Posts Tagged ‘copywriting’
Depends: what do you mean by fulfilling?
An art director and I were talking once about the different jobs we had done over the years. Al said he did some work as a freelancer he was not particularly proud of: wasn’t bad work, just didn’t highlight the creative style he had become known for. Why did he do it? “Well, I had a family and a mortgage and…you do what you gotta do.”
This is my story, too. It is everyone’s story.
An English student asked me how someone writing for an agency or corporation can find fulfillment when the writing is essentially voiceless. By that I understood she meant that the writing was not coming out of some personal deep need to communicate. I get what she means and I think this is an important question. But I also think we romanticize the production of art, novels and poems.
I’ve been arguing that work and art sometimes fit hand in glove and sometimes stay at opposite ends of our daily teeter totter. I’ve been arguing you need both to make either work. If you just have paying work, you are not exercising your creative self. If you just are creating, you’re broke and maybe you don’t have a place among real people in real life. Here are a few things that happen when work and art find a way to live together:
- Workmanlike attention: Our work with its deadlines and status updates helps us (sometimes forces us) to be productive. This is useful when it comes to delivering on our art or craft. Just getting to it—every day—is the way we produce anything. None of this waiting for enlightenment stuff.
- Having a place among people: isolation is not good. Those colleagues and bosses and clients who critique our work help shape it (no matter how painful). In the same way as we try to explain our craft or art to others, it gets shaped as well.
- It is your job to develop a voice. It may not be your voice, but it must be a believable voice. And to run that voice through the gauntlet of critics and peevish managers and lawyers and regulators is no small feat. The voice you produce can become a team or corporate asset. That is something to be proud of.
- Now is not forever. If you are not producing the art/poems/novels you intended, find a way to get to it. This usually involves owning up to the myriad excuses we present for not doing it. And if today’s work is less than fulfilling: start looking. It’s the steely beauty of the free market system that you can change. Recognize that this job is for now and not forever (more and more I’m convinced different seasons in life hold different tasks and levels of fulfillment. Plus, we are personally changing all the time, which means fulfillment is a moving target.)
Several of the hard-bitten copywriters I know would say “Who has time for writing outside the office?” To these I would say your own art and copy is a gift to yourself that pays back in meaning and insight.
There’s more to say about this. What would you add or subtract or say to my student?
Peace for the Listening Lurking Capitalist
We’re at the Beats and Allen Ginsberg and Howl now in our march through modern poetry. A recent discussion took in a stanza that seems relatively autobiographical, describing Ginsberg’s failed flirtation with advertising:
who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue
amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regi-
ments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertis-
ing & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down
by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,
There is lots to talk about in this section (indeed, the entirety of Howl begs for response and discussion), including “leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter” and the irresistible “nitroglycerine shrieks.”
Of particular interest to me was the quickness with which our TA/discussion buddies blasted the hackiness of advertising copy. Of course the poets are right (and anybody actually creating ads readily confesses to their role in purveying crass capitalism), still…not everything is “clumsy, tacky copywriting.” That knee-jerk reaction to advertising covers a lot of ground well. But the comment misses the diabolical under-the-skin genius of the copy that got through and has already been ingested and now guides our subconscious. Professor Al hit closer to home when brought up “very slick” old slogans that remain memorable. Ginsberg’s insights at that point are perceptive and well-wrought, but I cannot help but insist on seeing the beauty of some advertising. The turn of a phrase that attaches (yes, at times parasitically to a target brain) is, well, amazing. It’s a kind of poetry let loose among today’s pages and screens and whispers.
There is a way to be at peace with using creativity to solve business problems. The way of peace wanders alongside the grove of manipulation without wandering in. This path follows a course of respectful persuasion, with nods to the “I and Thou” while resolutely trimming and toning messages for real-life use.
There is a way between “clumsy, tacky” and slick manipulation. That is a way of service that can be beautiful in its workmanlike portrayal of practical truths.
Read the White Space. Hear the Silence.
