Of course you have to be a good writer.
You have to be able to string sentences together and keep us reading them.
But that’s just one part of it.
The other part of it is an insatiable need to know.
When you’re writing about something, you have to want to dive deep into it and learn everything you can about it.
You have to instinctively understand that the more familiar you are with something, the more likely you’ll be to find a unique angle that’ll make your audience go “hmmm…” and want to know more.
And you have to believe that there’s something interesting about everything if you’re willing to put the work in to find it.
Yes, copywriting is about style. But it’s more about substance and research.
We can tell if someone’s mailed in that part of the job. Not because we’re professionals. Because we’re people who read. We know when our time’s being wasted with things we already know. And we hate that, because time’s ultimately all we have.
Want to write for us? Keep this blog post in mind. Then jump on the Google and check out the DDB Volkswagen ads from the 1960s. Read them over and over again. Enjoy them because they’re so well written, but also because they’re so well researched.
We can teach the craft. We can suggest techniques to get writing punchier and tighter. And we can edit the hell out of a piece until it sings like a boys’ choir. But we can’t teach someone to want to learn more. That’s instinctive. Either you have it or you don’t.
So, yes. We want writers. But more than that, we want learners.
Sound like you? Great. Let’s talk. We’d love to know more about you.
We just started working with a client who has offices in Bogota and Athens. In our initial interview, for our own curiousity, we asked him why he chose those two cities. His response: “salsa and island-hopping.” It made us so happy.
Our dream’s a bit different. Eventually, we want to buy a boat and run the business from wherever we are. Right now, we’re toying with “Capital Sea” and “Write Full Rudder” as names. But we’re open to suggestions if you have any.
We’re also debating where to go first. Gina says Sardinia. Dan says Portofino. We could probably do both. But for that to happen, we need to staff up. So if you know any copywriters, copyeditors, proofreaders or translators, please send them along. “Decked out” (ooh..) isn’t gonna buy itself.
Our new office.
Billy’s grandfather took him to the circus when he was eleven years old. When they got in under the big top, Billy’s eyes lit up. The sounds. The colours. The energy. He could hardly contain himself. But then his grandfather showed him the tickets. Front row! Heaven.
They sat. The lights went down. And out came the clowns. The crowd erupted, but no one cheered more than Billy. So much so that the head clown took notice. He walked over to Billy. The music went down. The spotlight flipped on and shone down on Billy. The clown pulled a fuzzy microphone from his over-sized coat, put it to his mouth and cleared his throat.
“Hey, kid…are you the horse’s head?”
“No!” said Billy with a grin.
“Then you must be the horse’s ass!”
The crowd roared with laughter, but Billy was mortified. The clown put the microphone to Billy’s mouth, almost daring him to say something. Billy froze. He had nothing but a single tear rolling down his cheek. He ran from the big top to the sound of a mocking audience.
The next day, Billy’s grandfather enrolled him in a kiddie improv class where he learned the art of zinging quickly. Grandpa vowed to bring Billy back to the circus so he could confront the clown.
Five years later, they went back. Same big top. Same seats. And the same clown came out. This time, Billy was ready. He made sure the clown saw him. And sure enough, the clown came over, and pulled out the microphone.
“Hey, kid…are you the horse’s head?”
“No!” said Billy confidently.
“Then you must be the horse’s ass!”
Billy took a deep breath in…and froze.
He had nothing.
The derision in the crowd was palpable.
Billy ran out in tears.
Being sixteen now, Billy was able to make his own decisions, and he decided to enroll in the International School of Comebacks in Denver. For eight months, he practised. And he got really good.
He came home and was ready.
This time, he bought the tickets and invited his grandfather with him. Same big top. Same seats. And yes, same clown.
“Hey, man…” said the clown. “Are you the horse’s head?”
“Then you must be the horse’s ass!”
“Give me the missile keys, Mr. Hunter.”
If you smiled when you read the headline, then you’ve seen the most well-written action movie in the history of action movies: Crimson Tide. The movie takes place almost exclusively in the belly of a nuclear submarine where Captain Ramsay (Gene Hackman) and Lt. Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) represent opposing sides of a debate with no clear right and wrong. To say anything else would spoil it, but here’s what we can tell you:
The script is riveting. During filming, director Tony Scott felt the script lacked intelligence and sophistication, given the level of talent he was working with. So they brought in a young writer to punch it up, a writer they heard had a gift for dialogue. That writer: Quentin Tarantino.
The supporting roles were perfectly cast. Look out for George Dzundza as the Chief of the Boat. Note how “professionally” he delivers his lines. Same for the youngish James Gandolfini. But the killer performance for us was Viggo Mortensen’s as the guy with an actual finger on the actual button.
The pauses are better than the action. So much of writing is knowing when to put the pen down and just let the situation sink in. This movie masters that. It’s so intense.
The soundtrack is AMAZING to write to. If you’re the kind of writer for whom silence is louder than noise, and you need something on in the background, we can’t recommend this Hans Zimmer special enough. Quiet enough to keep you from losing focus, but powerful enough to inspire greatness. Your fingers start moving and they don’t stop.
