COPYWRITING IS VERY much part and parcel of the advertising industry in that it creates messages that sell. But the terminology is fast changing: “The prevalence of social media has greatly influenced people’s spending power. They don’t just rely on advertisements any longer, but rather base their purchasing decisions on the information and reviews found online, which is why today my copywriters are called writers instead. Besides ads, they are also able to write scripts for radio commercials, and even magazine features,” says Kenny Song of Ken Ray Communications, an established Penang-based advertising agency.
Design Attracts, Copy Sells
Most things you see and touch go through a designer, be they your phone, the clothes on your back, or the pen you’re holding. For the consumer to understand what a product is actually used for, it needs to be described in words because the consumer has not seen nor felt it, says Song. “The writer’s job is to make that information accessible. At the end of the day, you’d only make a purchase of something because you’ve understood its benefits, e.g. how the product can better your everyday life or solve a problem.”
Traditionally, in advertising, the creative team comprises an art director who works hand-in-hand with a writer, while a creative director supervises the process. “The creative director determines the direction of the advertising campaign from the very beginning – whether it is to be art- or copy-driven. The most successful campaigns are usually copy-driven; which means the writer comes up with a headline or the “feel” in terms of how the keywords should be expressed. To dress up the copy, the art director will then come up with a design. Most brand owners today realise that copywriting is actually able to define the brand much better than an art-driven ad; and the reason for this is because the looks, designs and feelings are trends that change.
“But some things don’t, and these are very often tied to how well your brand is described. A case in point, slogans like ‘Just Do It’ are catchy and memorable. Look at how Petronas designs their ads through heartfelt stories that are worth remembering. The visuals may transport us back in time, but the words inspire deep emotions. It all comes back to the fact that words help anchor the brand by giving it definition and meaning,” Song explains.
A brainstorming session is conducted next, after which, both the art director and writer will work on creating the campaign. The writer will naturally focus on the communication aspect, while the art director handles the visual component. Once completed, the campaign will be disseminated by the media department via social media and print publications like newspapers and magazines. As a whole, the creative team looks into what is needed to reach a wider set of audience, while the media department looks at the appropriate platforms for reaching the targeted audience.
"Most brand owners today realise that copywriting is actually able to define the brand much better than an art-driven ad; and the reason for this is because the looks, designs and feelings are trends that change."
The State of the Industry: Past, Present and Future
The creative industry is very fluid; it changes rapidly the more the industry becomes technologically-driven. “How we process information may have changed, but the way we communicate has not. For example, in the past, you can’t be reading a book when you’re driving, but now you can listen to one on audio. Writers today enjoy a wider array of platforms to publish their writings, and this will only continue to change because technology is always aiming at making information more digestible. A present challenge for writers is to convey a message with as little words as possible, and in the most effective manner.
“Consumers are bombarded with so much information day in, day out that if they are to read a wordy advertisement, chances are they’d probably only read the headline before flipping the page. Truth be told, it’s not an easy task. I could probably describe something very well in 20 words, but it’d be a challenge to do it with just three words.”
Sadly, innovations in the copywriting industry hasn’t been encouragingly ground-breaking, Song laments. “The graphic industry has a lot of research and development put into it to simplify the designer’s work, e.g. Adobe Photoshop and InDesign. For copywriters, on the other hand, the most we get are different typographies. Don’t get me wrong, these are technologies that make it very useful for the writer, but it is not by leaps and bounds.”
So how does typography help writers put their thoughts into letters and words? “When we look at the body text of newspapers, for example, we see Serif fonts. Serif fonts are fonts that have tails, and are used to speed up the reading process. Words can be read as a whole, rather than individually. As for headlines, block letters with Arial and Helvetica fonts are chosen to attract attention. Similarly, letters of different sizes function to accentuate the volume of words.”
Grooming and Retaining the Talent Pool
Language studies in our public school system have become very compartmentalised, with focus primarily placed on examining theories, and not in building and strengthening communication skills. “Most writers cultivate this skill when they go off to college or university; it’s unfortunate that our public schools do not emphasise self-expression. When we hire writers, a key area we assess is how well they communicate, not just how proficient their English is. In that sense, I think a lot of the moulding process in becoming a good communicator starts from home.”
Outdoor displays for DISTED College featuring high impact copy for prominent visibility and legibility.
Adding to this, Song observes that it’s a fine line to tread, let alone balance, for design schools to encourage their students to use technology, and develop their creativity. “What happens is the creative output will all look similar if the students have been trained to be design doers, and not creative thinkers. You need to be a creative thinker as the ideas and creativity of a person is what is of value to the industry. Technology may help to complete a job faster and better, but it cannot replace the human element of writing. A writer’s job is to affect our emotions and that is something that only happens between humans. Each of us, when we say or write something, our experience goes into our work – that’s what makes it personal and valuable.
“Persuasive writing is a particularly powerful tool, especially in the beauty industry because you are selling a promise, not just a product. When I sell you beauty, I can’t show you how you’d look in the end, but I’m persuading you to put your money into a promise. Oftentimes, this type of writing is re-enforced by the appointment of brand ambassadors. You may not trust the product, but you can trust the person who endorses it. Influencers would not risk endorsing a bad product as it will tarnish their reputation.”
"A writer’s job is to affect our emotions and that is something that only happens between humans."
The brain drain is yet another perennial issue to contend with; talents from Penang are often lured over to KL and Singapore to seek out better employment opportunities. “If you’re good at what you do, you’ll be in high demand. But a lot of our creative talents today are becoming freelancers as well. This is something that I’m very sad about. I’m not saying that you can’t make a living by freelancing, but it is a hand-to-mouth business; if you don’t work, you don’t get to eat. Besides, you may not get enough exposure for the big corporates to take notice. What happens is you will be handling a lot of clients who don’t appreciate or understand the value of advertising; and you’ll often be underpaid for your work. However, when you work in a company, you will benefit from creative collaborations. You don’t work as an island but as a team, and the exchange of ideas and creative tug-of-war during a brainstorming session is what develops you as a creative,” explains Song.