Are you Bludgeoning Good Copywriters?
by Robert W. Bly
Do you know what a moose is? It's a cow designed by committee.
Most business-to-business ads are moose. Strained through too many layers of management, badmouthed by engineering, blue-penciled by the ad manager, and rewritten by the president's nephew, the end project is ineffectual, weak, watered-down prose.
The problem is twofold. First, there are too many levels of review. Second, most clients don't know how to review a piece of copy. In their zeal to be authors instead of reviewers, they edit the copywriter's strong words, substituting vague, weak ones. Not seeing the whole concept, they destroy the ad by making "minor" changes in the headline. Not understanding the limitations of a printed page, they insist on adding five charts and graphs to the layout. They ignore the advice of Robert Townsend, who wrote: "Don't hire a master to paint you a masterpiece and then assign a roomful of schoolboy-artists to look over his shoulder and suggest improvements."
Reviewing copy requires more than a technical knowledge of product features of a schoolteacher's grasp of grammar. It takes an open mind, an understanding of the agency-client relationship, and recognition of the copywriter as a skilled professional.
Here are some suggestions to help you review copy submitted by your agency and freelancers. By following these tips, your firm can publish ads and brochures that meet company standards and make powerful sales tools.
Put down that pencil! I worry when the client reads copy with blue pencil in hand. It tells me he's reading it as an editor - and not as a buyer.
Instead, read through the copy from the customer's point of view. Does the concept grab you? Does the copy give you the information you need? If not, make a note of where the copy falls short and hand it back to the writer for revision. But unless you're a writer, don't do major copy surgery yourself. Writing should be repaired by writers.
Don't play schoolteacher. Amateur grammarians should not be allowed to rewrite copy. They'll take the preposition from the end and put it in the middle, unsplit the split infinitives, combine sentence fragments into one long sentence, and they never let you begin a sentence with and (or but, or or).
They don't realize that professional writers deliberately break grammatical rules and use unorthodox stylistic techniques to make copy lively and readable. If sacrificing by-the-book English gets more sales, why not?
Sentence fragments can generate greater impact. Sentences ending with prepositions sound more natural. Starting sentences with conjunctions makes for a quick, smooth transition between thoughts.
Don't deprive copywriters of the tools they use to make your copy flow and glow with warmth and personality. If you want correct grammar, teach high-school English. If you want great copy, let the copywriter decide.
Eliminate unnecessary levels of review. Put the copy through the minimum number of reviews that you and your boss agree is acceptable. Other interested parties can receive copies for information but not for final approval.
Ideally, copy should be reviewed by only three people: a technical expert; the ad manager; and the product manager (or marketing manager) for that product line. If those reviewers want to seek the opinions of others - fine. But the final say-so should be theirs alone. When critiques come from too many directions, the chaos disintegrates good copy and leaves pap in its place.
Base your critique on goals and strategy, not idiosyncrasies. When you review copy, ask yourself two questions:
1. Does the copy fulfill its mission (in terms of objective, strategy, positioning, communication) as effectively as it can?
2. Is it technically accurate?
If the information is correct and the copy will generate the desired results, why change it? Why insist that the company name be mentioned every third sentence or that the product manager's pet buzzword appear in the headline?
Here, for example, are some classically idiosyncratic reviewer comments and, in italics, a professional copywriter's likely but perhaps unspoken reactions:
"It doesn't contain enough superlatives. Our product is the state of the art. Why doesn't the copy say 'state of the art?"
"Because 'state of the art' is a time-worn cliché that has lost any real meaning and impact."
"The copy is too easy to read. It doesn't sound technical enough."
"You're right. I'm sure your customers want copy that's hard to read
"People in this industry talk in jargon. Put in more jargon."
"Don't they speak plain English too?"
"Don't begin sentence with and. My wife is an English teacher, and she says it's wrong to begin a sentence with and."
"Well, IBM begins a lot of sentences with
and; their ads seem to work. What do you think?"
"Where's the plant? Our ads usually show a photo of the plant."
"Does the customer really care? When you asked for background information on my Copywriting services, I didn't send you a picture of my apartment."
"I don't like it."
"Fine. Just tell me what you don't like and I'll fix it.
"Well, I used to be a high-school principal, and when I wrote copy..."
