The truth about writing advertorial

AD OR STORY? Actually, look closer, it's both.
AD OR STORY? Look closer, it’s actually both.

LUCKY is the writer who has never had to turn their hand to advertorial, that postmodern (possibly ‘Newspeak’) phenomenon which fills so much of our media.

Apparently around since the late 1940s, advertorial has a few tricky names: ‘commercial writing’ is the latest on the list, which includes ‘infomercial’ (usually on television) and ‘cash-for-comment’ (the bane of commercial radio).

Writers could, of course, make a purist stand and never engage in creating content off the back of advertising revenue, but you’d probably never make much money if you did, because all writing (yes, even literary fiction) needs to be commercial at some stage.

Here are my best tips for editors and writers on surviving this trickiest of writing practices, and interfacing with the sales team!

Advertorial can get you noticed

Right now, commercial writers are making decent money finding what is interesting about everything from water tanks to washing machines, and producing serious editorial articles for PR companies and big media advertisers. To achieve excellent results, and get your by-line into the publication, make your article about plumbing products so darned engaging that the editor will run it whole in that week’s paper, and make it look like serious journalism. Think laterally, find the story, interview people in the industry, shape it as you normally would a feature, take the money and submit your by-line at the top of the piece. They’ll snap it up, simply because they have one staff writer and they’re drowning just getting the news together.

Don’t mention the weather

Writing about destinations for travel companies, or regional events, means you’re going to have to find the way to say all the nice things and none of the nasty. Weather and climate are particularly off-limits, because advertisers don’t want readers to waver about heading to their locale. Keep the weather conditions a secret until the Bureau of Meteorology commits itself to a forecast, and remember how often they get it wrong! You’re a writer, right? Embellish, imagine and invent.

Journalist, edit thyself!

Your well-paid advertorial is unlikely to be completely read, edited or proofed by anyone, so spell and grammar check (the computer can do it for you, remember?), but don’t forget to read your own work a few times before sending it in. There are very, very few sub-editors left in the media who will commit to making your work better than it is, so get any notions out of your head about old-style newsrooms with teams of people with their heads down poring over your work. Journos used to have an old trick of making the last four to five paragraphs of a story work as possible endings, and this is great practice for commercial writers too, because it’s likely your work will be used as filler, and be cut down. If any of the last five pars works as an ending, you won’t look like an idiot, and if there is a sub in the process, they’ll remember your name, which means more work down the track.

AREN'T THEY GREAT? The sales team, everybody's BFF!
AREN’T THEY GREAT? The sales team, everybody’s BFF!

Sales reps invented advertorial

But they’ve forgotten they are one half of the job. Everyone knows people buy newspapers and magazines, and click-thru to online media sources, because they are desperate to read ads, right? Well, actually, they don’t, they want to be distracted and entertained by stories. It was ever thus, and nothing is changing in that regard, so don’t buy into the sales rep lies about how their sales are paying your wages so you’d better write what they want you to. Truth is, sales reps and their clients love it when you make the dross they produce look like a real article. Get it right for them, but don’t become a sales reps’ slave (see below).

A businesses’ opening hours is not news!

This is a mantra I have often used on sales reps who have sealed an advertising deal with a promise of award-winning journalism about the local chainsaw supplier, written by me. It’s ‘advertorial’, an amalgam of two jobs – theirs and yours – so feel sanctioned to send them packing with a mission to find the story for you: an award won by the business, some interesting staff member, a business milestone. Make the rep work for the favour you’re going to do them and flush it out, write it down, and email it to you. If you do this from day one, the sales reps will respect you, or leave in disgust to find other hapless writers they can drive crazy. Sales reps change jobs regularly. When they leave, it’s not going to be because of you, but they’ll try to make like it was.

Don’t give your phone number to advertisers

Unless you want them to call you all weekend. Sales reps love it when you agree to meet their clients, because it leaves you to do their job for them. Be nice, wave and smile, but let the sales rep do all the schmoozing. There is no law that says you must do lunch with an advertiser. Keep an air of unassailable mystery, or they will eat you for lunch, and add to your workload like crazy.

Q&A The friend of all commercial writers. Fast, fab, flattering, and fills a page.
Q&A The friend of all commercial writers. Fast, fab, flattering, and fills a page.

Sales reps vs. account managers

I was once seated next to one of my magazine’s big advertisers at a political fundraiser, and once he’d gotten over the fear of me networking him for revenue, he told me something very interesting about advertising sales people: the good ones call themselves sales reps, and the crap ones call themselves Account Managers (their capitalisation, not mine).

The key words are ‘representative’ and ‘manager’: they must keep their energy on the job of selling from start to finish, but so often an account manager will drop their energy once the client has signed the contract. The only way to deal with this is to NEVER take the baton from them. Let it drop, they’ll soon pick it up to reach their sales target.

Be nice to sales reps

Because the publisher (your boss) won’t judge you by the quality of your writing (they don’t read it), they’ll judge you by how much the sales reps like you. Being ‘nice’ doesn’t mean being a pushover, it means being assertive without getting aggressive. Walk the line, forget being liked, go for respect.

Be nice to PR people

If you want to write commercially, public relations people are your friends. Don’t present with loads of writers’ angst, just deliver in a timely fashion. Knock-off your commercial pieces by 10am so you can get back to your novel. Tell them you’re writing a novel, because they might know someone in publishing …

WRITE REGARDLESSIf you can’t find anything nice to write

Make it up. You’re a writer.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, regardless!

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