The truth about writing commercials

TURN IT ON But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.
TURN IT ON But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

THERE once was a time when I wrote corporate fantasies and advertising bumph with the best of them. Heck, I even won an award for one of the television commercials I wrote, and I learned a few tricks along the way which made the process easier on my artist’s soul.

Here’s my tips for writers in the advertising and corporate world …

Nobody really knows what makes some products sell

Advertising is all experimentation, and good products sell themselves, but no ad rep, account manager or spin doctor will ever admit that to a writer. Coming up with a brilliant advertising concept is more akin to creating the world’s best joke or ghost story in mixed company: it only relies on making the most people laugh (or feel afraid) at the same time, and it’s got to be so good that it makes people tell and re-tell the story to all their friends.

Word of mouth is the only effective form of marketing

And it’s a free distribution network once it’s been accessed. The key word here is: ‘word’. A creator of words is a: ‘writer’, the designer of the message, but also the least influential player in the advertising business. Work out why that is and you’ll earn yourself millions. Meanwhile, just write stuff that real people can talk about, and you won’t go far wrong.

Ad writers need to be great actors

You’ve got to sell your ideas. Be brave, be enthusiastic. Stand in front of the board and sock it to ’em. Shrinking violets need not apply for ad writing positions.

Write flexibly

Always ensure you have a few ideas in the air, because no final decision on wording or dialogue will be made until broadcast day of a television commercial, or publishing deadline day. Keep slogans fluid with multiple options that will work in the ad’s design. Ensure all your ideas are those you’d be happy to occupy the final spot in the ad, and make it look like you came up with the alternatives on the spot. That’ll get you rehired.

Play the accountability game

Fact is, no-one really wants to claim they had the idea behind an advertising campaign until it sells product and wins an award, and if that happens, suddenly it’s everyones! If you want to claim ownership of your ideas (and I assure you, you won’t always want to), make sure that your name is attached to the earliest appearance of the idea, in an email, or in the minutes of a meeting. That way, when it comes to award time, you’ll have proof, but be warned: claiming ownership before an idea floats is fraught with danger.

Nobody reads

This assertion is going to make some people very angry, but it’s certainly true in advertising. Every one of the players in an ad campaign will wait for the writer to write the ad and put it in the mouths of actors on set, or in the hands of a designer, long before reading it. Even then, they may only be scanning the words. First time ad writers are fooled into thinking they’re having a dream run because nobody is giving them any feedback, then, in the studio, they’ll hit a wall as all the stakeholders suddenly see how to ‘make it right’. That’s where the writer needs to have written flexibly (see above).

The client is always right

Even when they’re wrong, even when they’re very, very wrong, they’re right. It’s always best to get a client’s decisions in writing for this reason. Many will try to avoid this moment of accountability, but it’s essential that you get it. It’s called ‘sign-off’. If they waver at sign-off, you’ll know that they know they’re not right, and they’re about to change their minds. Back to your suite of excellent alternative ideas.

The account manager is always right

See above. Seeing a pattern here?

The writer is always wrong

Even when they’re very, very right. The best thing to do with your total lack of currency is to make allies along the production chain. There are plenty of other players with a bit of currency they can trade with you: designers who can tweak your ideas to make them outstanding; and video and audio editors who can give you more options than you thought you had. You’ll find these players working late in editing suites and darkened offices, and they’re usually happy to hear from the writer. Foster such alliances like war comrades, and buy them lots of drinks.

WRITE REGARDLESSDon’t stay too long in advertising

Unless you think you can maintain being right for your entire career.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, regardless!

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