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The other night I got to thinking about a debating class I once took at the University of Wisconsin. An article on the ages-old conflict between the Arab nations and Israel spurned the memory. Like gun control and abortion, the Middle East is a debating class chestnut.

It dawned on me how important that debating course was in shaping my career as an advertising copywriter. The ability to create a compelling and fresh argument from tired tropes is paramount to good copywriting. For most clients, the benefits and solutions within their respective categories are extremely similar, if not identical. Therefore, practicing our skills on classic debating topics is highly worthwhile. (By the way, most of this paragraph has been constructed in the form of a syllogism (if/ then/ therefore), a term and concept I learned in debating class!)

I recall one assignment in particular because of how it forced me out of my comfort zone. I was asked to compose an argument for the opposite side on an issue I felt strongly about. Though I believed in a woman’s right to choose I had to argue on behalf of pro-life.

It was an infuriating exercise, inflaming my youthful passion in so many ways. Which is also why it was such a valuable lesson. Forcing me to argue on behalf of something I was ardently opposed to was and is great preparation for a career in advertising.

Since then, I’ve had to write persuasively about countless products I know nothing about or will never use –everything from enterprise software to feminine protection. At Leo Burnett, I created numerous campaigns for Phillip Morris, selling cigarettes. I worked on a pitch for an online gambling entity. I don’t drink alcohol because it nearly killed me but I’ve written national campaigns for Johnnie Walker and Anheuser Busch.

Scenarios like these are not uncommon. For many of us they represent just another tricky day in Adland. Putting aside one’s moral compass may be harder for some than others but either way the value of classic debating skills is obvious.

Final aside: Now more than ever I think the above debating exercise would benefit everyone who took it, teaching empathy. Sadly, I’m guessing many would refuse to partake calling it emotional terrorism or some such.

Author’s note: a version of this article ran last week in Reel Chicago – If you have a writing project you’d like to discuss, by all means hit me up!

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Two peas in a pod?

“Much of the Simpsons’ success can be traced to two main sources: an independence from network interference and a complete dedication to the writing…”

                                       -John Ortved, The Unauthorized History of the Simpsons

 

The Simpsons TV show is the creative standard by which all comedy writing (perhaps all script writing) is measured. Few ever meet those standards. Many duck them all together. The Simpsons is also one of the most successful things ever created. Period. No part of popular culture (ours or anyone’s) is unaffected by this quirky cartoon. How and why can be summed up in the above quote.

As you might imagine, the above quote is sweet music to any creative person’s ears, especially if you’re a copywriter. Unfortunately, it is a song we seldom get to play or hear in the creative department. We get “network interference” all the time, so much so it is considered part of the “process.” And while we may have a complete dedication to the writing, few others in a typical agency do. And why should they? Writing is not their skill set. They are executives, strategists and managers. Their skill set, if you get right down to it, is to affect the writing, generally via “comments.” Comments can be good. Comments can be bad. My point is we don’t work in a vacuum.

The “curiously strong mints” campaign is my Simpsons. In my own unauthorized untold true story of Altoids, I make a similar statement to Ortved’s. A great campaign for many reasons but, in the early going, its meteoric success comes down to the same two things: autonomy and an obsession for writing. I obsessed over those headlines as my partner, Mark Faulkner obsessed over images, color scheme and typography.

In that first year we answered to no one, save for our creative director, who was only appreciative and supportive. Obviously, the client had to sign off (they were a joy by the way) but “network interference” was negligible. Why? No one in the agency cared. The budget was tiny and TV never an option. (Remember this was 1995 and this was Leo Burnett. TV was king.) Anyway, the rest is history: Wrigley bought Altoids and Lifesavers for $1.5 billion dollars.

Ultimately, many would contribute in the case study of Altoids (I’ve named them in previous posts as well as in an Adweek story) but year one it was just a creative team and an assignment.

So, what do we make of “network interference” aka the age-old battle between suit and creative? We are both on the same team, working for the same “network.” But the partnership is strained. Necessarily perhaps. And maybe that’s healthy. But for those once-in-a-lifetime campaigns –“Think Different” “Just do it.” “Curiously Strong Mints”- I’m guessing it’s the creative lonely man who called the tune.

Author’s Notes: This article first ran last week in Reel Chicago – If you would like a creative lonely man as cipher hit me up Portfolio

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A while back a guest writer on AdAge, Lauren Warner took some heat for an essay she wrote about the briefing process. Among other things, she claimed one should address “creatives on your shop’s team like they’re in kindergarten.”

Others may have been offended but the story made me smile. I recall an evening spent at my children’s school, meeting their teachers, discussing the upcoming year. During this visit, I became aware of how “creative” so much of my daughters’ curriculum really was. Colette’s science teacher explained how “experimenting and taking chances” shapes her powers of intuition. Lily’s drama teacher rhapsodized about “connecting to the inner fantastic.” She used the word “connecting” over and over again. “At this age,” she said, “the creative gene is ready to explode!”

