Read Me outtakes

Being an occasional series of bits that didn’t quite make the cut.

The wisdom of the ancients

While we don’t want to weigh you down with anecdotes from long-dead practitioners, a quick gallop through advertising and design’s past will pay dividends. Why? Because these people helped shape the history of our craft and their words deserve a modicum of respect. Of course copywriting has changed; human nature, however, has not, and by absorbing the wisdom of the ancients you’ll be better prepared to go forth and create the future.

According to Claude Hopkins, “Fine writing is a distinct disadvantage. It takes attention away from the subject”. Ray Rubicam – founder of Y&R – insisted his creatives “resist the usual”. Leo Burnett believed in finding the “inherent drama” of the products and services he advertised (hence the whole Marlboro/cowboy schtick his agency created and which is still running today). He was also a great believer in an informal, friendly style of advertising, describing it as, “the glacier-like power of friendly familiarity” to win people over.

Rosser Reeves – inventor of the phrase USP and one of the models for Don Draper in Madmen – was unerringly down to earth. His only gauge for good advertising was “will it work?” To do this he instructed his creatives thus, “You must make the product interesting, not just make the ad different.” Reeves defined his Unique Selling Proposition like this: an advert should make a specific proposition to the consumer along the lines of “buy this product and you’ll get this benefit”. This proposition should be unique – something competitor products either cannot or do not offer. Finally a USP should be strong enough to pull new customers to the product and sell shed loads of stuff. In short, find some unique benefit within your product and hammer it home again and again and again. It was a brutal approach even back then. In the end even Reeves was forced to move with the times and ultimately augmented his Unique Selling proposition with a Unique Selling Personality – an acknowledgement that softer, more creative ideas can sell, something that must have annoyed the irascible Mr Reeves no end.

David Ogilvy wrote several important books on advertising. Rarely has so much arrogant opinion and brilliant good sense been rammed together. Here are just a few of the great man’s bon mots:

“Every type of advertising has the same problem, namely to be believed. Testimonials work because readers find it easier to believe an independent authority than an anonymous advertiser.”

“The wickedest sin of all is to run an advert without a headline” and that “I don’t envy the copywriter who submits one to me”

“I never write fewer than sixteen headlines for a single advertisement” What, never? And why 16? Why not 15, or 17, or 23? Alas, the great man remains silent of these secrets.

“Every headline should appeal to self interest”

“Always include the brand name in your headline”

“Some copywriters write tricky headlines – puns, literary allusions and other obscurities. This is a sin”. Yet one of O&M’s most successful lines was “Head over heels in Dove” – a pun and no mistake. But the Ogilvy wasn’t much concerned with consistency.

Elsewhere he advises us to “avoid bombast” Oh David. How little you know yourself.

Today, perhaps the best-regarded name in advertising’s past is Bill Bernbach, the man who kick-started advertising’s Creative Revolution in the early 1960s. This isn’t the place to summarise Bernbach’s impressive career (there are plenty of books that do exactly that if you’re feeling keen). Instead we’ll limit ourselves to a few choice Bernbachisms that are particularly relevant to copywriting in all its many forms.

Bernbach’s philosophy was simple: find the story in the product and present it in an articulate and intelligently persuasive way. His rallying cry was “the power of the idea”. Compared to Rosser Reeve’s blunt, mechanical approach and Ogilvy’s stylish but ultimately conservative slant Bernbach was a breath of fresh air. Here was a man not trying to limit his creative, but to encourage them to ever-greater achievements. But Bernbach’s creativity was never for its own sake, as he spelt out, “You must have inventiveness, but it must be disciplined. Everything you write, everything on every page, every word…should further the message you’re trying to convey.” The result was a style of advertising that was honest, witty, intelligent and very, very effective. It’s no exaggeration to say that whatever emphasis on creativity we can detect in copywriting today can be traced back to Bill Bernbach and his disciples.