Category Archives: Advertising

Big it up for Elmore

Jackie Collins has two big things: big hair and big sales.

She’s also revealed that she’s a big fan of the late Elmore Leonard, who died on August 20 2013.

Writing in The Guardian she says: “I am for ever a fan”.

That, at least, is something she and I can share.

What I don’t quite agree with is her response to Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.  Only three of them appeal to her: “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly”; “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things”; and “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”.

Perhaps what Collins is missing is that Leonard’s rules were for him and for people who wanted to either write like him or at least write for his chosen genre.

I don’t think he was suggesting they were universal.

Interestingly, Collins makes no mention of Leonard’s earliest work as an advertising writer. Nor does she say anything about how he believed that – as a writer of fiction – he should be invisible in his work.

These two things are related.

Speaking as an advertising writer, I know how important it is to remain anonymous. If anybody’s going to be identified as the author of an ad, it should be either the client or the product, not the copywriter.

My reckoning is that Leonard carried this through his entire career.

It may not be what makes Collins, me and countless others such big fans.

But it points the way.

He was – and always will be – a big influence on anyone who wants to write originally.

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What keeps the spin doctors spinning?

Watching the final episodes of series two of Borgen, the Danish political drama that’s been a hit for BBC4, it occurred to me to wonder why so many fictional spin doctors are – in some way or another – crippled.

The idea wasn’t prompted by Kaspar Juul’s appearance on crutches due to damaged tendons.

True, his arrival was part of a beautifully played scene that showed us just enough of Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg’s character to set us up for what followed: her struggle to reconcile her public ambition with her family’s very private needs.

What struck me was the way in which – like Madmen’s Don Draper – Kasper Juul is not just physically injured, but emotionally flawed. Even quite horribly damaged.

Don’s false premise

Don Draper – as Madmen fans will know – assumed another man’s identity and, using his own charm and persuasive guile, managed to get a job as an advertising copywriter.

Since then, as the creator of numerous imaginative ad campaigns, he has – in the spirit of the conventional times his life is set in – been the inventive perpetrator of artful expressions of the contented consumerist life.

Heavens to Betsy, as one of his contemporaries might’ve said, he even married a model and thus completed his own (now fractured) version of the perfect story!

Eventually, as his fictional career progressed and he became Creative Director of, and Partner in, his own advertising agency, Draper came so close to resembling the man he’d contrived to be that he found it hard to answer questions about who he really was.

For me, he began to look like a man whose easy ability to dream up artificial constructs of daily life was born of the artificiality of his own life.

Indeed, just as an Englishman speaks English with ease from birth, Draper can – almost as easily – think up deceptions as soon as he starts work.

Kasper’s chaos

Kasper Juul, Nyborg’s terrifying spin doctor, has a different back-story to deal with.

As the victim of child abuse – and carrying the memory of that and his savage attempt to end it by trying kill his own father – it seems as if he’s constantly trying to impose his own draconian sense of order on the chaotic political world he works in.

He’s also trying to do the same thing in his private life.

It’s as if, by controlling everything and everyone around him, he can convince himself that he’s been in charge of his life since birth.

Of course, he’ll never achieve that.

Like Draper’s seductive illusions, Juul’s angry self-loathing is a powerful engine that not only drives him but also gives him the desire to turn almost everything into something it isn’t.

To – quite literally – spin his world on its head.

It seems to me that both these fictional characters are aiming for the same thing: a world that exists in their imagination that can’t be replicated in life.

The dramatic ideal

Perhaps it’s this tension that makes both Borgen’s Juul and Madmen’s Draper so compelling as characters.

We want them both to achieve the happiness they seek, but we know that neither of them are capable of reaching that ideal.

They’re both too flawed to do that, yet we will them on, knowing they’re doomed to failure.

What’s fascinating about all this is the way in which the writers of both series have spun both spin doctors’ stories, giving them both troubled backgrounds that they’re trying to overcome.

The origins of insight

What’s even more intriguing is to speculate on where the writers found their inspiration.

Do they believe that all spin doctors – men like Kasper Juul and Don Draper – are essentially flawed and that their fictitious characters are simply reflections of real life?

Or is it the case that, in order to see the light inside life’s darkest situations, all of us have to experience life’s bleak and evil side beforehand?

Truly, as you can see, it’s set my head spinning.

Which is, after all, the mark of either a good drama or a talented (spin) doctor!

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Has research killed romance?

I could be wrong, but I’m beginning to think that research is killing the romance in advertising.

It dates me to say this but, when I was starting out in the business, imaginative invention and clear communication were supposed to go hand-in-hand.

The arts of engaging story-telling and persuasive argument were the tools I was expected to use to write the kind of copy that would change minds and shift goods and services.

Above all, asking the audience to aspire to a finer life or to fall in love with the unattainable – the very essence of romance – was almost a given.

The heart of the matter

It’s now almost 20 years since British Design & Art Direction published The Copy Book, a fascinating study of how copywriters worked in the 1990s.

For the 32 top writers featured, the important thing that many of them brought to their work was heart.

As David Abbott, a much-respected writer of the day, said: “Put yourself into your work. Use your life to animate your copy.”

Abbot was the author of a Chivas Regal ad – published to coincide with Father’s Day – which was, in effect, a paean to his own father. An act of love, if ever there was one.

Other writers, who produced brilliant ads for clients as varied as the British Army, Albany Life, Sony, BMW and Vespa, had similar advice.

Think about your audience, put something of yourself into your ads, write with passion and conviction and your work will connect with others who think and feel as you do.

Austerity’s victim?

Today, it seems, such persuasive, even personal work has all but disappeared.

Which is why I ask: is romance dead? And, if so, why?

Has passion become the victim of austerity?

Have we lost the generosity of spirit that allowed people to write and publish ads with heart and soul?

Is everything just about money and results?

Or have researchers and focus groups conspired to eradicate all feeling from today’s ads?

Maybe the computer’s to blame, with its mechanisation of communication. Or social networking, with its engineering of human connections.

Perhaps it’s the fault of globalisation, which seems to have turned so much of today’s advertising into bland messages designed to be understood by everyone everywhere.

Whatever it is, it’s a shame.

I’d love to read an ad that moved me – and moved me to buy whatever’s on offer.

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