Seller, Educator, Performer…and Writer

[September 17, 2010]

If you’ve gone into copywriting because you love to write, you may someday realize you’ve chosen the wrong path. Stripped of sugar coating, the profession boils down to a simple truth: The more narrowly you define yourself as “a writer,” the more likely you’ll drown in the whitewater thrill-ride of agency life. 

There are several reasons for this, but the most important is the common perception that “anyone can write.” People who believe that also believe a copywriter’s function is analogous to a carpenter’s. 

“Make it shorter,” one hears, “make it stronger,” make it:

• Faster
• Harder
• Hipper
• Punchier
• Wittier
• Sexier
• Sassier

…and my personal favorite, “more woman-friendly,” as if women belonged to a different species, spoke a different dialect than men, or worse, as if an essential delicacy required writers to type more softly when they wrote for women. 

With the whirlwind of contradictory impulses driving the copywriter to revise and revise and revise again, it’s easy to see why many talented creatives get swept into the backwaters of the business. Too busy to look up from Word, they shuffle from meeting to meeting, surviving only by virtue of their ability to edit out the most egregious violations of common sense—that “everyone who can write” wishes to impose on the text.

Shift your focus.
There is, however, a way off that treadmill. You must realize that the job is, fundamentally, not about writing at all. You must shift focus from “What words should I use?” to “What message will motivate my audience?” 

Instead of writing “catalog copy,” “retail copy,” “CPG Copy,” “pharma copy,” “brochure copy,” “envelope copy,” “banner copy,” “website copy,” learn all you can about the person you’re trying to move. Then with a clear vision of the target, create an underlying message platform. Why? Because real creative copy, like any other living organism, needs a backbone, a focal point for the central nervous system that will transmit a meaningful message from one real person to another.

But building such a platform—in concert with an Art Director who can see past the light box—is only Step One. 

Sell it…but not with words.
The next step is to sell this platform to the internal team. Terrific copy is a key component of success, but no more so than clean clothes or the absence of garlic breath. What counts is whether you can sell your message platform as a clear path to motivating consumers. But you won’t sell it with words. You’ll sell it with charm, humor, enthusiasm and drama.

Once the internal race is run, you’re ready to assume yet another role that, on paper, has nothing to do with being a “writer.” At the client presentation, your ability to sell needs an extra boost from your talent as an educator. 

Whether out of inexperience or an addiction to the role of Devil’s Advocate, clients typically can’t accept a creative idea on its own merits. Clients need context, numbers, competitive analysis—and reassurance that your concept is a considered response to the brief. While a strategist can create the backdrop, and an account exec can set up the lighting, only you and your visual partner can teach the client how to grasp your concept’s underlying drama. 

Finally, you must perform. Your presentation must embody your belief in the concept and your confidence in your team’s ability to bring it to life. 

Drop the mouse and back away from the keyboard.
And should you get the green light, that’s still not your cue to crawl back to the keyboard and pig out on prepositional phrases. You must help the Visual team create a visual environment that meets the demands of language. For if a picture is worth 1000 words, it’s still up to Copy creatives to ensure it’s the right 1000 words—the ones that teach consumers “the name of action.”

Seen from this perspective, “Copywriter” is a woefully inadequate job title. Yet, handed down as it is from an utterly different era, the title is only as limiting as the vision of the person wearing it.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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