More or Less…

We’re well into the New Year. And everywhere I turn, the air of uncertainty smacks me in the face. I’m pretty used to uncertainties; freelance copywriting is full of unknowns, surprises and WTF-moments.

These days, the uncertainties are external. The impending GST, falling Ringgit and steadily ascending inflation have concocted an aura of economic doom and gloom here in Malaysia.

The signs ignored, voices hushed and belts further tightened.

The situation seems out of our control, with our captain-less ship at the mercy of global economic winds and undercurrents of mismanagement. We need to fend for ourselves; work harder, spend less and save more. Yes, I’m venting a little here.

But they say necessity is the mother of invention. In marketing communications, a flourishing economy and big budgets does not automatically translate to great work.

Less is More
Have less > think different > get results > put some clothes on…

I know, because I’ve worked on campaigns for big brands with big budgets; only to see the work often become needlessly complex and hopelessly off the mark. And when budgets are cut, it is used to rationalise ineffectiveness and less-than-desired results.

These days however, I work mostly for start-ups, entrepreneurial businesses and SMEs. They usually don’t have a marketing budget or even a marketing department. But what they do have is the willingness to try new things, allow creative incubation and exhaust all strategic avenues.

The money is then spent to expound and execute a good idea, and not to bombard the media with a scratched-up campaign hoping for a miracle.

Perhaps the economic doom and gloom presents an opportunity to revamp our preconceptions of marketing. In today’s marketing there are no set formulas, cure-alls or guaranteed results, brands need to spark conversations, have a social persona and navigate the wilderness of technology.

Budgets may be trimmed, but we’ve got to roll with the punches.

Less is more, more or less, yes?

The Call-ing

I got a call recently confirming a fact I discovered some time ago, something I knew about around the time I set off as a freelance copywriter.

The call I received was from one of the creative talent agencies. Yes, I was being headhunted, even though I have no idea how they have my details in their database.

Anyway, to have a talent agency contact someone who’s not been actively looking for a job for the last 4 years or so means either one of two things:

  1. They have absolutely no idea who they are calling, which from a talent agency specializing in advertising talents is in my book an epic fail
  2. The ad industry is really, really desperate for copywriters and have instructed their recruiters to go all out in search of candidates

To confirm the situation, I prodded the person on the other end of the call. “How’s the market for copywriters these days?” I asked. She replied, and I quote “agencies are looking left, right and centre for copywriters”.

The reply made me feel I had prophetic powers. I knew it, I knew it all along!

Copybox
So many things to write, so little copywriters left…

Yes, the lack of copywriters in Malaysia, especially good ones, has been one of the contributing factors in my relative success a freelancer for the last 3 years or so.

It is a trend that I noticed even when I was employed, gentle winds of change that has now culminated in an imperfect storm.  Imperfect for agencies, perfect for me… I’m actually in demand.

So let’s celebrate, yes? No.

I believe the Malaysian ad industry truly had this situation coming. In fact, a lot of people in the higher-ups knew about the scarcity of good writers, but just didn’t do anything about it.

Here’s some advise ala gratis to all agencies out there. Hey, I’m a 16-year veteran who has written for everything from TVCs to T&Cs, so listen up:

  1. Don’t treat our work as fillers to art. We are not just caption writers spoiling nice images with those ugly words. Yes, nice images attract attention, but solid and sometimes lengthy copy retains interest and helps convert.
  2. We may make it look easy, but it isn’t. While the demands of advertising have evolved, we copywriters still work with the basics; our thoughts and a keyboard. There are no apps, software or tools for us. Give us time, and respect.
  3. Don’t let us fly solo all the time. While there could be an art director and two designers in a team, copywriters are often left to fend for themselves. Dedicate more hands for copy development, two copy heads are better than one… right?

I feel copywriting has always been second fiddle to art direction, at least in the Malaysian context. Much emphasis is given to art; with art directors and designers enjoying better career prospects compared to copywriters.

Then there’s no wonder why the influx of copywriters have stagnated over recent years. Not many people can handle the merciless, under-appreciated and often underpaid nature of the profession.

But no disrespect to the art-based players in the industry. I’ve worked with many exceptional ones and truly believe they are creative wizards given the constraints, deadlines and demands of a fast-evolving ad scene.

I just wish – now that the year is drawing to a close – the decisions makers pay more attention to the development of great copywriting talents.

A rather cerebral New Year wish, but for the good of the game, I hope it becomes a reality.

Cheers to all the copywriters out there – employed or otherwise – you do it because it is your calling.

Happy New Year!

True Lies

“I love advertising, because I love lying”.