MedCity News reports on an Endo Pharmaceuticals brochure under scrutiny by the FDA. The problem was a lack of transparency about the dark side of the therapy—a therapy designed to slow the growth of prostate cancer cells, namely:
- paralysis that may result from the risk of spinal cord compression
- the increased risk of diabetes/heart attack/sudden cardiac death/stroke
In a lively debate in comments section of the Pharmalot blog, the consensus seems to be that the FDA made a good call. Commenters began by speculating this was likely more than just a slight oversight as the Endo communicator skipped regulatory/legal review in a rush to meet a deadline. Then commenters started tracing the language to the Vantas Implant website and began speculating on the rest of their messaging and promotional literature.
The debate amuses me because it is the rare product brochure that is read outside of a sales presentation. And it is even rarer for a brochure to withstand extended exegesis. That the FDA does this regularly earns my respect/awe/fear. Love them or hate them, the FDA’s dogged attention helps medical copywriters and marketers hew to the high road.
The debate also serves as a reminder of the skills needed for watching tonight’s presidential debate. It’s the white space and silence that may be most eloquent. The skill of reading the white space and hearing the silence means the audience must be equipped with the fuller argument. The FDA certainly was. But to read Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker essay (“The Lie Factory: How politics became a business,” Sept. 24, 2012) is to come away with all the history and reasons as to why the American populace remains a happily uninformed audience. Whitaker and Baxter of Campaigns, Inc. helped set the stage for the current state of our spectatorship:
In tonight’s debate, I’m trying to break free of my usual indolence to hear between the lines (as it were).
Image credit: The New Yorker
I spent the early years of my working life being formed by the medical device industry. I was energized by the mission of seeing people restored and hearing joyful patient stories. I enjoyed the banter with physicians and learning about the junction of technology and living systems. And I was charmed by the folks I worked with: some of the smartest people around, with a bent toward helping others. Not everybody, mind you, but enough lively, mission-fed people that the workday was full of surprise.
Things change. Corporations mature—for better and worse. Lately it seems the balance sheet and the quarterly earnings call too easily drown out mission. Smart people who enjoy a challenge still work there, and it is an industry with more and more specific boundaries. So if your agency is pitching medical device work, please be aware of these three influences that shape the perspective of the people you will be talking to:
- Legal pinioning
- Regulatory straight jacket
- Branding dead ends
These perspective-shapers sounds like a bummer, but smart agencies with a knack for operating in tight quarters can help make a difference. The first two perspective-shapers are fairly obvious. Naturally, the best medical device companies hold the patients who receive their therapies in the highest regard. And you would not want to work with a company that didn’t. But in our litigious age, there’s lots of money to be made from suing manufactures for all sorts of things. Naturally, medical device companies ramp up their risk-averting processes. Lawyers review nearly every outward facing piece of communication and regulatory reviewers—the picky cousins of lawyers—delight in ferreting out each word of potential deviation from the FDA-approved copy. And the work of lawyers and regulators is invaluable.
Branding dead ends are not so obvious and few will admit to them out loud. These take a bit more explanation, so I’ll reserve it for another post.
But in your initial approach to conversations with med tech employees, know that most of their conversations are like walking a tightrope: marketing is always a balance between what you’d like to say and what you can say given the published studies. Agencies with more consumer experience can find this deadening. But resisting the pinioning and the straight-jacket—in your own way—is one of the ways your team can add value. It’s just got to be believable. And it becomes more believable when you ask for and expect the list of approved claims before starting work on your pitch. Since every claim must have a valid reference, basing your creative on the right foundation can make the difference between making the final cut and being dismissed as not up to snuff.
Image Credit: Engadget
The issues that roil your nerves and kick you in the gut may be instrumental in pushing you forward.
A few days back I wrote about sitting with unresolve as long as you can, as one method for producing creative ideas. John Cleese had a few choice words on the topic. After talking about this in class and listening to Mr. Cleese and experiencing it afresh with my own writing, I realized a couple of ancient voices had been swarming around, punching me in the face with this very point—only applying it to the rest of life.
One voice is a warrior-poet. Aside from being handy with a lyre and deadly with a sling and stone, he had a very lucid and descriptive (often prescriptive) way of asking God to do terrible things to his enemies. And yet, though he often had the power and opportunity to take action, he didn’t. Instead, he turned from the shortcut, obvious solution and waited. We all know that waiting for God seems to take longer than anyone likes.
