Copywriting is dead…Long live copywriting! – (an account guy’s view)

Where have all the words gone? Here are two opposing views:

Copywriting is dead

1.      Words are no longer sexy in advertising, (and they don’t get creatives promoted.)

Here is a Cannes winner this year from Euro RSCG Bangkok, and here is an example from JWT Mexico. They’re representative of the modern taste in design, favoring clean lines, full bleed double page images, impactful visuals that telegraph the benefit, minimal logo and tagline at the bottom right.

But there’s also a big (if unspoken) element at play: career advancement: If you’re a creative, awards get you promotions, money, recognition, etc. International awards? Even better. Now picture an international judging panel going through tons of print work – your clever Portuguese play on words loses all its humor when translated to English. Your brilliant Bahasa double entendre is completely lost in translation. The judges do their best to take this into account, of course. But in the end…no prize, no glory. So if you care about this, you slowly start defaulting towards the universal visual idea that will be understood and loved, regardless of where the judges are from!

2.      There’s just no time anymore. And words take time.

Lack of time. Either they actually shrunk the day to 20 hours, or perhaps we hear this so much that we’ve ended up believing it. Either way, it’s undeniable that our patience for advertising is not what it once was. The classic long copy advertisements brilliantly written by David Ogilvy are a tough read, even for fans of classic advertising. Draftfcb has a proprietary research showing that brands have an average of 6.5 seconds to engage a consumer with their message, or the consumer moves on. 6.5 seconds? That’s not a lot of time.

3.      Words need to be translated, and that’s too inefficient in today’s globalized world.

Big clients are interested in campaigns that will travel across borders. This saves them money, and helps them build a consistent brand equity. Translation is a big barrier to this. I reached out to the esteemed Barry Smit (a colleague who’s spent the last 30 years knee-deep in the creative fields of Asia) and he confirms that in Asia, regional solutions are a fact of life, so creatives find themselves defaulting to pictures in order to carry the story.

The great Samsonite print ad above from JWT Shanghai can be used anywhere in the world, without making a single change. The same goes for this Yellow Pages ad, by Creative Juice Bangkok – that is picture power, and it’s taking over the world.

4.      The URL and the hyperlink is killing off the written word in advertising.

I could write a clever paragraph to describe a hilarious Egyptian cheese ad. But better yet, go check out at

A sexy woman doing yoga makes for a catchy ad. In this ad for CASIO, the intent is to show that the Casio G’zOne Commando is rugged and fits your daily life…oh wait…you already clicked on the hyperlink, so you already know. Never mind.

With the URL and the hyperlink (and now the QR code), all the explanation/sale/detail/analysis that was cluttering the advertising formats of old is now left for “after the click”.

5.      Touching, dragging and clicking is replacing the reading of words.

We consume media in ever-more interactive ways. Increasingly often, when people are brought in by a visual and want to know more, they think “where do I click?”, or “what do I touch/drag?”. Check out this interactive video from Danish bus company Byturen. A generation ago there would have been a clever headline and maybe some copy to hammer home the point. Now all of the magic is in the mouse movement. This interaction with media is becoming innate. Soon we’ll be viewing and hearing the morning paper, not only reading it!

6.      A significant chunk of the developing world has low literacy rates. (And the other chunk is probably watching TV instead of reading.)

India’s illiterate population is around 300 million, roughly the same population as the entire United States. What advertising/communication tools will play a role in selling to them? Visuals, performance art, village fairs, road shows, movies, etc. Written words? Not so much.

Long live copywriting!

1.      Copywriting is happening everywhere, non-stop.

The Uniqlo web site you enjoyed clicking through, the instruction manual for your iPhone, the email you got from American Airlines…these things don’t write themselves – they have all been carefully crafted by a copywriter. For every lovely visual-driven ad such as this one for Waitrose supermarkets, there is an anecdote such as the one shared by Bob Neuman, (International Creative Director at Draftfcb NY and former collaborator of certain copywriter named David Ogilvy)

As I pondered whether there was any place for long copy today, I picked up a bottle of balsamic vinegar and looked at the back.  It was a delightfully written long story about the family behind the vinegar.  It did a marvelous job of romanticizing the brand and making you believe how special it was.  If you think copywriters have forgotten how to write, think vinegar.

