The edge of copywriting

When I used to work in ad agencies and write TV commercials, people outside of the business would often ask, “So what part do you do? Do you write the words?”

I would then explain patiently to them that though I might have described myself as a copywriter, the remit of my job extended from understanding the client’s marketing objective, or on occasion problem, through helping my strategic planning colleagues to find an appropriate and inventive way to tackle this problem; and from there through taking responsibility for translating the ensuing strategy into an impactful, clear and arresting creative strategy and then executing that into powerful commercials whose plot, action, characters, situations, images, music, titles et al were all my responsibility (in partnership with whichever art directors I was collaborating with at that time).

Not only was that responsibility ours at the start, in our office, while nothing existed save for a blank script page. It was ours in pre-production, once an idea existed, but that idea needed to be found a director and a production company; it was ours on the shoot, where we were guardians not only of the integrity of our creative idea, but also of ensuring the delivery of those elements necessary to ensure the client of proper communication of not only his message, but also of his brand. Finally, it remained our responsibility in Soho’s cutting rooms and post-production suites, where a commercial is so often lost or made.

So my view is that ‘copywriting’ describes, at it’s broadest but yet most useful definition, the business of thinking through, organising and then presenting any information at all required to place a case before the world. It’s an advocacy skill, none too distant from that of a barrister. (I spoke recently to a provincial circuit barrister who told me that he frequently receives the file containing the details of the case he is to represent in court only the evening before appearing. Now if that isn’t the same as copywriting…what is?)

Why do I raise this now? Because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about where the edges of copywriting actually lie for each of us. Not just in our lives as marketing folk, but in our everyday and private lives, too.

In an age where everyone is an accomplished disseminator of communication messaging, all of us now need to ‘be’ copywriters, taking control of and responsibility for the messages we put out into the world.

But what are the limits of those messages? Do they, indeed, have limits? Let’s try out a few based on things I’ve done myself, or known friends to have done, over the last few weeks.

Was a recent financial restructuring that I wanted to organise, and which required me to present my intentions clearly and positively to several different organisations, a copywriting task? Yes. I believe it was. The same case, put together less carefully and presented less persuasively might well have had an outcome less in line with my objectives than was achieved.

Was a friend placing his profile on an online dating site (answering their questions, selecting a photo of himself to upload to their server) engaged in a copywriting task? Too right he was. He has a clear message to put across to a tightly defined audience, and every word he wrote, and each nuance of the photo he selected, would be picked apart by that audience in making a decision as to whether to ‘buy’ his offer or not.

Is a sixth form student engaged in a copywriting task when he fills out the ‘personal statement’ section of his university application? Yes again. Within an imposed limit of 500 words, his job is to convince admissions officers at the educational establishments of his choice that he is the kind of student they are looking for. All his achievements to date, interests and thoughts will count in his favour if presented cogently, or count for nought if hastily listed without any sense of purpose.

You need to complain to the council about services? Isn’t it a copywriting task to come across as a reasonable and responsible citizen with a fair-minded approach yet with, too, an intelligent insistence on what one knows to be one’s due?

You want to negotiate a pay rise, insist on a refund, explain away an indiscretion, explain to a child, mediate in a dispute, advance a cause, project a wholesome image on your Facebook profile or do any of the pile of other things we all need to do every day in the course of living our lives?

Well then, you need to be able to pull apart the facts, select the most salient (and sometimes, of course, only those beneficial to one’s case), and then present them with impact, guile, energy, seductiveness, persuasiveness or any of the other weapons of war we copywriters wear on our belts.