Why the pen should still be mightier than the edit suite

As the consumer is fed more and more visual trickery, we must not forget the selling power of the written word


The past few weeks have offered an opportunity for reflection on the glory days of advertising. For the younger generation in adland, the start of the latest series of Mad Men was enough; for everyone else, there was the glittering Saatchistory party, recalling the real-life British ad start-up that turned Madison Avenue on its head. Both the fictional account and the real agency story reminded me of the best of advertising craft skills.

Perhaps it is time for media owners to demand the same quality of work today from our suppliers (the ad agencies) and our clients (the advertisers).

For radio, press and outdoor, it has never been a more important time to demand great writing. Media proliferation means that stand-out creativity is more important than ever – although post-production technical trickery in the edit suite or on Photoshop does provide an easy shortcut to dazzling visuals for the lazy or less talented. Just because we can tweet in 140 characters doesn’t mean we can write a 30-second radio ad without the support of visuals to carry a creative idea. Great writing could be at risk of becoming a lost art.

This is not a new issue. Centuries before David Ogilvy wrote the book on how to create great ads, Dr Samuel Johnson highlighted the difficulty of producing a simple well written message – “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.” Yet for media owners and brand managers, I sense some worrying new trends that are putting pressure on written craft skills.

One is the core grounding in writing. Great brands tell stories. So often nowadays, creative teams are made up of two art directors rather than the traditional art director and copywriter. It is the rise of the comic strip at the expense of the novel. We all recognise that cost pressures and the proliferation of visual media have advanced investment in pictures not words, but we need to be careful not to lose the critical and complementary ability to tell the story.

As part of this trend, we need to look at the graduates we recruit. The creative feeder colleges (such as Watford, Bucks and St Martin’s) seem to focus more and more on art direction. For example, only one course that I know of (Watford) has a dedicated learning stream for writing for radio. I’m not convinced that today’s training trends will produce the next generation of copywriters to match those of previous ad ages – I’m thinking once again of Saatchi and its legacy: the unforgettable Pregnant man, sex equality and food hygiene campaigns.

pregant man
I’m not convinced that today’s training trends will produce the next generation of copywriters to match those of previous ad ages – I’m thinking of Saatchi’s legacy: the unforgettable Pregnant man…

This trend is also reflected in what creative work is showcased in our industry. Ask an agency for its reel and – quite literally – it is a reel of visuals; ask a creative for his portfolio and it is pictures not words. How we deliver our work to clients is an art bag or a Jpeg file not an audio clip.

Sit as a judge for any of the big awards events, whether the Engage Awards, Cannes or the Radio Advertising Awards and you will have a depressingly long and hard search for great audio copy.

Of course, creativity reflects cultural change: attention spans are shortening – the rise of the soundbite has been followed by the popularity of the searchable online video snippet and the character-constrained tweet. But, having said that, magazines, newspapers and radio are all still a significant part of UK media consumption. If they are still relevant for millions of consumers every day then they should still be relevant as a communications platform. The medium is the message. And if they are still relevant as a communications platform, then surely they should be taken more seriously.

This has to start with you – the advertiser.

For some reason, it has become acceptable to tolerate less than the best too often in many media. Yes, media owners and agencies must invest in training to help improve long-form writing techniques among creatives, but if the budget holder is not particularly bothered about how good the ad will be, or indeed whether it ever gets made, you can’t expect creatives to indulge in the process with the same passion they have for other media.

So, here’s the key question: how can we get creatives (and advertisers) to be as passionate about media that thrive on the written word as the people that consume them? Answers on a postcard please…

Andrew Harrison is chief executive of the RadioCentre. You can contact him at andrew@radiocentre.org