Have marketers lost sight of the million-dollars-a-word value of copywriters?
Putting copywriters at the centre of problem-solving teams is key to generating ROI in a complex, multi channel environment, says Alex France.
It’s been 25 years since I got my first job as a copywriter. Even then, the name seemed anachronistic, something out of the pre-TV, pre-radio dark ages. But it was in common usage, and everyone in the industry – agency side and client side – knew and valued what we did.
Now, I’m not so sure
Over the past 15 years, the line between copywriter and other types of writer has become blurred, and entire departments of smart, ambitious marketers are missing opportunities and wasting money as a result. Copywriting is a skill set still understood and appreciated by an older generation of marketer. They know that in agency-land, for all the researchers, analysts, strategists, planners and suits involved in developing and refining a brief, it is the copywriters (with a nod to the contributions from our dishevelled comrades across the cubicle, the art directors) who get their heads around the whole thing, absorb and digest it and generate the real value – the customer-facing hypotheses we call ideas.
That generation has moved on, moved aside or moved up. Some now head the marketing departments of large organisations, concerned, no doubt, about the increasing complexity of the challenges their teams face, but remote from the day-to-day proliferation of suppliers and dilution of talent.
Meanwhile, many marketers who entered the industry since the late 90s have never had the opportunity to work with copywriters, and so do not understand the role, or the value we create.
The breakdown began with the consumerisation of the internet and the concurrent expansion of marketing’s sphere of influence. Waves of design, digital, experiential, social and other types of specialist talked
their way into the brand-sanctum, positioned the ad agencies as old-school, and successfully diverted budgets into their own areas.
Mainstream agencies responded to the threat by bolting on their own specialist arms, with advertising losing prominence in the service proposition. The leaders of these specialists never understood the copywriter’s role, and the skill set became lost among the proliferating roles and titles.
Meanwhile, the digital revolution had gutted the business model of the print media and hordes of hungry journos migrated into marketing to pay the bills. They found sustenance satisfying the soaring demand for content from clients expanding into new channels.
As a result, a generation-and-a-half of marketers have spent their careers dealing with specialist suppliers who have no understanding of the value of the copywriter’s generalist skill set – they don’t know what they’re missing.
They confuse copywriters with all those other writers (technical, PR, blogger, content creator, journalist, account manager with a spellchecker), assume all are equal, and expect no more of any of them than volumes of content to push into already choked channels, never pausing to ask if this is, in fact, a good investment.
I’d argue that marketers struggling to populate an ever-expanding range of channels with material, and those juggling multiple specialists across single projects, have never had a greater need for the copywriter’s skills.
You see, most writers are paid to write more. The copywriter’s skill lies in writing less.
If you are a journalist, used to an editor assigning you to write a story to a fixed word count, that is what you deliver. If you are in PR, churning out another release, you aim to fill a page or two. If you are a blogger, you write as much and as often as you can. For these writers, volume is expected, and rewarded.
All this contributes to the glut of content. No-one questions whether more content is needed, because volume equals income. Even the good stuff – because many of these writers are talented – is in surplus.
What’s the answer? Less. Actually, as any copywriter will tell you, less has always been the answer.
Copywriters don’t sell words by the kilo. We don’t set out with fixed quantities in mind, or quotas to fill. Where other writers use shovels, we use scalpels.
If copywriters got paid like journalists, Dan Wieden would have earned $3 for writing ‘Just Do It’.
The NSW Government spent – over a few years – upwards of $5 million promoting a single word that I uncovered during desk research and wrote into a series of radio, TV and outdoor ads targeting driver fatigue: ‘microsleep’.
This single word unified a multi-channel campaign, resonated – because it put a name to a shared experience – and crystallised a compelling motivator for behaviour change. It took a copywriter’s world-view, skill set and instincts to do that.
So here’s a suggestion for marketers who want better solutions to the challenge of generating ROI in a complex, multi-channel environment: put copywriters at the centre of the problem-solving team, brief them on the big picture, get them to define the storyline and then let the relevant specialists fall in behind.
You may find you get ideas of such simplicity, clarity and integrity that you no longer need to tick and fill all the boxes, and you can side-step the cost of duplicating the ‘me-too’ content your competitors are funding.
You might find that less is, once again, more.
Alex France is managing director and creative partner at Vitamin X creative.
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