WRITERS ARE PEOPLE TOO
Although some business executives and engineers think of writers as second-class citizens, copywriters are people too. They have egos and thoughts and feelings just like other folks.
While you shouldn't have to baby a prima donna in any department, it does pay to treat people with courtesy and respect. There are tactful ways of giving criticism and there are blunt ways. Some people's manners are downright rude.
Treat writers as professionals - both in briefings and in copy review sessions - and you'll receive their best efforts. Treat them as underlings beneath your notice, and they'll spend as little time and effort as possible on your account.
Here are some
common sense tips for work with - and getting the most out of - copywriters and other "creatives."
If you like the copy, say so. Most clients only pick up the phone if the news is bad. But a word of praise now and then can spur a writer to do great things for you. If you like the copy, call and say so. Better still, write a note.
Even when you want a rewrite, start off with praise for what you liked about the copy. That will soften the blow when the copywriter hears you clear your throat and say, "Now, here's where I think we need to say things a bit differently."
Be a decent fellow. Frank Hummert once told David Ogilvy, "All clients are pigs. You may start by thinking otherwise, but you will change your mind."
I disagree. Most clients are a delight to work with. But a few are rude, inconsiderate people, like the client who began a telephone review of some copy by saying to his agency's writer, "Well, I guess you were in a real hurry to write this, because it's not very good."
What did the client hope to accomplish with that comment? If he wanted to feel superior to the writer, he probably succeeded. He also succeeded in alienating the writer, resulting in a quick patch-job on the copy and no rush to hand it in. Even if the copy wasn't up to speed, the client should have said, "The copy is basically accurate, but there are a number of changes to be made. Let me tell you what I have in mind." The writer should do his best to satisfy such a request.
If the original copy was indeed incompetent, the client should seek another agency, not bully the writer.
Keep the corporate style guide out of it. Some clients - mostly the larger firms - have rulebooks full of guidelines for external communication.
I hate to say it, but in my opinion, most of those rules are picayune and don't contribute to the effectiveness of promotional copy.
For example, one major advertiser insists on "no underlining in our copy." Another doesn't allow the use of bullets. Well, underlines and bullets are useful mechanical devices, and it doesn't make sense to deprive copywriters of them.
I'm all for consistency in communication. But does the customer really care if the product name is set in Benguiat Bold or Bodoni Italic?
The important rules to follow are the Copy Chasers' guidelines (see BUSINESS MARKETING, Jan. '84) and other proven rules of persuasion in print. All else is excess baggage that inhibits the writer's creativity and cramps his style.
Be specific. In the film "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit," Gregory Peck is a junior advertising executive charged with writing a speech for a cranky supervisor. After the umpteenth draft, the supervisor calls Peck into his office and says the speech needs yet another complete rewrite. Peck asks why, and the supervisor says something like, "It just doesn't have enough...OOOMPH."
Peck replies, "If you don't mind me saying so, sir, that's not very helpful."
When you ask for a rewrite, tell the copywriter what is wrong and why. Be specific.
If the copy contains an inaccurate technical statement, circle it and write in the margin, "The spray dryer doesn't work the way you describe it - see the product brochure for a corrected explanation of the process."
If the headline is flat, write, "The main benefit is less maintenance because the nozzle is self-cleaning and never clogs. Let's get this in the headline."
If the copy is confusing, circle the offending paragraphs and write, "Our less-technical customers might have trouble with this. Please eliminate the jargon and break up the paragraphs a bit."
If every client gave that kind of critique, we'd never need a second rewrite. But more often, the client comments (and copywriter's reactions) run something like this:
"Okay. But give me some idea of where I've gone astray.
"Wrong pressure drop."
"I'm not an engineer, so I cannot calculate the right pressure drop. Tell me what it is, or where I can find it."
"This isn't going to help either of us. Obviously, I don't think it's poor or I wouldn't have submitted it. Tell me why you think it's poor. Then I'll be able to fix it."
"Bad word choice."
"What word do you prefer!"
Remember that if
you order the copywriter to write it your way, you'll get copy your way. Exactly your way.
Presumably, you hired the copywriter because he can write copy better than you can. If he can't, fire the agency and write it yourself. Or, get another agency.
But don't hire a highly paid professional to do a job and then take over and do it yourself, or have amateurs alter his work.