Copywriting in the Digital Era
By Mark Tungate
What does the job title “copywriter” mean in the 21st century? We asked the experts.
The term “copywriter” still exists, but advertising has changed considerably since David Ogilvy wrote long-copy print ads with alluring headlines and columns of elegant text. But if copywriters aren’t just writing anymore, what are they doing?
Vicki Maguire, Chief Creative Officer of Grey London, who wrote her way into the advertising business, comments: “I think the title ‘copywriter’ is misleading, but I prefer it to the other spaffy titles out there like wordsmith, copy imagineer or – shoot me now! – word painter.”
Of course, long copy ads still exist (think of the wordy Jack Daniel’s ads seen on London Underground platforms) but Vicki warns against literary pretentions.
“I see my role more as the person who can articulate the voice of the brand, rather than showing off my Masters in English. I haven’t got a Masters in English, by the way.”
Tristan Fitzgerald, creative director of RAPP New York, admits that long copy ads are now few and far between. “Although they’re probably due a hipster revival, along with typewritten poetry and vinyl records.”
For him, however, “you’re still delivering words and ideas – that never changes”. He adds: “I think the difference is that you have to think for more about beguiling someone through an entire customer journey, across multiple touchpoints, rather than getting them to do one thing.”
Talking of Ogilvy, copywriter Julien Bredontiot of Ogilvy Paris shares Tristan’s point of view. “The role of the copywriter hasn’t changed and never will. As long as there are ideas to be found, our job will be the same: transform a client’s needs into a concept, a strong idea that can be summed up in a phrase or even a single word.”
Nicolas Gadesaude, copywriter at French agency Rosapark, says the digital era has merely enlarged the playing field. “It’s ushered in a new language and new practices: today you try to come up with a hashtag in the way you might have done a tagline, or you can jump onto a current event with a well-turned post.”
He feels that the gap between “online” and “offline” has definitively closed. “It’s gone back to basics. Is this a good idea or not? Will these words be impactful or not?”
For his part, Julien regrets the demise of the well-written TV ad. “Today it’s rare to see a strong idea during prime time. Those spots are reserved for less risky media in terms of investment, with a niche audience hungry for entertainment. It’s almost as if TV viewers don’t have the right to enjoy themselves any more. They’re just expected to salivate in front of their screens and then rush out to buy the product. It’s a pity.”
Tristan Fitzgerald is of the generation that did not have to make the shift from traditional to digital, although he misses the swashbuckling nature of his early days. “We were making it up as we went along – so I was responsible for information architecture, as it was called then, and other aspects of user experience, as well as writing copy. Now the roles are more specialized – though I see a shift back to generalists as clients demand more agility.”
Like Nicolas, he insists that digital isn’t a “thing” anymore. “When I started, copywriters in ad agencies looked down on digital work.” Soon, though, they were asking him how to build up a digital portfolio. “I felt no schadenfreude whatsoever, of course!”
Nicolas suggests that a copywriter must now embrace elements of other metiers. “You need to be a bit of a planner, a bit of an art director, a bit of a salesperson. Things move fast, so you have to jump out of your safety zone if you’re going to make it work.”
Writing your career path
The routes into the advertising industry for budding copywriters seem to be myriad, but they all reflect a certain idiosyncrasy that categorises writers of every stripe.
Vicky Maguire – whose parents run a market stall – studied fashion design. “I was hired and fired by some of the best: Vivienne Westwood, Ted Baker. And it was Paul Smith who said that I should stop trying to draw and write my ideas down instead. That was my light bulb moment. I’d always loved to listen to how – as well as what – people say. I started to write in the style of the audience I was talking to, and I was away.”
Tristan Fitzgerald tried his hand at music journalism, website development and even pig farming before finding his home at an independent digital shop named Zinc in London. “I was working at IBM and wanted out from corporate culture. As soon as I walked into Zinc, I knew it was the right place for me. It was more like hanging out in a bar with mates than a job.”
Nicolas’s father was an art director, but as he grew up surrounded by advertising he found himself drawn to print. “I was staggered by the force that one line of copy could have.”
Like many French ad folk, Julien Bredontiot discovered the industry while watching the TV show Culture Pub (as in “publicité”), which screened the week’s best spots. “I imagined it must be a hugely enjoyable job where each product innovation would jolt a new creative idea from your imagination.”
Advice for copywriters
For those who aspire to becoming copywriters, Vicki Maguire advises: “Listen. Don’t think just because you haven’t got a degree in English you can’t write. I’m strictly from the ‘comma when you need a breath and full stop when you need a smoke’ school of English.”
Of course, in order to hone your craft, you’ll need to read and write. But she adds: “Fill your Insta with words, not just fancy pics of your lunch. Use Twitter as sport. Read stuff out of your echo chamber – stuff that makes you angry, stuff that scares the shit out of you.”
Tristan Fitzgerald echoes this view. “Do your own thing out of hours, as you’ll often be stuck doing less cool stuff in the agency when you’re junior. Write a blog, post on Instagram, script and shoot movies.” But never forget your craft. “Know your ‘its’ from your ‘it’s’.”
Nicolas adds: “Digital is a great source of inspiration, but for creativity’s sake it’s important to leave the screen behind and take a stroll from time to time.”
Julien Bredontiot says there’s no need to fear the blank screen. “Every object, every innovation, every word is an incredible source of inspiration that can give birth to brilliant concepts. The ‘Nothing’ spot for Volkswagen is a perfect example.”