Why So Emo, Copywriter?

You know, as a copywriter I have always felt that my profession very much resembles our day-to-day, emotion-filled lives.

I mean, the copywriting art of creating intent and thereafter convincing is certainly a skill that is needed in everyday life.

This starts very early in our lives, and right up to our senior years. Some examples:

Asking our parents to let us stay up a little longer
Convincing our siblings that there’s a monster under the bed
Influencing the teacher that it’s the other kid’s fault
Telling your friend that it’s cool to smoke this
Sweet-talk a girl/guy to go out with you
Get an employer to hire you
Persuade the bank that you’re good for it
Warning your kids not to stay up a little longer
Making your kids to get to the bed before the monster does

And these are just broadstrokes. There are countless little acts of convincing that needs to happen every single days of our lives – be it with ourselves or others – to have some semblance of being a functioning human being.

Just like convincing people to purchase, we don’t always get our way. There are failures and rejections to contend with – and most of the time it depends on the emotional connection with other person.

Emotions matter, because we want the recipient to be in a trusting, comfortable and accepting mood if we were to have any success.

Emotional Copywriter
Make the right emotional connection, or it’s eggs on your face!

Think about the last time you willingly agreed to do something.

Let’s say for instance you were asked to dine in a place that you know is average, yet overpriced. But you still agreed.

Did you feel compelled to say yes because you’re such a nice person? Or was it because you were emotionally invested to the person making the request?

Like if my wife asked me to do something I don’t really want to do (don’t get any funny ideas), I’d still probably do it – that’s being emotionally invested, and also so I can earn extra brownie points.

Apparently, being emotionally invested makes you less critical and objectively observant. Love is the greatest emotional investment – think about all the things you did for family, good friends and loved ones… it probably didn’t take too much convincing.

Buying gifts for your nearest and dearest is an emotion-filled task as well, where budget or inconvenience are not prime concerns.

But what if there is no emotional connection, as with life’s other activities? As a copywriter, convincing strangers to purchase a product or service is often devoid of any emotion.

Perhaps chemistry has the answer.

You see, there are a few chemicals we can try to trigger – in our intended targets’ brains – that can alter their emotional state to be more, well, ‘receptive’.

Be it from a copywriter or a salesperson, inducing these chemicals can be the difference between ignoring the message or taking action.

  1. Dopamine
    Improves focus, motivation and memory with an all-round, feel-good factor. Induced by building suspense and leaving things to the imagination with a cliff-hanger. Think teaser ad campaigns and movie trailers as real-world examples. Good e-Mail marketers also use this strategy – where a potent, well-crafted prose leads to a video or landing page. 
  1. Oxytocin
    Builds trust, nurtures generosity and improved bonding. Induced by weaving empathy into the storyline. Those UNICEF, WWF or SPCA campaigns usually take this route, to get you feeling all warm and fuzzy, making you more willing to donate. 
  1. Endorphin
    Makes people laugh and automatically puts them in a good, open and comfortable mood. Think ice-breakers in client presentations or a funny quote to start an e-Mail copy. This funny business is a bit mischievous though, use sparingly or you will end up looking not-so-credible. Great for memes, but not always for marketing communications.

So the next time you encounter a marketing content that spoke to your soul – be it a sponsored post, blog article or video – it’s probably one of the chemicals above at work.

And possibly thanks to a copywriter going all emo to make that soul-warming connection.

The key ideas for this post was based on a TedTalk by David JP Phillips on the science of storytelling. Pretty interesting if you’re into that kind of stuff.

What the Tech!

You know, I started in the advertising business as a copywriter in 1998 – that was my first job fresh out of college.

I graduated right smack in the middle of the Asian Financial Crisis and jobs were few and far in between. Out of sheer persistence and a hefty dose of luck, I landed a job as a copywriter for a small independent advertising agency.

I remember having to work without a computer, perhaps it was deemed unnecessary for me although I was the only writer in the agency at that time. I wrote copy by hand on A4 pieces of paper, and once approved, personally keyed directly into the layout on the designers’ gleaming Macs. Yeah, thug life.

This was a time before spell check and autocorrect, which meant I carried around an Oxford dictionary and thesaurus like how one would carry a smart phone now.

Research was with whatever printed journals and publications I could get my hands on. Doing some ‘internet’ research meant I had to wait for an open Mac, which usually happens when the designers were out for lunch.

There was no Google – actually there was but it was pretty crappy then. Yahoo! and Alta Vista were all the rage. Files were transferred using 1.44MB floppy disks, I know, cutting-edge shit. Purchasing stock images meant browsing a printed catalogue, placing the order via fax and someone would physically deliver the hi-res image on a disk a day or two later.

Floppy Tech
Tech can make your content flop

I could go on, but you get the gist, right?

The business of advertising back then was very analog, time-consuming and painstaking. The studio – where we creatives work – was a wonderous world where a lot of effort would go into creating a piece of marketing communication. It was hard, often manual, brain-crunching work – yet very fulfilling.

Then technology happened. Now, just one person can ideate, conceptualise, write, design and disseminate a piece of communication. What took weeks with a team of 5 back then can probably be done in hours today – we’ll leave the quality out of the equation for today yeah.

