Copywriting is harder than writing, much.

April 26, 2011

By Michael Mark, CEO/Creative Director @ NYCA

I love ideas. Not all ideas. Truth is I am a proud snob about the extremely rare ones that have the power to grow businesses. I pander to those. I’m brutal on the thousands of weak ones I toss away with as much regret as swatting a mosquito.

Ideas kidnapped me away from an intended career of writing poems, plays, TV shows and novels. I found writing prose beautiful, empowering, challenging.

Copywriting is an entirely other and more demanding enterprise.

At the essence of advertising is the idea. The advertising idea, as I think of it, is that intensely concentrated energy form destined to change behavior. It’s not easy to make a person cry or laugh with small black characters crawling on a screen but to get people to spend their money on a product when they set out to buy a different product — well, that takes some deep voodoo science.

Twenty-seven years into it, the hunt and cultivation of that kind of idea keeps me up nights ruminating, conjuring, Maaloxing, celebrating, praying; alive. The voice in a novel is a powerful current running through it. In advertising there are many voices, accents, dialects, languages to harmonize into a distinct chorus; more like a play, in my mind, with stage hands, actors, set designers, producers, musicians — and you must include the voice of the audience, not just listening but inviting them to coauthor, to get the mix just right. Of course, with these many variables, you realize, it is never ever right. This is also true of any writing. Copywriting is just more cumbersome, the odds are more stacked against you. That’s why there are more good novelists than copywriters.

Often, in advertising, you are working on a brand that already existed before you started tapping away to get to its core so there’s history you’re beholden to, invisible relationships that you will need to understand, nurture. Like marrying someone with step-kids.

In copywriting, your main medium is not words. You are working with preconceptions, competitive positions, visuals, the clock, evolving positions, sacred cows, relationships, ghosts haunting the brand from the past. And as high as you raise the volume on your headset to tune out the voices of the world into a powerful harnessed energy-force, you are on a team — a loud, then murmuring, un-unified, insistent, collective with (too often) different agendas. You are involved in a dialogue not just with your audience, but with your planner, your clients, your partner, your medium, your client’s customers, your competition, your own ego. These, more than words, are what the copywriter must work with. And when so many livelihoods are involved, all of a sudden clever just doesn’t seem so important, does it?

Also, unlike in a novel or a play, if you are a good copywriter you never write the ending. There’s no “Curtain gingerly lowers, catches on a piece of light, then darkness,” no “The End.” No “Fade Out.” If you are a good copywriter, you write for the action to continue and you wait for your next cue and you re-stimulate. The brand must go on. Like your kids, it should outlive you.