The sincerest form of flattery


Copying – if someone nicks your words they must think those words are good.

So I was gratified to hear from upmarket chauffeuring company Sybaris that whole sections of their website, written by yours truly, have recently appeared on two competitor websites.

One of the competitors was known to them, and apologised – it appears the web design company they employed just saved time and effort by cutting and pasting.  The other case is “progressing”.

OK, I can laugh about it.  But, joking aside, this is serious problem.  Because if copy that’s original is then taken by others, the text is identified by Google as “plagiarised”- and there’s a danger that Google will penalise all of the sites with these identical words (including the one with the original text) in its search results.

So, those paying for original content lose out.  And those who think they are paying for original content lose out also.  And copywriters lose out because there’s less writing going on (hey, why pay when you have copy and paste?!).

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Marketing by numbers – why you end up with nought


I’ve just read Watertight Marketing by Bryony Thomas.  It’s good – full of excellent practical advice on how to tighten up your marketing to get a better return on your investment.  But, like a huge number of other marketing books, courses and seminars that present a system for success, it fills me with misgivings.

I’m not picking on this book in particular – it’s just a good (as in “one of the better ones” and “representative”) example of a type.  It’s the type, as a whole, that I have a problem with.

These “How to…” books are useful.  But only as far as they go.

As Hamlet says,

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

There’s more to marketing than these books would have you believe

Simplicity is seductive

The world is complicated.  People are lazy, so they are hungry for simple solutions.  Whether it’s losing weight, or winning customers, a simple system that’s easy to follow is going to be popular.

Marketing people have figured out this is what people want.  They’re in marketing, duh!  So you get a lot of books like Bryony’s that provide a simple way of looking at things, with simple diagrams, and a simple process to follow.

Her book is useful, because it gives you a clear picture of what it takes to put a watertight sales funnel together.  And it talks you through all the stages – “do this, then do this, then do this…”

Simple is what sells the book.  Simple is what makes it useful.  But, being simple, it has shortcomings.  In other words, the very thing that makes it good also makes it flawed.

Reality check

Life ain’t simple.

So just reading this particular “how to” book, and getting your head around this specific system, won’t make you a successful marketing practitioner.

It’s a start.  And reading more books like this, on “how to win with AdWords”, or “how to market with SMS”, or “how to manage your metrics”, and all those other topics crying out for a “how to…” guide, will plug further gaps in our knowledge.

They’ll give you a sound foundation based on best practice.  And they’ll help you avoid many of the most common mistakes.  You’ll be a solid, dependable and efficient professional, in a plodding sort of way.  But that’s not enough.

Invisibility is not the goal

If this is all you do, the work you produce will be formulaic.  Because that’s what you’re following, a formula.  It will take you to the same place as all the others who are studiously putting one foot in front of the other on the prescribed path.

In other words you are spending a load of time and money just to lose yourself in the crowd.

Deep purple

At the start of Bryony’s book she writes “If you’re the owner of a small business this book is for you.  If you’re a highly ambitious owner of a small business heading towards being a big business, or your goal is to build a business that sells for millions, this book is a must.”

In other words she’s primarily writing for “challenger brands” – something we’ll come back to.

If you are to challenge the big boys, and become one yourself, you can’t afford to waste a penny of your marketing budget (which is where Bryony’s book comes in – do what she says and you’ll save money).

But you’re also going to have to do something else (which is where Bryony’s book won’t help).  You must come up with a message that punches way above its weight – one that makes a big impact with a puny budget.

In his book Purple Cow Seth Godin gives loads of examples of small businesses that did just that, by being remarkable – they realised that to stand out in a world of black and white cows they had to be purple.

Does your marketing cause erectile dysfunction?

So you’ve got to do something different, something that makes you jump out from the crowd.  But getting attention is not enough – you’ve got to communicate it in a way that moves people, a way that wins hearts and minds.

Marketing is like sex – nothing happens till people get excited.  And if you spend all your time stuck in a bean-counter, task-orientated, box-ticker, don’t-think-for-yourself or colour-outside-the lines-frame of mind then you’ll never create a single communication, let alone a brand, that’ll ever make the earth move.

Define the problem.  Work out your objective.  Draw up a plan.  Use systems, formulas, step-by-step best practice approaches for all their worth.  But there comes a point where you’ve got to cut loose and let your imagination off the leash.  Otherwise all you’ll be is same old same old.  And boring as ****.

Two heads are better than one

What we’re talking about here is a change of heads.  Put your Mr Logic head on to do all the groundwork.  Then put your Mr Creative head on and go walk the wild side.  Where will you end up?  Somewhere more interesting than you are now!

