Monthly Archives: February 2014

On Writers, Copywriting and How to Build a Portfolio

The utter audacity to call yourself a writer! Now that takes cojones. Writers are born with an acute sensitivity to the human condition (in this way, they are “chosen”) and then they are self-made through reading, studying and, well, writing (then, rewriting). You must “invent” yourself as a writer. To think that you can play with words enough to massage them into something interesting and entertaining (and in advertising, sell something at the same time) requires a certain insouciant naiveté.  And at the same time, it requires a willful dedication to language and style as well as devout discipline to practice the craft daily.

Writers are a rare breed, like southpaw pitchers in baseball. I’ve placed more writers than any other type of talent — hundreds and hundreds of them. I don’t know why. Maybe because the good ones are so rare. I’ve noticed an alarming de-emphasis of writing in the advertising industry in the past decade. I’m not sure that’s a result of the declining literacy of today’s audiences or the slow extinction of the breed providing less written content (or both). But, it’s almost odd to see a “writer’s campaign” today. Everything is so visually driven — hinging on a “concept” (usually shock value or a slapstick gag — like the Betty White spot).

I’m not just referring to the Print medium. It’s also TV, Radio (how can radio be so poorly written and dependent on cliched sound-bite gags?) images-4online and outdoor (all you have to write is 7 words). I’m also not necessarily referring to a lot of body copy or words. Take a recent Google Super Bowl spot — it was a delightful narrative; a coming of age story allegorical to all Google users (that would be everyone with a computer and an internet connection). Not one spoken word, just three and four word “googles” [Google Super Bowl Spot]. And I’m also not referring to nostalgic Neil French/David Ogilvy exhaustive Print tomes drawing upon Noel Coward drawing-room humor. But more along the lines of the discarded Avis “The Other Car” television campaign Avis \”The Other Car\”. Brilliant. These days, a writer’s campaign sticks out like a boner in a lesbian bar.

Before I forget, just a second while I digress on radio. It’s not going away. People drive to and from work — most of America does (check out the HOV lane). Yes, the dork in the Beamer has Sirius — but most of America listens to the radio. Every day. Even with iPods and iPhones — radio images-1remains a viable medium. I can’t think of a better way for an advertising writer to prove they can write than to author an entertaining and sustainable radio campaign. Think Tom Bodett. The Folgers Coffee Couple. Molson. I know as a fact that agencies discourage radio from their clients’ media mix because they can’t fulfill the creative. I once sent a young writer to interview with Lee Clow in Venice. He turned the job down and subsequently founded a successful radio scriptwriting agency. That’s how rare the skill set is — they don’t need Chiat/Day. As an aside, I listen to 1690AM Atlanta WMLB “The Voice of the Arts.”  Stream it into your agency, set it on your laptop at work. It is guaranteed to inspire you and increase your creativity. To stream them in from anywhere: 1690wmlb.com.  Don’t trust me, trust your ears.

I’m often asked by writers for assistance in constructing their portfolio. What’s most striking about young writers’ portfolios is the absence of evidence that they can actually write. I visited the Creative Circus not too long ago and reviewed several dozen student portfolios. WHAT ARE THEY TEACHING THEM THERE? Certainly not how to write interesting or entertaining copy. I can’t tell the difference between the copywriters and the art directors. I can’t find the headline (“oh, there isn’t any headline”). The body copy (if there is any) reads as if it were written by Jeff Spicoli. No radio scripts to be found anywhere.

Here are some tips to help guide you in building a writer’s portfolio:

1. Provide examples that you can actually write. Show us you can do more than just think visually in advertising terms. That you are actually a writer, as you purport to be. See the paragraph above. Headlines that inspire, compelling body copy, radio scripts, TV scripts with dialogue. You get it.

