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Why mastering tone of voice can maximise your earned media

Vicki Maguire, the Chief Creative Officer of Havas London, says how you speak to your audience matters more than ever in a world where earned media reigns

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

“Fess up: I haven't got English O-level. I basically put a comma when I need a breath and a full stop when I need a fag. I’ve just got a good ear,” says Vicki Maguire, Chief Creative Officer at Havas London and a veritable powerhouse when it comes to dreaming up campaigns, ideas and wonderfully original wording in advertising. Perhaps because of her lack of formal training, a career in writing wasn’t ever on Maguire’s agenda. “I studied fashion because I fancied being a designer and, to be honest, I was shit,” the refreshingly straight-talking creative tells D&AD. “I got fired from Vivienne Westwood, Ted Baker, practically every decent high-street name. I couldn’t draw but the one thing I could do was talk my way into a job.”

The ability to spin a good yarn is something Maguire inherited from her father. “I’m a working-class girl from Leicester and my parents had a secondhand store on Leicester Market,” she says. “My dad could talk up a bit of old tut from £5 to £15 just by spinning a story around it. Sometimes those stories were true and sometimes they were true fabrication, but they were always entertaining.”

It was some sound advice from Maguire’s mentor Paul Smith that revealed the true extent of her own way with words. “He said, ‘Vicki, stop trying to draw and write your ideas down instead.’ And that’s when I discovered that I instinctively knew what consumers wanted, and the best language to talk to them in.” Soon after, she encountered two creatives working at the now-shuttered agency HHCL, and the lightbulb came on: “I suddenly realised I could monetize my untraditional background in advertising”.

“It was some sound advice from Maguire’s mentor Paul Smith that revealed the true extent of her own way with words”

Fast forward some 20 years, and Maguire has established herself as a leading voice in the industry, having worked for agencies including Wieden + Kennedy, Mojom, Amsterdam International and Grey London, before joining Havas London in 2020. “I first joined an agency in the mid-to-late 90s and, being a woman, I was already an outsider,” she says. “That meant I was able to learn on the job without anybody really looking at my background; I was a wildcard in every sense. I progressed thanks to the generosity of people with similar backgrounds who knew, even back then, that diversity of thought and background, and the ability to write in a style that engaged customers, rather than proper English, if you like, was becoming increasingly valuable.”

As the D&AD Writing for Advertising Jury President, with 13 D&AD pencils and countless other awards under her belt, Maguire has some fundamental advice for creatives and brands: master tone of voice. “The interesting moment for me was when advertising stopped being broadcast, and started being two-way,” she expands, referring to the open dialogue between brands and customers sparked by the rise of social media. “Today, writing copy for advertising is not only about doing the killer headlines, but also about bringing a brand’s purpose and value to life in a way that resonates with the consumer. And that’s all about tone of voice.”

But how do you achieve the right tone of voice, or know if the way you’re engaging with your customer base is off? “If a brand doesn’t know what role they play in the real world, if they just broadcast and aren’t two-way in their approach, then these days they’re dead in the water.” Instead, Maguire explains, the key lies in establishing a meaningful role in your customers’ lives — something that’s surprisingly hard to do. “At Havas, we do a global survey with over 2000 brands and nearly a million people called the Meaningful Brand Survey. In this year’s survey, we discovered that if 73% of brands disappeared overnight, the public wouldn't give a shit.”

If you want to be among the 27% of valued brands, she says, then you have to be crystal clear in both your messaging and your sense of worth — “and that's the role that great copy for advertising plays.” On her part, Maguire takes a personal approach to this side of the job. “I sit down and go, ‘Why is somebody going to give a shit?’ And, once I've unpacked that, and once I believe that the product is going to make a difference to other people's lives, then I can start writing.”

“The interesting moment for me was when advertising stopped being broadcast, and started being two-way”

One important thing to watch out for, Maguire says, is washing (the performative advocacy of a social cause as a form of advertising). “If we don't feel it, our customers aren't going to feel it,” she says. “Consumers have never had so much power or say in the way brands behave. A brand can be brought down by a Tweet, that’s the power of earned media.” This, she notes, can be intimidating for writers, but also hugely rewarding when done right. “It shows how impactful understanding the language a brand’s consumer wants to engage with can be. Suddenly, what could make you think, ‘We're not going to put our head above the parapet and say this,’ makes you massively empowered. As long as you've got permission to play in those spaces.”

Maguire namechecks KFC, who removed their iconic “finger lickin’ good” slogan from their adverts during the Covid-19 pandemic, as a great example of a brand acting with bold integrity. “Other brands were like, ‘Hey, we can't go out so stay at home with a cheese on toast.’ And you’re like, ‘Fuck off people are dying here,’ and people hated their brand as a result.” Indeed, sensitivity is always vital. “That’s why I would encourage anybody from a diverse background, who has what we used to call ‘the gift of gab’, to consider writing as a viable path,” says Maguire, who helped found the Creative Circle Foundation in 2017 to champion greater diversity in UK advertising.

Maguire is one of the great proponents of the value of a fresh, yet considered perspective; of the value in thinking outside the box, and addressing people in a way that speaks to them. This is something that is perhaps best embodied by one of her most lauded campaigns – for the British Heart Foundation – in which a camel-coated Vinnie Jones, the UK’s favourite hard man, performs CPR to the beat of the Bee Gees hit Stayin’ Alive. “It's a campaign to teach Britain CPR,” Maguire explains. “Research told us that it wasn't that people didn't know CPR, it was that they didn't want to know it in case they were the ones that were called on to resuscitate somebody. And you can’t bully anybody into learning, right?”

From a tone-of-voice point of view, she says, this meant identifying the blocker – which in this instance was the fact that people find CPR “scary and medical” —  and to “educate through entertainment”, instead. “So we used Vinnie Jones, the total opposite of scary and medical, and gave him some sticky language to a tune that you can't get out of your head,” Maguire says with an audible smile. The result? “The ad is still used by the NHS and schools for training, it's saved over 100 lives and counting” —  the ultimate testimony to the power of a clever idea and relatable copy.

Written by Daisy Woodward

D&AD Awards 2023 is now open for entries. Download the entry kit and submit your work here. Read more insights from jurors into their corners of the creative industries here.

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