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The Idea Writers
Copywriting in a New Media and Marketing Era
By Teressa Iezzi
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Crain Communications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE CREATIVITY AGE
In 2006, Esquire magazine named ad man David Droga to its annual "Best and Brightest" list. As its name implies, the list comprised walking superlatives only. The other 41 bright lights included Sebastian Thrun, an artificial intelligence expert pioneering self-driving cars; evolutionary biologist Paul Hebert; Hugh Herr, a prosthetics developer at MIT; and Princeton professor and creator of quantum-cascade lasers, Claire Gmachl.
Droga, then 37, had made a name for himself in the ad world for being ambitious and talented, and, perhaps as a result, fairly consistently successful. Having come from Nowhere, Australia (he once told Creativity magazine he grew up playing with wombats), Droga joined the ad industry as a copywriter in 1988 and became a creative director three years later, at age 21. From Australia he moved to Asia, heading up Saatchi & Saatchi's Singapore office and then in 1999, not yet 30, jumped to what was then the very epicenter of advertising creativity, Saatchi & Saatchi London. As the creative heart of the ad industry migrated from London to New York, so did he. He moved to the States in 2003 taking the global chief creative officer job at Publicis in New York and then, in 2004 made that ultimate leap, starting his own agency, Droga5 (the shop's name is a nod to his rank among six siblings; his mother sewed labels into the young Drogas' clothing, from Droga 1 to 6).
His admission into the aforementioned Esquire Best and Brightest club is evidence of how Droga's new company fared in its early days.
When Droga was selected for Esquire's list, the magazine's editors, in addition to crafting the standard blurb detailing the nature and degree of his brightness, asked the honoree to put his pen where his reputation was. Droga was asked to demonstrate his advertising prowess by creating an ad to run in the issue, giving readers the opportunity, of course, to read his glowing profile, look at a manifestation of this alleged talent and think, "Meh." Faced with that sort of pressure, one can imagine Droga pausing for a deep breath and a moment of gratitude for his well-developed self-confidence.
Unsurprisingly, Droga filled the brief like a champ. His creation for that issue of Esquire went on to earn an armful of ad awards, including the coveted Titanium Lion from the International Advertising Festival, aka the Cannes Lions. It was talked about in mainstream media outlets from the New York Times and CNN to E! News. Even for Droga, getting that sort of result from a print ad with a headline, a simple graphic and some body copy seemed over the top.
Only it wasn't a print ad that attracted all that attention and acclaim. The thing that Droga created wasn't even an ad, exactly. It was a brand and a cause. It was an idea.
It was called Tap Project. Droga5 designer Ji Lee created a simple logo—a graphic representation of a blue tumbler of water looped by concentric circles, like ripples radiating beyond the glass. The logo represented a humanitarian campaign on behalf of UNICEF to help make clean drinking water accessible to the 1.1 billion people in the developing world without it. According to Droga's big idea, to help those people, New Yorkers had only to do what they frequently did anyway—go to a restaurant and order a glass of tap water with their meal. Those who dined out in New York on World Water Day, March 22, could ask for water in vessels labeled with the Tap Project logo, and add $1 to their bill for the privilege, with the proceeds going to UNICEF's clean water efforts. Droga's agency recruited all of the city's top chefs and restaurateurs and local celebrities, including Sarah Jessica Parker, who became the spokesperson for UNICEF's clean water cause.
By March 22, over 300 New York restaurants were in on the effort. There was a site, tapproject.com, where people could learn about the campaign and see a list of restaurants and endorsements by chefs and celebrities, there was a fundraising event, there was a print initiative that saw magazines from Esquire to New York running essays on water from well-known authors, there were commercials and web films, retail tie-ins—designer Donna Karan created Tap shirts and drinking glasses—and there were millions and millions of dollars of PR as broadcast, print and online media outlets in New York and around the world spread the word about this simple, inarguable idea.
In 2008, after the inaugural campaign in New York, seven U.S. ad agencies were recruited to create their own campaigns, which they did in 30 North American cities. By 2009, 100 cities around the world were involved in the project. The initial Tap campaign reached over 80 million people (based on Nielsen ratings) and, according to UNICEF, generated $5.5 million for its cause. All with $0 spent on media.
So, what was wrong with just creating a nice print ad and leaving it at that?
"I'm in the business of building brands, so as an exercise, I wanted to see if I could build a brand from a single-page ad out of nothing and create something," Droga told Creativity at the time.
With Tap, Droga created something that engaged people on their own terms, encouraged participation and sharing and involved a range of platforms; something that, rather than having a start and an end date, like an ad campaign, was a living, breathing, open-ended enterprise. That he did so speaks of the monumental changes in the ad industry and the potentially limitless scope of the copywriter's job. It should be noted that Droga was by no means unique in looking beyond the printed page—it's no coincidence that at the time the Tap Project was created, magazine ad revenues (including Esquire's) were in precipitous decline, and the entire print industry was, and remains, in crisis mode. Clearly, other entities have come to the conclusion that a two-dimensional print ad, while still a valid means of communication, is not the last word in connecting a brand with consumers.