You’ll want to watch it again. Certain scenes have to be watched twice (even thrice) to fully appreciate. The quick cuts to facial expressions. The intonations. And, of course, the intense moments of silence that leave you on the edge of your seat. Movie-making at its finest.
January 2003 was a really tough time for me.
The previous June, I was let go from my first ad agency job. “No problem, I thought. I’m talented. I’ll get another job in no time.“
I thought very, very wrong.
Six months later, I had no money or prospects of making any. My EI had run out. And I developed a nasty case of insomnia. After about two weeks of sleeplessness, when the delirium had sufficiently set in, I got the brilliant idea to show up at Roche — THE hotshot agency at the time — at 7:30 in the morning and park myself in their waiting room until someone saw me.
On Thursday, January 30th, after being alone with my negative thoughts for 240 hours, that’s what I did.
Roche’s waiting room was a white and blue room with two chairs, a couch and a telephone in the middle. It also had a glass wall that faced out into the hallway. Perfect, no one’ll notice the bags under my eyes and the desperation in my posture.
I picked up the phone. “Good morning,” the voice said. “Who are you here to see?”
This was my moment.
“I’m a young copywriter looking for work,” I said. “I’ll see anyone who’ll see me.”
“Ok. Have a seat.”
Seriously? That worked? Had the delirium finally morphed into hallucinations? Nope. This was happening. Geoffrey Roche was going to come see me. He was going to look at my book and hire me on the spot. And I was going to learn from the best in the game. Amazing.
But wait…I hadn’t slept in two weeks. Did I look it? Was my first impression going to be an unkept, exhausted desperate failure? Shit. This was my one chance. Fuck. Mr. Roche is going to take one look at me, laugh in my face and kick me out.
No problem. People are busy. Meetings. Brainstorms. I remember those. All good. Feeling better. Maybe I’ll take a quick nap? No. Don’t do that.
“I’m really getting sick of playing snake on my phone. I wish I could, like, go on the Internet or something. That’d be cool.”
“Maybe I should leave? This was stupid. Who does this? Who do I think I am? Just show up like this? The chutzpah!”
“That’s it…it’s enough already. I’m leaving. This was a waste of time.
11:45. A man walks into the room.
“I’m Jim. Come on in.”
Jim was Jim Diorio, a senior copywriter. He took me into his office. He looked at my book. He told me what he liked and what he didn’t. He gave me advice. We met for a good 25 minutes. Nothing came of it, but that wasn’t the point. He met with me.
The world needs more Jim Diorios.
This is one of Jim’s best. Look at it ’til you get it. So worth it.
Think about the commitment someone is making when they choose to read something you give them. It’s substantial. The act of reading is the act of giving your time and attention to someone else’s ideas, and we’d argue that time and attention are the two most valuable pieces of yourself you can offer up, precisely because you can’t put a price on it.
What’s more, giving your time and attention means you’re not only receptive, but also willing to share if it’s compelling enough to do so. The concept of sharing information is the power behind social media, and it’s the precursor to achieving “cred” — the more people speak about you, the more people know you, what you do and why they should care.
A good writer is keenly aware of these facts and makes for damn sure that whatever their reader is committing to is going to offer value in some way. Every scribe has their own way of measuring this. For us it’s the dinner party test.
“So listen to this…”
We love when dinner party conversations start this way because we know we’re about to learn something new. And illumination’s a great feeling, especially when it comes at an unexpected place like dinner with friends. In every piece we write we try to include something worth breaking out at a dinner party — an argument, a fact in support of an argument or a perspective that chops an argument down. Either way, we do the digging and wordsmithing to work it in. To us, that’s the ultimate value-add: something a reader can take away and use at a later date for their own purposes, in this case, to add to (or improve) a dinner party conversation.
The three qualities of dinner-parrty worthiness
Well-researched. Clearly articulated. Surprisingly different. It’s that simple. And it’s category agnostic. Whether we’re writing about sports gambling, investing in cultural programs, building circuit boards or chicken caesar pitas (FYI: we wrote about all of these this month), we go the extra mile to give our readers something they can break out at a dinner party. It makes our clients happy because people are talking about them. It makes our readers happy because it gives them something to talk about. And it makes the dinner party host happy because at a good dinner party, the conversation flows as freely as the wine.
We took a road trip to Ottawa for the Editors Canada conference and got a chance to walk around the city. It was a gorgeous summer day — perfect for a stroll. And stroll we did: through ByWard Market, by the Parliament buildings and up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was perfect.
It was also a reminder of how lucky we are to be Canadian. Good people are working for us in the government: people who believe in tolerance and equality. People with common sense and common decency. Canadians. This is the best country in the world because everyone is welcome. More importantly, everybody FEELS welcome.
If you’re a Law and Order fan like we are, you may remember this Jack McCoy summation. But check out what he says at 3:11. And think about it. Because it’s exactly what Canada is.