2.      Words travel and endure better than images

Think of a phrase such as Nike’s “just do it”.

It’s simpler, more specific, easier to share, and ultimately a more lasting brand statement than any visual alternative.

“Think different” is another example, there are many more.

When you distill a powerful thought down to a finely crafted set of words, these attain a power far beyond letters on a page, and they become inherently “viral”.

Adilson Xavier, author and ECD at Giovanni+DFCB, reminded me that

“Words remain the only tools we have to accurately express our feelings and thoughts. People will remember jingles for decades, they will repeat headlines and slogans, recount the stories of our tv spots to their friends…but very seldom are they able to properly describe images. That’s why word of mouth is so valuable for communication. As far as I know, there’s no such expression as “image of mouth”.

3.      Stories, woven together by words, are the underpinning of much of the powerful “visual” work

I’ve written about my admiration for the Levi’s ad below, from W+K. Upon first view you might fixate on the distinctive imagery, on the cinematography, the mood. But really the power and the foundation of this execution come from the haunting/uplifting words of Charles Bukowski’s poem. The result is “branded poetry”, and it’s what makes this seemingly visual ad so very powerful.

Another example is this stunning spot from Chrysler (also from W+K!). What first registers is the gritty Detroit imagery, the camera angles, the celebrity, the restrained power of the soundtrack. But go back and look at it one more time. What stays with you is the back-story, the declaration, the pride, the raw emotion of a city and a brand that has been beat down – all brought to life by the spoken words of the narrator.

4.      Words lead to action better than visuals. (And advertising is about generating action!)

If the bottom-line objective of advertising is to get people to buy, compare, act, consider, etc., nothing is as direct, specific, and action-inducing as actually telling people to “call now, try us for free, act now before it’s too late, etc.” Images can make you feel, can make you experience, but words can get you much closer to action. This is what the client normally wants, so this matters greatly in advertising.

5.      The world is actually reading and writing more than ever

Web sites, blogs, tweets, SMS, emails, kindles, iPads, Facebook, – the new platforms for reading and writing are endless, and growing exponentially. Take the mobile phone, historically a tool of voice communication, which is now increasingly a means to absorb and share information through reading and writing. Professionals skilled with using words are a vital part of making this environment work in the service of brands.

So…what is my take?

In my humble opinion, the highest form of advertising touches you on an emotional level (among other things!)…I believe that stories, well told, are the key to conveying these emotions and linking them to a  product or brand… and I think that ultimately these stories must rely on words to be expressed properly.

A copywriter might focus on a few sentences or a headline, or even a tweet, working like a craftsman to get you to take action. Or he might deal with big narrative ideas, working like a storyteller to create something with a lasting emotional impact. Either way, words are at the center of it all.

We live in a visual world, but there is no such thing as a competition between words and images. In the end both must work together to achieve their maximum expression, and good creative teams must know this instinctively.

I believe that copywriting is, and will remain, very much alive!

I leave you with two examples of the fulfilled promise of copywriting:

I had previously shared this Coca Cola spot, created by Santo in Argentina. It’s a great example of copywriting at the core of an emotional, branded message.

And here’s a classic example from Sony Playstation, created by TBWA\London. A measly video game console, right? In the right hands, it’s oh, so much more! Check it out. Wow.

Remember, this is just one account guy’s view. I’d love to know your thoughts, particularly if you’re a copywriter, or if you think I’m crazy. Just click on the comments section below.

As always, thank you for reading!

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to my good friends B Pinaud, B Smit, A Xavier, B Neuman, C Walker, for their invaluable input. They’ve “been there and done that”, and I’m lucky to be able to tap into them for their opinion.

20 thoughts on “Copywriting is dead…Long live copywriting! – (an account guy’s view)

    • Thanks, anonymous. It’s one of my favorites too, although not every brand can pull off something like that (or even try). Coke has earned that right. This ad was featured in a previous post about distinguishing between crappy/good/sublime adv. If you haven’t checked it out…check it out!

