30 years as a creative – three universal truths I’ve learned

I realised recently that January 2017 marks my 30th anniversary as a copywriter in recruitment marketing.

It all started when I answered an advert for a proofreader in the Guardian. The ad had been set by the Guardian itself – and these were the days when Private Eye gave it the name ‘the Grauniad’ because of all the mistakes in its pages.

The ad I replied to was a good example of this. It contained several errors – and it was advertising for a proofreading job.

Naturally, I thought it was a test, so I rewrote the ad. And got the job.

That’s how I found myself walking up a narrow staircase just off St Martin’s Lane in London’s West End one day in January 1987.

I started working for VLM Advertising – the in-house agency for a leading IT recruitment consultancy, Computer People. And I soon discovered that I’d be proofreading the copy that the recruitment consultants wrote themselves. Which basically meant rewriting it completely.

To be fair, most of the consultants hated writing their own adverts. So, when they discovered there was someone in the agency who could write copy for them, my role quickly changed to copywriter.

And I haven’t looked back since

30 years later, I’m a director of my own company, Welch Words Ltd, and providing copywriting services to a variety of agencies and clients.

Of course, things have changed a great deal in the intervening years. But I think there are three universal truths that haven’t changed at all.

Everyone thinks they can write

I’ve always worked with art directors and designers as a team to come up with initial concepts. Sometimes I’ll suggest imagery and other times they’ll suggest headlines. Then, when we’re happy with the ideas, I’ll go off and write the copy and they’ll put the designs together. But the finished product is always a team effort.

Yet, throughout my career, the art director/designer has invariably been referred to as ‘the creative’. I’m usually just called ‘the writer’.

Because, obviously, writing isn’t creative. We’re all taught how to do it at school (although when I was at school we were taught and encouraged to do creative writing – something today’s national curriculum seems to ignore). Most of us write every day, even if it’s only an email to a colleague.

So, there’s no special skill to it, is there? Everyone can do it.

Except, of course, everyone can’t…

Technology is no replacement for creativity

The biggest change in the industry has been brought on by the rise of the internet and social media.

Back in the day, I spent 90% of my day developing concepts and writing copy for press adverts. The other 10% involved writing brochures, radio ads and other offline materials.

Today, every brief includes online media – often exclusively. But in the race to go online and use social media, many organisations lose sight of the need for a creative message.

It’s all very well being able to target every single project manager aged 30-45 in central Scotland. But if all your message says is: ‘We’re looking for project managers’, how does it differentiate you from anyone else with access to the same algorithms and target audience?

You still need a creative idea that will encourage your audience to start the conversation.

Tone of voice matters

Until you point it out to them, many people don’t realise the importance of tone of voice – or that it even exists.

It takes a few good examples to make them realise its relevance. Why Virgin Media speaks with a totally different voice to Deloitte.

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Or why the Ministry of Justice can’t adopt the same tone as Innocent drinks.

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And yet.

Most brand guidelines that I see nowadays still have little or no reference to tone of voice. They’ll have endless pages on where the logo should sit on different media. The colours you can and can’t use. Or how close any text should come to the logo. But nothing on how to communicate with a single, recognisable voice.

So, in truth, they’re not really brand guidelines. They’re just visual references.

Of course, this is where the copywriter comes into his or her own. Being able to identify and write in a relevant voice for a client where no guidelines exist has become a big part of my role. And, in the process, I help to define their tone of voice and develop guidelines that instil some kind of consistency. What’s more, I adopt these different voices as I move from one job to another and make them all sound authentic.

This isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s something I’ve always done in my writing.

It’s just that, back in the 80s, when we wrote formal copy for a government department or more conversationally for a retailer, we didn’t call it creating a tone of voice.

It was known as common sense.

 

I’m sure there are other universal truths in advertising that were relevant 30 years ago and still are today. Let me know any you can think of in the Comments section.

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The problem with jargon

Jargon, buzzwords and meaningless expressions

Jargon, buzzwords and meaningless expressions (Photo credit: Gavin Llewellyn)

I saw an interesting infographic from Monster.com today, which showed that candidates are turned off by jargon in job ads. This came as no surprise to me. As someone who’s made a living out of writing recruitment communications of all kinds for 26 years, I’ve always tried to avoid using jargon.

Why? Well, according to the dictionary, jargon is defined as: “Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.”

In other words, jargon is deliberately confusing. So why would you choose to use it in a context that requires clarity? Particularly when you can’t even be sure whether the jargon you’re using is something other people in your industry would recognise, or if it’s specific to your organisation.

A lot of my recruitment communications experience has come in business sectors that thrive on jargon – IT, investment banking, accounting, But this doesn’t mean other sectors are immune from it. Local authorities, government departments and the NHS all have jargon of their own that can alienate someone who isn’t in the know. And that’s the problem with jargon – it alienates people, which is the last thing you want from a recruitment ad.

Having said that, there are certain occasions when it can actually be useful. If you need to recruit someone with specific skills and you don’t want to waste your time reading through applications from people who don’t have the right industry expertise, then jargon can be a useful filter. But only if you know for certain that the right people will understand it.

I’ve taken briefs from clients who litter their conversation with jargon – acronyms are a particular favourite in certain business sectors. And the rule I’ve always stuck to is that if I have to ask what a particular piece of jargon means, then the majority of the audience will need to do the same. Which means it shouldn’t be in your marketing.

So that’s why I wasn’t surprised by the news that candidates were turned off by jargon – I’ve always regarded it as common sense not to use jargon. But it’s nice to have the stats to back up what I’ve been telling clients for years.

What’s all the fuss about social recruiting?

I’ve seen a number of blogs and news articles about the rise in the use of social recruiting recently. And, in particular, there’s been a lot of debate over whether recruiters should focus on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter as their main social recruitment platform.
As someone who’s worked in recruitment communications for 26 years and seen the marketing mix change from adverts in local papers and the trade press to careers websites, job boards and now social media, I have to say that one thing has always been clear: if recruiters rely on just one marketing channel, they’ll end up selecting from a limited shortlist.
So, the argument over whether recruiters should be looking at Facebook or Twitter over LinkedIn is, to me, missing the point. Recruiters need to use a mix of marketing channels in order to find the very best people. And that means using all three, but with more focus on the one (or more) they think is where their audience is most likely to be.
In my experience, recently, many recruiters have approached their ad agencies with one request more than any other: “We want a Facebook page.” Why? It tends to be a kneejerk reaction to the news that social recruiting is the next big thing, with no thought for whether Facebook is the right platform for either their recruitment brand, or their target audience. (With recent reports, I’m sure more agencies will soon be getting requests for LinkedIn profiles instead.)
I think the problem is that social media is so new that it scares many recruiters, because it involves a totally different approach and, in many cases, new skills. But if they focused less on the ‘social’ aspect and more on the ‘media’ side, I think they’d see that it’s not so different.
In using social media for recruitment, organisations still need to analyse the audience reach of each platform. They still need develop messaging that’s going to attract the right candidates. And they still need to manage the candidate journey effectively so even those people they don’t eventually recruit leave with a positive view of their organisation.
In fact, they still need to follow most of the same processes that they’ve used for many years. Plus ça change.