Way back in the Mad Men era there were two characters who personified these two very different approaches.  David Ogilvy, coming from a market research background, was a methodical, analytical, left-brain sort of chap who tended to produce campaigns, backed up data and piles of best practice, that were hard to argue against – logical, but not terrible lovable.


Ad for the world's loudest clock?

Ad for the world’s loudest clock?

Ogilvy’s approach worked fine for big and well established brands that had lots of money to spend.

Bill Bernbach, however, was the exact opposite.  He was a genius at helping smaller challenger brands take on the market leaders.  Like Avis.

An ad that tries harder

An ad that tries harder

Or become market leaders.  Like VW.

Lateral not literal

Lateral not literal


How to turn a car made by Nazis appear lovably American shortly after the war

How to turn a car made by Nazis appear lovably American shortly after the war


Go forth and be creative

Bernbach’s words are hard to improve on, so I’ll just quote him.  “A company will spend years in research and hundreds of thousands of dollars to create a point of difference for its product, and then use run-of-the-mill advertising to convey that difference to the people.  Why?  They must know that if their ad looks like all others, their product will be classed with all others.  So often the words are saying ‘Look how different I am’, while the total ad says, ‘Pay no attention to what I say, I’m really one of the boys’.”

And here, for me, is the killer.  “There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this short or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

In the same letter (his retirement letter, describing how he has been searching for people to replace him) he adds “I don’t want academicians. I don’t want scientists. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.”  He complained that those who follow formulas exhibit “sameness, a mental weariness, a mediocrity of ideas.” They could defend their work “on the basis that it obeyed the rules of advertising. It was like worshipping a ritual instead of the God.”

In other words he passionately believed that great advertising, marketing, branding (call it what you will), has a soul.  Like great art, music, literature, architecture and even cookery, it’s created by people who first mastered the rules, then went off piste with a passion.  Think Picasso, Bob Dylan, Shakespeare, Gaudi and Heston Blumenthal.  Or, put it another way, you don’t get the Mona Lisa, a work of sublime mastery and mystique that transcends any explanation, if you stick to painting by numbers.

Mona Lisa picture credit


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How I became a top Muslim copywriter


A couple of months ago I got a phone call from someone wanting a Muslim copywriter to help them launch a new halal product.  I tried to tell them they had got the wrong number.  But they insisted I was the person for the job.  Did they know something I didn’t?  The answer is yes.

Surely some mistake

The person who approached me was a lawyer on maternity leave who wanted to use their time productively.  Despite having little marketing experience they had already got quite a long way with a website.  But the kind of site they had in mind was probably going to cost them £30,000 and they simply didn’t have that kind of money.  I felt I didn’t have the necessary skills to pull off this kind of miracle by words alone so, after several long phone calls, I turned the job down.

This still left me puzzled as to how they got my number.  Then, looking at the analytics on my blog, I spotted that one of my posts had shown up on a search for “Muslim copywriter”.  So, being pretty SEO/internet savvy (not) I had a brilliant idea – type the words “Muslim copywriter” into Google and let’s see what happens.

And there I was, on page one, about half way down.  (And I’m still there).

How come?

How wrong can you get something?

In the summer of 2012 I wrote a post entitled Why designers need copywriters – a cautionary tale”.  It told the story of a design agency who branded a data security company, called “Saracen”, by using images of crusader knights.  I pointed out that the Saracens were Muslim horsemen while the crusader knights were Christians.  This I felt was a bit of a faux pas, seeing as they were fighting on opposite sides, and that Muslims and Christians still have their well-publicised differences to this day.

I expressed surprise that nobody from the design agency picked this or even bothered to check it.  And amazemed that the client didn’t know what their own brand name meant.  My feeling was that if they’d involved a copywriter then they might have picked that up.  Because we tend to pay a bit more attention to the meaning of words, rather than just colours and stuff.  And we probably did English and History at A Level, rather than Art and Media Studies.  Don’t get me started…

The law of unintended consequences

So, if you type the words “Muslim copywriter” into Google this post comes up as about number six on page one.  In fact, considering the number of times I’ve used the term in this post, and the headline, I may even hit the top slot.  Which is a nonsense, because this is not my speciality (OK, I lived in Yemen as a child, but that doesn’t qualify me – and it’s another story.  Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you).

Postscript.  Saracen Datastore now have images of girls in white shirts on their website.  Not guys in chain mail sporting the Cross of St George.  And I’m now one of the world’s leading copywriters.  Ha!

Picture credit:  Brian


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Is it any wonder your marketing is being ignored?


Marketers are very focused on whatever it is that they are promoting.

But this skews their judgement.  Because that thing is so important to them, takes up such a huge amount of their brain space and consumes so much of their emotional energy, they forget that nobody else gives a shit about it.

Every individual in their target audience is equally focused on what it is that pays their own wages and floats their own boat.

Do I look like I’m interested?

Observe people closely, when they pass you in their car, push their trolley around the supermarket, or even talk to you in the pub, and you’ll realise that most of them are floating around in their own self-absorbed bubble, sealed up in little capsule that insulates them from most of what is happening around them.

What’s more, they really don’t want anyone/anything else, including you, to intrude on their “personal space”.  Which makes it damn hard to market anything to them.

Too much information

There are a number of reasons for this, but one is information overload (a term popularized by Alvin Toffler in his bestselling 1970 book Future Shockalso known as infobesity or infoxication).  People have so much “stuff” coming at them every day (emails, texts, pop-ups, tweets, pokes, press ads, radio/TV commercials, junk mail, sales calls…blah blah…) that they just tune everything out in order to stay sane!

I’ve been looking for some relatively up to date data that underlines just how serious the problem has become – but it has been hard to find (in amongst all the other data out there).  But I’ve just stumbled across some recent figures.  Read the list below and you’ll realise why people have retreated into their personal space – and how good your marketing has got to be to get through the firewall they’ve constructed around themselves.

Data about data

 The information supply is now exploding at a scary pace:

  • Human beings have been around about 2,300,000 years yet 90% of all the data now in the world has been generated over the last two years
  • “Between the dawn of civilization through 2003 about 5 exabytes of information was created. Now, that much information is created every 2 days” (Eric Schmidt – former Google CEO)
  • In the US, people who text either send or receive an average of 35 texts per day
  • 28% of office workers’ time is spent dealing with emails
  • The typical Internet user is exposed to 1,707 banner ads per month
  • The human brain has a theoretical memory storage capacity of 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes)
  • The maximum number of pieces of information a human brain can handle concurrently is seven (Miller’s Law)
  • Information overload is linked to greater stress, and poorer health
  • Overuse of social media can lead to short-term memory loss

Moral:  mediocre marketing is a complete waste of time, effort and money.  So next time you decide that hiring a good copywriter is too expensive think again.  It’s not as costly as marketing communications that go ignored.


Picture credit Martin Czerwinski


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Moments that matter – Lloyds Bank’s clumsy attempts to connect with their customers


I had a go at a mailer I received last year from Lloyds’ Bank with a post entitled “There is something rotten in the state of brand land”.  As they were between campaigns at that point I guess a bit of confusion on their part was excusable.  But now the new advertising is in full swing things are no better.  Looking at the “Moments that matter” ads you have to ask yourself “what planet are these guys on?!”

Not a happy customer

First of all let me be totally honest – our personal customer experience with the bank has not been good of late, so I’m a bit jaundiced.  We bought a new computer a few weeks ago, using my wife’s credit card.  Because we don’t buy new computers every week Lloyds Bank decided this constituted “unusual activity on the account” – and suspended the card.  Problem was, they neglected to inform us.

She only discovered this when trying to buy books from Amazon.  Lucky she wasn’t miles from home, trying to pay for petrol, late at night.  When she contacted the bank they told her what they had done, adding “we tried to call you”.

Tried?  As in our customer service representative in a remote call centre had one feeble attempt and gave up before they succeeded?  We both work from home so at least one of us is here 95% of the time during working hours.  We have an answer machine.  And they could have texted us.  So what kind of “try” was that?  Marks for security vigilance 9/10.  Marks for communication and service 0/10.

So you could say I’m not a neutral observer when it comes to judging their marketing.  But here goes anyway.

We care about you.  No, really, honestly, we do, trust us on that one…

Catherine Kehoe, managing director for brands and marketing, Lloyds Banking Group, talked to Marketing Magazine and Marketing Week last September when the new campaign launched.   She acknowledged that the bank, along with the entire sector, has some work to do in terms of rebuilding trust (don’t mention PPI mis-selling, Libor fixing, taxpayer bailouts or excessive bonuses).  She told the interviewer that the new campaign was intended to persuade people that “what matters to our customers matters to us”.  Hence the new theme of “Lloyds Bank – for the moments that matter”.

She adds that the bank is going to use the “customers’ words” and “It’s about reflecting people’s lives and not pushing products at them, and not the bank doing the talking”.

