10 Lessons from a Lifelong Copywriter (Part 1 of 2)

I’ve written a lot of copy in my life. I couldn’t even calculate how many words, campaigns, hours, etc. A zillion. But you learn writing from writing … also from reading … and, finally, from veterans and mentors* who were generous enough to give you invaluable tips along the way. So, as I look back on 25 years in this practice — and reflect on work that broke records and garnered awards, and other work that fared far less well — I offer you ten of the most valuable copywriting lessons I know:

1. Nobody cares about you.
When you sit down to start working on a campaign, it’s your highest priority. It’s certainly a high priority for your client. But your audience couldn’t care less. They have lives to live. Nobody is sitting there, waiting to see your awesome ad. If you’re going to ask for their attention — which is what an ad message does — you need to earn it. Start by (counterintuitively) ignoring what your client wants or needs. Instead, think about your audience. Empathize. What are their needs, concerns and dreams? Now, with that in mind, what can you say — on behalf of your client — that might be relevant and meaningful to them? This is the place you should start from.

2. Never start with a blank page.
Staring at a white screen and waiting for inspiration to strike is a self-imposed, and pointless, form of torture. If fact, don’t start writing by writing. Start by reading. Read the background material provided (e.g., creative brief, market data, etc.). Follow that by doing your own research. Ask questions and demand answers. Do whatever you can to best understand your audience and the context in which they’ll be engaging with what you create. Analyze the work of your most-daunting competitors. What did they do well? Where did they come up short? What would you have done differently? Only then, once you have all that in your head, will you have what you need to really get going.

3. Know the reason behind what you’re doing.
Yes, yes. Two paragraphs ago, I told you to ignore what the client wants or needs. But once you’ve done the proper preparation and due diligence, it’s time to bring that question back again. You should never create an ad for the sake of creating (not if it’s going to be used IRL). Every ad message should serve a purpose. What do you and your client hope to achieve from this piece? After your audience sees/hears it — digital ad, social media post, video, audio spot, billboard, etc. — how should they feel? And what should they do? Make sure this is clearly defined, with everyone in agreement (both the client and the agency). Because the success of the piece is going to be judged, after the fact, on whether it achieved what everyone agreed it should.

4. “You” is the most important word in advertising.
The ads you create, in the tiny vacuum of your agency, will eventually be seen by actual flesh-and-blood humans in the real world. To reach them — to move them — you need to make it about them. Any good salesperson knows that people are much easier to sell when they like and trust you. Trying to do that with a fleeting ad message is a tall order. So, slow your viewer down … by connecting with him/her on an individual level. Use the second person. Write as if you’re talking to a friend. “Hi John” feels a whole lot better than “Hello Recipient.” Human beings need attention, warmth and care. Give it to them, and you’ll start a conversation the right way. (And never forget the adage that a customer should never feel like a grain of sand on your beach.)

5. Speak to the low-hanging fruit.
An awful cliché, but an apt one. Far too many writers try to “sell snow to Eskimos.” Don’t. That’s an exercise in hubris. Instead, write to the person who already wants/needs a product like yours (or, is at least thinking about it). Show them why they should buy your product — instead of a competitor’s — and why they should do it (or raise their hand about it) now. You have only a few seconds to get your audience to stop and read/hear what you have to say. So, assume they’re already somewhat interested — and get to the point. (Also, circling back to the top: Don’t be afraid of clichés. They can be cringe-inducing, yes. But your job isn’t to win a Pulitzer. It’s to get people interested. And if a cliché gives you a clear, compelling shorthand to get them there, use it.)

> Read Part 2

* Marilyn Devine, Pam Jones, Matt Rosenblatt, Bill Rogers, Li Saul, Richard Eber — I’m looking at you. (And a note that will go unread to the late, great Herschell Gordon Lewis.)

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