I hate to see someone blow it simply because they thought they didn’t need a copywriter.

I came across an instance of this the other day.  Sadly, I know them.  They’re actually very successful and well known designers.  And nice guys to boot.  All of which tells me to let the subject drop.  Especially as many of the most loyal readers of this blog are designers, and some of them give me work (which I’m very grateful for).

However, it does illustrate a good point.  That a skilled copywriter is not just good at knocking out the words.  They are pretty useful when it comes to generating ideas.

So, treading carefully, I’d like to explore this theme a little further.

Feed your head

An idea “is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements” writes James Webb Young in his book “A technique for generating ideas” (see my previous post “Want your marketing to work?  You need a great idea“)

This means that the most creative people are those who have the facility, talent, aptitude (whatever) to spot relationship between different bits of information.  However, to spot those relationships it helps to have a “well stocked mind” (a phrase I encountered years ago when reading a book on copywriting – the author listed this as one of the key attributes required for success).  It’s hard to see connections between things if you don’t have many to play with – a bit like trying to cook an enticing meal when the cupboard is bare.

Stocking one’s mind takes years of hard work and requires an insatiably curious attitude.  You have to do a lot of hunting and gathering to squirrel away all manner of little snippets from wide ranging sources.  Everything, from medieval history to physical geography, detective literature to impressionist painting, and stock market trading to popular psychology, if filed away in the recesses of the mind, can prove grist to the creative mill when the deadline looms.

Can read, won’t read

I’m going to make a sweeping statement here, and one that’s likely to cause offence in some quarters…but I don’t see many people in the marketing industry making this kind of sustained and focused effort to stock their minds.

I include designers in this, but it applies equally to those on the account management side as well.  It even applies to a legion of so called copywriters who have been attracted to the job by the lure of supposedly easy money now that there’s a seemingly insatiable appetite for “content”.  None of these groups tend to be big readers in the sense that I’ve described above (Mac User and Mountain Bike Monthly count, but only just).

Running on empty

Poorly stocked minds are infertile.  So they tend to come up with ideas that are derivative, recycled and clichéd.  Lateral thinking is tough if you have a narrow bandwidth of knowledge.  And thinking outside the box is a waste of time if the only thing you’ve got out there is a black hole.

That’s one problem.  The other is that when you are desperately trying to pull together seemingly unconnected elements, and combine them in fresh ways, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  If you go around, like a magpie, snatching up shiny objects just because they look nice, and without understanding their meaning, you can ***k up big time.

A cautionary tale – brand story light…and none too bright

Remember the designers I mentioned at the start?  On their website they explain their rigorous process for creating brand stories.  Under step three, Creative Development, they explain that “Then the visual process begins, we interpret and explore directions for the visual language of your brand. Colour, imagery, typography, messaging – how does the brand feel? What does it look like?”

Nowhere on their site (unless I’ve missed it) do they mention the other type of language – the one with words in it.

Go to the “Our Work – lovely stuff” section of their site and you’ll find a case study for Saracen Datastore.  As the name suggests, these guys keep your data backed up and secure.  So what did the creatives come up with in terms of an idea?

They, in their own words, “created a visual characterisation of the company by taking a modern day approach to a Saracen, who was a mediaeval Knight.  This along with bold Knights in armour imagery, link the company name, and also highlight protection, security with a touch of humour.”

What’s wrong with that (putting aside the small matter that knight is not a proper name, hence has a lower case k….the kind of little faux pas that creeps in when designers decide that they don’t need a copywriter)?

Not spotted it yet?  Go to the Saracen website and you can see what kind of medieval knight they mean.  The kind that came, clad in heavy chain mail, breastplates, helmets with visors and straight swords with a blade down both sides, from northern Europe to fight on the crusades to defend Christendom.

And who were they defending it from?  The Saracens.

My brain was AWOL

A couple of clicks on Google and they’d have arrived at Wikipedia and discovered that “In Europe during the Early Middle Ages, the term began to be used to describe Arab tribes. By the 12th century, ‘Saracen’ had become synonymous with ‘Muslim’ in Medieval Latin literature.”

They’d have also seen the site for the successful Saracens Rugby Club (currently lying third in the premiership, so well known) with the red star and crescent moon of Islam and read how the club’s name “can be traced back to the famous desert warriors led by Saladin in the late 12th century. They were renowned for their extreme mobility, and powers of endurance, which when allied to their bountiful enthusiasm, rendered the Saracens invincible.”

And if they’d gone to Google images they’d have found hundreds of pub signs that show a Saracen looks nothing like the medieval crusader knight they’ve depicted – he’s got a turban or a pointy helmet, a curved sabre, flowing robes and a swarthy complexion.

So I’m amazed that nobody, from the client to the creative teams, the account handlers to the photographer, was aware that the kind of Christian crusader knight being depicted is the exact opposite of a Saracen.  Where was the copywriter?  Or were they just focusing on the SEO key words?

Oooh, that looks like a nice word!

Call me a grumpy old git but I think this just shows how far standards have slipped in the marketing industry – the intellectual rigour has been lost.

Words are just “content”, so their meaning is not really something to waste time worrying about.  It’s OK to use them very loosely – think “language light”.

“Attention to detail” is just a phrase you use without really thinking about the effort it requires.

“Research” sounds like a lot of hard work, and a bit rigorous, so let’s just “explore”.

“Passionate” is how you feel about your work – even if the evidence suggests otherwise.

“Look and feel” are all that matter, and what you create is “lovely stuff”.

“Engagement” is something you do with consumers…not your brain.

And a “Saracen” is no longer an infidel, but a Christian “Knight”.