January 23, 2015

On the Rules of Great Copy: Two Books

(Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse)

My favorite guides for learning and improving marketing copy are How to Write Great Copy, by Dominic Gettins and Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This, by Luke Sullivan.
Both works originate from the Mesolithic Era of advertising (the late 20th century) and out of the authors' experience in traditional media, which, I remind you, is still all around--seen the side of a bus lately?
This pedigree is a good thing. Back before it was too simple and too cheap to slap it online and see what happens--think AdWords or a LinkedIn post--marketers had to think about it before going to print. If nothing else, the costs of production demanded it. (Though I'm certain there was a lot of slapping it back then too!)
(Note: there is a 2012 4th edition of Hey, Whipple that brings it "into the new digital world." And How to Write's 2nd edition was 2006.)
Luckily for us, even before the digital era there was a condition known as Bad Copy Writing! This chronic state of affairs--and perhaps a decent advance--compelled these acclaimed advertisers to record their guidance for the rest of us.

How to Write Great Copy

Dominic Gettins was kind enough to write down previously unwritten rules:
  1. Know your target market
  2. Do research
  3. Answer the brief
  4. Be relevant
  5. Be objective
  6. Keep it simple
  7. Know your medium
  8. Be ambitious
The first thing you might notice is that most of the rules don't directly address the mechanics of writing copy. Rule 6 is getting there, and maybe Rule 7.
This goes to the heart of it: when you receive an irrelevant email, arrive at an ineffective landing page, endure that awful video ad, or ignore an uninspiring banner, the specific copy is a symptom of something deeper gone wrong. (It's even possible that the copy itself is, in an absolute sense, good.)
The marketing piece or sequence of pieces, suffers from an overall lack of investment in The Rules. The marketing is simply not well thought out. Some combination of arbitrary deadlines, politics, bad incentives, and ignorance have conspired to deliver a steaming mound to your doorstep!
Eloquent and concise, Gettins' book covers each rule with only as many words as needed and provides plenty of examples to do the rest.
If nothing else, let the ambitious Rule 8 fuel your every initiative. The smallest project should be deserving of your fullest attention, to great effect. If you approach any marketing activity just to get it done--checkbox marketing we call it--perhaps you should not do that promotion at all. (If all your marketing is done this way, perhaps you should consider another line of work?)

Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This

Luke Sullivan's book is one part advertising career guide, one part send-up of life in the advertising business, and many, many parts rules for better output. Hey, Whipple is a bit more detailed of a from-the-trenches-look-at-the-process-of-creating than How to Write is.
Sullivan gives us some general approach chapters and chapters covering specific media--print, digital, billboards, TV, DRTV, radio. The same rules come shining through--know your market, do the research, keep it simple--it's all in there. Plenty of real-world examples and counter-examples entertainingly hammer home the advice.
  • Get to know your client's business as well as you can
  • Get to know the client's customers as well as you can
  • Insist on a tight strategy
  • The final strategy should be simple
  • "Tell the truth, and run"
  • Does the medium lend itself to your message?
Hundreds more, explained with examples, fill out the book. One thing that comes through loud and clear is Simplicity. 'Simple' may be the most used word in the book!
Layered throughout, and covered in depth in chapters "Only the Good Die Young" and "Pecked to Death by Ducks," is an entertaining and hard-hitting field guide to surviving a career in advertising. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Tight deadlines driven by prepaid spots and great concepts ruined by client politics have always been a part of the game.

We don't need no stinking rules

For those who bristle at the idea that Rules and Creativity go together, I can only offer the advice from these two books. Before you break any rules, you had better have truly internalized those rules. To keep a piece relevant, effective and original, start with The Rules. The process might lead you to some "rule breaking" result. Maybe. But beware the steaming mounds that hide behind every broken rule!
But beware the steaming mounds that hide behind every broken rule!
From the 50-character subject line to the 140-character tweet, 1000-word post, 2-minute video, and 30-page ebook, The Rules hold.
There is one more rule--Time. It takes time to conceive and bring to life a great idea. Great concepts may seem like they came out of nowhere. But time, work, and many discarded ideas pile up behind them. Don't run with the first okay idea just to get it done. Be Ambitous.
I won't try to boil down the specifics for you here--it takes a book or two! Before you write your next email subject line, draft your next piece of copy, or launch your next marketing campaign, read these books!
What's on your bookshelf?

Book List:

Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Adsby Luke Sullivan 
How to Write Great Copy: Learn the Unwritten Rules of Copywritingby Dominic Gettins

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