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!

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!

Whoa! Top 3…

A lot of things have been said – by many people – about Search Engine Optimization or SEO for blogs. Now is my turn, and here they are:

  1. Content is really king, especially if it is shareable content. Also, please stick to your context or keywords and never ramble.
  2. Never, ever employ black or grey-hat techniques. Goggle is extremely smart these days, you’ll regret it.
  3. Be persistent… keep those blog posts coming. If you write insightful, relevant and shareable content, your ranking will rise.
  4. Have patience. It takes time to get onto the first page… usually years. And years more to have Top Half presence.
  5. Believe in yourself. A lot of people will laugh at your efforts, sometimes to the point of ridicule. Give them the finger!

Now, I am not an SEO expert. But I have been running a blog close to 3 years. And truth be told this blog has generated more leads that anything else for my copywriting business.

Although I’m not the type to trumpet myself, check these out:

Google Ranking 1
For the keyword 'Copywriter' in Google.com.my - Click to Enlarge >
Google Ranking 2
For the keywords 'Freelance Copywriter Malaysia' in Google.com.my - Click to Enlarge >
Google Ranking 3
For the keywords 'Malaysia Copywriter' in Google.com - Click to Enlarge >

And that’s my 2 cents about SEO. Cheers to micro businesses!

Un-Creative Malaysia

Many of us in the Malaysian advertising industry always lament about the lack of creative license afforded to us by clients – including me, occasionally.

Compared to our regional counterparts in Thailand, Indonesia, India and even our ‘friends’ separated by just a waterway in Singapore; we Malaysians addies aren’t that creative to be honest.

CreativeSkull

I am not trying to blame anyone here. Whether clients give us the creative freedom or not should not be used as an excuse. It is how creatively we work within the constraints that matter.

But let’s look at it this way. Creativity is subjective; and is not the kind of waters you want to thread, especially when millions in media budget is at stake.

And the biggest question is this – even if audiences get an idea that is creative, do they remember the product?

I have friends who sometimes comment on ads they’ve seen. They will rave about how creative it was, and when asked about the product that the ad was supposed to sell, go totally blank.

So it is quite understandable when Malaysian clients take a more direct route in communicating to their target market. If a mind-blowing creative campaign doesn’t ring in the sales or even improve brand awareness; then what’s the point?

As a copywriter, I always believed creativity in advertising is a balancing act. A campaign must be equally memorable and be able to compel action at the same time.

Finding that equilibrium is where the magic of advertising happens.

We Are Humans

As a copywriter, I always thought I was a Jaguh Kampung, loosely translated from Malay to mean ‘Village Champion’.

It is a term normally used in sports, referring to the inability of Malaysian sportsmen and women to compete in an international level, even though they are champions locally; hence Jaguh Kampung.

Well we are waiting for our first Olympic gold medal aren’t we? I wish they would just introduce squash in the next Olympics so we can really kick some ass.

World View
The global village, and we are all champions

Since I became a copywriter about 13 years ago, I have only written for the local markets. Maybe there is an exception of a couple of odd jobs here and there, but nothing too serious to dent my Village Champion reputation.

But copywriting is like that. You need to be in-tune with the local markets; constantly observing trends, gathering native knowledge and be able to communicate to the masses in a simple, localized manner.

Writing in a foreign market changes the rules for a village champion like me. Though the fundamentals remain the same, local insight is critical to help ensure a message is effectively delivered and understood.

Or so I thought.

When I was in South Korea recently on a job, I had absolutely no knowledge of the local markets. What motivates the Koreans? What compels them? What are their taboos? And how the hell was I going to translate my local Malaysian knowledge in a country where even English is hardly spoken?

Then I realized something. Even if I was tasked to communicate and appeal to Koreans, they are after all, humans. While I looked very different (bordering on exotic), I realized that Koreans are motivated, inspired, awed and surprised by the same things.

All it took was to keep things clear and simple; with a little bit of reward thrown in to compel action. Yes, translating everything into Korean also helped, but we translate pretty much everything into Chinese and Malay here as well.

So it doesn’t really matter where you’re from; all it takes is a little bit of human insight.

Copywriter Abroad

As someone who’s been a freelance copywriter for the past year; this last 2 weeks or so has been absolute chaos.

I had to go from what-to-do-now? to what-the-freak? in a matter of days. But my time in Yeosu, Korea, for the World Expo 2012 so far has been eye-opening.

Malaysia Pavilion
An-nyeong-ha-se-yo... welcome to the Malaysia Pavilion

There are representatives from 110 countries at the Expo site promoting their nations. Each country has its own hall – also known as a Pavilion – for visitors to explore.

The crowds are massive. Some days, up to 100,000 people visit the expo. The Malaysia Pavilion alone has received up to 40,000 visitors in a day, from 9am to 9pm. It’s a sea of people everywhere you look; with performances, showcases and parades happening around every corner.

The Malaysia Pavilion – where I’m tasked with Publicity & Promotions – is actually one of the best pavilions around. Yes, I actually mean it. This is not a publicity post, it’s just the honest truth.

Dome
180-degree undersea dome projection in the Malaysia Pavilion... it rocks!

