Uniquely Similar / Similarly Unique

[January 29, 2010]

Between the kickoff meeting and the final round a series of subtle shifts occur in the basic premise of a project’s copy development. What begins as a loose set of parameters becomes increasingly specific as, step-by-step, the amount of required content expands.

I suppose this is partly born out of a collective inner dialogue that runs something like this:

Hey, it’s just another project and we’re all professionals, right? Let’s not sweat the details! We’ll deal with them when the time comes, when VP X gets back from vacation and SVP Y comes off jury duty. And, really, why reinvent the wheel?

So the meeting adjourns and everyone walks away from the table with, unknowingly, a completely different idea of how the copy will read. So seductive is this collective mindset that these differences can take several rounds to surface. If your client or Account Director is a member of the species toplinicus cannotdealiensis, the camera flash of last-minute realization may be delayed even further.

Categorical imperative?
I don’t think so. The source of the trouble? Unexamined expectations, arising from the mistaken belief that every product category has one and only one appropriate copy style. The arcana of genre rules extends to every product and service category. For many people, following them is the very essence of the copywriter’s craft. Given category A and deliverable B, copy style C is inevitable, n’est pas?

Ironically, however, the one thing common to every kickoff meeting is a request for a fresh, original approach. Taking the request to heart, an earnest Copy Creative creates a new voice for the project, complete with a carefully selected vocabulary and a custom-crafted grammar to move the key points of the engagement at just the right rhythm.

Yet, how quickly the Gods of Practice exact their terrible punishment: A searing hot boilerplate of mechanical sales ploys. The fact that none of this imposed language conforms to the stated intent of the creative brief is apparently irrelevant. And so begins several agonizing rounds.

On a scavenger hunt for meaning.
Regrettably, there’s still a larger issue at stake. Because when Copy goes through so many rounds it also means there’s also no basic agreement about the underlying message to consumers.

In a way, it’s easy to sympathize with all the players in the drama. Messaging strategy is an abstract expression of the brand’s identity. If your clients are conflicted about that identity and lack the skills to articulate it clearly, they can only resort to a continual process of writing and revision until—somehow—it just feels right.

The resulting set phrases, hammered out at such a cost, quickly become objects of unquestioning devotion.

What part of “insight” don’t you understand?
All the same, I have to ask: Of what use is your MBA in Market Research if your fresh insights are reduced to commonplace statements, handed down from generation to generation?

Or, in the words of the Bard,

Worn out phrases and longing gazes
Won’t get you where you want to go, no!
Words of love, soft and tender
Won’t win her

You oughta know by now
You oughta know, you oughta know by now…

The power of language is a terrible thing to waste by writing drivel. It’s time to set it free to motivate, inspire and win consumer trust—openly, honestly, as one flawed creature to another.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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