On Writers, Part III

Making it in Today’s Brave New Creative World

So, where is the writer’s place in today’s marketplace?  How does one make a decent living these days spinning words? Advertising copywriters are the top of the financial food chain. Journalists and academicians are paid paltry wages in comparison. Trade writers are the bottom feeders. Yet, there is a fine line between the skill sets of trade scribes and ad copywriters. And the line is getting grayer. So how does today’s writer distinguish him or herself from a lowly tradie or newspaperman?

Well, to get to these answers we should first look at how copywriting has changed. In the 20 years that I’ve recruited writers — I’ve noticed a gradual erosion of the craft (that’s not new news). But, that erosion is more likely the result of adaptation than decay. Media has changed. EVERYTHING is media, therefore I guess everything has changed. But mostly, writing itself has changed because READING has changed. The craft adapted to the practice. I went to a Barnes & Noble recently. I depressingly felt like I was in the new Blockbuster Video retail environment. I couldn’t escape two striking observations:

  1. Coffee table books ruled. And they were mostly heavily discounted.
  2. Books for Dummies has grown out of control, like some literary form of kudzu.
What does this mean (other than the fact that I felt perfectly comfortable in a literary environment targeted to Dummies)? Well, you can take some liberty here and make your own connection. But, I’m guessing it’s got a lot to do with the fact increasingly more “real” books are purchased on the iPads and Kindles. The rest of us morons go to Barnes & Noble. (As I write this, Borders Books just became officially extinct).  “Real” reading is a largely digital experience today.

Okay, how does that affect a person with a copywriting career? Professional copywriting has always rewarded versatility. We assume the pro can crank out headlines. Those are table stakes. He (or she) masters body copy that sells (sure thing) by making it interesting. Penning the 7-word billboard joke — they’re comedians. And only now, have we crossed the Mendoza line.

The real hitters today pound out compelling and alarming tweets. They write engaging and entertaining online content. The new visual format is the 15 or 20-second online spot — it’s like “TV Lite”. They can write natural and human dialogue that works in a television script.  And above and beyond all, they can conceive a campaign that amazes from a single, simple idea. That’s a lot to ask. But, that’s why they make the big bucks. Those folks could have been nationally-syndicated columnists if they chose  journalism as their professional writing career, or dramatists. They are the George Wills and David Mamets of our industry.

What appears to be somewhat scarce in the new breed of  digitally nurtured writers is strategic marketing thinking. I read a lot of new stuff. Some of it is advertising. Some of it is… well, I’m not quite sure. But, what sticks out like a sore thumb is a strategically connected thought, well-written — in any media or format. A business idea well told. An enlightenment creating a sense of wonder, however ephemeral. The ability to kick a snare drum in someone’s brain.

So, it is the Big Idea that remains the Holy Grail for writers. Big Ideas are simple. Multi-lingual. Cross-cultural. Timeless, yet “new” (not always in a contemporary way, but always in a fresh way). They hold a mirror up to society (or a targeted segment of it) in a way that  reveals an unexpected truth. Yet, it cannot be too unfamiliar. Simple. Yet, not too simple. Specific, yet broadly interpreted. Open-ended.

So where are all the big ideas out there? Everyone loves talking about them — about how they are the only true value ad agencies can provide to brands? And about how they are what separates creative agencies from technology marketing firms.  But where are they? SO often you see work that contains a big idea, yet it’s half-baked. Or rather raw. Big Ideas need to be fully baked, like ziti with grandma’s tiny meatballs. I haven’t seen much great ziti lately. Help me out, where are the big ideas?  What will this era be remembered for? The Apple Store? What are the definitive concept-driven campaigns over the past 5 years to current — in this country, America;  not some third-world country without an FCC.

Who is this era’s Mr. Clean? Is it The Most Interesting Man in the World?  The Brawny Man? Or a Subservient Chicken (that would be you, Mr. Hotshot Writer)? Send me your votes. Please excuse me while I seek recluse to tend to writing my Great American Book for Dummies: Life for Dummies. It’s a Cautionary Tale-Coming of Age-Allegory-Epic-spanning-four generations of a Sicilian/American family confronting the moral battleground of good vs. evil. It also contains a recipe for great ziti.

6 thoughts on “On Writers, Part III

  1. Mike Seng

    Nice job on this article. I couldn’t agree more that the strategies are missing in much of the work these days. It’s like tossing the clients’ money to the wind instead of truly addressing the audiences’ needs. As a copywriter doing more interactive these days, I still take that challenge on because anything else wouldn’t be doing my job. Hopefully clients will stop trying to write all their own web copy, too, and budget for pros who can give them far more value.

  2. Patrick Scullin

    I vote “Most Interesting Man in The World” as the best, biggest bad-ass idea of last five years.

    Ironically, it’s a concept that could have worked for many products. That’s what makes one burn with envy and admiration.

  3. Susan

    I agree, there’s a dearth of strategic thinking out there which leads to messaging that doesn’t quite hit. But the other side is that there are clients out there who don’t want to take the time (read: money) to invest in figuring out their own market strategy. So they hire a writer to “do something” and when it fails they think the writer failed, too. Oh, I could go on. Maybe I should blog about it myself.

  4. E.

    Can I be your co-author on “Life for Dummies?”

    And let me ask, is there not some craft involved in reducing the world to a modified 15 second word haiku? I mean you call some people revered artists and poets, but others are lowly “trade writers”. And they both do the same thing, take immense concepts and distill them to the fewest words possible in a restricted constrained format.

    Is there not art there?

    I dunno, just asking.



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