Fielding Questions from the Academy

Sean Trapani, Professor of Advertising at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), found an old short story I wrote about an aspiring copywriter who has dreams of working at Wieden + Kennedy. The good professor figures it’s a tale his students ought to read, which is flattering.

Trapani also asked me to address the following five questions for his students’ benefit.

1) What have you found to be the biggest truth & biggest myth about copywriting?

Copywriting, like all writing, is driven by a purpose. It’s not a creative exercise, rather a means to an end, the end in this case being greater awareness and recall for one’s client. Coming from this place, I’d say the biggest truth in copy is the need to remove the writer from the room. Writers, with all their skill, will undoubtedly get in the way of the work and fail to remember the objective. Put another way, it’ important to be an ad man first and a writer second. The biggest fallacy in copy, of course, flows from this truth. Copy isn’t about clever word play, it’s about solving marketing problems.

2) Do you have a routine before you start working on an ad; a process?

The process is very straightforward. Learn all you can about the client’s business and even more about the client’s customers and prospects. Since the job is to find a way to connect with these customers and future customers in a way that creates lasting bonds, it’s imperative to “walk a mile in the customer’s shoes.” What the customer wants from a company might be totally different from what the company and its agency wants to deliver. But it can’t be, not if the advertising is expected to work. So the hard work of research has to happen on the ground well before strategies can be drafted, or creative concepts delivered. Once it’s time to think stuff up, my process is remove myself from the machine and think on my feet. When thoughts arise that might be worth noting, I like to write them down on a piece of paper.

3) When you’ve written something, how do “know” it’s good?

Copywriters are craftsmen. After years of dedication to the craft, good writers develop an ear for great copy. Great copy flows like a river, naturally and confidently toward its destination.

4) Whose work (advertising or otherwise) should every aspiring copywriter know?

You have to be a student of the business. Anything short of that leads directly to The Hackery. My own career has been deeply impacted by the work of Janet Champ at Wieden + Kennedy. I never would have become a copywriter if she hadn’t brought the poetry of the womens movement to Nike. For me, that was the example I needed to grasp copy’s immense power, and advertising’s importance in our culture. And even though I’ve never come close to making that kind of impact as a copywriter, I’m driven by the belief that my chance to do so is near and that it’s on me to be ready. But don’t mooch my idol, there are plenty of other inspiring people in advertising and the larger communications field.

5) This new media world looks to be a wild ride. Where the heck are we (copywriting) going?

The Web is a copywriter’s dream come true because it’s a great place to connect with people via story. It’s the digital campfire–an ancient archetype in the modern world–and storytellers are the keepers of this fire. All of which makes it correct to say this is the most exciting time ever to be in advertising, and it’s only going to get better from here.

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