British copywriting isn’t dead, but it’s in the doldrums

Last week I announced the results of the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) census of British copywriters. In short, they weren’t good. We started this campaign by asking if copywriting is dead and although happily, we’ve discovered it isn’t, it’s certainly suffering from depression and ennui.

The survey of 433 copywriters revealed that the majority are unhappy with their current situation and fearful of the future. They’re repeatedly seeing creativity sacrificed in favour of technology, they feel disrespected and frustrated and although they love their job, they’re not happy with their work. In fact, only 5% of respondents claimed they were happy with every piece of copy they produce and 29% are only happy with half of their work.

Although I’m disheartened by the results of the census, I’m not altogether surprised by them. In fact, they chime with my recent observations on the industry. Over the last decade, the internet has empowered anyone to become a publisher and led many to think, mistakenly, that they are writers. This has devalued the role of copywriters and damaged the quality of copy online. Social media has compounded the problem; as for every witty tweet there are dozens of generic and thoughtless posts.

In addition to the deterioration in the quality and value of writing, the pace of the workplace has increased and I’ve witnessed first-hand the pressure copywriters are under to deliver copy to restrictive deadlines. Perhaps most damagingly of all, clients are also taking fewer and fewer risks. Instead they’re dumbing down copy, stripping it of humour and intelligence, in the hope it will have the broadest possible appeal. In this environment can we be surprised copywriters are frustrated and depressed? It also begs the question, is the art of copywriting needed at all?

My answer is an emphatic yes. In my experience, copywriters can be an angst-ridden, frustrated and proud bunch but they tend to be dedicated and passionate too. The survey revealed that 94% of copywriters want their copy to elicit an emotional response, which confirms my belief that ultimately they want to deliver work that moves and motivates people. This makes them a valuable asset to any brand, and any agency or company that thinks they can do without them is mistaken.

If the results of the census outlined the lay of the land, then the debate that followed the announcement plotted the future of the industry. Myself and the other panellists fielded a number of questions from the audience and for me, one stood out in particular – should data be used to score the work of copywriters? There was no consensus in the room but I believe that like it or not, measurement will play a significant role in the future of copywriting. Within both agencies and brands there is an increasing desire to track the effectiveness of all marketing and advertising activity and as analysis tools grow more powerful, it seems it’s only a matter of time before creatives come under pressure to attribute scores to their work.

In my opinion, copywriters shouldn’t rail against this future, they should welcome it. Giving writers a clear indication of what words work can focus their thinking and spark new ideas. What’s more, as opinions on copy are almost always subjective I can see data ending a lot of arguments before they’ve even begun. Perhaps it’s time for copywriters to embrace their data planning and analyst colleagues (albeit not physically) and work together; after all they share a common aim!

Whatever the future has in store for copywriters, The Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) wants to help shape it and it closed last week’s event by announcing the launch of a new initiative for the next generation of copywriters – Future Writers’ Labs. These labs provide young writers with an environment to hone their craft and develop the skills required to engage audiences across both traditional and digital channels. Rather than spoon-feeding students, tutors will lead a number of interactive experiments in the art of copywriting over the course of a five-week programme – check out the ‘sell the writer next to you’ challenge, to see what I mean. Revered creative, Debi Bester, writer in residence at the DMA and innovation partner at Reinvention Works, will lead the courses and will be joined by guest tutor Patrick Collister, head of design at Google.

This initiative represents everything modern copywriting should be – fresh, inspiring and fun – and it arrives not a minute too soon. Brands are increasingly thinking with their head, investing in data and programmers, which makes sense but in doing so they mustn’t overlook the heart of their marketing department – copywriters. If they want to engage consumers on an emotional level and influence their behaviour they’re going to need good writers, as disgruntled as they may be.

  1. Couldn’t agree more Marc…but your observations about the default (and ultimately lazy and ignorant!) trend to data and science winning the day in isolation alone is worrying.

    Left and right sides of brain work best when employed together, and sadly the modern focus on metrics alone stifles the required creativity, energy and sheer stimulation that good creative and emotionally inspiring copy can have!

    We are all increasingly bombarded with high volumes of generally dull communications that just don’t work hard to hit the trigger spot.


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