reason, maybe this is:’, then slides in 42 more conditional words before giving you the ice-cold conclusion: ‘when you were eleven years old you never dreamed of being a pimp’.

It also uses great specificity beyond the geographical location. The amount of money, what that money will be used for, the fact that it’s tax deductible… This isn’t just ‘please donate and your cash will fund a giant corporate charity’; you can now visualise the good things your contribution will bring about: sports gear… to help kids… find some constructive purpose… instead of becoming people who beat up prostitutes for money.

It’s a well-worked, well-rounded, engaging argument that leads you from the dismal situation suggested by the headline to the rational reasons why Direction Sports can do something about it.

I don’t know how many 50-year-old ads still hit this hard, but I think if this ran full-page in a newspaper tomorrow it would generate a lot of conversations and donations.

Maybe just take out the reference to emulating OJ Simpson.