There’s a lot of pressure for copywriters to be creative, and for advertising in general to be original. In my experience there’s a gap between writing creatively and writing effectively, hence I’ve got two websites. But a little section on Ogilvy on Advertising got me thinking about this in more detail, and I want to discuss the differences between copywriting and creative writing.
What does it mean to write creatively?
On my business card I’ve got copywriter on one side and creative writer on the other. I have the temptation to tell people I’m a creative copywriter, because I can fulfil these two roles. What I really mean is that I can write copy for businesses and that I can write to entertain. I could write entertaining copy, of course, but that’s not the primary purpose of copywriting. Copywriting is there to achieve a particular purpose, calling a reader to action. Creative writing provides entertainment; the reader is supposed to enjoy the writing, it’s not engineered to make them purchase it. Enjoyment is the commodity, and the writing itself doesn’t sell that. Certainly if you’re selling a novel then a degree of creative writing might be part of advertising copy, but for pretty much all other products enjoying the writing is not going to be a major selling point.
In copywriting, entertainment may build a brand image but it won’t sell on its own. The creative component is in relating that image to the reader, in demonstrating how the product fits into their life. It doesn’t have to be flamboyant or energetic, it just has to be relevant. It doesn’t even have to be that original.
Writing original copy
Originality is often synonymous with creativity, but the quest for finding the next new thing can easily muddy effective writing. There’s no sense in aiming to do something differently when what already exists works; if you do it well enough, it’ll seem brilliantly original even if its actually not. A great deal of Shakespeare’s writing can be traced to earlier stories, and Mozart is quoted as saying “I have never made the slightest effort to compose something original.” The key is not doing something original, but doing it well.
One of the first things I learnt to do at my previous job, where I wrote countless reams of presentations and marketing proposals, was to compile an archive of template texts that could be easily customised for future use. One of the first things I learnt working as a journalist was that most news stories are simply spun from whoever got the initial scoop. A lot of the writing I do for clients now has little original content save that the ideas are taken from a variety of existing sources. None of this is laziness or hack writing, it’s simply a matter of being efficient and knowing what is necessary to get the job done. A copywriter who strives to be creative by being original is in danger of attempting to reinvent the wheel.
So what is creative copywriting for me? Taking that information and making it work. Making it readable, making it appeal on the correct level, correctly considering the market and audience. The nature of the writing itself, the fanciness and originality of the text, is not what makes it sell. Its the relevance and accuracy of the message.
Incidentally, however quickly I learnt these lessons in writing copy and journalism, the idea that originality in writing is a potential minefield is something that took me much longer to learn with creative writing. I’d written somewhere in the regions of 12 novels before I got the stage that I was happy with one I could actually sell, and the reason that one appealed was not because it was highly original and creative, it was because it took a familiar theme and did it well.
“If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative”
And that’s the crux of creative copywriting. Not all creative writing is designed to sell, but all copywriting should be. The above heading is a quote from the Benton and Bowles agency, also taken from Ogilvy’s book, and its accompanied by another from Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates agency:
Do you want masterpieces? Do you want glowing things that can be framed by copywriters? Or do you want to see the goddamned sales curve stop moving down and start moving up?
Ogilvy also makes note of the Clio Awards, which honour creativity in advertising, and showed how almost half of the highlighted winners had actually ended up losing their contracts. Why? Because their idea of creativity was not in line with what sells the product.
This article itself is basically taken from that small section about creativity in Ogilvy’s book. These are really his ideas and his quotes, and they were put to paper 30 years ago by him. And compiled from ideas he was using for decades before that, ideas that were successful in the Mad Men era. And they’re still true today. Beware the concept of creative copywriting: it should never be about trying to do something new, it’s should always be about doing it right.