Same thing with another Old Testament character—Habakkuk. He saw bad stuff coming (a brutish band of thugs coming to decimate his homeland) and decided also to fix his attention on God. And wait.
Something happens when we wait. Sometimes we can fix things in life right away. Often we can’t. So we wait. And just like when we’re working through a creative solution to a thorny business or communication problem, we sit with unresolve and let the discomfort itself push us forward.
Same thing with life. We wait and seek and wait. And–this may be most critical—we reach out. We reach out when things are not right with us. And reaching out is nearly always worthwhile. Reaching out looks like a phone call. Reaching out looks like an email. Like prayer.
Some students from my copywriting class are graduating. Everyone says it’s a low-energy job market—difficult for the job hunter. I sympathize. To these graduates I simply offer the notion that your creative unresolve can lead you forward into networking, conversation and, yes, to reach out in prayer.
I still maintain that the best stuff in life happens in and through the choices and actions made directly from chaotic, creative unresolve.
This was a favorite phrase back in High School, when there was no end to how much Monty Python we could quote each other. Lo these many years later, it turns out that John Cleese had quite a lot to say about creativity. I invited Mr. Cleese to lecture in my Freelance Copywriting class last week (via Youtube). Two lectures—spaced 18 years apart—show and reinforce that the best ideas come from sitting in that uncomfortable spot where things are not resolved. The quick solution is often not the best solution. Mr. Cleese argued we need space to become playful, time to border our playful escape from life’s ordinary pressures, time to grind through creating, confidence that mistakes made while creating mean nothing and humor—which is one of the quicker ways to get to this open mode needed for creation.
My goal with copywriting students (and with myself) is to learn to inhabit that chaotic place of unresolve. To live in that space—for as long as possible—while fitting different ideas to the problem. Looking for a match. The chaos of the unresolved space has some motivating effect that helps generate new solutions.
If we wait there.
Via Brain Pickings
I’m fond of a particular collection of ancient texts. One tells the story of a copywriter named Dan. Dan’s client was all-powerful and routinely dismantled (sometimes literally) those who did not do exactly as he asked. This client never hesitated making impossible requests and had no problem forcing his teams to guess his mind.
Dan was an employee who had been groomed and mentored and specially-trained for leadership. And yet Dan retained a commitment to the recognition that even his abusive, ill-tempered, seemingly all-powerful employer had to answer for his actions and did not have as much control as he liked to believe. This perspective had been shaped early in Dan’s life by his large, extended family.
Dan’s understanding of life held sway over his work. And while he was dedicated employee, he had committed himself to write truth, no matter the cost. This put him in a bind when it came to this client, because this client’s wealth and power routinely corrupted those around him, so most everybody told the despot exactly what he wanted to hear.
The story goes that one gruesome assignment forced the entire team to guess what the employer dreamed and interpret that dream. Or be dismantled. Of course no one could do it, and so they said. The employer force the point and the team prepared to be dismantled. Dan heard of the impending mass dismantling and he and his buddies thought they better act on their understanding that even the king answered to God. So they prayed. That’s right, this is a story of a copywriter who conversed with God so he could do his work better. Dan would often point to these conversations with God when people praised his insights.
And he did get insight. From God. It was not an insight that put the employer in a good light, but Dan told it anyway. And everyone lived another day.
Truth matters more than appeasing the abusive despot before you.
The copywriter’s work has always been about providing insight into the soul of a client and the heart of a client’s audience. Get help with that.
Image credit: Douglas Smith via 2headedsnake:
Now. This very moment—long before you have a clue what you are doing. This sounds different from what Young said. Young said go slow, gather your material and masticate. Chew it over. And keep chewing. I agree with Young but with this addition: trick your mind into engaging the problem by jumping all the way to the end before even beginning to gather. Then go back to Young’s process.
Writing the end result out of ignorance does this: you know you’ll write dreck so your internal Editor-Nazi takes a nap while your inner poet-child scrawls all over the wall with red crayon. When you wake up the next day and look at the terrible mess the poet-child made, you recognize a couple very productive words that hint at where this thing needs to go. Sometimes those words or images drill to the internal core of the problem you might never have guessed at with all your precious process.
Image Credit: Oliver Barrett via 2headedsnake