I was reminded recently how precarious agency life can be. One day you’re working overtime to meet your deadlines. The next you’re staring at a timesheet with too few billable hours. Clients come and go, and if you don’t have accounts to replace them the hammer can come down swiftly and mercilessly.
I remember during the last recession a copywriter named Eric Proulx started a website named Please Feed The Animals to help creatives get back on their feet. I thought it was incredibly generous of him to give up his time to build and run the thing because he was out of work too. I also remember a streak of indignation that ran through some of his posts – as if the agency that laid him off should have supported the creatives in bad times as well as good. Wish it worked that way but if you’re expecting loyalty, join the Boy Scouts.
According to this NY Times article, a surprising number of news stories are written by robots. Algorithms are now so sophisticated they can identify patterns of speech, mix in financial results or box scores from a baseball game and, faster than you can say Holy Shizzle, Batman!, out comes a story. The industry term is “automated narrative generation” and it’s here to stay.
It’s not just the news industry that’s embraced this technology. Marketers are using it. There’s an outfit called Persado whose tagline is “End The Guesswork of Copywriting.” They generate and test hundreds of thousands of word combinations to improve response rates. I’m told they won an award for “Don’t miss out” and “Thanks for being a customer.” Really?
Whatever happened to insightful copy that understands its audience in deeply human terms? I don’t believe a machine can replace human experience. It can beat me at chess, but it can’t know what it feels like to see a sunset, hold your baby or laugh so hard milk comes out your nostrils. Still, I’m worried about the future of copywriting. I’ve been in meetings where clients are more interested in the number of SEO terms on a webpage than in the quality of the copy. We’re on a slippery slope. And we’re in danger of losing touch with our humanity.
I wasted a week and a half recently on a pitch. Our much bigger sister agency was asked to pitch a digital project for a client of our much smaller design shop. We knew the client and the products. We knew the customers. But it wasn’t our pitch, i.e., we weren’t in the driver’s seat. The journey covered the following stages:
- Excitement – I get to work with a smart, talented, genuinely nice ECD. Cool!
- Wonder – Do we really need all of these people? Who are they? What do they do?
- Disappointment – ECD hates my copy though he puts it more delicately than that.
- Joy – Hey, he likes something. My ego steps back from the ledge.
- Confusion – What does he want? Why does he keep changing direction?
- Frustration – You mean I’ve just wasted a week when you could have told me nothing happens until after the manifesto?
- Exhaustion – Work late nights and the last weekend before the pitch because the account/digital/social/media team needed two weeks to rewrite the client’s brief and come up with a plan.
- Resignation – See with hindsight that the plan would require way more money and time than the client could afford with no guarantee of success.
I hate losing but I hate doing work I don’t believe in even more.
I’ve been, on average, more good than bad this year. I even got a small pay raise. So I’m not expecting much else in the way of remuneration. I’m pretty well compensated for what I do at work. Everything at the top of my list you can skip over including but not limited to: peace on earth, an end to hunger and education for all. Even though you are a saint these are beyond your pay grade. Don’t feel bad, we can’t all be Bill Gates.
Skip down the list to my work requests. Trivial in comparison to those above, I know, but these small wishes would make my workdays a little brighter. Every work week this past year I’ve bitten my tongue and worn a forced smile as I’ve watched the sentences I give birth to get hacked mercilessly by barbaric, clueless clients. Just show me a sign that you’ve been watching and I’ll remain your devoted follower for another year.
First, stop the music. I work in an open plan office where anyone can play songs from their playlist over a sound system with four speakers mounted on an eight-foot wall. Since Thanksgiving it’s played Christmas music almost non-stop. In between we get the usual noise my senses are subjected to every work day – Journey, Rush, The Eagles, Queen, Aerosmith, Johnny Cash… I don’t mind coworkers reliving their glory days but please, do it privately. I’m begging you to use your earbuds. Right now, it’s like trying to write in Santa’s grotto at the fucking mall.
A new client. I’ve spent an entire year working for one client, albeit our biggest, most important account. It pays the agency’s bills (and mine) and I’m grateful for the employment. But that’s as far as it goes. No potential awards show winners. No portfolio quality work. No satisfaction other than doing the best I can with what I’m given. For the first ten years of my advertising life I felt enormously lucky, privileged and excited to walk through my agency’s doors and be allowed to work there with a group of talented, funny people who were all on the same page. Everyone was there to produce some of the best advertising in the country. Maybe I’m in the wrong place or just need a pro bono project but a little variety would be appreciated.
