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Confessions of an Ad-Man

 article about work at advertising agency
In this column, I'll provide some stories, taken from my somewhat checkered career as an ad agency/writer, president, and account executive. I filled those positions, or to be more accurate, occupied them, over a protracted period of time - something in the area of twenty-five years.

I hope you'll find them amusing and/or enlightening. I do now but I didn't then. It's nice to be able to refer to most of them as memories. Of course I had some good times too. But they weren't nearly as funny.

The all-new-better-than-ever-same-old-thing
Many years ago I started writing in self-defense. I ran a fairly successful advertising agency and found that I was constantly in the middle of a serious conflict between my writers and my clients. The conflict was always the same:

The clients complained that the writers didn't give them what they wanted and the writers complained that the clients just didn't understand advertising. As with most conflicts, both sides were right and both sides were wrong. The clients weren't communicating very well and the writers weren't listening very well.

[in]I took the coward's way out. I started writing my own copy. Then I learned a great truth. To be a good commercial writer, you have to be as concerned with the message as you are with the quality of the writing. It doesn't matter how beautifully the words are strung together or how cute or "off the wall" the concept is; if it doesn't communicate the message, it simply isn't good writing.

I spent more time learning the client's business, asking questions for clarification, making notes and less time writing. Surprise number one was that the clients didn't request nearly as many revisions as they used to do. Surprise number two was that the quality of my writing didn't suffer. If anything, it got tighter, cleaner, crisper. Life was good.

Several years ago I started writing for clients I met on the Internet. I bought the idea that I saw expressed on writers' lists: This is a "new medium"; things are completely different; you need a fresh new perspective on writing. I studied web sites and on-line magazines. I read every piece of spam that oozed its way into my mailbox. I educated myself in the "ways of the web". And everything started to bother me. I got defensive about my copy. I got annoyed with clients whom I felt were over-editing my work. I raged against having grammatical errors and poor syntax inserted into my copy. Life was not good any more. So I took a step back. That's when I realized it's the all-new-better-than-ever-same-old-thing.

Clients weren't criticizing my writing because they thought they were better writers than I. They were looking at my writing under a microscope because it wasn't communicating their message. They didn't know why, so they started looking for flaws in the mechanics of the writing.

So let me give you one man's opinion of what's really different about writing for web clients:

The writer is in so much of a rush to boot up the word processor and get the job out that the basics of handling a writing assignment properly are forgotten. Asking pertinent questions takes longer because it's done by email instead of on the phone or in person. Briefings are relegated to a few lines of text in an email and, as such, are often incomplete.

What's the answer? The answer is a question. It's a question you need to ask about everything you write. Ask the client. If you're writing a piece for self-promotion, or even a piece of fiction, ask yourself. It's such a simple question that it covers a huge variety of factors to do with positioning, branding, top-of-mind awareness and all those other swell buzz words and phrases we know and love. It's just one short question and you shouldn't type a word until the client has answered it to your (and believe it or not, his) satisfaction. Here it is: "What do you want someone to do or think differently after reading this copy?"

Until you have the answer, you don't know what questions to ask, never mind what words to write. Many clients have trouble with the question because they haven't really addressed it. The answer may not be complicated but it can't be overly simplified either. An answer like "Buy more product" needs to be followed up by the question, "Why aren't they doing that already?" Then you can start getting somewhere.

This approach involves a few extra emails but it results in fewer revisions, less nit picking, better client relations and the most important thing of all, RESULTS. Apply that question to everything you write and you will experience the same blinding flashes of the obvious that I did . . . and do.

If you're already using this technique, thanks for being patient and letting me describe it. I needed to read it again myself.


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