2. Provide examples that you can sell something. I recently ran a search for an ECD at one of the Southeast’s largest and best-known agencies. We reviewed a dozen or so candidates’ portfolios. There was a lot of humor (really funny shit), pathos (Goosebump City, near Rineytown), whacked out weirdness (half the stuff we saw we didn’t understand until the 3rd or 4th view). But there was very little selling happening. I am not just referring to price/item dreck retail formulas but basic brand/product/benefit advertising that is interesting and entertaining. Sell me something, dammit.

3. If it’s not great, there’s no place for it. This especially applies to TV. One of the hazards of Digital books (web sites, microsites, links, etc..) is the temptation to over-indulge in your own work. Treat it the same as an actual hard case portfolio. It only takes one mediocre campaign to get someone to click away from your site.

4. Be interesting, but not too cute. Tell us a bit about you WITHOUT actually telling us. Hell, you’re a writer. Figure out a way to make yourself entertaining without trying too hard. Use music, film, theatrics or something topical to augment your work. Don’t overdo it, but using a snippet  from an obscure Monkees tune as intro music is a nice touch.

5. Yes, show digital, duh. Everyone shows websites, banners and promos. Very few show cool applications, videos, games and original content written for websites (beyond basic yada “Who We Are” stuff). Live links are okay but remember, they take people AWAY from your site.

6. Order your work so it tells a story. Make it a “book within the book”. Make it a narrative. Leave ‘em laughing or crying.

7. Stay away from spec unless you have nothing else. Sell an ad, man.

8. Be a headline machine. If someone puts 50 cents in, give them a case of headlines. There will always be a place in this business for a headline machine.

9. Radio. See my digression above. This can be spec if you have none produced. You can produce your  own on basic Mac apps — like Garage Band. I’m waiting for the young writer to produce a radio campaign for himself — just to show me he can do it.

10. Keep the gimmicks to a minimum. Be interesting and entertaining, not weird. We all know you’re weird — you’re a writer. Don’t rub our nose in it.

I’ll close with some of the infamous CP+B Copy Test. Devised by a writer I placed there about 15 years ago — Bill Wright, employee #28. Bill is now the Creative Director on Burger King. He noticed some of the same disconcerting trends in young writers that I  mention above. So Bill implemented a copy test as part of the hiring regimen at Crispin.

  • Give a short, persuasive argument on letting Pluto remain a planet.
  • Pen a haiku about prairie dogs.
  • Describe toast to a Martian in 50 words or less.
  • Describe the color red to a blind person
  • “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work” is such a boring sign. It’s ubiquity has rendered it useless (a sobering thought). For all humanity, please rewrite it.
  • You might be redneck if:
  • Write a really awful pun.
  • Match the airline with its hub airport:
  • What’s your favorite oxymoron?
  • What’s your favorite retronym?
  • Write 12 synonyms for the word “Go”.
  • Now write 12 antonyms for the same word.
  • Extra credit: Diagram the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

7 Habits of Highly Effective Creative People

Creative people think they defy convention. They believe they are anomalies — each one an intricate, complex web. They remind me of dungarees — a badge of non-conformity until everyone conforms to them. Most people in the communications industry think they are creative, except for the bean-counters. Ironically, it is the Controllers that have had to be the MOST creative people at the agency these days (especially when figuring out how to monetize their Social and Digital offerings).

images1The problem however, is that true creativity is on the wane. This is not exactly a watershed era for artists, writers, poets; and not just ad men and women. Where’s the work? Where’s Mona Lisa? Who’s our Beethoven? What’s the new Great American Novel? Who’s the next Jack KerouacF. Scott Fitzgerald? Where’s the great ad tag line of this century? And what in the hell has happened to rock and roll? Does it even exist? There are all kinds of theories about how and why, nothing can be proven — but there has to be some inextricable link to technology. Does it make us use our minds (our creative minds) more or less? What will we call this creative generation? The Googlers? The “I’m Feeling Lucky” Age? Or maybe Generation WTF.

What I’ve found is that truly creative people tend to downplay their “creativity.”  And pseudo-Creatives tend to overplay it and dramatize it. But this post is not about attitudes or cerebral posturing. Intelligence is somewhat relative and subjective, anyway. Sometimes I believe that the smarter you are, the dumber you really are. Columbo always cracked the case by asking the dumb questions. This post is about habits — proactive habits. Things creative people DO, not think.