And if you’re a Law & Order fan like we are, you’re probably equally gutted by its absence. We still get our Sam Waterston fix on Grace & Frankie, but it’s just not the same. Ugh.
I’ve been running an email campaign for a few months and traction is poor. When people open the email, they do what they’re supposed to do, but not enough people are opening. But my subject line “Get a free 72″ TV with purchase” is strong.
Yeah, we see that a lot. And no, your subject line isn’t strong because it’s not benefit-driven. You’re telling people what you’re doing (giving them a free TV), but not what it’s going to do for them:
Get started on a new TV room
Turn your bedroom into a theatre.
See every ripple in Zac Efron’s six-pack.
When you have five to seven words to impress someone, make it about them.
The other thing is that you haven’t told me what I have to purchase in order to get that new TV. Is it a Ferrari I can’t afford? An outhouse I don’t need? A camel I don’t want? And what’s the benefit of what I have to buy to get my 72″ TV?
Remember that your subject line is THE most important part of an email communication because it’s the gate-keeper. If the recipient doesn’t buy in there, then the rest of it is meaningless.
If you want to see an organization that writes KILLER subject lines, subscribe to the Green Party of Canada‘s mailing list. We’re not terribly huge fans of their politics, but their messaging is on point to say the least. And what’s cool about their email strategy is that emails always come from a different person. One day it’s Elizabeth May; the next it’s Jeff Braustein, then Meaghan Dubeau. But no matter who it’s from, we can tell by the subject line that it’s from the Green Party. And we open it because it’s that compelling. And while we may not align with everything they say, we know what they stand for.
The best part of what we do is everything we get to learn about. This week, it was a naturally occurring extract that helps prevent inflammation in the body. For people with arthritis, Crohn’s and even Parkinson’s, a Turmeric Curcumin supplement offers a world of relief.
We also got to research a bunch of companies that produce Turmeric Curcumin supplements and learned a few more interesting things — most notably that Turmeric Curcumin has poor “bioavailability.” That means it’s absorbed by the body too quickly for it to have maximum effect. So they mix it with another extract to slow it down. Some manufacturers do it better than others.
As we researched, we found that Turmeric Curcumin is actually a by-product of Turmeric — that spice so many people have in their rack but rarely use. So we thought, why not give you a reason to use it? And we found a good recipe on PaleoHacks.
Spiced Zucchini Beef
- 14oz minced beef
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon ground paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- pinch of cayenne pepper
- 2 small-medium zucchini, sliced into rounds
- 1 tablespoon maca powder
- salt and pepper
- 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- pinch of ground turmeric
- pinch of ground cumin
- pinch of salt
- Place the olive oil and beef in a skillet on medium-high heat, stir regularly until the beef has browned.
- Add the paprika, turmeric, cumin and cayenne pepper and stir for a further 2 minutes.
- Add the zucchini and combine, then cover and leave to simmer for 6-8 minutes or until the zucchini has wilted and most of the liquid has reduced.
- Remove the pan from the heat for 2 minutes uncovered to lower the temperature of the beef, then stir in the maca powder and season with salt and pepper.
- In a small bowl combine the sesame seeds, fennel seeds, turmeric and cumin. Season with salt to taste.
- Serve the beef with a sprinkle of the sesame and fennel seed mixture.
You see the phrase “strong communication skills” everywhere: on resumes (I have strong communication skills), on job postings (strong communication skills required), on bios (she has strong communication skills).
But what does it mean to “communicate strongly”? And what “skills” do people who communicate strongly possess? We’ve identified five:
People who communicate well know what’s important and what’s not. They can sniff out superfluous or offensive information that obfuscates the main point and remove it. And they can do it instinctively.
Wanna practise your brevity: Get a Twitter account. Even if you don’t tweet to anyone but yourself, it cuts you off at 140 characters.
People who communicate well take the time to get their facts right. They don’t speak about what they don’t know — and if they don’t know, they say so.
Wanna practise your diligence: Verify everything twice, with two different reputable sources. Google makes it easy.
People who communicate well know their audience — not only what they’re looking for but what they’re thinking. They craft their communication for the head and the heart, making sure that people hear and feel what they’re saying.
Wanna build emotional intelligence: Picture the person you’re speaking to — not just their job but their whole lives. Where do they live? Do they have kids? What do they like to do for fun? Knowing where they’re coming from makes it easier to lead them where you want them to go.
People who communicate well know that others need time to process the information they’re sharing. They don’t wait until the last minute to share. And they make sure due dates and action items are clearly marked.
Wanna practise your timeliness: Bold every date you send or receive. They’ll stand out and you’ll know what’s when.
People who communicate well deliver everything with a smile — sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. They make bad news palatable and good news awesome.
Wanna practise your friendliness: Read everything you write aloud. If it doesn’t sound friendly in your ear, it won’t sound friendly in anyone else’s ear. And use conjunctions wherever you can (i.e., it’s vs. it is). It’s more natural and friendlier.