I couldn’t help but think of all the “connecting” strategies I’ve puzzled over as a copywriter and creative director. “Connecting people” is the default strategy for all telecommunications, personal technology, and, frankly, just about everything people use in their waking lives. Connecting folks is Coca Cola’s uber-strategy. “I’d like to buy the world a coke.”

Even more interesting was this business about creativity “exploding.” I believe the teacher was saying that our creative muse is born in these opening years of life. That stimulated and nurtured, we begin to understand and respect our intuitions. Kindergarten is a creative department. Experimenting with ideas on the stage, colors on paper, sounds in music class… That’s what I do!

Or that’s what I prefer doing. Much of my day, however, is spent lawyering on behalf of ideas. Defending them. Subjecting them to all manner of worries and concerns, making them more appropriate, more coherent, more on strategy. It’s inevitable. It’s my job. But it’s also like killing the butterfly in order to appreciate it.

The older I get the more I realize how important it is to stay “connected” to my “inner child.” The best creative people do not grow out of it when they grow up. We remain inquisitive like children. Lovers of fun. You see it in our bicycles in the hallway. Our dubious wardrobes. Our playlists. Our silly photos online. Alas, you also see it in meetings, where we become pouting and defensive, wilting under criticism, frustrated by the grown-ups ruining our fun. I know we can be insufferable. Imposing MBA logic in Romper Room is bound to create problems.

But our muses shouldn’t be stymied: the ability to ideate, to find that “inner fantastic” is necessarily petulant. What’s regrettable is marketing’s obsession with guaranteeing results…or else! Research. Testing. Groups. I say Bleh! There are no guarantees. Never were. Never will be. Intuition, if cultivated and nurtured, is the most important tool the creative department has. The old saw is wrong. Ideas are not our “babies.” That job belongs to us.

Author’s note: This post originally ran as guest commentary on Reel Chicago

I am available for copywriting and creative direction and I will behave like an adult: Steffanwork/CV

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One develops habits as a copywriter. For instance, I need to see what words look like in a layout to truly assess them properly. The art directors were right: a block of copy is a visual. It needs to look right. Losing a word or two in order to accommodate the visual is not compromise; it’s part of creating good copy. Seeing your words in a layout provides concrete proof that what you’ve written is right. The perfect paragraph on Word is almost never correct in situation.

This habit did not change with new technology. If anything it became more pronounced. Now I can see finished looking ads before they are produced. Ancient history, I know. It’s been years since anyone relied on marker comps to sell an ad. We all want to see the baby before its born.

Where it gets interesting for me is in other forms of writing, like this blog. While I write these words in Word, and edit the hell out of them in Word, I’ve really only created a first draft. The true test comes when I create a “new post.” Then I see the paragraphs as you would see them. Suddenly their flaws become manifest, almost like an allergic reaction. Lose this sentence. Change that word. Move the photograph down a peg. Why these things were never apparent on a white screen is a mystery to me.

Perhaps it is also a curse. Many bloggers crank out content because new content is the key to new readers. Like in a MASH unit, they sow up stories and send them to the front. The sentences bleed adverbs and are pockmarked with dot-dot-dots, suggesting the writer had no time to tie up the paragraph or suture a proper segue.

I can’t work that way. Whether it reflects in my writing or not (and it may not), I treat each story as if it will be graded by a writing professor. It’s a habit I got into a long time ago.

See what my writing can do for you: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

 

Do you know where you’re going to?

That’s the signature line from the Theme from Mahogany by Diana Ross. A lovely number, back in the day it was a sensation. But that line. Well, as tuneful at it is it also happens to be wrong. As a sentence it’s grammatically incorrect. Ask any 7th grader. it ends in –or should I say ends with- a preposition. Spell check will tell you the same thing. That “to” is tacked on. Technically, the line should be, “Do you know where you’re going?”

However, the correct line would also be the wrong line. Without that tiny,”incorrect” word the song may very well have failed. Theme from Mahogany might not have even happened.

Which got me to thinking about copywriting. How many times have we also used poor writing (grammatically speaking) to deliver stunning creative results?

“Think Different” anyone?

It’s what we do. It’s what we’re supposed to do. Good copy takes poetic license with the written word. And sometimes that means ending a sentence with a preposition. Or starting one with one. Or repeating words like “one” to make a point. To stand out. To shine. That’s the same reason I just used two phrases as complete sentences, even though spell check implored me not to. And look at that. There’s “to” at the end of another sentence. For that matter there’s “that.”

I realize all this may seem quaint in the age of social media and texting. Never before has the written word taken so much abuse. Brutal spelling, abbreviations and the like have manhandled the world’s languages into grotesque shorthand.

But that is how people choose to communicate. We like it. And for the most part, any and all marketing communications must adjust accordingly or risk dying off like big words and good manners.

For superb copy, creative direction and the purposeful misuse of prepositions : https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/