  1. Well, thank goodness for that.

    I agree with your conclusion for selfish reasons, of course. The integrated nature of advertising makes copywriting essential as consumers look for the emotional (and rational) connection to be reinforced throughout their experience with a brand.

    Brilliant examples, Martin.

    • Hi Eric – When I was writing the “copywriting is dead section” I was feeling pretty grim about the whole thing…I’m also glad things turned around in the second half of the post:)
      I like your notion of words “reinforcing”, Perhaps images take you to a general space, but words help you narrow down the thinking, they help make it more specific for the consumer?
      Thanks for reading (and for posting your comment!)

  2. Great article and great read. and I totally agree that the best ads are when words and pictures work hand-in-hand.

    As an advertising student in college, I find this really enlightening.

  3. Interesting read. Copywriting is definitely not dead. Copywriters face new challenges as we all do, but at the end of the day the best work is a result of good collaboration (words, visuals, format, location, time… all working together).

    • Hi Bridget, thanks for reading, and thanks for posting!

      I totally agree…but the genesis for this post was the sinking feeling I got every time I saw yet ANOTHER stereotypical print award winner. All image, no words, tiny logo. I started thinking words were doomed…but then I thought it through a little more, and the latent power of words became very apparent. I should try this “thinking it through” business more often!


  4. That was a useful article. I read it all, and clicked to see the visuals, thereby demonstrating the point that a combination of clicky stuff and words can work effectively.

    It’s also worth noting that there are ‘words people’ and ‘video/image people’. Some spend quantities of time on YouTube, others read endless blogs. A yellow banana might sell Waitrose fruit to some people, but not to others.

    • Aha! Thanks for reading/clicking and proving the premise, Hoover!

      I agree on there “words people” and “video/image people”. But the interesting thing is that even they intersect. I like reading and writing, but there’s no doubt to me that a visual example helps bring the words to life, much as I try to do on this blog. Conversely, the image people can have their experience amplified through spoken words in the background (as in the examples above), or even printed words on the screen at the right time, (as in today’s Ad of the Day for the Language Center – check out the home page).

      Thank you for reading, and than you for leaving your comment!

  5. Excellent take, Martin. The art of copywriting is very much alive and well, it’s just changing with the times. Every brand should have a story to tell—and stories inevitably begin with words. As writers (and art directors) we have to determine the best approach for a given medium. Some lend themselves to being visually driven versus verbally driven for different reasons. But the exciting part is that we have more choices than ever with which to communicate.

    And finally, here’s my favorite quote (author unknown) about the force of language: “If a picture is worth a thousand words, why hasn’t a picture replaced those seven?”

    • Tim, you said it.

      Except that you said it in 3 sharp sentences whereas it took me 1,500 words to get to the same place:)

      I do agree on the “more choices than ever”. Some would dismay at the fragmentation of media and user attention, I view it as a golden era for those of us in the business. What opportunity is out there!

      Thank you for the great quote, and thank you for posting!

  6. As a copywriter, I’ve always approached the craft as an opportunity to tell a story in a variety of media— and do it in a way that’s simple, relevant and effective. One of my colleagues has a mantra that’s to reward the reader for spending a little time with you. I’ve always loved this. And I think the best ads out there (including the ones you’re calling out) do exactly that. I like to joke that “Everyone is a Copywriter” but I think you’re right. Copywriting is very much alive. As you point out, we just have to remember that our job is to connect with people and touch them on an emotional level.

    Thanks for your post. I needed the inspiration today!

    • “Reward the reader for spending a little time with you”. I like that!

      I guess I strive for that when I write on the blog. I can imagine it must be so tough to achieve that in in today’s short-attention-span advertising!

      I’m glad if the post served as inspiration. Coming from an actual copywriter, that’s high praise for this account guy!

      Thank you for reading, do keep coming back!

  7. What a fantasticly thoughtful post. You have compelling points for both sides of the argument. Personally I am very glad copywriting is still alive. I love to read and I love to write – advertising without words would just not be the same….

    Kepp up the great posts. Thank you!

  8. Pingback: Long live Copywriting! « Innovative Storytelling

  9. Pingback: Ad of the Day – Oct 14 (London) | adboardingpass

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