Lock a copywriter and an art director in the same room, and what do you get? The best ad concepts.
Sometimes, the art director writes the headline. Sometimes, the copywriter comes up with the visual. Either way, the end result is always better than either one could achieve by themselves.
That’s what happened with this ad for Sun Microsystems. My art director partner and I were basically fishing for another way to say that Sun’s product saved time.
After spending hours and hours kicking around idea after idea, we stumbled onto the “tick” sound that certain clocks make. When we recalled those loud classroom clocks from our childhoods, bingo! We had our visual and our ad.
Of course, we needed to develop more than just one idea, so our work wasn’t over just yet. But out of the pile we generated, that one was chosen as “the one.”
It’s not easy. Sometimes, the chemistry just isn’t there. I once worked with an art director I nicknamed “the squeaky door.” Every time I had an idea, he made an “eeeeeeh” sound that called for a little WD-40.
But when things are clicking (or ticking, in our case), and the two of you are coming up with great stuff, you know it. You feel it. And your readers do, too.
Writing a brochure is like writing an extra-long print ad. You can still create a memorable, attention-getting headline—and you take your audience on a serious tour of your product’s benefits and differentiators. And to get yourself up to speed so you can write, you basically throw yourself in the deep end, immersing yourself for days, even weeks.
I’ve taken long brochure journeys with online gaming companies. Semiconductors. Education networks. Petroleum additives. Infectious disease tests. Point-of-sale payment systems. Cancer-fighting equipment. HR recruitment. The “double volute.” And more. Every time, I was glad I spent the time, as I learned a whole lot along the way. Proving that, once again, you have to get in over your head to fill it.
When direct mail doesn’t end up at the bottom of a birdcage, it can have a spectacular impact.
Take this PG&E EnergyStar mailer, which I wrote for FCB Rivet. When it was sent out in 2004, the numbers of energy-efficient new homes built in California went up, (7,100 single-family units and 2,500 multi-family units), as contractors throughout the state took advantage of the program’s rebates.
And the numbers continued to grow. By 2015, the number of EnergyStar energy-efficient new homes built in California had risen to 165,783.
Of course, it’s hard to quantify how much of that success had to do with my little mailer. But it’s proof that direct mail (coupled with a compelling offer) is definitely not for the birds.
I love writing web content. Love, love, love it! Where else do you get to write tight, crisp, short headlines and dive way, way down into details?
I worked on my first website back in 1998, for Sony PlayStation. Since then, I've engaged in content marketing for wineries, routers and switches, restaurants, banks, real estate institutions, wireless carriers, you name it.
But I’ve probably learned the most about writing for the web from years as a web editor for Cisco.com (or CDC).
Business-unit account executives, project managers, and engineers would create piles of buzzword-and-acronym-filled text and email it to us. Our mission: to spin this highly technical straw into gold – or at least text that your average 8th grader could understand, while adhering to web best practices. Turn around a dozen or more of these requests every day, and it’s not long before it becomes second nature.
Since there’s more to web writing than just the writing, I attended Confab Intensive to learn about content strategy—and ended up learning more about writing in the process. The first nugget of wisdom from the conference? “Nobody will be offended if you take the time to make your writing simpler.” Words to live by—and work by, too.
Big, bold, beautiful; posters literally have the power to stop people in their tracks and pay attention. They’re certainly a staple in the Marxist-Leninist world, in countries like Cuba, which I visited in 2000 and 2006. There, I saw more “Socialismo O Muerte” (Socialism Or Death) posters than I could count, as well as a number of “Fidelidad” (Loyalty) posters, which, of course, had a double meaning on that island.
Certainly, writing posters for wineries, submarine sandwiches, and corporate HR pales when compared to death and country. But who knows? If the long-overdue warming in U.S.-Cuba relations continues, maybe I’ll be freelancing there someday!
Radio & TV
I really enjoyed working in broadcast. And I loved the process. It was a ton of fun to write a 30-second story or song, then see it come to life in the hands of a talented team of producers, directors, musicians, and editors.
I wrote a handful of commercials that were produced for Taco Bell and Mattel…and generated a huge pile of demo songs and storyboards. And I got to spend a lot of time with Mighty Max, Jennie Gymnast, the Message for Me Phone, Floam and Gak, and other characters and products. Looking back, jingle writing for these commercials turned out to be something I enjoyed a lot more than I was supposed to.
I still have my hand in the video world, writing and editing video scripts. But I miss the camaraderie—and the fatty snacks—of the post-production facilities. As well as the sheer, surprising joy of suddenly seeing your commercial playing on live television.
