Will Awdry is former Creative Partner at Ogilvy & Mather, and leads one of the industry's best copywriting courses: Writing for Advertising.
One of the nastiest comments you can make about advertising is not that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s derivative. To describe an idea as ‘derivative’ as in ‘borrowed from’ – as opposed to the noun that is some murky financial device – is a savage critique.
It immediately suggests a lack of freshness. Accusations of stale, lazy or ripped-off follow. Award juries deny gongs on the basis of being derivative. This is ridiculous, as derivation is one of the immutable foundations of advertising.
Much of Adland’s best work is borrowed, inspired by, or just a plain nick. A decade ago, our Audi Quattro ‘Wakeboarder’ spot followed – unwittingly – on the heels of a Goodyear ad featuring a man waterskiing behind a car in the Everglades.
The D&AD winning Swiss Life press campaign about the need to address life’s ‘twists and turns’ financially is the oldest strategy in the book. It is also brilliantly realised. Addressed with the right language, ideas become refreshingly differentiated. In today’s jargon, ownership of a thought with a whiff of the familiar about it depends on it being re-skinned, re-purposed and tailored to fit its own space.
Of course, I’m not saying there aren’t original ideas, just that there is lots of echo. What differentiates one from another is the way it’s expressed. That’s what wins awards, captures minds, ensures the client picks up the lunch bill. It’s what gives a brand its individuality, its lifeblood. It’s where you, scribbling genius that you are, come in.
The use of language in commerce is now more critical than ever. While a collective jargon holds sway, vocabulary dribbles out of circulation all the time. New specimens emerge to take its place. We all fish from the same well and speak – at times – the same gobbledygook. However, it doesn’t hurt to develop your own little stream of curiosities with which to pepper your points. For example, I cherish the Guardian journalist Marina Hyde’s use of ‘weapons-grade’ as an adjective, employed sparingly but devastatingly, as her own-brand secret weapon.
You can’t teach dynamic linguistics and I certainly wouldn’t sign up to it. But, in the inevitable plug for D&AD’s writing course, you can create conditions in which consenting adults can reach for new written expression from within themselves. Experience tells that it is not difficult to unlock. The results are the very opposite of austerity-tinged workplace language, tired and diminished code that it has become.
Of course, writing should be vibrant, precise and illuminating. Lazy thinking and bad practice all too often lead to incomprehensible vagueness. Personally, I’m with Confucius when he says, “When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom”.
Learn how to write creative advertising copy with Will Awdry that is, at the very least, weapons grade, on his D&AD training course.