Smart Copywriting Is Poetry With A Pitch

The best poets magically fit an entire world into a single poem.

When you read “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, “Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats, and “Still I Rise,” by Maya Angelou, you’re set adrift in poetic wonderland. These poems are universal and timeless, and all employ an incredible economy of artful language.

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

-Opening stanza of “Byzantium,” by William Butler Yeats

The western mind wants to figure poetry out. That’s not the point of poetry. Let the language wash over you. Let it take you to a place of redemption and remind you of your connections to all living and loving things.

Poetry is the singular pursuit by a playful wordsmith.

Poets, unlike copywriters, screenwriters, and journalists, don’t have anything to sell. Poets have their point of view to convey, and no clients or anxious team members looking over their shoulders.

Also, poetry is not a capitalized asset and this frees poetry to be something above and beyond the purely commercial. How rare is that today?

What’s a Copywriter, Anyway?

When you meet someone outside the ad industry and mention that you are a copywriter, it can be like saying you a forensic pathologist. Curious, but not wanting to appear uninformed, the listener may nod politely and change the subject.

I’ve also had people ask me if I worked at a law firm in the copyrights division. It’s a fair question, but no, copywriters have nothing to do with protecting intellectual property. If we’re any good at what we do, we build brand value every time, and from time to time when conditions are ideal, we help make our clients rich and famous.

There are at least a handful of identifiable types of copywriters, which further muddies the waters.

Direct marketing copywriters are all about following the formula and playing it by numbers. It’s an exact science to them.

The social media manager, on the other hand, jumps in a seies of fast-moving social streams each morning and rides memes and trending topics all day.

Then, there’s the classic advertising copywriter who is all about the idea and how it will play out on every size screen.

Copywriting Illuminated

The art and science of copywriting (in all its forms) is not something that practitioners learn to master in an online course or in a one-day workshop.

Copywriting is like writing poems, songs or essays–when you’re serious, you spend years learning from the masters and you diligently practice the craft every day. In other words, you don’t dabble in copywriting and find success.

You let it consume you like a fire.

You sit bolt upright in the night with the answer to the copy riddle.

You learn to become your own toughest critic.

You learn not to waste words.

5 Copywriting Tips You Can Bank On

  • Don’t make outrageous claims that you can’t back up
  • Care more about the reader/viewer than you do about anything or anyone else
  • Overly clever wordplay draws attention to itself, not to the customer solution embedded in the product or service
  • Discovery before strategy and concepts before execution #pencilsdown
  • Bring poetic language and narrative technique to the client’s communications problems

Any questions? Pick up the phone!

IN RELATED NEWS: I write poetry and invite you to give this new poem, “Maria from Monterey,” a read.

Let Us Not Talk Falsely Now, The Hour Is Getting Late

Decoding a brand’s messaging is like breaking enemy code sometimes. That’s how dense and inarticulate the language can be, especially in certain business-to-business cases.

Examples abound. Here’s one from the Boring Copmany:

When we come upon these misshapen brand identities it is our nature and our desire to make them right, and we have a successful history doing just that.

Our results are positive and consistent.

In each case, the company’s “look and feel” was improved and their focus on serving customers narrowed.

Clear Messaging Doesn’t Flow Naturally like Water from a Spring

Process matters.

Too many marketers are obsessed with what they want to say, instead of focusing on what their audience needs to hear. Many are also looking to close, instead of looking to serve.

This is the pressure of quarterly numbers at work and a reality that isn’t going away. Nevertheless, our role as a strategic advisor is to help brand teams earn their customers’ attention and trust, and this means overcoming all obstacles, including short-term thinking in the C-Suite and beyond.

Are You Ready to Lace Up Your Walking Shoes?

The pathway to better work does NOT start with neat ideas about what could be. Better work is not about coming up with clever headlines or flashy graphics—it’s about understanding how to relate to people in the audience, and to do that we need to push back from our screens and take a brisk walk in the customer’s shoes.

Getting on the customer’s page isn’t easy but it is necessary to open minds, doors and wallets. When you’re ready, we will help you walk this walk and think about things from your buyer’s perspective—she may, in fact, have a genuine interest in your product but no time to weigh its benefits. In a case like this, the “no time” barrier is the first communications problem in need of a solution because you can’t sell your wares to a distracted person. Instead of making more ads, we might recommend that you intentionally make “focus time” for your buyer, where you can make her feel cared for and give her access to tools and events that make her work life better.

When you adhere to the process that delivers actionable insights, you end up carving waste from your marketing budget. Take the scenario above. A branded event may have never entered the realm of discussion, much less possibility. That’s the danger of moving too fast and putting projects ahead of the discovery and strategy sessions that are necessary to align your brand communications with the true marketplace opportunity.

Replace Request for Proposals with Discovery and Strategy Sessions

The ad business has been disrupted, but one thing that has not changed is the RFP process. Marketers still rely on this arcane process to locate their new agency team, and the results speak for themselves. CMO churn is legendary and “agencies of record” are no more.

Bonehook does not respond to RFPs. We don’t have the resources to dedicate to free work and we don’t believe that speculative thinking, no matter how brilliant on the surface, is how real life communications problems are solved. RFPs amount to a grown up’s “Show and Tell,” when it needs to be a rigorous business process that produces desired results.

Instead of guessing and wheel spinning, Bonehook replaces the RFP with discovery and strategy sessions that result in a strategy document to support your new product push or your annual plan. We also include brand guidelines that specifically address brand voice.

This initial engagement gives everyone a chance to work together on a trial basis, before committing to any long-term services-based agreements. What do you say?

  • Are you ready to drop the RFP and get to work?
  • Are you prepared to get on your customer’s page and stay there?
  • Are you excited to tighten up your brand messaging and appeal to customers with clear and compelling offers that are easy to act on?

If doing things the way they’ve always been done works for you and your company, thanks for reading this. If you need to go in a new direction, we’re here to guide the expedition into customer-friendly waters.

Are Clients Trying to Put Agencies Out of Business?

Disruption has swept over the ad industry like a rogue wave. The changes washed a lot of people out to sea and they continue to threaten the livelihoods of agency workers, in particular.

Did you know that nearly 80 percent of Association of National Advertisers (ANA) members have some form of in-house agency? This is compared to just 58 percent of marketers who took some form of advertising in-house in 2013, and 42 percent in 2008.

That’s a lot of change on both sides of the client-agency table within the past five to ten years.

“The work being done by in-house agencies is no longer confined to ‘low-hanging fruit’ such as collateral/promotional materials and internal videos,” said ANA CEO Bob Liodice.

While marketers are turning increasingly inward — respondents said more than half of the total amount of work (58 percent) is done in-house — the survey also showed that 90 percent still work with external agencies.

The Root of the Problem: Lack of Trust

Bill Duggan, group executive vice president of ANA said the findings “weren’t a huge surprise,” pointing to major client/agency trust issues as the key driver for this increase.

“The reasons for in-housing historically have been cheaper and faster, and nothing has changed,” he said. “Two recent trends that have accelerated in-house agency: transparency/trust and data.

“I believe trust between clients and agencies is at the lowest it’s ever been throughout my career.”

The Rigorous Path Back to the Mountaintop

Duggan and Liodice are on the client’s side. Marla Kaplowitz, president and CEO of the 4A’s has another agency-friendly point of view.

Agencies need to, quite frankly, step it up and talk about the positive impact they make and the positive business solutions they deliver. I think there’s tremendous value in what agencies bring because of the complexities that exist today.

Agencies are more important and needed than ever to help guide and give that perspective of what’s next and what’s coming. We don’t celebrate enough of those stories.

Bonehook and 99 percent of the agencies in this country do not belong to the 4A’s. We don’t have a spokesperson at an official organization to lobby on our behalf. We must do it ourselves.

Insert Bonehook Case Study (In Miniature)

It’s story time, friends…

Once upon a time, in a western desert not too far from here, Bonehook helped a healthcare and human services company assess a painful operations problem in need of a robust communications solution.

We worked with Danville Services Corporation in Salt Lake City for several years on a “Recruit and Retain” communications plan and the phased rollout of this plan. Danville, like all companies serving people with disabilities, found it hard to find qualified candidates and tough to keep them for more than a year, once hired.