Sometimes, the life of a freelance copywriter is lived in isolation. But the best work comes from collaboration. And when you’re writing case studies, you need to get the best from others; namely, the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who have all the content you need—in their heads.
Working on these docs was a great way to sharpen my interviewing skills. I needed to learn the problem, how it was solved, and the results. I had to ask the right questions and follow-ups, or I’d have nothing.
Fortunately, the SMEs I interviewed were only too willing to share their tremendous wealth of knowledge with me. And it was nice to hear how, for example, deploying a Cisco network translated into real-life benefits, not just business advantages and ROI numbers. In the case of The Midnight Mission, located in downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row, it actually helped the workers serve more meals to the homeless.
Whenever you work on a product, any product, it’s always best to try it out yourself. Seems obvious. After all, how can you convince an audience of a product’s merit if you don’t have any first-hand knowledge of it?
That’s why, when I was writing my first commercial for Taco Bell, I ordered the entire 59 cent menu—and ate every bite. I bought and drank two six-packs of Hornsby’s Hard Cider when I was looking for inspiration (come to think of it, I still occasionally look for inspiration that way.) And I went running in a pair of Avia athletic shoes before I ever set pen to paper (unfortunately for my inspiration and my running, the soles immediately started peeling off).
So when I got the opportunity to write these Verizon emails, I jumped at the chance to try the product for myself. The company is renowned for having the best mobile network money can buy (with rates to match). But as a long-suffering mobile customer, any excuse to switch carriers was fine with me.
Thankfully, it was worth it. I got to work on some fun email projects—and the dropped calls I experienced on a daily basis dropped to zero.
Didn't Make It
Everyone in this business has a pile like this. Ad concepts that, for one reason or another, were never produced. The light bulb went on, only to be shattered later. It comes with the territory.
And it happens for a number of reasons:
I wrote a TV commercial for a crawling doll that was a tie-in to an upcoming movie. I even got to sing my jingle to a roomful of studio executives at 20th Century Fox (I got a standing ovation!) But the doll’s manufacturer soon realized (correctly) that the movie was going to be a bomb, and decided to pull the plug on it—and on my commercial, too.
I worked on an ad campaign for a floppy disk (remember those?). The manufacturer claimed to be the only one that inspected 100% of each disk’s surface. My campaign was about to be produced—then the company told us that, oops, they didn’t actually inspect the whole disk after all. Bye bye, differentiator—and bye bye, campaign.
I wrote an ad for Rockwell International, who wanted to spotlight their heritage of successful military aircraft. My headline was “Our Roots Are In The Sky.” Nice…except that my creative director insisted on creating a layout that showed a forest of upside-down trees, floating in the sky, roots-up! Naturally, the client killed it, but it lives on, right here.
These aren’t the only samples I have in this category, as I wrote quite a bit of package copy for the computer game manuals I worked on. But these particular pieces are from my long association with Rick Tharp.
Rick was an amazing, talented design guy, with a sense of humor to match. He was really the first art director/graphic designer I ever worked with. And he believed in having fun at every opportunity.
For example, in one of his designs for a wine label, which featured a wetlands scene, he managed to hide the bar code inside a drawing of a bunch of cattails. Another time, for a seafood restaurant, he drew a pair of (tastefully) copulating fish, with the caption “Bona For Tuna.” And he managed to convince everyone we knew that my mother was the woman on the Rosarita refried bean can.
We lost Rick all too soon, in 2005. But for me, his inspiration lives on—every day.
Not long ago, Fortune 500 companies would spare no expense in creating and printing these glossy, photo-and fact-filled documents to grace their lobbies and stuff shareholders’ mailboxes. But times have changed.
I was fortunate to be able to work on these two Cisco Annual Reports (with Tolleson Design), which live on in online versions. Cisco is known as being the unsexy “plumbing” of the Internet, but we captured how Cisco networks were the gateway to infinite possibilities at home, school, work, and everywhere else. Nice assignments—for an era that has largely passed.
This format has largely gone the way of the woolly mammoth. But I had a lot of fun working with it. I wrote my first manual back in 1983, for Atari 5200 Baseball. And my career highlight was, without question, working at Lucasfilm Games (later LucasArts).
There, the good folks believed that the documentation for their World War II flight combat simulation games could be more than just how-to-play instructions. They asked me to write a detailed historical backgrounder, complete with photos, quotes, sidebars, and more. The result: a companion book that added to the role-playing atmosphere—and enriched the game-playing experience.
The final products were as close as I’ve ever come to writing history books. And along the way, I got to fly a lot of “missions.” Interview World War II veterans and historians. Hang out with some interesting programmers and test/debug folks. And even work at the Skywalker Ranch for a spell.
Nice work if you can get it. And, thankfully, I got it.