It wasn’t me, I didn’t utter those words. I’m not as bold and brazen as veteran comedian Jerry Seinfeld; who when accepting an honorary Clio – one of the ad industry’s highest creative accolades – spoke with brutal honesty about advertising.

Though the acceptance speech was meant to be a satirical take on the industry, you could just feel the audience’s amused yet disturbed reaction. For me though, it was 4 minutes of ROFL… a must-watch if you haven’t already:

Yes, I admit it. In my 16 years as a copywriter, I’ve done my fair share of lying. They may not be outright lies, but by Mr. Seinfeld’s definition…

I have duped innocent people out of hard-earned earnings to buy useless, low-quality, misrepresented items and services.

Sounds terrible when you word it that way, doesn’t it? But in true advertising traditions, you could also say:

I convince innocent people with relevant, timely information so that they spend their hard-earned earnings wisely on products and services that deliver the best value.

Or maybe something slightly more client-friendly:

I help consumers make smart purchasing decisions with appealing, compelling and concise information that allows them to choose the products and services that best fit their lifestyle.

Essentially, all of the above versions say the same thing. It’s just the wordplay that took Mr. Seinfeld’s observations and spinned it to something more, well, acceptable.

Same message, different interpretations, multiple executions.

But then again, there’s no substitute for honest, emotionally-driven, insightful communications that consumers will appreciate and eventually trust. If you ask me, that should be the only way to execute an ad campaign instead of the usual mumbo jumbo.

Overpromise
Thou shalt not lie in wait for customers... mislead them!

And to Mr. Seinfeld, we addies aren’t all that bad. We mostly just misdirect and sometimes hide the truth as opposed to blatantly lying to people’s faces.

Unlike this ridiculous promo for a movie you did some years ago…

A Breath of Fresh Ads

What happens when you invite a bunch of people, let them sample your product and allow them to speak their mind? Let’s see…

This month marks my third year as a fulltime freelance copywriter. And if you add the 13 odd years I was an agency-employed copywriter, you can say I’ve seen many groundbreaking campaigns.

From the era of experiential marketing and digital 2.0 to current industry buzzwords such as disruptive marketing and hashtag-strategies; the ad game has evolved to the point of mutation.

But no matter what you do, people will continue to form their own opinions – be it positive or otherwise – about a product or service.

The blind ‘taste test’ for Laphroaig (don’t ask me how to pronounce it) reveals an important aspect of consumer behaviour.

They prefer to think for themselves.

We as advertisers can only mould consumers to think a certain way via a concept, proposition or message. But often have no control of how they might interpret our messaging or imagery.

In the case of Laphroaig, they embraced the opinions of their focus group – made up of people who may or may not have consumed the product previously – and went on to create print ads without filtering even the negative comments.

Laphroaig Ad Hospital
How would a burning hospital taste anyway? Intrigued I am...
Laphroaig Ad Kerosene
Yes, this is a real ad. I did not make it up...

Now, that took some balls.

Granted the product is an intoxicating beverage and there is a certain degree of creative freedom afforded.

But come on… ‘tastes like burning hospital’ as part of a headline? You got to give the people at Laphroaig some props. There are more versions of the print campaign actually, which I urge you to check out.

And the best part, the agency’s copywriter didn’t even have to think of a catchy, punchy and juicy headline; the consumers did it.

Now I want to do a focus group-inspired campaign too… anyone?

Advertising Advertising

Look, I believe in advertising, especially since I’ve toiled in the industry as a copywriter for the past 15 years or so.

But I also believe some things should not be advertised.  While most products and services can benefit from incisive communication strategies coupled with compelling creative executions and targeted message dissemination; I believe those in the ad industry itself should not be advertising themselves.

In recent months, I’ve seen newspapers proclaiming that ‘print is the way to go’ and radio stations promising ‘increased sales’. And the fact that they are advertising in their own pages and airwaves seemed rather desperate.

Print Revenue Stats
The numbers don't lie. Ignore at your own peril...

Advertisers (or clients) will naturally go where there is a large audience. I think media owners should work on strengthening their audience base rather than proclaiming that their medium is a cure-all for communication conundrums.

It’s so obvious that the digital and social revolutions are giving traditional media – especially Print and Radio – stiff competition in terms of ad revenue. These traditional players must begin to realise that they cannot remain unchallenged and must improve on content and engagement, whilst embracing the future of communication.

It will take more than just advertising in-own-media to pry the ad Ringgits that are increasingly being channeled towards online advertising. And we all know that advertising a substandard product will only make it fail faster.

But then again, here are some interesting bits to chew on, based on a 2013 Global Survey of Trust in Advertising by Nielsen for Malaysia:

  • 72% of consumers in the country trust newspaper ads
  • Credibility of traditional advertising remains high compared to online paid media
  • Trust in digital ads such as online banners and social media hover at around 50%
  • Confidence in online advertising is swiftly growing, with ad spend forecast to touch US$34 billion in Asia Pacific by 2015
  • Word-of-mouth still remains the best form of advertising, at 86% trust level

So, while traditional advertising still plays a major role in ad campaigns and strategies, online advertising is fast catching up and cannot be ignored any longer.

Traditional media owners have realised this, hence the desperate attempt to advertise themselves. Only time will tell how long they can remain profitable while clutching to fading hopes.

And in case you didn’t notice, word-of-mouth is still and will always be advertising’s top performer. Maybe it’s wise to spark conversations rather than pour money down the media drain.

How to use copywriting fundamentals to court a woman

If you’re a guy that’s currently trying to woo the love of your life, then you would know that your attempts are ridden with challenges.

In addition to convincing your potential suitor that you’re not a serial rapist, you must also appeal to her heart, mind and soul. Easier said than done, especially when women have the uncanny ability to sense jerks and see through fakery.

Women get hit on more times than we guys can even imagine; so more often than not their initial reaction is to seem disinterested or be wary. Much like how we consumers think that every piece of promotional message – be it in ads, sales calls or e-mails – are too good to be true.

So before she switches off for good, here are a few tips based on copywriting essentials that could help you close the deal, or at least improve your chances:

Love Typewriter
The art of copywriting can captivate more than just consumers...

1. Open with a Bang
Before you get the wrong impression, let me set this straight. In copywriting, the first words the consumer reads or hears are critical. Better yet, if you are able to weave in a benefit at first contact, such as a headline that answers the question “what’s in it for me?” In the case of courting, don’t just ask her out, instead find out what she enjoys and propose an outing with specifics. Example: do you want to join me for a sunset picnic this weekend?

2. Be Persuasive
But not pushy. There are certain words we copywriters use to subtly influence consumers in their decision making process. I’ve written about these power words in a previous post that you may want to check out. In the same vein, courting is also about using subtle influences to compel a desired outcome. Not only in words, but gestures, confidence and mannerisms… just take it easy or you risk looking pushy.

3. Highlight What’s Worthy
Nobody reads, and this is especially true today where people just scan through text in search of only the interesting bits. That’s why copywriting these days involve heavy use of subheads, crossheads and bullet points to highlight the more compelling points. In the same way, you’ve got to appreciate her attention and get to the interesting bits of the conversation quickly. No two hours stories about your grandma, please.

4. Maintain Authenticity
Believe it or not, we copywriters tend to be as genuine as possible when crafting our prose. We may misdirect but never mislead or overpromise, because we hate it ourselves when promises fall flat. So while courting, stay true to yourself and most importantly be believable; women are as likely as consumers to smell the rat.

5. Focus on the Relationship
Ideally, copywriting is the art of making a sale.  But before consumers can part with their money they must know, like and trust you. It is a long-term process that emphasizes on building relationships than just making a sale. So before a woman parts with her heart, mind and soul, you must endeavour to work on the relationship and build trust. It takes time, but the rewards will be worth it.

And in case you’re wondering, this doesn’t apply for courting guys, we’re easy… aren’t we?

What’s the difference?

In my 15 odd years as a copywriter, the word ‘different’ is something I’ve constantly heard from clients.

There nothing wrong with wanting to be different, but the truth is copywriting alone cannot position a product or service as being different in the eyes of consumers. If what you offer is also being offered by a gazillion other competitors, then simply saying ‘we’re different’ isn’t going to cut it.

Think Different
They were truly different and sparked a revolution

Difference does not come from how copy is crafted, it comes from the core of your business itself. A few examples:

  • A totally new or innovative product that fills an existing untapped need (I know, not the easiest thing to discover)
  • The difference in serving customers (you have to go beyond saying ‘thank you’)
  • The way your company operates or a distinct difference in culture (easier said than done)

If your business cannot align itself with any of the above points of differentiation, then sadly the copywriting can only be skewed or tweaked to a certain extent. We copywriters call it tone and manner of delivery; which is to craft the same message your competitors are saying in an alternate way.

But tone and manner can only differentiate how you are saying it, but not what you are saying. Sometimes, how you say it can make a difference, but if your business can figure out something totally different to say, then your proposition becomes more meaningful.

If you want to be different, you’ve got to back it up by living and breathing distinctiveness. Don’t just expect a different copywriting tone and manner to mask the same-ol’.

You have to be the crazy one, the misfit, the rebel, the troublemaker… the one who see things differently.

