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Hey—You Can’t Say That

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On Students Subverting Form

Some of my copywriting students were eager for more direction on how to use the forms of communication. Some were eager to go species-by-species and list out the formulas for producing them: How to write a print ad. How to write a direct mail. How to script a broadcast ad. How to write and then say the magic words that get you hired.

I taught that class a few years back. It was all about working through the various forms of corporate communication and learning to write in just that style and toward just that end. I taught it for years until I realized everything inside me was shouting for students to run, to break with the form and find a new way to say what they need to say.RarelyFollowedRules-20160506

For today’s copywriting students I was able to point to my beloved copy of Alastair Crompton’s The Craft of Copywriting (long out of print, I believe). Mr. Crompton offered lots of rules that probably worked well in 1979 and some of which still apply. Various copywriters have offered sets of rules over the years. Some stick. Some don’t. Bernbach, Burnett, Ogilvy and Reeves all visited our classroom from time to time in written and oral form. They each had a golden rule or two. And, of course, James Webb Young’s old Technique for Producing Ideas.

In truth, there are some general notions and guidelines and, well, forms (if you must) that apply. But over the years I’ve thought of those as only the receptacle of the really important thing: the idea. It is the idea I’m fixated on and I tried to communicate that to students. Ideas come from grappling to combine something old and something new, something borrowed (from an audience need or desire) and something that can woo. As far as I can tell, there are no formulas for producing ideas, only the setting up of conditions that may lead to ideas.

But, you know, no guarantees.

As many of my students said, “You can’t manufacture ideas.” To which I would always respond, “Or can you?”

Forms and formulas are there and they can be useful. But forms and formulas don’t carry much life. And mastering the forms and formulas, for a beginning copywriter, seems like a starting point. But is it a good starting point? I don’t think so.

The writer’s task is to breathe life into an old form or subvert it or discard it. The key is always and forevermore to put life on a page.

Forms and formulas will always bow before life on a page.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

May 6, 2016 at 8:01 am

When Writing is More than Writing: The Idea Writers by Teressa lezzi (Review)

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Your invitation to a new way to persuade

As editor for Advertising Age’s Creativity, Ms. Iezzi has a daily, close-up view of the trends in the creative world and the people behind those trends. The surprise in the book comes with the affection Ms. Iezzi has for the discipline of copywriting and the practical nature for those seeking to grow in the discipline. It is readable, informative and filled with stories about advertising heroes and insights into current campaigns. I plan on using it as text in my next class on freelance writing.

Ms. Iezzi begins by framing the story of copywriting with a look at the ground-breaking work of legends like Bernbach, Ogilvy, Reeves and others back in the 1960s. Their work was fresh in relation to what was going on around them. Indeed that decades-old work formed the basis of many of our current communication trends. Ms. Iezzi uses the legends to reinforce the importance of storytelling, which these guys got right. Storytelling is the concept that best binds together The Idea Writers, as Ms. Iezzi issues a kind of challenge to today’s batch of copywriters to push into the new ways of communicating.

Two powerful notions emerge from The Idea Writers:

  1. Copywriting today is much more than only writing. Maybe writing was always more pure than writing. Today’s copywriters will sketch designs, draft scripts, work out the voices of a cartoon and a blog persona. They will pitch ideas because they are closest to the energy behind the idea and because organizations run much flatter. This book helps break through the silos that are already on their way down.
  2. Today’s copywriters help guide brand development following new methods of persuasion. In this new age, people buying stuff have unprecedented control of brand. Today’s copywriter recognizes the stories that honor the people doing the purchasing while smartly positioning the brand as a kind of conversation partner.

Ms. Iezzi’s book is the first copywriting book I’ve read that does justice to the emerging notion of the switch from corporate monologue to personal dialogue. The only lame part of the book came when she trotted out her personal list of tiresome cliché ad ideas. Her list of six included things we all instantly know, but to say those ideas will never work again seems like a challenge. The list also invalidates the notion that we beg, borrow and steal good ideas constantly—it’s just that those ideas are more or less recognizable in a different arena.

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