As a strategy it sounds reasonably sensible.  But how well does it play out in practice?  Dave Trott, in his excellent book “Creative Mischief” has a chapter entitled “The punters haven’t read the brief”.  He reminds us that the conventional way of judging an ad campaign, checking how well it matches the brief, is bollocks.  You are, as Dave says, “judging the work in exactly the way the consumer won’t  – the consumer won’t have read the brief before they’re exposed to the work.”

So what is our reaction to this?



Right, what they are saying is “we know your family matters to you”.  Blimey, how did they figure that out?  What amazing insight – these guys are truly on my wavelength!

Is that really my reaction?  No, I feel they are cynically playing back to me what they think I want to hear.  But in a way that’s banal.  Insincere.  Patronising.  Cynical.  Sickeningly sweet and cute.

What’s more, it begs the question “so, understanding how much my family matters to me, what are you doing to help me do a better job of providing for them?”  Does the ad answer that?  No (the line along the bottom is the statutory small print).  It is all “look and feel”, style and aspirational froth, with absolutely no substance.

For mortgages:


All feel good factors and no information.  A belly rub for first time buyers who are just expected to roll over then sit up and beg.

Business banking:



Tell me something that I don’t know!  But what, specifically, are you doing about it?  Apart from suspending my credit card when I buy my business a new computer (sorry, had to get that one in).  Having decided that they don’t want to “push products” at people, what is the audience left with – sentiment, hot air, and the suspicion that they have **** all to offer the SME other than fifty shades of green.

And here’s another classic:



Does the arrival of the bank statement really fill people with this kind of euphoric contentedness?  Is this a bank that understands me or one that’s taking the piss?

And my favourite.  Not:

Lloyds private banking ad 2


The sentimentality makes me cringe.  Ripping off a line from The Beatles shows a remarkable lack of imagination – it’s just plain lazy.  But what really gets me is that word slipped in surreptitiously.  Being a good dad is all about loving your kids – almost.  You’ve also got to have an annual income of £100,000 or £250,000 in savings or investments (read the body copy).  You haven’t got that?  You are a heartless parent and total loser!

Smug, moi?

The campaign is the work of RKCRY&R (on the top of a large block opposite Mornington Crescent tube station – I worked for the Y&R bit years ago), who modestly describe themselves as “The UK’s most creative agency”.  Equally modestly they describe the Lloyds work as “The brand transformation story of the year”.  Really?

On their website they write that “The strategic direction allows the bank to position itself as truly in tune with the needs of its customers, and there for the challenges and opportunities they face today.”

I beg to differ (but hey, I’m just an ordinary bloke who happens to be one of the bank’s customers, so what do I know?).  The work convinces me that they are quite the opposite – totally out of tune with the needs of customers, from a planet in a galaxy far, far away, and so puffed up with self-belief that empathy simply means everyone else agreeing with them.

The blurb on their website continues with “RKCR/Y&R’s new creative approach features distinct and differentiated creative that redefines the bank, and carves a unique position for Lloyds Bank within the financial services sector.”  Distinct and differentiated?  In what way?  All the ads are green, whereas RBS, Barclays and Nat West are blue – is that what you mean?  The ads are so devoid of any information that looking for any meaningful point of difference is an entirely futile exercise.

CEO Ben Kay adds “The rebrand afforded us an opportunity to revisit and draw on the role banks should play in customers’ lives today.”  There’s a weasel right there – the word “should”.  The work draws on the role banks should play, not the one they do play.  So we’re not talking fact here, but fantasy.  The ads are a projection of the role banks would play, or might play, if their number one priority was to increase the sum of human happiness.   They paint a rosy picture (with green tinge as specified in new brand guidelines) of an idealised happy-clappy world, or a fairy story, where everything is perfect and everyone lives happily ever after.  This stuff (I’m being polite) is pure wish fulfilment – a truth-free adman’s lala land.

How many people, at the bank and the agency, were involved in creating this campaign?  Hundreds.  And they all seem to go along with the idea that branding is about painting pictures that are totally aspirational – feeding consumers a sugar coated lie that bears no relationship to current reality.  From my own reaction, and other comments online, plenty of consumers are just not buying this tosh – they’re simply not as gullible as the marketers seem to believe.

I can’t work with these people

The marketing industry is now stuffed full of people who “live the brand”.  They delude themselves into thinking the fantasy world they live in, and which they have helped to create, is real.  And go around feeding themselves, and the public, “future truths”, pretending that what everyone would like to happen has already happened – pure doublethink.

