14
Aug
11

Intellectual Assets: What Writers Need & Need to Ask For

[August 14, 2011] 

In many bee-busy agencies, to the extent that anyone focuses on the copy at all, they focus on output. “Is it done yet? Is it proofed? Is it approved?” Whatever the copy is, in this mindset, the only thing your colleagues want it to be is finished. 

In such an environment, no one’s concerned about what the copy actually says. That is, as long as its pedigree can be traced back to an approved source. That’s like saying you don’t care what color the paint is, as long as it comes from the right can. Not that you’d ever think of saying that to your interior decorator—let alone the guys at Liberty Painting

One by-product of this output-focused orientation is the dreary mediocrity that greets visitors to countless Web sites, openers of innumerable envelopes and oglers of thousands of hours of TV. Another is the almost total ignorance of what a writer needs to do the job right. 

This ignorance is particularly evident in the endless rounds of revisions that accrete to every project. It’s a snowballing effect that can begin as early as Round One, and usually starts no later than Round Three. Often, the first sign of trouble appears in client comments. You’ll find it in a scribbled marginal reference to an existing campaign. 

Of course, the fact that client comments are coming to you unfiltered, unexamined, in the form of scribbled marginal notes, is a sign of a deeper process issue that’s a topic for another time. 

Archaic, manipulative, insulting… 
Nevertheless, you’ll ask to see the existing material. And when the missing “asset” arrives, I’ll give you 10-to-1 odds it’s a shapeless blob of marketing treacle, dolled up to look like a print ad, brochure or even a set of Web banners. 

At this point, you have the unenviable task of squeezing it into your creative concept whether it fits or not—the concept the client approved without reference to existing material. 

And though this development also affects the art/design team, it’s the archaic rhythms and manipulative promotional style of the copy that offers the greatest “challenge”—as you struggle to edit text that would offend the intelligence of a rhesus monkey

Nor are matters helped by the toe-tapping impatience of your Account team, who can’t understand why this isn’t a simple cut and paste operation. The copy is, after all, from an approved source. What’s the problem? Ego? Narcissism? Oppositional defiant disorder

Hands over your ears, you soldier on. You negotiate enough wiggle room to bring the project up to the standard of Early 21st Century Blah—even if the ensuing back and forth eats up four to five additional rounds. You now have a shot at creating a functioning messaging platform that won’t bore your audience to tears. 

If killing your nights and weekends for six or eight weeks at a stretch to produce something merely functional is your idea of job satisfaction, I guess we’re done here. Otherwise, I’d like to offer a remedy, based on a simple realization. 

Your clients are inarticulate. That’s why they need you. 
We need to train our account executives to know there’s more to a brand message than the mechanical repetition of a tagline, benefit bullets and “a strong call to action.” 

They also need the expertise to dig deeper, to uncover the client’s true business goals, which in this case, perhaps, involves leveraging existing material in a misguided attempt to save money. Finally, they need to realize that a typical marketing manager, by training and experience, views consumer messaging not as a narrative, but as a patchwork of comfortable buzzwords. 

Equally important, creatives need to know when they have enough background information and when they don’t. Sure, no one wants to be the curmudgeon who points out the flaws in the game plan. But to start tunneling into a project with no knowledge of the mandates that govern your output is a soul-crushing waste of time. 

As a result, writers, you must demand not just the physical assets, but also the intellectual assets you need before you set to work—no matter how much harrumphing you get from Project Management. 

Because anything you don’t know now will surely erupt in Round 9, when your client’s CEO returns from vacation and asks, “What’s wrong with last year’s campaign—the one with the Penguins?” 


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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