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May 14, 2003
Where Have All The Headlines Gone?

So, the other day I'm sitting in my tastefully cluttered office, flipping through an old CA, admiring headlines I wish I had written, when I get a call from our receptionist. I had made an appointment with an ad school graduate who wanted to show me his book, and being the consummate professional that I am, I had completely forgotten about our meeting.

I did a quick memory search to see if I could remember who was sitting in the lobby, but my mind was a total blank. No name. No position. Nothing. It was right then and there I made a mental note to become important enough to hire a personal assistant.

Nevertheless, I dog-eared a particularly funny Sports Illustrated trade ad, made a similar mental note to become best friends with Greg Hahn then went to meet my mystery date.

He had a fairly decent book. Well laid-out pieces. Nice sense of design. And at least four or five visual campaigns. It was right about then that I made the faux pas of all faux pas. "So you're an art director, right?"

"Uh, actually I'm a writer."

I felt badly, but then again how was I to know? All told, he only had one full headline campaign plus a handful of one-off lines. That's it.

I suppose I would have felt worse had this been an isolated incident. But the fact is, this has become an uncomfortable pattern with me. I meet who I think is a talented, young art director, only to realize I'm sitting across from one pissed-off copywriter.

Rather than take personal responsibility for my inability to remember even the simplest details about people, I've decided I'm going to blame visual executions. Or rather their spike in popularity within the ad world.

I'm amazed at how many visual campaigns I'm looking at these days. They're everywhere. Between student books and award shows, it's as if some secret society took a clandestine vote and decided headlines aren't in vogue anymore. Coincidentally, I'm convinced these are the same people who decided to give Ben Affleck a film career, but I digress.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love visual solutions. When done well, they're possibly the most efficient form of communication we have in our arsenal. Their popularity among agency people merely suggests how advanced we've all become as communicators. However, does that mean visual solutions should replace the tried and true headline campaign? Certainly not. In fact, I would argue headlines are more relevant than ever. Especially if you're trying to break into an industry that currently seems to be dominated by visual executions.

The reality is, if you are a budding, young copywriter, three or four visual campaigns are not going to help your book as much as you would like them to, for the simple reason that they do little to demonstrate what kind of writer you are. Besides, the visual solution is a rare opportunity in this profession. During your first month on the job, chances are your creative director isn't going to lean over your cubical and say, "We need a two-page-spread visual campaign. Everyone else is busy, think you can handle it?" I've been doing this for almost ten years now, and it hasn't happened to me yet. But I've got my fingers crossed.

The bottom line is there's nothing that gets me inside your head better than a good headline campaign. First and foremost, it shows me you can write. This may seem like I'm pointing out the obvious, but the sad fact of the matter is there is a dearth of people who can put pen to paper and actually make something happen, let alone come up with something good. Second, it ultimately shows me you get it. It says you've got what it takes to hang in this business.

I recently had dinner with a fellow copywriter who literally said with a straight face, "I don't enjoy the writing aspect of my job. I'm more of an idea person." Frankly, if it were up to me, I would have asked for her gun and shield right there. But since we don't work together, all I could do was pretend that I wasn't horrified.

Look, I'm not going to say writing headlines is easy. In fact it's one of the toughest things you'll ever have to do. Well, it is for me, anyway. But writing great headlines is what makes us acceptable in the eyes of our fellow employees. Otherwise our job would consist of showing up late, buying useless things on Ebay, eating lobster rolls during radio records and leaving work six hours before the art directors. And, honestly, what fun would that be?

Besides, when it's all said and done, if you can consistently come up with award winning headline after award winning headline, like my soon-to-be best friend Greg Hahn does, then maybe one day you'll have someone like me develop an unhealthy professional man-crush on you, too.

Which reminds me, I wonder if he got the flowers I sent?

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Like all of us, Lawson Clarke has learned a few lessons over the years. Some of Lawson's biggest lessons came from working for David Lubars at BBDO West. Today, Lawson is an award-winning writer at Clarke Goward in Boston, the shop founded by his father, Terry Clarke.

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