The entire process has been condensed and simplified – with apps, websites and software. But has it become simple for a person to multitask and create a well-crafted piece of marketing communication? Not by a long shot.

The overload in technology has resulted in overload of communication channels, which has resulted in overloading marketing plans with strategies to cover the constantly evolving and growing list of media must-haves.

It used to be just a website and Facebook page. Now, a marketer must think about separate strategies for Instagram, TikTok, Linked-In, Pinterest, YouTube Channel and every other social media trend to reach a fickle, devoid-of-attention and triggered audience.

And a lot of so-called digital agencies are churning out the same garbage churned for one channel and ramming them down disinterested audiences across other channels, including social media. All this is being done with blatant disregard for suitability of the media for the brand or business, or at the very least proper versioning and tweaking of the message.

Just content after mindless content generated for the sake of adhering to the marketing calendar. It has truly become a cesspool of words, images and videos that hardly means anything nor compels any kind of response.

Digital Evolution

Look, I for one am overwhelmed as well with the volatility, dynamics and continuous mutation of the marketing communication landscape. And there’s no sign of stopping really with AI and VR set to hit the marketing mainstream next.

But having been in the industry for over 2 decades and experienced its progression, I can tell you that the fundamentals are still the same. Strategies may differ and tactics will need to be upgraded to the times, but essentially its all about compelling content that generates leads and thereafter converts to a purchase.

Essentially, it’s about the idea and the objective first, and then take advantage of the type of media that can generate the most results. It’s not just about getting likes or comments or shares – if it doesn’t convert, its just more marketing Ringgit down the loo.

Marketing work during my rookie years was a multi-step, multi-person process, all thoughtfully crafted to the end objective of eliciting response. That seems to still be the idea these days, but technology – be it in terms of marketing tools or the media itself – has not made anything simpler.

So take a step back and look at the big picture as you ideate and strategise. The tech is just to enable, and is not the idea itself.

Confessions

Uninspired or not bothered?

Busy or lazy?

Attention-deficit or not-up-for-it?

Family-first or Netflix thirst?

Risk averse or glut of guts?

discuses
Distractions or excuses?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first post on this blog was on 3rd January 2010, it was called the Accidental Ad-man. In that post – just shy of 10 full years ago, yikes! – I prophesied how this blog could be an accident in the making. That’s just me being the pseudo-pessimistic, ultra-realist person I sometimes am.

Well now, at this very juncture, I feel that that playful premonition has come back to haunt me. I have become a victim of my own self doubt and analysis paralysis, which has resulted in this blog being dormant for the last few years or so.

And honestly, I have ran out of excuses.

There is nothing more I can say here to justify my lack of efforts. 10 freaking years has just dissipated into memories. A decade of the good, bad and ugly; all irrecoverable, un-editable, immutable.

It’s especially painful when I re-read my musings here, seems like I enjoyed the process of writing – just plain writing. Thoughts, ideas, observations and commentary forming out of nothingness, only accompanied by the sound of key strokes.

What a beautiful feeling.

I started this post with a few questions. Yes, they are questions for me by me, and the answers are meant to shed some light why I stopped writing. While I can easily attribute the fact that I started a family as one of the contributing factors, I feel that becomes just another excuse.

In fact, I should have more solid material for my writings with all the insanity of having 2 kids in quick succession. And believe me I do.

So why have I reduced myself to this? Maybe god knows, but I think our friend is equally perplexed. This is solely on me.

And if someone is actually reading this attempt of me trying to make sense of things, then congrats! You now know more about my inner feelings that the average person does.

Last thing, writing this was an absolute pleasure.

 

Life Took Control

Well hey, it’s been a 3-year hiatus since my last post.

I blame myself to be honest, for not keeping this sorry excuse for a copywriting blog up-to-date. You see, I really, really meant to continue writing, but circumstances of my own doing somewhat halted my drive and determination to keep the posts coming. My bad, to say the least.

Yet everything has a reason (or many reasons), and mine are very much to do with family and everything that goes along with it. In addition, I’ve had a full-time J.O.B over the last couple of years or so, which meant penning my thoughts was not high up my priority list. I slacked for a few weeks, which became months and eventually years… so here I am, ashamed of my lack of effort and motivation to, just, write.

SEO Writer
I chill for a few years and this is what happens to copywriting… damn!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But let’s let bygones be bygones shall we?

Essentially, life took control. And now I am in the midst of setting in motion the plans of what I hope will culminate in regular thoughts, insights, observations, advise, and the usual nonsense (or sense) from yours truly.

This is not a false start and I am determined not to falter. But as with all things that is being reconstructed, it may be a while before you hear from me again. It has been a whirlwind past 3 years, and I hope the trend continues in this domain, positively of course.

Before I end, it is only fitting for me to apologise to all those whom have enquired for my services in the past few years and got turned down. I must say I was very busy and would not have done justice to your company, brand or marketing plans had I taken up your project.

Hopefully soon, I will be available again to assist in achieving your marketing aims and aspirations.

