Copywriters (Still) Wanted

By Joe Alexander/The Martin Agency Posted on Jul 06, 2010

I started my career in Minneapolis in the mid-1980s. Fallon McElligott Rice was already making history. Bozell was doing great work as always. Martin Williams, Chuck Ruhr, Carmichael-Lynch, Clarity Coverdale and others were turning Minneapolis into a regional advertising hot spot.

Naturally, all of the shops specialized in "The Minneapolis Style": headlines set in Franklin Gothic or Charcoal Extra Bold Condensed. Usually accompanied by an Ibid photo or Rick Dublin shot. Almost always big, bold and posterized. Every year, the One Show was filled with these ads, especially the newspaper, trade and poster categories.

So, from my junior copywriter perspective, my job was clear. If you want to grow up and be like McElligott, Lescarbeau, Sullivan, Casey, Wedemeyer, Fury, Barrett and Supple, get in a room, sit down at your typewriter or with your yellow legal pad (McElligott's choice) and crank out "lines."

Puns, no worries. Word plays, right on. Ironic twists, you betcha. Throw in a few "contrary to popular beliefs," "unfortunatelys" and "something is wrong whens," and you were holding up a great Minneapolis tradition.

The Almighty Headline kept many a copywriter in business for a long time. Not only in Minneapolis, but Richmond, New York, Portland, Dallas, LA, Chicago and Boston, as well.

Until, suddenly, it didn't. That little thing called the Internet arrived and the world of cranking out lines in your office disappeared. In this new world, a copywriter had to venture out of his or her comfort zone and—gasp!—not even write a headline. Maybe start with a loose idea. Or an execution. Or a technology. Or, oh my God, let the art direction lead a campaign.

A lot of copywriters were lost outside their office. They clung to that clearly defined job description. Eventually, most embraced the new way. But some never did.

Today, the job of copywriting seems to involve much more than writing copy. If it were up to some, a better title might be "conceptwriter." Just look at the kids coming out of the portfolio schools. Their books are filled with impressive integrated, fully immersive campaigns, but you really have to look hard to find true copywriting.

Sorry. That bugs the hell out of me.

If I were going to open a portfolio school today, it would be a craft school. A one-year program, 12 students, guest writers and full days of writing, editing, thinking, arguing, presenting. No layouts, maybe just old-fashioned thumbnails. The students would graduate with a craft, not a book of comps. These days, there is way too much emphasis in the schools on integrated thinking. Instead, let's teach our junior copywriters HOW to write. Integration can be taught easily on the job.

I digress. Sort of.

Despite the death of the headline and The Minneapolis Style, the craft of copywriting is more important than ever. Copywriting is what makes an idea clear and defined. It's what gives an idea a voice.

I was a judge for this year's One Show and I'm happy to report, copywriting is alive and well. You just have to dig to find the gems.

Among my favorites:
The copywriter who turned a six-minute corporate video for Johnnie Walker into one of the most compelling films of the year.

The copywriter for the Old Spice TV spot, one of the funniest and most talked about commercials ever. "I'm on a horse." Classic.

The copywriter who transformed smart/stupid from a shaky notion into a clearly defined, perfectly pitched, can't miss global hit for Diesel.

These copywriters prove that the best copywriters are always the best storytellers. And the best storytellers use whatever means necessary to entertain, argue and persuade.

So, here's my challenge to all those young writers out there and to some not so young writers. Still write. Still sit in your office or coffee shop and craft, tweak and noodle those thoughts, whether you are writing banners, branded content, Facebook updates or paid search. That's the craft of writing. Those are the new Minneapolis-style headlines.

And if you are teaching young writers in school or mentoring writers on your staff, remind them of the importance of their words. Maybe pull out an old One Show Annual and have them read some classics from McElligott.

For Porsche: "Compromise is for politicians."

For the Episcopal Church: "In a church started by a man with six wives, forgiveness goes without saying."

For the Wall Street Journal: "The Daily Diary of the American Dream."

Sound like great tweets to me.


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