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.

12 thoughts on “On Writers, Copywriting and How to Build a Portfolio

  1. Philip Davidson

    Once again, a fabulous email. Thank you. You said: I’ve noticed an alarming de-emphasis of writing in the advertising industry in the past decade. I agree. I think, in part, it’s due to the on-going fascination with technology and the visual gimmicky it so easily provides. In time, attention will shift back to words. They still matter. They always will.

    Reply
  2. Sara Arnold

    How do you suggest writers handle digital in a portfolio? I wrote an awesome website a few years ago that has changed a lot since. Even a website I worked on a year ago now has new home page, headlines, etc as they test and launch new things.

    I think it’s especially hard for writers to present a good digital book because the copy is (obviously) so integral. Designers can get by on a few screenshots or png’s. What do you look for from a writer?

    Reply
    1. mikepalma Post author

      hi Sara, thx for reading. I think website copy (unless it is just drop-dead crazy good) is fairly limiting. What I look for is digital content — social content, videos, blogs, apps with an attitude — stuff that goes beyond stagnant websites…

      Reply
  3. Sara Arnold

    Thanks, Mike. It’s the one areas I’ve struggled with how to present well. Potential clients/jobs often ask to see websites I’ve worked on. Perhaps redirecting them to specific content is a good way to go.

    Reply
  4. derek walker

    Thank you! The trend that “anyone can write the copy” is hurting the industry. This is a much needed thought on writing, good writing!

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Not-Sunday Share #14 | Jurobu

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