Cheers!

 

Copywriter Turned Consultant

Well, as eventful as it was, 2015 whizzed by like a speeding train.

In fact, my almost 5-year stint as a fulltime freelancer has gone by as if I was in a 100 metre dash.

And yeah, while I’m at it, my 18 or so years as a wordsmith in a creatively constipated industry now feels like a vividly twisted dream.

So here I am, awoken from what seemed like a pseudo-comatose state of mind – anxiously wondering where my career is headed as I approach my 40s.

Freaking 40s, nuts!

But to be honest, it hasn’t been as delusional or convoluted as I’ve made it to be. Yes, putting 18 years of your heart, soul and neck into something ought to be paying dividends.

And it has, for the most part.

pulpSEO
Pulp Optimization…

Strangely, something else has begun to happen over the last couple of years. I have found myself doing much less writing, while being thrust into situations where my overall know-how in marketing began to take the lead. I’ve gone from churning copy after copy after copy; to work on strategic, conceptual and the business side of marketing.

For a long time I thought I would be just generating content till the day I slump over my keyboard, or at best overseeing other lost souls churn out mindless garbage, and then set myself on fire on a pile of badly written client briefs while screaming “no more reeevissiooonnnsss!”.

Yes, people have mentioned I have a warped mind.

So, in essence, I am not just a copywriter anymore. I am somewhat in transition, or maybe I have already transitioned to become a marketing consultant of sorts. Don’t get me wrong, writing is still my first love, and I will continue to be a keyboard slave for a long time to come.

Maybe, just maybe it’s time I pursue my other writing interests. After all, no time to waste as 40 approaches in haste.

Oh…  better late than never, so happy new year!

Different

I’m one of those weird kind of copywriters. I don’t really read.

Well I do read a bit of non-fiction; but nothing specific, just what I happen to fancy when I’m in a bookstore or while browsing Amazon. When it comes to fiction though, I’m hopeless. The last novel I finished was probably a John Grisham in my teens.

… and sometimes I read what I say and don’t like what I’m thinking…

Even watching my sister go through almost a dozen books a month when growing up didn’t rub-off on me. I’d rather sit on the rooftop of the house I grew up in listening to Tupac’s Me Against the World while admiring the surrounding greenery.

Ahhh… the simpler times.

Despite my lack of reading, I ended up in the writing business. Most copywriters are or ought to be avid readers, and I’m pretty sure it helps them to become better wordsmiths. But me, I’m different, I tend to read the world that’s in front of me as opposed to blocking my view with a book.

There are beautiful stories playing out right in front of our eyes, no matter how inconspicuous.

I constantly take in the sights, sounds, atmosphere, ambiance and nuances of my surroundings, which in its own way has helped me become a better copywriter over the years.

How you ask? Some examples, if you will:

People watching > Analyzing consumer behavior
Watching TV > Errr… competitive analysis of other ads, provided I’ve not recorded the show
Noticing a gecko on the ceiling > Aspire to greater heights / there’s always (gecko) shit to clean up
Watching the sun go down > Holy crap, there’s a deadline tomorrow!
Hearing birds chirping > Holy crap, the deadline is today!

Well, I’m just… different.

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…

It’s a Miracle

We copywriters are often miracle workers.

I’ve written for cars I never drove, audio systems I never heard, beverages I never drank and even places I’ve never been to. I suppose it’s the same for pretty much every copywriter out there.

The days of getting up close and personal with the product are truly gone.

I remember when I started out as a novice – which was far too long ago if you’re wondering –  that clients actually sent their products to the office so we may check, test, use or just fiddle around with them.

Services are a bit tricky. It would be impractical to get into a huge debt just because you need to write for a new mortgage plan. But clients still took the effort to send over market insights, strategic reviews, target market analysis, competitive analysis and the works.

CopyGoogler
Yes, I Googled this image... what?

These days however, our work really does require us to create something out of nothing, especially in the last decade. Google has become the primary source of information on virtually any product or service. ‘Just Google it’ is a phrase that now replaces ‘do you have enough information?’.

While I often admire a client’s confidence in our resourcefulness, how are we as marketing writers to develop a unique tone-of-voice based on materials sourced from Google? Indeed, Google is a great resource, but it is a vastly generic resource. And when the work delivered is not insightful or outstanding enough, the finger-pointing begins.

But there have been bright sparks. As a freelancer, I’ve met clients whom are genuinely focused on creating communications that are compelling, insightful and truly unique.

Well how are they different you ask? Here you go…

They Care
Their brand is their lifeblood, they live and breathe it. They are intrinsically wired to the growth and development of their brand. They care enough to provide relevant, insightful material along with reasonable lead time to exhaust all possibilities.

They are Transparent
Every aspect of their business open to scrutiny. They give copywriters no-holds-barred access to the inner workings of their organisation, creating the possibility of uncovering unique business traits that can result in the much coveted ‘aha’ moment.

They Work
They know the ins and outs of their business, and willing to work to translate that knowledge into a solid brief. You won’t hear the words Catchy, Punch or Juicy from these guys. They know what they want as much as knowing what they don’t want.