The ordinary punter, who is on the receiving end of the mediocre service and very average products, sees it very differently.  And yet the marketing people keep waffling on about how “we understand”.  It’s about as convincing as posh boys like David Cameron and George Osborne saying “we share your pain and we’re all in this together”.

I have done work for Lloyds Bank years ago, plus a few other big financial institutions like Legal & General, Coutts and Halifax.  And I’ve worked for top agencies like Saatchi and Saatchi and Y&R.  But I just can’t stomach it any more.

I much prefer working for smaller and medium sized businesses that really are offering something truly different, genuinely have something to say for themselves and where the marketing people have not lost touch with reality – see my earlier post “I’m sold on my clients”.


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Is Samsung pulling the wood over your eyes?


My wife bought a new phone last weekend – a Samsung Galaxy S 4 mini.  It’s really hi-tech, as you would expect.

When the guy had finished demonstrating it he packed the phone away for her in the little cardboard box.  Nothing strange there you might think.  But why was the box printed to look like it was made out of wood?  Why make a phone out of sleek modern materials then put it in a box with a pine effect finish?

The two seem totally at cross purposes, the one looking forward to a brave new techno world, the other glancing back to an era when boxes were made from wood, by hand.  So what are they playing at?  Was the wooden-look box just a random idea from their packaging designers, or is there a method in their choice of this retro styling?  I think they did it consciously, and on purpose.  Can you spot their intention?

If you don’t get it then don’t worry – most of the world is with you.  But it means you are unaware of one of the most powerful forces shaping modern marketing, one of the “big tricks” that successful brands employ to bond with you on a deep emotional and subliminal level…without you ever cottoning on.

Want to understand what those clever marketers at Samsung are up to?   Check out a post I wrote a couple of years ago entitled Hi-tech hi-touch – a concept that’s at the heart of the world’s most successful brands.



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All my own work (I wish)

Rip Off

I recently wrote a post, Caveat Emptor – hire copywriter with caution, warning that there is a tendency among some copywriters to exaggerate their experience.  This led to a discussion on LinkedIn where several experienced practitioners shared stories of how their work had popped up in the portfolios of people passing it off as their own.

I’ve never been aware of anyone liking my work so much that they decided to “curate” it (is that the current word?).  But that all changed yesterday.

Double take 

At the Business Showcase exhibition in Bristol’s Colston Hall I met a copywriter who had taken a stand.  We got chatting and they asked what clients I worked on.  I mentioned Red Carnation Hotels, who I have been writing for over about the last six years.  They then replied, “Oh, we’ve worked for Red Carnation too…”

Despite the fact I write for Red Carnation every week I wasn’t that surprised, as I know they do use other writers.  However, out the corner of my eye I saw that there was a laptop on the stand.  The pages were on a loop and I saw a Red Carnations Hotels web page pop up.  As I spend part of every day on one or more of their sites (they have about sixteen in all), and regularly update those pages, the recognition was instant.

Leaning forward I looked at the page more closely.  It was a current page, and one that I had worked on.  I then turned back to the owner of the laptop and asked when they had worked for Red Carnation.  The reply was vague, along the lines of “my husband did some work for them a while back”.

Stretching the truth – how far is too far? 

I then moved on.  But driving home I experienced a feeling of unease.  I realised it was delayed shock at seeing my work being displayed on someone else’s stand.  Getting home I checked their website.  There was no mention of Red Carnation Hotels, and no examples of work done for that client.

I don’t doubt that they did some work for Red Carnation in the past.  But why not show it? I guess it just didn’t look as good as the web page they picked instead – and they needed something nice and visual for their stand.

I’ve got some pretty good names on my CV – clients I worked on at Saatchi & Saatchi and Young & Rubicam.  I did a couple of radio commercials with Dame Judy Dench on voice-over for Heinz Spaghetti, but that doesn’t mean I can pass off a few of their TV commercials as my own work.  I did a poster campaign for British Gas about 20 years ago but that doesn’t mean I can lay claim their current stuff.

Food for thought

What should I do about this?  I decided to do nothing.  Apart from write this post highlighting the issue.

What should you do about it?  If you are a copywriter consult your conscience.  And if you ever hire a copywriter be sure to go through their examples of work carefully then interrogate them closely.

Maybe I’m being picky, but I’ve spent 30 years working hard to get good at what I do.  It pisses me off to see people taking shortcuts by claiming my work as their own.


Picture credit superk8


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Don’t be boring



If there was only one bit of advice I could give about marketing, and how to get the results you want, it would be this – don’t be boring.  Kind of obvious really.  Be boring and be invisible.

