Why Future of Industry Isn't About Making Ads

Excerpt From New Book 'The Idea Writers' by Creativity Editor Teressa Iezzi

By Published on .

Launching December 7, "The Idea Writers" offers an in-depth look at the state of copywriting and brand creativity in today's marketplace. With insight on creative process and campaign development from the industry's leading creatives, the book provides solid advice for copywriters at all levels. It also provides a detailed examination of the changes that have completely remade the advertising industry, and is a useful guide for anyone looking to understand brand creativity today. "The Idea Writers" is the first book from Creativity Editor Teressa Iezzi.

If we've got this right, copywriters today are storytellers, conversation keepers, curators and inventors. They are idea generators, executors and technology savants.

On any given day, depending on where and for whom they work, these new masters and mistresses of brand creativity and engagement might be writing a script for a web film, orchestrating a transmedia story or conceiving and helping to develop an app. They might be inventing a way for an automaker to contribute to the conversation on conservation by creating an application to encourage efficient driving; they might be working with a handful of top young artists to create a giant Times Square billboard for a retailer and then repurposing that billboard into limited edition handbags; or they might be coming up with commands to give to a chicken. It's a veritable creative wonderland out there.

But an explosion of creative opportunities doesn't mean copywriters can escape the scourge that has faced writers from the dawn of written expression: the blank page.

With each new project, today's copywriter shoulders the same burden of expectation that has bent every ad creative for the past 150 years and stares into the same yawning void that no three midday martinis could ever fill.

So you're some kind of copywriter, faced with some kind of assignment. What do you do? Where do you start?

First of all, forget about making an ad
In the seminal copywriting book "Hey Whipple, Squeeze This," first published in 1998, Luke Sullivan noted: "When you sit down to do an ad, you're competing with every brand out there."

That was and remains partially true in the sense that you certainly aren't just competing with Brand A's main rival, Brand Z. You are competing with every other brand vying for a share of a consumer's money and attention.

But today, as a copywriter or other brand-creativity maestro, you're not just making something that will compete with other brands and with other messages created by brands. You're making something to compete with every other piece of content, every other media experience that a person has during her waking hours. So you are charged with making something that stands on its own as a worthwhile thing for a person to engage with, brand or no brand. It's just that, at the same time, you also have to make the content or experience work for the company or brand involved.

"We moved our goalposts," says Dave Bedwood, creative director and co-founder of U.K. digital agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine. "There is no point making advertising that is better than other advertising; that is not your competitor for people's time. You are up against all of the things they want to watch and read, the content they are seeking out. We are under no illusion that we can suddenly make popular content that is as good as '24' or 'Lost' or write long copy that is as good as Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, but if that is the goal, then your work has a much better chance of making an impact with your audience."

Yes, there are more ad messages to compete with. We're talking about brand ubiquity -- more messages, more logos, more general brand presence over more channels. At some point over the past several years, you've likely seen some sort of quantification of the noise level in the ad environment; in a 1998 magazine article, marketing guru Seth Godin tossed out 3,000 as the number of ad messages the average American is exposed to in a day. That number has been regurgitated in countless articles and news segments spanning about 10 years. More recently, the number 5,000 has been thrown around.

Is it 3,000? 5,000? Or more like 300 or 50,000? And what counts as an ad message? An actual ad? A logo? Strolling by product labels in the supermarket? Well, it sort of doesn't matter because those numbers are at best only a part of the story and at worst a red herring when you're thinking about the challenges of making something relevant for a brand and a consumer. The above numbers are insufficient to describe the shift in behavior that has accompanied the rise of the internet and the widespread adoption of broadband.

This increase in brand presence has coincided with a decrease in available uninterrupted attention as the internet ushered in the age of multitasking. And yet more significant, the explosion of branding has coincided with the age of the empowered media consumer, the media consumer who is also now a media producer.

If you're under 35, if you're watching TV at all, you're often also doing at least one other thing (texting, talking, "co-viewing," i.e., commenting on the show you're watching via Twitter or other social service) with at least one other screen. Much has been made of the effects of internet-enabled distraction on human cognition and culture. In his book "The Shallows," Nicholas Carr warns of the brain-softening effects of the internet -- as people grow accustomed to consuming smaller bits of information, each interrupted by the next, we lose the kind of deep thinking and "deep reading" that was associated with offline reading, aka reading books.

Carr says: "We want to be interrupted, because each interruption brings us a valuable piece of information. ... And so we ask the internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive. Tuning out is not an option many of us would consider."

For every writer and theorist who proclaims that the "internet is making us dumb," there are others who say digital culture is, arguably, shaping better brains and encouraging what could be viewed as more positive societal behavior. In the 2010 book "Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age," New York University Interactive Telecommunications Program professor and author Clay Shirky notes the astounding figures on TV consumption: Americans consume 200 billion hours of TV a year; someone born in 1960 has already watched 50,000 hours of TV. Shirky talks about the vast potential the damned distracting internet has created -- as people shift from being passive consumers of media (from watching TV, and ads) to being creators and participants (contributing to Wikipedia, making and posting videos to YouTube, creating Facebook groups and blogs).

There's a lot more to say and much that can be debated about kids today and why Jayden can't read the Cliff Notes on "Moby Dick," never mind the novel. The point here is to determine what this fact of consumer culture means for a copywriter whose job is to earn someone's attention and translate that attention into action. The starting point is not to figure out how to make a formulaic thing called an ad that stands out among 5,000 other ads. It's how to connect with a person who is dealing with you on his own terms. How do you make that person want to interact with you, want to share your offering with others. How do you actually matter to him?

In an industry that has an embarrassing predilection for catchphrases and clich├ęs, "marketing is a conversation" has joined the ranks of groan-worthy adspeak. But there's no getting around it. Consumers have voices, they have the means to have a conversation with whomever they want about a brand, whether the brand is part of that conversation or not.

So, copywriters have a gargantuan challenge to be relevant, but also a great opportunity to be original, to interact with an audience, to have people talk about, spread and engage with the things they create.

"There's been a real cultural shift," says R/GA's Nick Law, "away from people believing or even caring what you're telling them in an ad anymore. What matters is if a brand fits into my life somehow."

Nancy Vonk, co-chief creative officer of Ogilvy Toronto, says her message to her agency's creatives is "to think of themselves as problem solvers, not ad makers. Ideally, begin every assignment looking directly at the business problem (or opportunity) and push up against that with media-neutral thinking. If a client has asked for a print ad or banner ad or whatever specific medium, ignore that and look for a big idea. A great idea that truly solves the problem will be able to channel into that print ad, etc. The client will see the specific medium they requested, but in the context of a holistic solution that can potentially inform many spaces.

"You use a very different lens if you're hunting for a TV spot ('OK, so I have just 30 seconds to tell a story, here's the kind of short story I can tell') vs. looking for a solution that could be literally anything. ... Recently a team [proposed] a bake shop when a print ad was asked for. The print ad happened, but it was one small component of a totally unexpected, refreshing solution."

For the sake of simplicity, we've employed the term "advertising" in these pages, but perhaps one of the essential messages to take away from this book is that your job isn't to create "an ad." It's to create something useful, entertaining or beautiful (or all of the above) on behalf of a brand.

For more about "The Idea Writers" and information on where to buy, visit http://www.theideawriters.com/.

Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Ad Age's Creativity and creator of CAT, the Creativity and Technology event. She is a frequent speaker on creativity and popular culture.
Most Popular
In this article: