#CompellingCopy: On the future of copywriting

21 Apr 2021 | Culture

#CompellingCopy: On the future of copywriting

By Dominic Oliver

The monthly series in which we take a close look at compelling copy and the secrets to sounding fresh.

We’re well into Spring, the season of new life. So, I though I’d take some time to address recent reports of my death. Well, the death of my profession, anyway…

In case you missed it, Lloyds Bank’s Marketing Director Richard Warren caused a bit of a stir in Adland last week. Asked about his decision to form an in-house creative agency for LLoyds, he witheringly stated “You can quote me on this: no-one can write in advertising agencies anymore.”

Ooh boy. Don’t mince your words, Richard.

I don’t really think there’s any truth in this terse dismissal, for reasons I’ll get to. But I suspect that the reason it made a splash is less about a group of illiterate imposters being found out, and more about a wider anxiety regarding the future of copywriting and the shifting roles of the written word.

I started my copywriting career roughly 7-years ago, naïve, bright-eyed and well-versed on writers like David Ogilvy and Joseph Sugarman who had mastered the art of persuasion. And it was an art. I was eager to add to this rich heritage, to turn my love of language into a career and craft award-winning headlines just like the old Volkswagen ads I admired.

But in truth, I was entering a shifting landscape. I eventually did write for VW and had a blast, but it wasn’t quite the experience I’d envisaged as a teen. Instead of print ads with unforgettable headlines, I was writing technical landing pages, promotional banner ads and tweets.

What’s more, my copy wasn’t the central part of the creative – that was the 3D models of a car’s interior, or the glitzy animations my sentences framed. I loved my job but had to accept that copywriting wasn’t always the absolute core of an agency’s output like it used to be.

Concerning stuff, right? And this is before we throw robots into the mix. Alibaba have already rolled out their AI copywriter, that it claims can produce 20,000 words a second. In 2016 the Washington Post created an AI journalist named Heliograf that produced 850 updates on the Rio Olympics. It was so accurate that no one twigged they were reading the works of a robo-reporter.

It all begs the question: in ten years, will we even be needed anymore?

Which brings me back to Richard’s assertion. It’s true that data-driven marketing has diminished the creative copy that agencies typically excel at. Unlike the artfully sparse spots of old, digital ads are packed with needless details because they’re cheap and you can fit anything in you like. But that doesn’t mean that agencies can’t write compelling headlines anymore. It’s just that fewer people are asking them to. And maybe that’s ok.

Thanks to the pandemic, the need for brands to develop and nurture genuine, two-way conversations with their audience is greater than ever. That doesn’t happen through animations or 3D models – it happens through language. And the brands emerging from the last year with the reputations enhanced are the ones who spent it writing with humour, intelligence, creativity and empathy.

And there’s the rub. Copywriting isn’t just about writing. It’s about thinking. And, more than that, it’s about feeling. This isn’t an area where the robots give me much concern (yet). There’s a reason that Hubspot ranked writing as one of the 10 jobs that AI is most unlikely to replace. We’re seeing the future of copywriting unfold around us, and it still looks bright, just different.

And so maybe I’m biased and plain wrong. Maybe these days the best writers want to work full time for Lloyds bank. But my suspicion is they’re still in agencies, flinging ideas at planners, tweaking things with designers, operating in a slightly crazy environment where their creativity flourishes and their empathy shines through. I reflect on this, and I see ads like this for Greenweeze, or this for Nike – both with copy crafted by agencies – and can’t help but conclude, to misquote Mark Twain, that reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

At Perq Studio our work starts with a written idea that pushes boundaries – and then we have the strategists, animators, writers and designers to actually execute it. So if you want to put your brand on the map this year, get in touch.