We brought several inter-related solutions forward, including the creation of new collateral materials and a pop-up booth for use at career events. We also automated Danville’s Job Postings made to the company website.

I highlight this relatively simple solution because it showcases how we work. We help the internal marketing and/or creative teams, and we work with people in sales, IT, product development and HR. For Danville, which has multiple offices across four western states, the communications solution had to be shared with and activated by more than half a dozen stakeholders.

There’s no ivory tower anywhere near this, us or the customers we are honored to work closely with on important challenges to their current and future profitability.

Take a Right on Respect Street

I’ve also been seated at the table with clients who lacked trust in our ability to move the needle for them. It can be hard at times to not take their slights personally, although it’s our job to keep the focus on the communications problem(s) before us.

I’ve also worked with plenty of clients who prefer to rewrite and redesign the project at the table, instead of providing legitimate feedback based on the creative brief and letting the talent work it out. It can be maddening, but again, it’s our job to educate and to do that we must be patient and compassionate.

If you’ve ever worked with me, you know how much I care about your business and my own. You also know I am in the room to question, to challenge and to get everyone to think. That’s why my time is valuable and why we command a premium price. It’s also why we get fired, sometimes, and why we choose to walk away at other times.

Be Curious, Adventurous and Prosperous

From our end, critical assessments of a company’s marketing opportunities are always well-intentioned, but the insights and recommendations we bring can cause sparks to fly. It’s human nature to get stuck in one place. We all do it, but in business, stasis is a problem. That’s why we must continually find new ways to break through old patterns (and the people who can help to push us across the finish line).

As the agency, we are professionally obligated to enter the room curious. We know how much there is to learn and we love to learn. We never assume interest. Like respect and trust, we seek to earn it from our own customers and our customers’ customers. Many of our peers spend a lot of time trying to impress prospective customers with how much they know. This is what we know…our customers have unique marketing challenges that our standardized offerings can solve.

It’s not easy to clarify your company’s product or service offering and move people to care, but there are steps we can take. To discuss our Brand Messaging Assessment, Copywriting Course and Coaching or Discovery and Strategy Sessions in greater detail, send a note to and we’ll find a good time to talk.

Brands Don’t Want Better Creative, They Want A Money Making Machine

I was talking to a tax lawyer the other day about the impacts of moving Bonehook from Oregon to Texas. He said something that might alert many small business owners, particularly small agency owners. He said the company was virtually worthless from an assets perspective.

Thankfully, I understood what he meant. He meant that a service-based business like Bonehook has all its value wrapped up in the partners (and our ability to win business, manage the business and produce the work). In other words, we have no taxable assets.

While I don’t take offense to this strict portrayal of the company, it’s not something I’m okay with, not by a long shot. We may wish to sell Bonehook someday, and this clearly means there has to be something here worth buying. And that means developing the kind of systems that future owners can use to reproduce the kind of financial results that attracted them to our company in the first place.

It Helps To Know What Business You’re In

I’ve been working in the agency business since 1997, first as a copywriter, then as a creative director, before launching Bonehook in 2009 and becoming a business owner and wearer of many hats. Thus, I feel confident when I say that creative people don’t care much for systems or the idea of reproducible results. Because we all do custom work!

Do you know who does like systems and reproducible results? The customer!

My friend Charlie Quirk, a brand strategist at Google, says, “The best creatives of any flavor realize it’s not about them, but service to the client’s biz.” He’s a problem solver working in communications. That’s what we aspire to be.

Better Creative Is the Means to An Important End

The good news for Bonehook’s customers is the work we provide is an efficient and affordable means to their desired ends—more customers, more voters, more members and/or more advocates.

When you get hung up on making custom work, an efficient and affordable means to a customer’s desired ends doesn’t make much sense. We want to believe that great work that helps to define brands and makes the register ring takes lots of time and money to make. That’s the old rap and one based on the billable hour. Thus, how can working with a top creative team now be efficient and affordable?