Yet how many marketing campaigns these days really grab the attention?  OK, you’ll  be able to name one or two favourites, but that’ll be about 0.001% of the total.  The rest pass through our consciousness without touching the sides.

How come?  Too many marketing people are wrapped up SEO, CRM, ROI, PPC, CPC, OTS, OPM, T4M, CTR*.  And not enough reminding themselves what all this geekery is intended to achieve.

Remember who pays your wages

Your job in marketing is not to appear super busy.  It’s not to look clever.  It’s not to create documents, mood boards and spread sheets.  It’s not to be “passionate”.  It’s not to build your personal brand.  It’s not to spend your whole day in meetings where nothing gets decided.  Your job in marketing, ultimately, is to arrest human intelligence just long enough to get money from it.  And boring doesn’t cut it.

You got to get sharp. 

One of Shakespeare’s better lines (IMHO) is “Brevity is the soul of wit”.  He then stuck it in the mouth of a particularly long winded character, Polonius, for humorous effect, in one of his darkest plays, Hamlet. He could never resist slipping in a bit of comedy when writing a tragedy.

In Shakespeare’s day wit meant something slightly different.  It denoted “ingenuity, intelligence, the power of combining ideas with a pointed verbal effect” (Chambers Dictionary).  The effect might be humorous, but was more likely to excite admiration – being regarded as a “wit” was rather different from being a comedian (or “fool” as they were known at that time – see King Lear).  Today it is more usually associated with laughter, but often it is rather more subtle than that – it is an intellectual and verbal playfulness that creates a “Smile in the mind” (see book of same name).


Whatever your personal definition of wit I think we can all agree that one of its key attributes is a verbal or visual economy.   And it takes brevity to achieve the kind of sharpness required to puncture the mental bubble inhabited by the individuals within your target audience.

Keep your wits about you

How do you get that sharp?  The Chambers Dictionary definition above refers to the process of “combining ideas”.  To combine ideas you must have ideas to combine.  It takes a well-stocked mind – if the mental cupboard is bare, wit will elude you.  So, as Grace Slick sings in the 60’s anthem “White Rabbit”, you’ve got to “Feed your head”.

Another way is to mix with minds that are sharper than your own.  It’s like sport – play with people who are better than you and you raise your game, but play with those who are worse than you and you lower it.  You can do it by choosing your friends wisely, but it’s also smart to read wits widely.

Proceed with caution.  Sharp tongues ahead

A few famous wits you could use to whet your own against:

Dorothy Parker:

My favourite remark of hers is “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”  But she had many other crackers:

“Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.” 

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”

“Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” 

“Tell him I was too fucking busy– or vice versa.” 

Samuel Johnson:

“A fishing rod is a stick with a hook at one end and a fool at the other.”

“Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”

“Much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young.”

George Bernard Shaw:

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

“A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”

“Dancing is a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.”

Oscar Wilde:

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

“Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”

“I can resist anything but temptation.”

On foxhunting:  “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.”

Words are the oldest trick in the book.  But they still work

Marketing people are so busy talking bollocks about the latest fad, app, platform or algorithm that they’ve largely forgotten the ultimate purpose of this techno crap – getting a human being to put their hand in their pocket and pay money for whatever you are flogging.

Words are weapons of mass persuasion.  The fact that most marketing practitioners don’t have the skill to use them to great effect does not invalidate them.  Quite the reverse – killer headlines and sharp copy are so rare that this only heightens their power to stop people in their tracks then win hearts and minds.


*PPC Pay Per Click, CPC Cost Per Click, OTS Opportunities To See, OPM Outsourced Program Management, T4M Tools For Marketing, CTR Click Through Rate.




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Caveat emptor – hire copywriter with caution

4679230437_83627c7d3dWe all know that advertising, marketing and branding is the art of creating stories that sell.  But how far can you stretch the truth before it becomes a downright lie?  I was recently shocked to discover how elastic a line some copywriters take, especially when it comes to promoting themselves.

You are joking, right?

I was prompted to write this post by a recent discussion on Linkedin that featured on the Copywriting Training Forum.  It was entitled “Branding Yourself When You Have No Experience as a Freelance Writerand the author asked “I have a question. I’ve been reading up about branding, and I want to know how I go about branding myself as a freelance writer when I have no professional experience to back it up. Anybody have any suggestions?”

My immediate response was unprintable.  And I figured it best to let it go – the guy was merely naïve, rather that deliberately dishonest.  Stupidity is not a crime.  Yet.