As Malaysians, we are often very quick to dismiss anything Malaysian. We tend to disregard our own capabilities and rave about what the Mat Sallehs are doing. But truth be told, we Malaysians are quite good at what we do; I suppose it’s just a matter of commitment.

Hmmm… I’m feeling patriotic all of the sudden, maybe because it is the month of Merdeka or maybe I just miss home.

But either way, I’m proud to represent Malaysia here. 2 more weeks to go… and more pictures to follow soon, when I find the time.

Why I Turn Down Jobs

Most freelancers will shudder at this thought, especially newly-minted freelance copywriters like myself. But it is a necessary evil for the greater good.

But let me make this clear – I don’t like turning down jobs.

Tick tock clock
If I spend all the time writing; who's gonna do the thinking?

Not just because of the lost income, but I also feel rather guilty. Opportunities don’t come easy these days because honestly, times aren’t great.  I often feel like I have let myself down. Maybe I should work doubly hard and cram every job I can get into my schedule.

Yes, in the Malaysia Boleh spirit, maybe I should do just that.

But then again, there is only so much I can do before the quality of my work starts to suffer. While pitching for new business and engaging new opportunities are critical for survival; I do not want to let down my existing clients either.

I have written something call the ‘Mamak Stall Syndrome’ a while back. It was about how local food stall operators often forget about you as soon as you take a seat, because they’re busy pulling in more customers.

The thing is I already have a few good clients sitting in my shop. And for me, keeping them happy is as equally important as finding new clients.

Go Online, or Go Under

More than 12 million Facebook users. National broadband penetration is over 80%. Almost 17 million total internet users. And how much are Malaysian businesses spending on online advertising?

A measly 1% of their total advertising budget.

A report released recently by Google and McKinsey & Co shows that Malaysian businesses hardly see internet advertising viable. In fact, Malaysia is placed at the bottom 10% of the 57 countries surveyed.

Cars on Key
You can reap unexpected rewards advertising online... kacching!

Look, I’m no advertising genius. But doesn’t this seem like a severe case of head-in-the-sand ignorance?

Just 10% of Malaysia’s Facebook population is still more than the total daily readership of The Star, which is at about 1.06 million.

But that’s not all. We Malaysians spend more time on the internet than on watching television or listening to the radio combined.

If you ask me, I think we spend more time online than even talking to our spouse, family and friends combined.

If anyone out there thinks online advertising is crap – it can be annoying if improperly executed though – here are 5 good reasons why you should take your next campaign online:

  1. Costs a fraction of TV, Print or even Radio ads
  2. You can measure results and effectiveness almost immediately
  3. Internet allows for almost pin-point targeting, bases on niche interests
  4. Those in their 20s and 30s are active internet users; a consumer goldmine!
  5. Almost 40% of purchase decisions are made on the net; making online presence critical

In times of dwindling marketing budgets and an ever-evolving consumer landscape, please feel free to double or even triple your online marketing efforts this year.

If you still want to spend RM40,000 or upwards on a one-time-only print ad (I’ve got some tips for that too) instead of a highly-targeted, response-oriented online campaign; then go right ahead.

So We’re Bashing Up Customers Now?

If you can’t serve your customers, bash them up. A method practiced by a certain KFC employee; allegedly of course.

But you can’t refute the video evidence. Even if he was provoked, this is still no reason for an employee of a global fast food chain to get all Bruce Lee with anyone; let alone a customer.

But strangely, I wasn’t all too surprised.

That’s because I’ve been noticing the lowering standards of customer service in Malaysia for many years now. I’ve also written about my own experiences and the possible reasons behind such dismal customer service.

The KFC tagline these days is “So Good”. I guess they are not only referring to the chicken (again, allegedly), but also to the whacking that one would get from disgruntled employees.

But that’s the problem isn’t it. The brand spends millions to say something and the employees – who are probably working long, unforgiving hours for pittance – say another. There is hardly any synergy between what you see and what you get from Malaysian businesses these days.

KFC is Smackin Good
He was, after all, a Colonel... don't be charmed by that smile!

And the worst part, no one is bothered.

Like the many customer service mishaps of the past, this video will be forgotten and conveniently dismissed as a one-time-only incident beyond the company’s control.

But I would really like to see is Ronald McDonald kick someone’s ass though… that would be awesomely funny!

New Year, Same Old…

(as the saying goes) …Shit.

So, after all the partying, hangovers, reminiscing and resolutions; we are greeted by the daily grind.

In advertising, that means more last minute rush jobs, late nights, over-the-weekend special bonuses and new business pitches. No one said it was going to be easy, but I think we addies somehow enjoy the pain.

Here’s to another year of adver-chaos, no matter where you are. But for us in Boleh-land, don’t worry, CNY is just round the corner. You just got to love Malaysia sometimes!

Possibly what you can expect all over again this year, thanks to Advergirl:

It starts
Suddenly, on a late Friday afternoon..
Panic
But, but... it's the weekend?
Peoples
All hands, heads, legs on deck!
Who's paying the pizza guy?
And they really believed that shit?
And they actually bought it; really?

Wasted effort, or strong initiative?