Here’s another truth that people in marketing seek to hide from: there are only so many communications challenges and a finite number of solutions to them, as well. The better we are at assessing a customer’s communications problems and offering practical solutions, the faster we can move into the making phase. And the better we are at managing the account and the entire production process, the more money we make.

It’s critical that our customers know how we make money and why we’re in business. We can’t keep our distance and serve our customers’ needs properly. What we do is highly specialized, but it’s no big mystery. A company like ours needs systems that are capable of churning out reproducible results.

We didn’t know this in the beginning. Now, we do.

Alert: Content Does Not Convert

I was an early content marketing practitioner and champion of the form. The idea was content would offer a richer advertising experience than the ads of old. I pursued the idea with gusto and I am glad I did. Not everything turned out as planned, but I learned a lot.

I may as well come out and say what I’ve been thinking for some time: content marketing is more about promise than performance. There is still a solid reason to produce top-notch content as part of your marketing mix—high-value content helps your website rank high and it helps create awareness for your brand. But it doesn’t convert.

Content fails to convert because most brand-made or brand-sponsored content is simply ignored. It’s invisible. Did you know that just 5% of branded content garners 90% of total consumer engagements? In other words, 19 out of 20 content pieces get little to no engagement.

“The current wisdom that brands need to be content machines is simply not supported by the data,” says Jennifer Zeszut, CEO of Beckon. “Brands might be shocked to hear that while branded content creation is up 300 percent year over year, consumer engagement with that content is totally flat. They’re investing a lot in content creation, and it’s not driving more consumer engagement.”

Beckon analyzed over $16 billion in omnichannel marketing spend and performance data to better understand what works, what doesn’t, and where to invest in content.

The Relationship Between Engagement and Conversion

There is no closing without meaningful engagement first. Which begs the question, what type of content do people prefer to spend time with? The answer isn’t video or a blog post. We need to understand what triggers people to pay attention and to act, in every medium.

I’ve produced thousands of blog posts, a.k.a. thought pieces, and just as many social media updates for my own brands and for clients, so I have a lot of my own first-hand experience to offer. What works is attaching an offer to a piece of content and then promoting the content consistently. Posts that are not boosted or targeted are going to float downstream unless your content happens to be the exception, not the rule.

One of the colossal mistakes that I made in my content development journey is driving engagement but failing to connect it to an offer. My last 14 years of effort on is the prime example of this. I successfully built the brand and got thousands of readers to gather ’round. What I failed to do is provide the audience members a series of offers that would help to support my side project. Lesson learned.

This Is Advertising—You Pay to Play

Content specialist, Mark Schaefer, wrote about this problem in 2014.

This intersection of finite content consumption and rising content availability will create a tremor I call The Content Shock…

The idea that ‘great content rises to the top’ is over. We are in an era where advertising, promotion, and distribution strategies may eclipse the importance of the content itself.

“We are in an era where advertising, promotion, and distribution strategies may eclipse the importance of the content itself.” That’s a sentence worth repeating and committing to memory. In other words, the best-made content in the world isn’t going to move anyone if they never see it.

For years, I’ve advocated that a brand’s content help support its advertising and vice versa. Now, it’s past time to update that to a brand’s content is its advertising.

Client Showcase: Kim Olson for Texas Commissioner of Agriculture

Kim Olson is a dynamic public speaker, a proven leader and a fierce advocate for sensible new leadership in Austin. She’s in a close race for Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, a position currently held by Sid Miller. Like Miller, Olson is a farmer. That’s where the similarities end.

To reach potential voters, the Kim Olson campaign hired Bonehook to make out-of-home advertising and newspaper ads for placement in dozens of markets throughout the state.

The centerpiece of the new ad campaign, “I Mend Fences,” showcases Olson’s agricultural roots and the reality of modern day politics.

According to Nancy Nichols, Media Director for Kim Olson, “Citizens of Texas want real solutions for their families, not more bluster and a cloud of dust.”

We were hired to amplify Kim Olson’s true grit and her big ideas in print advertising, out-of-home advertising and social media advertising—while giving the people of Texas several great reasons to vote for her.

Art Direction: Cathy Solarana of Wheelhouse Collective

Jump over to our portfolio pages to see the entire campaign.