June 21, 2018

A Copywriter's Burden

There was a time when being a copywriter was a lot simpler. It wasn't simple, but it was simpler.

We would be given a stack of documents about 1,000 pages deep -- primary research, industry information, briefing documents, strategy hypotheses, meeting memos, competitive category ads, focus group transcriptions, and no shortage of opinions and mandatories -- and our job was to turn this mess into 30 seconds of persuasive copy.

It was a rigorous exercise.

There were some copywriters who could never master the art of rummaging through a pile of paper to find the essence of what needed to be said. There were some who were very good at finding the essence, but not very good at finding an interesting way to say it. The very best could do both.

But the burden of being a copywriter today is much less straightforward. Today's copywriter is not really sure what she is. Is she a brand builder, a click maximizer, a storyteller, a community builder, a content provider, a conversation starter, a data interpreter, a three-times-a-day tweet machine? How do you keep true to a brand essence when you are "optimizing" for so many different objectives?

In fact, in the wrong hands, writing copy that is optimized for a ragbag of different media and a variety of different purposes can become antithetical to the idea of a single, simple brand identity. The tactical invariably drives out the strategic.

When that copywriter took a thousand pages of input and reduced it to a simple, singular proposition it became pretty clear how a campaign could spin out of it. In fact, the iconic "1984" spot by Apple started its life as a print ad that never ran. The concept superseded the media tactic.

But how does a focused brand strategy survive an hourly demand for "content?" Just take a look at the drivel that is coming out of McDonald's social media machine and try to find anything resembling a brand strategy.

There is a big difference between a being a novelist and being a copywriter. A novelist starts with a simple idea - "war is hell" - and expands on it to create a sprawling landscape. The copywriter does the opposite. He takes a sprawling landscape and, if he's any good, reduces it to a simple idea. Or at least he used to.

What does a copywriter do today?

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