Thursday, April 5, 2012

Dancing on the head of a pin.

         I used to worry a lot about the details. Is this the right word to describe a product's advantages? Does the copy need a better phrase, a catchier opening?

         That was back when I thought an advertising copywriter's job was words. I fussed over them, even in the days when that often meant typing everything over again. I used to drive the copy department secretaries crazy. Every time they'd finish typing a "manuscript copy" for me, I'd read it over one more time and find a way to say it better.

          I usually kept on "improving" to the very last minute. The minute before the meeting with the client. It often had unexpected repercussions.

         One day we were presenting a whole new campaign to General Motors. The idea was that GM's proving grounds were more important for automotive quality than the competitor's racing exploits. Every ad and commercial would have this long tagline: "General Motors cars are proved all-around. All-around the clock, all-around the calendar, all-around the country, all-around the car."

          As usual, I kept making changes. The meeting was at 1:30. At noon I gave my typist, Mary Margaret, the final revisions and told her I'd be back to pick everything up at 1 o'clock.

          When I returned, nothing had been re-typed. "I couldn't do it", Mary Margaret explained. "The hyphen key fell off my typewriter."

          That was one kind of problem from sweating the details. Another was that it kept me focusing on the trees instead of the forest. It kept me focusing on the words, instead of the ideas.

          I came to realize that you can have a beautifully worded dumb ad. I learned that what is said is always more important than how it is said. And my work started getting better and better results.

          Please don't get me wrong. Details are important. Language is important. "We just made the Atlantic Ocean 20% smaller" is much better than "Our new jets go faster".  But ideas are crucial. "Just do it" as opposed to "Our new athletic shoes now have better stitching".

         That's why advertising is harder than it looks. And watching good advertising is easy.

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