And it is hard to break into any career, including copywriting – you can’t get work because you have no experience, and you can’t get experience without work.  The answer, I believe, is to work for nothing in order to build up your skills and portfolio – ask people if they’ll give you assignments so you can practice and you’ll find most people are pretty obliging.   But blagging paid-for projects out of people under false pretences is not only dishonest but a recipe for disaster.

So it was a contentious question and I was interested in how others would respond.

So far so good

The first reply was very oblique but cautioned that “There are some writers who brand themselves as experts only after 2 weeks.”  The next was very tactful, and actually apologetic: “Hi – don’t want to be picky here – and this kind of backs up what Craig said – but until you are actually working as a freelance writer then you cannot ‘brand’ yourself as one!  If only branding were as simple as saying “I say I am, therefore I am”!”   Amen to that.

Uh, oh, this is getting scary

But the next reply saw no ethical problem whatsoever.  Their advice was breezily unconcerned with any tiresome need to tell the truth.  “You can begin to build your brand by creating a visual identity for yourself. Create a logo, design a website, print business cards. All these things say something about you, so make sure they say the sort of things you want. It could be: professional, creative, traditional, wacky … it’s up to you.”

Yea, I can be any kind of copywriter I want – starting from now!

Another contributor took the same line with “Branding is how you want to be seen as in the future…you can build an image for yourself without proof, if you know how you want to look like.”

Right, fake it till you make it.  It’s not a lie – I’m just speaking future truth.

The truth is a whore.  Discuss.

Yet another agreed,  “Your brand does NOT require you to have more than you have now. Your true brand will, indeed, eventually be the impression that clients form of you in their minds… but it’s your prerogative to start them off with the image you want them to have.  It’s really all about deciding what you want to feel like as a business, and so what you say and how you say it on your site and other marketing material…will all contribute. Be bold though. You can ‘be’ whatever ‘brand’ of copywriter you want to be.”

So, don’t hold back, be bold and LIE BIG!  And you can decide for yourself “what you want to feel like as a business”….me, I’d feel a tad uneasy, even guilty.  But hey, I’m boringly old school.

Another writer shares their personal experience by pointing out reassuringly that “If you have a website, business cards and a logo, you will be surprised at how many people take you at face value.”    Hmmm, more fool them.  Which brings me to my next point.

Where is your emotional intelligence?

This discussion was posted on the Copywriting Training Forum.  And one of the things trainee copywriters are (usually) taught is to “put yourself in the prospect’s shoes”.

Right.  So who is the prospect here?  It’s someone who needs professional help with copywriting.  So, let’s forget all this crap about “you are whatever you tell people you are” and try to see things from their point of view.  Try being ****ing human, just for five minutes.

They are busy, they have a marketing problem and they just want someone who can sort it out.  They trust you.  But then they discover you’ve never completed a genuine copywriting project in your life.  And that you are taking them for a fool. And, to add insult to injury, you expect to be paid.

How are they going to feel?  Pissed off.

Shit for brains?

This begs a number of questions.

  • Do you honestly expect to make any money behaving like this?
  • What kind of job satisfaction can you expect to enjoy if you take this approach?
  • If you get a project, and screw it up, how much damage are you doing to that business and the people who rely on it for their livelihood?
  • Have you no conscience whatsoever?
  • Do you really think people who run businesses, or work in marketing, are totally clueless?
  • What damage are you doing to the image of copywriting as a profession?

Show me the proof

Happily not all copywriters are so shockingly clueless and casually dishonest.  But when so many are so shameless how can you find a good one?

Fortunately, there’s an easy, and effective answer.  Look at the work.  If they can’t show you any then don’t use them.

Even if they do have examples of work, make sure it is genuinely theirs.  And ask them to talk you though the project – what was the problem they were asked to solve, who was the target audience, what was the objective, and how did they approach the task?  This, at least, should satisfy you that they have some experience, and that they
understand the basics of what they are supposed to be doing.

I’m constantly amazed at how few copywriters show examples of their work on their websites.  Either they don’t have any.  Or they aren’t proud of what they’ve done.  Neither of which bodes well!

The sad truth is that many copywriters are much better at promoting themselves than their clients.  But what do you expect – that’s marketing!

Illustration credit Lee Crutchley – he has some great ones on his site

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I’m sold on my clients

To write good copy it helps if you can sell yourself on the product or service you are promoting.   I’m very fortunate to have clients that make this easy.

