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May 14, 2015
Clever or Clear — Today’s Copywriters Don’t Have a Choice
Writing is changing and like it or not, we need to go along

Recently, I saw a job listing for a agency copywriter that asked, “Do you obsessively read Copyblogger?”

I thought that was a bizarre requirement for the gig. Not to pick on that site, but I was surprised to see it be listed as important when there was no mention of reading, say, “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.” Copyblogger clearly serves a purpose in providing useful information to some degree — but not for conceptual advertising copywriting.  

So was this job listing an outlier or a harbinger of a new trend? Are we in the midst of a fundamental shift in what copywriting should be — and how we define it? In today’s content, clickbait, listicle-driven world, is it becoming more necessary to use clear writing rather than clever? Are we lowering the bar or simply moving it to a new location?

Like everything else in advertising, copywriting has evolved. Sure, there was an era when puns were popular. And there was a period where vague headlines like “Think Small” required you to read the entire ad to get it. But much of the conceptual advertising copywriters admire is based on rhythmic headlines and copy with clever turns of phrases.

It's hard not to see the changes taking place in how copywriting is perceived. The cleverness isn’t there like it used to be. Each year the copy in the annuals seems more pedestrian. Each year there's a token throwback "long copy" ad that wouldn't have passed muster in an earlier era. And for better or worse, I see more and more copywriting that’s rooted in matter-of-fact direct response principles, as it’s a quicker route to get people to click through or buy something.

This shift is partly a function of our environment. More often we’re seeing our work on small screens that feature less space and thus require quicker thoughts. Many copywriters focus more on crafting ideas or content which don’t involve lots of conventional writing. We’re all adapting, the same way newspaper stories are teased online in a manner where it’s not necessary to read the entire article. Even TV and radio newscasts now use fewer words and quicker stories to describe the events of the day.

Today’s copywriters do have to master long-form writing, but differently from what would constitute a long-copy ad. Blogs, “native advertising,” and website copy are all part of a well-rounded writer’s repertoire. And they require clarity above all else. Today’s clickbait world requires us to be quite direct about what the subject is, and clever headlines don’t cut it.

I fear that increasingly, today's copywriters are not different from anyone else filling the vast void of space on the Internet. We’re losing a bit of magic that comes with stringing together words into a rhythm all their own. It’s the easy way out to reduce our thoughts to simple bullet points or listicles. But in many cases, it’s now expected.

When I teach aspiring copywriters, I start by teaching them clever headline writing. To me, it’s still a baseline skill they need that will separate them from legions of wanna-be copywriters. If we don't teach it, they won't learn it, won’t ever put it into practice, or present uniquely written advertising to a client. Once aspiring copywriters get a sense of how to use words to develop a fresh, provocative style, everything else about the copywriting craft becomes easier to grasp. And the skills involved in writing for different media get developed from there.

But not everyone learns copywriting skills that way, and it’s a shame. The fundamental tasks of copywriting are still to persuade, inform, and entertain. All of which requires us to capture attention and imagination. In today’s media environment, is it still possible to this with clever writing? Can we accomplish this with work designed to blend in rather than stand out?

Great advertising writing can take its cues from poetry or fiction, but more often these days it resembles journalism, editorial or PR writing. I'm not sure we'll see a revival of cleverness in copywriting. Look back at the ponderous, pompous, copy-heavy ads of the 30s, 40s and 50s. Work from just a few years ago may start feeling that distant.

As we see job requirements change along with everything else in the advertising industry, it won’t be enough for copywriters to be skilled in just one style or two. Cleverness won’t always work. That much is clear.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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