In the end, yes, there was a print ad in that issue of Esquire. Droga and agency executive creative director Ted Royer, both copywriters by trade, and designer Lee, assisted by junior creatives Amanda Clellend and Jesse Juriga, created that ad and the copy and the FAQs on the web site and the scripts in the TV spots that would be created after the fact to boost awareness of the campaign.
But, first, a copywriter created a brand, a new means of fund raising and a new platform for UNICEF. A copywriter, working with a group of creatives and producers, rallied the New York culinary community, and created a cultural phenomenon.
All these things, and more, now fall under the general job description of the copywriter. In other words, a copywriter does a lot more today than write copy. And copy can be a lot more than a headline or TV script.
"Writers now are less typecast than before," says Droga. "They are not restricted to headlines, dialogue and body copy. An idea may be born from an inspiring manifesto or business idea. Something that informs everything a brand does from that day forward."
The copywriter's job has changed as much as the advertising industry itself. And, no matter what the old bastards say, that change has been fundamental, irrevocable and, to many players in the media and marketing scene, catastrophic. "We are an industry built on assumptions that no longer exist today," says Droga.
Those assumptions include the following: that pushing out a Big Marketing Campaign that runs for several weeks and then stops is the best way to connect a brand to consumers; that a large media budget assures a marketer of getting its message across to its desired audience; that one-way, TV-borne messages are the only, or even the primary, or even a necessary unit of marketing; that big ad agencies with global tentacles and lots of awards in their reception areas will always own the primary relationship with a marketer; that people only watch media-company-made content at media-company-dictated times; that professional ad people are the only people who can tell brand stories; and that anyone gives a good goddamn about what you're telling them in your ads.
All of the entities—including large ad agencies, magazines and newspapers, TV networks and media conglomerates, creatives, CEOs and advertisers—that had worked successfully under the assumptions that governed the previous era are no longer guaranteed success, or even survival, in this new era. And while calling this era the Digital Era adequately describes the basic media shift that's taken place, calling it the Consumer Control Era probably gets closer to the rub, better describing the essential, overwhelming change that is remaking the industry and the copywriting profession.
THE TV ADVERTISING AGE
There are many books and other resources that you can and should read that provide detailed analyses of the transformation of media, culture and marketing and the great trials that have been visited on advertising.
For now, here is a somewhat reductive rundown.
The advertising industry, since its beginning in the mid 1800s, revolved around creating brand messages that were adjacent to or small interruptions in the content that people were watching, reading, listening to, looking at—the (easily avoided) price of admission to the main attraction. Ad agency writers and art directors created these short messages, and the ad agency that employed them (and later, the agency's giant media buying operation, spun out to make maximum profit for the shareholders who owned the holding company that owned the agency) bought media space to place the ad in proximity to content that would be seen, presumably, by an audience of predetermined size and composition. For the first part of advertising history, this exercise revolved mainly around print, and most of the classic copywriting books deal with creating ads for this medium. For the next part, and until recently, for most creatives advertising has equaled TV commercials.
From the late 1950s to roughly 2002, TV was the media sun. It was the focal point for marketers, agencies, creatives and the public. TV came to so dominate the media landscape in North America that most big agencies remade themselves, their processes, their structure and their talent base around making TV commercials.
During the TV years, the best copywriters made 30-second spots into art, or something that looked an awful lot like it. They crafted narratives that used combinations of humor, beautiful imagery, music and emotion to convey a human truth and join the soul of a brand with the heart of the consumer. Every so often, a talented writer would create a new style of advertising that fed from and in turn influenced the larger entertainment and cultural world. They created tag lines that became part of popular culture ("Where's the Beef?" "Just Do It." "Got Milk?" "There's An App For That." "I'm On A Horse." All created by once and future copywriting legends). Their work informed our childhoods and formed part of our collective consciousness.
But, lest we risk over-romanticizing, we should remember that those memorable hall-of-fame ads were and are the exception. The ratio of good to bad ads, good to bad anything, is probably immutable. Watch TV for a few hours. How many ads are good? Somewhere between 10 and 20 percent? That's the same as it ever was. And those people who tell you it was better back in the day? Don't believe them. For every "Think Small" in the '60s there was a bottomless bowl of the same insufferable dross that's served up on any given commercial break and that covers the ground from forgettable waste of everyone's time and money to actively annoying disincentive to ever buy the product being advertised. But who cared? TV was a blunt instrument. If you bought enough weight and aired your ad with the right frequency, you stood a decent chance of selling some stuff—though you stood an excellent chance of spending a big chunk of change.
But that was then—when the medium guaranteed a mass audience.
