To flourish or perish? How copywriters must adapt in the 21st Century.

March 1, 2010

A blogger and freelance copywriter I follow on Twitter sent me the following question:

This is such an exciting time to be in advertising and I love all the opportunities we have to craft messages that reach consumers in new/personal ways. With the new emphasis on technology and strategy, how do you think copywriters have to adapt in order to further their careers in the industry? Obviously words will always be necessary, but do you think (our) new digital colleagues are going to see earlier and faster success and development (than us)?

What follows are my best answers to that question. Some of them are trend-based and others ideas I believe will never change. I don’t profess to know more or less than any given copywriter but, hey, I was asked…

First off, let’s explore what the asker means by “new digital colleagues.” I think she’s referring to designers with a visual acumen for mining the digital space. In other words: the modern art director. The evolution from general AD to digital AD is relatively easy to chart (though certainly not easy to do). One either learns how to create in this space or enters the business doing so already. Understanding modern tools like flash, Photoshop and the like comes…or it doesn’t.

Maybe the path for copywriters is more ambiguous. We scribes are understandably insecure. After all, we put words together. Words don’t change. They stay the same forever. So old-fashioned. Recently, a well-regarded media blogger suggested copywriting soon wouldn’t even be a profession. As I was saying, we get nervous. What’s a girl to do?

From a copywriter’s POV, mastering new technology is not critical but having an intuitive sense of what it can do is. With agencies and clients clamoring to figure social media out, let alone exploit it, the pressure inevitably falls on copywriters and art directors. The brief screams: Make it happen! The woman who sent me the above question uses social media in her daily life. She has a great blog and website. Clearly, her question is more than just about “getting digital.” She wants to know how to make a living.

We all do. Having a grip on the digital landscape is merely the price of entry. Relevancy is mandatory for anyone in our industry.

“Okay, I’m relevant. Now what?”

Start with your “book.” (Should we even call it that anymore?) Evolve your best existing work from traditional mass media to newer forms. Instead of press and television, think holistically -about screens, about walls, about spaces. Obvious? You’d be surprised. A majority of portfolios I see are still comprised primarily with TV, print and outdoor, sometimes a few banners thrown in. Where is the new thinking? And that, of course, means integration.

As discussed in an earlier post, social and outdoor media have much in common. They both go where people work and play. They both instigate conversations. My advise: Start thinking of your ‘book’ as a ‘virulent’ combination of out-of-home, social, and other guerilla-like components. Do this well and you will have a modern portfolio. Do it really well and you will always have work.

A word about talent. One either has talent or they don’t. Unfortunately, talent cannot be calibrated. There is no SAT. Therefore, we rely on portfolios, award counts and other dubious barometers. If you are lacking in talent you will have to rely on your wits, which, to be fair, has gotten some of us very, very far.

I’ve saved my best advice for last. It was given to me and, with some modifications; I’m giving it to you:

1) A writer writes. Keep a journal. Start a blog. Tweet. And when you are not writing…

2) Read. Be it ads, novels, screenplays, the back of a cereal box. Read voraciously.

3) Learn how to edit your work. Banish every unnecessary word. Write sparingly. Hemingway spent hours crafting perfect sentences, mostly by cutting. A master of the short story, he would have appreciated Twitter. He would have been an excellent copywriter.

4) Finally, Smile. Regardless of all the gloom and doom, this is still one of the best jobs on earth.

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9 Responses to “To flourish or perish? How copywriters must adapt in the 21st Century.”

  1. I don't know about that said

    I’ve been looking for a job off and on for almost two years now, and all that anyone wants to see is TV reels and lists of awards. Nobody cares about the twitter, blogs, books ive published, etc.

    It’s surreal – like people are still living in the 90s.

    I even used to display my portfolio in a way similar to how you recommend but I moved it to the traditional “print, tv, web, etc” format after several people told me they didn’t look at my book because it wasn’t in the traditional format.

  2. SRP said

    Dear “I don’t know”

    I believe what you report is accurate and unfortunate. Certain CDs and creative HR hold on to old ideas. They will not be long for this world. I still think a “virulent” integrated campaign (provided core idea is great) still trumps random TV commercials and print ads every time.

    • I don't know about that said


      Thanks for your honesty.

      I keep thinking “these throwbacks won’t be long for this world” too, yet they continue to be the ones laying off all the youngsters in their offices, and presumably, replacing them with people who think like them.

      If they haven’t felt the consequences of behaving as if its 1998 yet, I doubt they ever will.

      Hope i’m wrong.

  3. Lauren said

    Great post. In my (very humble) opinion, I think writers have more possibilities now than ever. We’re in the communication age! Far from becoming extinct, it is the writer who has a unique advantage in a world of Tweets, txts and talking points. And as you so eloquently stated: words are old-fashioned (and that’s a good thing!) They’re the one thing that keep us grounded in an ever-changing digital space.

  4. More than words said

    I agree, but it’s not like “words” are all copywriters have to offer. I’ve been the best concepter in every creative team i’ve been on, and a better judge of strategy than most creative directors i’ve worked for (By admission of the CDs themselves)

  5. Tad DeWree said

    Sage advice.

    Two great rules: Write like you talk and when in doubt, edit out.

  6. Bolanka said

    Never, ever think you shouldn’t write. You are a very, very good writer and have a lot to tell. Please, please don’t give it up. I will cross all my fingers, toes, eyes etc that you get it all back. But, if you don’t, maybe wait a while and then get back to re-writing the lost part.

  7. Fari said

    Um, isn’t advice supposed to be spelled advice? Like here’s a bit of advice? Not advise, which is is the verb form?

    Come on, word-man!

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