Where did it all go right?

Mike Reed
5 November 2014

The older heads say nothing is like it used to be. The younger heads fizz with the excitement of everything that’s going on. It was ever thus.

The DMA has mounted ‘The Campaign for Great British Copywriting’, and the first thing to say is that obviously we applaud the idea. Every craft needs its champions, and writing still has precious few of them, the excellent 26 notwithstanding.

Even so, the ‘Campaign for Great British Copywriting’ has more than a whiff of Daily Telegraph–style nostalgia about it. It seems to imply that copywriting — like red squirrels, jolly milkmen and driving gloves — is a threatened national treasure in urgent need of your help.

Is it really in such danger?

The Campaign’s opening shot comes from Tony Brignull, rightly lauded as one of Britain’s greatest ad writers (and its most awarded). Brignull has apparently proclaimed copywriting ‘dead’.

We’d like to suggest that such reports of its death are, as the man said, an exaggeration.

Sit down with the veterans of any industry and they’ll likely tell rosy–hued tales of days gone by, and explain why everything now is so much more tawdry and unsatisfying.

The cliché seems largely borne out by the DMA’s video, Madmen v Mavens (that ‘v’ is an unfortunately sensational touch: why versus?). It may just be the editing, but what appears to emerge is a predictable generation gap.

We’re even treated to John Salmon, another of the great names from CDP, cheerfully admitting: ‘Social media? I don’t have anything to do with it. No clue at all.’

(Brignull responds with the idea that ‘There is hardly any writing in it, is there?’ — the sort of grandaddish comment that has teenagers affectionately rolling their eyes across the Christmas table.)

For their part, the ‘Mavens’ (a name that could apply to everyone involved, surely?) chat with much more vigour about the excitements of modern–day copywriting.

Mostly they seem to identify with the traditional job title, although Matt Longstaff of AKQA feels it’s ‘a bit of a misnomer’. (It’s a shame we never find out why, or what might replace it.)

Unsurprisingly, the younger crowd talk more fluently and positively about new–fangled channels like social media. They use phrases like ‘making content engaging’, which is a bit of a shame, and it’s frustratingly difficult to find a clearly defined point among the chit–chat. But there’s passionate talk of the importance of craft, which suggests things aren’t as bleak as the old hands might imagine. (Surprise, surprise.)

In fact, ‘craft’ seems to be one of the few major areas of agreement between the two ‘camps’. The old school despair over the lack of time given to creatives (and we can all sign up to that whinge), while the younger lot seem to agree. Both camps clearly believe in, and care about, the power of words.

It’s a shame they’re presented in camps at all, really. If the DMA had taken the more interesting approach of combining the groups, we’d surely have a more spiky, combustible conversation to listen to, rather than the rather predictable resonances of these two somewhat artificial echo chambers.

So, a welcome campaign but a slightly frustrating start, we’d say. Given that Reed Words has successfully gone from a one–man band to a five–piece in 12 months, and that we have work coming out of our collective ears, it seems clear to us that copywriting is far from dead. It’s not even poorly.

We don’t work primarily in adland, of course. Tony Brignull may be right that copywriting ‘hardly exists’ in advertising, and that the poster ‘doesn’t exist as a medium’. (Although we’re pretty sure he’s not.)

But in the world of branding and design, there’s more demand for intelligent, expertly crafted writing than ever.

Mike wrote something about this in Design Week last year. So what do the new, and considerably more youthful, writers on the team think? If Tony Brignull’s right, they must wonder what on earth they’re doing each morning as they arrive in their dead jobs in a dead industry.

Thankfully, the picture is more hopeful:


Whatever your industry, there will be people in it, older people, who claim that things aren’t what they once were. ‘Things were better in the old days,’ they’ll say, with wistful looks, before drifting off to lunch.

I call this Werther’s Rule.

Copywriters are very taken with Werther’s Rule. It’s seductive. ‘Do you see the crap they’re putting out these days?’ someone will ask, pointing at a paper. And you’ll nod along — because you do see the crap.

But when you compare yesterday’s Standard with Bernbach’s best, you aren’t being fair. Badly–written rubbish doesn’t make it into copywriting books. When they put together annuals, they (ahem) cut the crap.

That’s not to say things are perfect. As my own experience has taught me, copywriting is still a tough industry to get into; the paths are hidden and circuitous. 

Most companies still see writing as something they do around their brand, rather than an essential part of their brand. And the number of people now involved makes safe, mediocre work all too common.

But look around you. Flick through the latest D&AD. Open a browser and point it at Twitter. Brands are having to produce more writing than ever. And you know what? From where I’m sitting, a lot of what they come up with isn’t all that bad.


Is saying copywriting is dead, dead?


Then can we kill it?

‘Copywriting is dead.’ Less groundbreaking, more like gentle stirring of the topsoil. 

‘Copywriting is dead!’ Yeah, yeah

I’m not interested in sweeping–statement clickbait headlines. All industries — including copywriting — change. We exaggerate by how much, we carve up time into ‘ages’, which is not how we experience it, we forget that we remember the best stuff and forget the bad stuff, we forget that ‘N – E – W’ doesn’t spell ‘bad’, we forget that ‘S – O – C – I – A – L – M – E – D – I – A’ doesn’t spell ‘bad’, we repeat the word ‘bad’ until it loses all meaning (badbadbad), we let our sentences run far beyond the breath we have left to say them in.


Let’s quit with ‘copywriting is dead’ and get to the engaging stuff. What’s the difference between ‘copywriter’, ‘brandwriter‘, and ‘creative’? Who are the most influential writers in Britain today? Are brand strategists making our job harder? How do we show people outside our industry in–groups our value in every industry?

Hopefully, DMA’s census will start exploring those questions, and help us celebrate great writing. Like this. Copywriting is alive. Let’s not waste time checking for a pulse when it’s kicking us in the head.

Well, that’s where we’re coming from. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the campaign develops, and what other opinions emerge. Have a go at the DMA’s Census, and of course feel free to vent your views below.

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