The media landscape during the TV years was a nice, finite, understandable, ownable place. In 1980, the "big three" networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, garnered more than 90 percent of prime-time TV-viewing eyeballs. By 2005, this share was 32 percent. And that just reflects the shift in audience among those who were still watching TV; in other words, it basically covers the explosion of TV outlets and cable. Since the go-go '80s, the media universe has exploded into an almost infinite number of small pieces, on and off TV. And by the time broadcast TV was succumbing to cable, the internet was, effectively, becoming the center of people's media world.
You know some version of the basic stats by now—YouTube, launched in December 2005, now serves two billion videos daily; Facebook gained 500 million users in its first six years of life; Twitter has exploded, going from inexplicable habit of the young, self-absorbed media early adopter to acutely mainstream (see @aplusk, @kimkardashian) habit of everybody, and a key part of the social presence of brands. The rise of so-called social media made the sharing of opinions, of creativity, of everything, easy and accessible to every demographic.
"We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race," said New York University Interactive Telecommunications Program professor Clay Shirky in his 2008 book on social media and technology-enabled cooperation, Here Comes Everybody. "More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible in the past, and the size and speed of this increase, from under one million participants to over one billion in a generation, makes the change unprecedented, even considered against the background of previous revolutions in communications tools."
At a gathering of the Association of National Advertisers in 2009, Google CEO Eric Schmidt put it this way: "We now generate as much information every two days as was generated from the beginning of time to 2003."
As media options became limitless, it grew harder to reach huge numbers of people, or even smaller numbers of people in the same places in the same way. Even a marketer with a vast media budget could not guarantee mass audience reach by buying 30- or 60-second commercial slots. The current reality is that while TV is still a powerful tool of reach and a valuable component of a media plan, it is no longer—with the exception of the Super Bowl, which was watched in 2009 by about 98 million people—a truly mass reach vehicle. And TV commercials are certainly one thing, but not the only thing, that copywriters are or should be creating.
As the ad industry's model started to warp before its eyes, its answer was swift and sure. And that answer was: creativity! We have to make better, more creative commercials to cut through the clutter. Well, yes. That is correct, sort of, but it tragically misses the point at the same time. Creativity is certainly the right answer. But to say that the industry's job, the copywriter's job, now is to make better commercials is like saying a rodeo clown's job is to wear a red nose and a painted frown.
An important assumption, to be sure—but there is lots more to be done.
And this is where things get interesting for the new copywriter. The Consumer Control Era has meant that creatives must make things that people want, that they seek out and share with their circle, or with the world. It has meant that the marketing end game has transcended reach, just grabbing eyeballs, and it has become a matter of engagement, of inviting a conversation and making a meaningful, ongoing connection. And, while yes, any copywriter worthy of the title strives to make better ads, now those "ads" can be almost anything—a film, a TV show, a mobile app, a blog, a retail experience, a product, a song, a game, a distribution idea, a tweet, a scheme to get people to pay for tap water.
BEYOND THE ADVERTISING AGE
The growth and influence of the internet didn't simply add a new vehicle for clutter and make it harder to grab a consumer's attention. It completely and irreversibly transformed the media landscape and the way people experienced and interacted with brands and brand communications.
In the simplest terms, consumers gained an unprecedented degree of control over their media environment and the terms by which they would interact with any content, ad messages included.
With the advent of DVRs, of course, consumers could bypass brand messages on TV—a medium that was now fragmented into tiny shards of content. But ad avoidance is just the beginning. More to the point, consumers could and did get their information about brands, and everything else, from other consumers, from a massive range of sources online. And they could share their own information and reviews, too.
If they wanted to, and they often did, consumers could be producers of brand information, opinion, and, yes, advertising.
In 2007, Nick Haley, an 18-year-old student from the U.K. created his own interpretation of an Apple ad for the iTouch—simply a series of stock Apple images cut to the track "Music Is My Hot Hot Sex" by CSS. He posted the video to YouTube, where it was viewed by thousands of people, including people from Apple, who had their ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day L.A. contact Haley and bring him to its Los Angeles HQ to help make a broadcast version of the spot. That same year, Doritos enlisted civilians to create its most high-profile ads of the year in its "Crash the Super Bowl" campaign. There are countless other examples of brands soliciting ideas from consumers. "Consumer-generated content" became one of the biggest (and, typically for the ad industry, misunderstood and poorly utilized) phenomena of the mid-00s.
But consumers weren't just generating videos. Several marketers harnessed consumer opinion to inform all areas of their product and service development, as well as marketing. Dell, for example, created IdeaStorm in 2007, a site where the public can contribute ideas on all aspects of Dell's offering, with a Digg-like system of promoting ideas to determine their popularity. Crowdsourcing, a term used first in a 2006 Wired article, became the next ad industry darling and is, of course, used and abused with the usual abandon.
Excerpted from The Idea Writers by Teressa Iezzi. Copyright © 2010 Crain Communications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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