Of the many myths, the notion of “eccentricity” is most often assimilated with creativity. Creative people often have a peculiar trait or two, but images-1no more so than the average schmuck that makes your sandwich for lunch. We just pay closer attention to the creative Shaman and become smitten with their oddities. Another myth is that creative people are “deeper” — they’re heavy — more sensitive to the human condition. At least I know that I’m shallow — an inch deep and a mile wide. A dilettante. I don’t confuse my one great gift with intelligence or creativity. I’m blest. Blest with what? I forgot. Oh yeah, I was born with a great memory (but, it’s short). Fortunately, our world rewards a good, short memory.

“Curiosity” has recently emerged as one of those agency-speak buzzwords. Due to it’s current popularity in the creative vernacular, I’ve chosen to leave it off this list. Maybe one day I’ll write an entire post on curiosity and it’s link to creativity. But there seems to be enough of them out there in the blogosphere already.

Nobody asked me; but these are some of the common denominators that I’ve observed in working with highly effective creative people:

1. “Painters paint”– Writers write. Designers design. Singers sing. The great Al Jolson, in his dying days, would stop people on the street Unknownand tell them he was Al Jolson. When folks didn’t believe him — he would sing to them — right there on the street. True, today he would be diagnosed with dementia, but the illustration is that he had to sing. It was in his DNA. And when he could no longer sing, he died. Quickly. Effective creative people create. Constantly. They don’t talk about it. They do it.

2. Compulsive addiction to their craft — I’ve noticed that the most effective creative people can’t stop. They can’t walk away from the table. And if they do, they come back shortly. They either stay up ridiculously late at night, or rise ridiculously early to create — but they can’t rest easily because their active, creative mind won’t allow them. They do not think about getting better or improving. They just know that the more they do something, the better they will get. They create while on vacation. They wake up in the middle of the night and write ideas. They can’t stop learning all they can about their craft.

3. Unhurried – Truly effective creative people are able to “slow the game down.” They won’t be rushed . They love what they do too much to rush it. They savor their craft like a foodie savors a meal. We sometimes confuse this unhurriedness for slowness and we bellyache when deadlines aren’t met. But effectiveness should not be confused with timeliness. In short, effective creative people are on their own schedule. And often in their own world. This is not “eccentricity” — it’s the ability to recognize and adhere to a process. It’s actually quite opposite from “eccentricity.”

4. Purity of Heart – The best creatives I’ve been fortunate to observe are purists. They reject and abhor anything that is impure as unnatural. They possess moral turpitude and a respect for the gods of their discipline. Their craft is sacrosanct. I play golf with my dentist. He’s a great dentist, the best I’ve ever seen. When on the links, he wears two golf gloves, one on each hand. His hands are that important to him. Great creatives treat their minds the same way.

5. Minimalism – Great creatives travel lightly. They are not seduced by the treasures of this world. Their treasure is between their ears. They are other-worldly. They would do what they do for free if food, clothing and energy were gratis. They see money as a necessary evil. If they Unknown-1collect anything at all, it’s something associated with their craft. Objects almost embarrass them.

6. Don’t understand “no” – They often ask for forgiveness and rarely seek permission.The surest way to get them to do something is to tell them they can’t do it. “You can’t write a great radio commercial for a cheap hotel chain.”  Huh? Next thing you know, we get Tom Bodett. They are not belligerent about the word, “no,” nothing malicious about them. It’s just not in their nomenclature. They simply don’t understand the language of “no.”

7. Laugh, cry, get goosebumps – Until this last habit, you might be getting the impression that creatives are compulsively driven Fascists devoid of emotion. I’ve found quite the opposite to be true. Creative people are “feelers.” They laugh and cry freely and often. The world gives them goosebumps. They are eternal children. It’s how they cope with fear. It’s how they deal with success. Every day.