Good coffee. Since we moved into a temporary space in our building we’ve been kitchenless in our office. We make do with a Keurig but I’m not a fan. Instead I treat myself to an Americano at a coffee shop nearby but it’s an expensive habit. Tell you what, why don’t you leave a thermos under the tree and I’ll brew my own. I could give what I pay the baristas to charity.
Julian Koenig died last month. He was the original copywriter on the Volkswagen account when Doyle Dane Bernbach was awarded the business in 1959. His art director was Helmut Krone. Together they created “Think Small” and “Lemon.” It’s hard to overestimate the effect those ads had on the industry at a time when Madison Avenue was infatuated with research and brainstorming sessions. (Sound familiar?)
Koenig’s ads talked to the reader like an intelligent friend and used facts and humor to win you over. It worked. The ads got read and talked about and helped increase VW sales at a time when imported car sales were plummeting in the U.S. At his induction to the Copywriter’s Hall of Fame, he said, ““The hardest thing in the world to resist is applause. Your job is to reveal how good the product is, not how good you are, and the simpler the better.”
I only learned of his death yesterday. Checking Ben Kay’s blog for a Friday frolic through his weekend links, I saw it. Ben’s post is a great tribute from a copywriter who had the good fortune to work for David Abbott. I wish I had but I learned a lot about the craft of copywriting by reading his ads. I used to pore over them in D&AD annuals, marveling at the intelligence, wit and humanity of his writing. By all accounts he was a prince of a creative director and remained a working copywriter at his own agency until the day he retired. There isn’t a pedestal high enough to do his legacy justice. You’ll just have to read his ads. I imagine he would have preferred that anyways.
I came across something on Jeff Kwiatek’s blog that struck a chord. He was writing about how little he cared about the business of advertising (specifically, the failed Omnicon/Publicis merger) and how much he cared about making really good ads. “Anything else makes me feel like my soul is being poisoned and that I’d be better off doing nothing than doing this.”
Yesterday was one of those dispiriting days. I’d written a couple of headlines I liked and a couple that were average but they’d do the job. The designers had half a day to lay the ads out and diddled away precious hours making something simple needlessly complex. The CD killed my lines. The client decided he wanted a little of everything in one ad. The whole process was a recipe for a turd. It made a warm bath and a sharp razor a tempting option.
Recently I attended a presentation where the speaker asked, “What brand do you love?” A few hands shot up in the audience. “Chipotle,” someone said. “Nike,” said another. The speaker was scanning the room like a Terminator looking for a fresh change of clothes. I avoided eye contact, panicking because I couldn’t think of a single brand I loved. Like, maybe. Prefer, even. But not all-or-nothing love.
I admit, I do like my iPhone. If I’d bought one instead of having it given to me as a work perk, I’d probably be more committed because I’d be invested. And I do like my Mac. I’ve been typing on them since the 1990’s. I’d be very unhappy if I had to use a PC at work. So maybe my problem is one of semantics.
I’m definitely on board with the Apple brand. Call it love if you like, but here’s the thing. Apple makes great products. Every ad, instruction booklet, package and store is faithful to the brand and consistent in design and tone. They’ve stuck to their core values and identity year after year. God, it seems so simple. Why then is it so hard for so many clients to do?
A friend and colleague of mine is leaving the agency for greener pastures. I know she’s been frustrated by the lack of variety. When you work on the same account over a long period of time you can get stale. I think it’s good to work on different accounts at the same time. Working with different partners helps to keep a fresh outlook too.
If I were a client, I’d want my agency to have a roster of companies doing business in several categories. Ideally, your agency would offer both deep category knowledge and fresh thinking. But if forced to choose between the two, there’s no contest. Knowledge can be gained. Fresh thinking is hard to come by. It’s what separates the good work from all the dross clamoring for attention and cluttering the environment.
Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons license
Where I work December and January are the busiest months of the year so I’ve been putting in some long hours. It’s playing havoc with my best intentions to exercise more and write something outside of work. When I get home at nine ‘o’ clock my brain is tired and my stomach is empty. They want beer and peanuts not sit-ups. I suspect I’m not alone.
This blog post in the Harvard Business Review has some timely advice for new year’s resolutions gone awry. Some of the traps to avoid:
- You think you can’t, so you don’t.
- Goals that are too big or too distant.
- Going it alone.
- Neglecting to anticipate setbacks.
It’s easy to give up and go back to whatever wasn’t working before. The trick is to assess your situation, decide what you want and start taking steps in that direction.
One of Dave Trott’s homilies was “You can have what you want or you can have your excuses for not having it.” His agency, GGT, produced some of the best advertising of its time and, in the process, trained some of the best creative minds in London who went on to start their own award-winning agencies.
Decide what you want. Put in the effort. And stay humble.