The Write Stuff: Hire Good Copywriters and Get Ideas for Life

  |  April 13, 2009   |  Comments

How the copywriter's role is changing in today's digital environment.

A crucial but often overlooked position in any highly effective agency is the copywriter. Strange that it would be overlooked, considering every campaign is full of strategically planned (and re-planned, then re-drafted, vetted, re-drafted, and vetted once more) verbal messaging. When most people imagine the creative sides of agencies -- digital or traditional -- they think of designers and art directors sitting around computers and white boards drawing up concepts. But often it's the writer who steps in and comes up with The Big Idea.

Copywriters serve many critical agency functions, from writing raw copy to editing client copy to proofreading final work to all-out creative brainstorming. We've learned over time that if you hire a good copywriter, you also get a wellspring of good ideas -- a person who applies her experience, knowledge, and unique outlook to any creative situation. Writers have been, and continue to be, a huge part of our success.

Even though copywriting is an art form, it's firmly grounded in logic: the clear communication of a concept or call to action. As such, agency writers are keenly aware of usability, analytics, and optimization, factors that drive our project goals and metrics. Words heavily determine how a site is used, therefore analytics help determine the kind of content writers develop for any site.

I asked Joon Chattigré, one of our creative directors -- and our lead writer -- a few questions about the changing role of the copywriter in today's digital environment, and how data helps drive content.

Shane Atchison: What relationship is there between analytics and copywriting?

Joon Chattigré: The former informs the latter to a useful degree. Analytics data is great, and we use it all the time. However copywriting and language in general, and language that's supposed to evoke a response in particular, is about capturing and conveying human emotion. And that's a tricky thing to try and quantify. Still, the data helps us to better understand when and where to say something, to help direct the reader toward a certain action, or to know what they expect when they visit a site.

SA: It's 2009. How are copywriters different today than 50 -- or even 15 -- years ago?

JC: There are fewer differences with the former than the latter. Half a century ago is about the time that language and copywriting in advertising became self-aware. That is to say, copy in advertising started to acknowledge the fact that it was advertising, that it was trying to sell you something, and that it knew it and it was doing it anyway with a knowing wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

Ideas carried the day back then, and that hasn't really changed over half a century's worth of capitalism. Since ideas are communicated primarily through language, copywriters are still called upon to come up with those ideas and help develop them to their ultimate expression.

SA: How has writing itself changed over the years?

JC: The biggest, and most obvious, difference is time and brevity. Thanks to the Web, our collective attention span is now microscopic. We have near-zero tolerance for detritus and clutter, and yet because of technology we're bombarded by more of it than ever before. For copywriters, that's forced us to become like surgeons, cutting out what isn't needed.

SA: How has digital changed the creative landscape?

JC: Here's the cool thing about digital. It's still evolving. Print, TV, radio, fiction, non-fiction, movies...name just about any other genre of cultural expression, with the possible exception of music, and you could argue it's reached its creative zenith. Not so with digital. Even we in the industry don't know where the Internet will take us 10 or even five years from now. That's why for a writer the digital realm is a veritable blank slate playground. Anything is possible. But we still have to come up with ideas that resonate within that ever-shrinking window of attention.

SA: What kinds of experiences does your team of writers bring to their collective role?

JC: We have an incredibly talented and diverse team. Overly educated, widely published, almost 70 years of combined experience across all media. But what I like most about our team is our broad life-experience. We are vastly different as personalities, and this is a tremendous asset that any agency should covet. It's part of where our ideas come from. We've got a Hollywood A-List celeb marketing insider, a soccer state champion, a print magazine founder, a former professional tennis player/recovering college English creative writing instructor, a former wildlife rescuer, even a newly minted graduate in fiction. We're all over the map. I wouldn't be surprised to learn if one of us even did some jail time somewhere. That'd be a source of pride.

SA: Words are so important in campaigns. At what stage in the creative process do, or should, writers get involved?

JC: A no brainer: at the beginning. The creative process should and always ought to begin with the writer working with the designer, art director, or creative director, and the analytics and UX [user experience design] teams, to hash out the concept and direction. And it seems no matter how many different people or groups I collaborate with, this is something that always has to be reinforced. Sometimes it clicks; other times it's a land war in Asia.

SA: At what point do writers step out of the process?

JC: They should be involved throughout the entire process.

SA: In the perfect agency, how do writers and designers work together?

JC: Writers tend to think in language, the domain of the left-brain. Of course we're not restricted to thinking just in language -- we see pictures, forms, colors, patterns, and sounds, just like designers, musicians, or poets. But the quick and dirty answer is: writers and designers should work together with an equal stake in the quality and integrity of the end result.

SA: At our agency, we sometimes call our writers "creatives." What does that larger title speak to?

JC: More than anything else, it's an acknowledgement that the writer's role goes far beyond merely filling a box with copy. Writers are expected to be the co-progenitors of the big idea. We work with designers, art directors, UX architects, social media experts, even with project managers and account directors on occasion -- whatever it takes. That's what this game is all about.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shane Atchison

In 1998, Shane co-founded ZAAZ to advocate a different approach to Web services — one that respects and delivers on the power of the individual and the promise of Web technologies. As CEO, Shane leads the company's long-term strategic vision of working with leading financial service organizations, consumer brands, startups, non-profits, and community-based organizations, helping each realize the potential of the Internet and its meaningful impact on their business.

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