Cotswold Outdoor

Cotswold woodland walk 1Having worked with Cotswold Outdoor for a few years I really believe they are the best outdoor clothing and equipment retailer in the UK when it comes to getting the most helpful advice on what suits your particular needs and finding the high quality kit you can trust.  I now understand enough about the technology and research that goes into the products they sell.  I realise that they supply gear you can trust that isn’t readily available elsewhere.  And I appreciate, from having talked to them, that their people really know their stuff – they are outdoor people who retail stuff that excites them.  So I’m now a fan.

Ultimate Finance

Ultimate reception small picMuch of the financial industry fills most people with a sense of powerless rage (me included), but I genuinely believe my client Ultimate Finance does a great job of helping SMEs solve a wide range of cashflow problems.  OK, I know they are in the business of Invoice Finance to make a profit, but I’ve met the key members of the team and realise they have genuine integrity.  I’ve also interviewed some of their clients to produce case studies – and can see, in detail, how the solutions they offer are of huge benefit to the right companies.  I have no hesitation in recommending them to any business owners I meet.

Red Carnation Hotels

Then there’s Red Carnation Hotels.  I’ve been fortunate enough to experience a number of their hotels and every time I’m bowled over.  Their mantra is “no request too large, no detail too small” and they really deliver.  Not cheap, but the service, the levels of comfort, the quality of the food and the atmosphere in their bars, are astounding.

Little things make the biggest impression. 

I turned up at the Hotel d’Angleterre in Geneva with my wife.  The doorman and the receptionist greeted us by name.  We had never visited before, but they knew what time to expect us, and everyone was briefed with our names.  Wow!  Same in the restaurant (which looks directly across the lake to Mont Blanc – pretty amazing).  Past guests include Michael Jackson, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Duke of Westminster and royal family of Monaco, all of whom are easy to recognise – I guess we were the only ones they didn’t recognise, so maybe that made it easy?

MS_JuniorSuite_407ViscountSuite_001_SAt The Milestone Hotel in Kensington the butler (yes, you get a butler…) gave me a tour of the hotel on arrival, even down to showing me the drawer in my room where the scissors (for cutting the labels off my shopping), stapler, sellotape, sewing kit etc were kept.  He asked if I’d like a complimentary glass of champagne but I requested a cup of tea.  A pot, with leaf tea and strainer, plus a plate of homemade biscuits and flapjacks, was delivered to my room in about three minutes – I was several floors above the kitchen and have no idea how they did it that fast (I later discovered they have two members of staff for every guest, and it shows).

EgertonOn another occasion, at the Egerton House Hotel, I found a printout of the weather forecast for the next day on my pillow, with some chocolates.  When I questioned the manager she explained it was to help me to decide on what clothes I would need the next day (obviously some guests travel with a full wardrobe – unlike yours truly).  The Egerton House Hotel is also the home of the best martinis in all London, created by the legendary Antonio (pictured above).  As he says “two is not enough and three is too many”.  I think I had two, but I can’t remember.

Again, at The Milestone, I was observing other guests over breakfast.  An American couple were on the next table.  The waitress greeted them by name and asked the man if he’d like diet Pepsi, as usual, and his streaky bacon with the same degree of crispiness as on his previous visit.  I questioned the manager later and he explained that they go to great pains to ascertain a guest’s preferences, then record them for their next stay.  These guys make the flipping amazing look utterly effortless.

Another thing, the staff at all Red Carnation Hotels have the ability to engage in a real conversation and actually listen to what you say.  They are not servile, but good company.  I’ve had to help write some of the HR documents and can tell you that staff are actively encouraged to be themselves and put their own unique personality into everything they do.  It shows – they don’t follow a script and their job is to make friends.  You can tell that they are really enjoying themselves, asking questions, cracking jokes, sharing stories, enjoying a bit of banter.

Recognition, recognition, recognition

I could go on and on, but I won’t.  Needless to say I’m a super-enthusiastic advocate of what they do.   So I’m delighted to see that Red Carnation Hotels get the recognition they deserve.  Last year the top five Tripadvisor rankings for London were filled by Red Carnation – on most weeks they had every slot.  This is even more remarkable when you realise they only have six London properties in total and that week after week they’ve beaten the likes of the Ritz, The Savoy and The Dorchester (by a mile).

Yesterday I got email notification of the Tripadvisor Traveller’s Choice Awards results.  The Milestone has been voted no.1 hotel in the UK, and two other Red Carnation Hotels are in the top 25 (The Chesterfield Mayfair at no. 21 and The Montague on the Gardens at no. 23).  This review of The Milestone (by a journalist eager to discover how they came top) says it all.

Feel good factor

I’m very fortunate to work for clients I believe in.  And discovering that I’m not alone in rating them highly is a good feeling.

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