• D&AD Festival 2023
    9 & 10 May, 24 & 25 May
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Why writing is still one of the most impactful ways to connect

Three copywriters on why the written word remains a powerful tool, and their tips on maximising it

Image of ‘Leave them speechless this Christmas’ for Bluewater from Vikki Ross's talk

Words endure, words stick – and well-chosen words can redefine not just brands but whole sectors and industries. They lighten up briefs that seem impossible to joke about, and bring seriousness and intent to campaigns that linger long in the mind of the reader. Good copywriters go far too. A sharp turn of phrase can bring you into all manner of projects, from scripts for the big screen to billboards on Times Square; your words can take you all over the world and back again. But how do you get to ‘good’, and then ‘good’ to ‘great’? How can you use words to elevate your work to creative excellence?

One good place to start, we thought, would be to assemble three bright writing minds in our industry for a talk on ‘What writing is made of’ – a chance to pick their brains, and gain insight into how they approach their work, which represents decades of shifting culture and winning awards. Between Natasher Beecher (Creative Lead at Tank Worldwide), Nick Asbury (Writer at Asbury & Asbury) and Vikki Ross (Copy Consultant at Vikki Ross Writes), we called upon over half a century of copywriting experience, drawn from every imaginable field and format: “the cool briefs,” as Ross put it, “and the not-so-cool ones.” Playing to a packed-out crowd at D&AD HQ in London, all three creatives took the audience through what they found to be the fundamentals of quality writing, and though they each brought radically different approaches and perspectives, many common learnings and insights constantly re-emerged. Here’s some highlights we took away:

Beecher’s talk tackled the title of the evening head on – a testament to sticking to your brief if there ever was one – in unpicking what writing was made of, to her. Her answer, in short, was that her writing is made of her, of her experiences and loves and enthusiasms and causes, of her humour and inspirations, her life, and that your writing should be as such, too. But first, you must put in the time to figure yourself out, and really know why you do the things you do. “The last few years,” Beecher told us, “I’ve really tried to define: what kind of writer am I? What flavour of creative am I?” And it has been through hammering down her purpose that she has been able to produce some of the best work of her career.

“To elevate a story, you need to live, and bring your life, into what you do”

True to the industry, she joked, she came up with a proposition to summarise what her purpose was, drawing on everything she’d highlighted as characteristic about herself. “‘To elevate the stories of the marginalised so that we can all sparkle’ – that’s what’s at the core of every piece of work that I touch.” Having a north star like that in mind has allowed Beecher to focus and channel her energies into her work, in full confidence that she has a handle on what drives her work, and she wants more writers to figure out their own, whatever it may be. “Everyone has a superpower,” she said. “And every writer has a totally different superpower, I’m sure. But to elevate a story, you need to live, and bring your life into what you do.”

Image of American poet Margaret Fishback from Nick Asbury's talk

Beyond bringing lived experience into your creativity, Beecher extolled the virtues of taking every opportunity possible to show off your skills – even the driest, most remote and unrelatable of briefs. “I am a black lesbian cis woman,” she said, gesturing to her portfolio on the screen, “and this is an advert for a third-line drug for treating erectile dysfunction. I have absolutely nothing in common with this! But I channelled my life experience, I channelled my time working at a pharmacy, my pharmacy degree, how I want to make the world a better place, everything I could draw up out of myself.” The result was the product’s slogan, which gives you some idea as to how it’s used: ‘fighting ED one drop at a time’.

Nick Asbury’s talk brought a historical perspective to the point of taking your chances, zooming in for a time on the American poet Margaret Fishback. Apart from being published in the New Yorker, Fishback was also, at one point in the 1930s, the highest-paid copywriter in the world, after she took a spot at Macy’s and used it as an outlet for her poetic skills. “She became a celebrity in her time,” Asbury says, “became a cult figure, had her copy for Macy’s collected into books and sold as poetry, properly good, well-crafted poetry – and all of this because Macy’s needed someone to write about every product in the store.” Good copy shines anywhere; people are always drawn to skill and imagination, no matter the source.

Nick Asbury discussed the relationship between design and writing at D&AD's 'What writing is made of' event

“She became a celebrity in her time, became a cult figure, had her copy for Macy’s collected into books and sold as poetry”

Asbury took the room through a hundred and forty years of great copy, and each example he displayed – from the launch of Hovis bread in 1886, to a series of posters for the Royal Court Theatre in 2022 – had ‘it’: a rhythm, a beat, something that breaks through and grabs you on some deeper level. Good writing works for a reason, and Asbury, D&AD Awards 2023’s Jury President of Writing for Design, knows that as well as anyone. “It’s about knowing your audience and playing to them,” he told the room. “You have to know them intuitively so that you can reach them effectively.” As evinced by his presentation, that has always been the case behind good writing and good writers, and as followed up by Vikki Ross, it always will be.

“First off,” Ross opened, “I just want to say: the robots are not coming for our jobs. They’re just not, because they’ve got nothing. Even when we program them, they’ve got nothing.” For Ross, this separation is clear: only humans can reach out to humans, and can create a piece of work that another person could empathise and engage with. It is, as she argues, hard-wired – we know the way the brain works, and all the best ways of tapping into it, simply because we have one, and we can tell stories from our shared experiences. “A robot has never had to spend Christmas with their annoying family,” she said, pulling up a campaign called ‘Leave them speechless this Christmas’ for Bluewater, “and a robot has never stumbled into McDonald’s at 3am trying to order a cheeseburger,” referring to the recent much talked about McDonald’s campaign that mimics the drunk orders of late night customers. These relatable stories cannot be articulated without direct experience, and in an industry grounded on relating to its audience, writers can count themselves a little safer when it comes to AI displacing the need for them. 

Image of D&AD's 'What writing is made of' event by Rio Blake

“A robot has never had to spend Christmas with their annoying family and a robot has never stumbled into McDonald’s at 3am trying to order a cheeseburger”

All that being said, however, Ross made the case for thinking a bit more robotically, more scientifically, about why things work the way that they do. “Alliteration, repetition, saying things in threes, mixing up sentence lengths, playing with words,” she said. “All of these things work specifically because of how our mind works, how we form memories.” Ross highlighted the need to find and maintain a sense of rhythm, based on the part of our brain called the putamen, which is far more active in forming memory when stimulated by rhythm and flow. “This is why we remember song lyrics more than we do books, and crucially, why we remember catchy slogans.” Most of the techniques have been tested against scans of the brain – they just work. Three words are more effective than four; when a sentence clicks, it clicks. Since only we can tap into why something works, it stands to reason that the more human a piece of writing is, the more invested it is in life experiences, the more it sparkles with talent and skill and creativity, the more impactful it will be.

This was a free event hosted by D&AD. Join us on 26 February 2023 for the next one and  discover the Beautility philosophy with Here Design's Mark Paton, Kate Marlow, Tess Wickstead, plus special guests.

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