Fluff is Out

Copywriting is the business of misleading people to buy things they don’t need with the money they don’t have.

Well it’s not that we copywriters tell outright lies to convince people. Sometimes it’s just about too much fluff.

While most of my clients these days understand that effective communication involves a clear, concise message with a touch of personal warmth, I do get enquiries to work on the old ‘catchy-punchy-juicy’ stuff.

FluffMarsh
If it ain't marshmallow, go easy on the fluff

I tend to steer clear from these kinds of requests because, well, the fluff isn’t all that convincing. We’re dealing with young, smart consumers whom are becoming increasingly averse to marketing speak and vague catchphrases.

We’ve all seen those websites, brochures, corporate profiles or even mail drops that are full of meaningless superlatives, mindless ramblings and generic ‘industry’ word play. That’s either a sign of a novice copywriter or a client unwilling to adapt to evolving consumer mindset.

Consumers just want you to tell it as it is so they can then decide whether to do business with you. Besides, none of us want to nor have the time to make sense of  textual mumbo jumbo.

If you still want to take the fluffy route, beware of these pitfalls:

Can you deliver as promised?
Fluff raises consumer expectations, and they expect you to deliver as fluffed. Can you?

Bye-bye repeat business
Once fluffed, twice shy. When all that fluff falls flat, the customer goes to your competitor.

Risk of attracting negativity
We live in a very social world. One disgruntled customer can start a negative crusade against your business.

Even if telling it as it is goes against convention, your product or service can still shine through and appeal to your intended target audience. A case in point is a company in Wisconsin, USA that tells the absolute truth, even it may result in some consumers not buying their product.

ZeroFLuff

Ahhh… I wish I wrote that.

Done is Better Than Perfect

Perfection is an illusion, or some might even say it’s a delusion.

It’s okay to strive for perfection. The problem is it isn’t very practical. We humans are flawed in many ways, and these flaws permeate in pretty much everything we do.

In the business of advertising, which includes copywriting, the need to get everything perfect is almost like a disease.

In fact it is a disease. It’s called analysis paralysis.

Medication
No known medication exists for Analysis Paralysis, it just takes guts.

Strategies are rehashed, every piece of copy reworked and designs needlessly redone many times over. Often even before the ad, website or campaign sees the light of day.

Don’t get me wrong, most of these revisions are necessary. It’s part of producing good, if not great work. But overanalyzing things, using assumptions or past performance just hinders the act of producing great work.

Sometimes, when all else fails, and when you are not too sure if something is going to work; the best thing to do is to put it out there.

Let the intended audience do the analyzing for you. After all, that piece of communication is for them. Then gather the audience’s behaviour and tweak accordingly.

No, focus groups are not going to do you much of a favour. Research has shown focus group participants to be favourable towards a brand or product because they are paid for their thoughts. Nobody wants to bite the hand that feeds them.

So get whatever you’re working on done, put it out there and see what happens. If it bombs, try again. If it seems to be working, make it better.

Done is better than perfect.

Apparently, they have that phrase pasted at a corridor in Facebook’s headquarters in Palo Alto.  You may remember, Facebook was very crude when it first started, but now is in the leading edge of social technology.

If Mark waited to get everything perfect, we’d be still stuck with Friendster or worse, actually meeting people face to face.

Can Advertising Salvage a Bad Product?

Not surprisingly, politics and advertising are considered to be the two least trusted professions in the world.

Every 4 years or so, these two groups of professionals often team up to create misleading… errr… I mean awe-inspiring ads about how everything is hunky dory in the country.

You may have seen these politically-driven ads recently, which I assume are supposed to instill nationalistic pride and encourage us to support the status quo.

Shouting Man
Advertising a bad product can be a real pain

But more and more people now realise that what these ads are ‘selling’ aren’t that good, sometimes just plain bad.

That’s because the boom in alternative views from independent news sites and blogs often discredit efforts by the mainstream players. And of course social media helps spread alternative news very effectively.

William Bernbach – one of the pioneers of modern advertising – once said:

“A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad”.

It’s like watching an awesome movie trailer, where a combination of fast-paced editing, a stirring soundtrack and teasing dialogues is delivered in two minutes. And then you go watch the movie and realise you might as well been watching paint dry for the last two hours.

Sure enough, when any of your friends wants to watch the same movie, you’d probably not recommend it. This ripple of ‘thumbs-down’ will almost certainly make this movie a flop.

There are many ‘trailers’ on TV these days illustrating a progressive, modern and united Malaysia, provided our votes are cast to oppose change. While I’m not writing the creators of these ads off, I just hope I’m not forced to watch the actual drama for the next four years either.

Let the mud-slinging begin!