Category: writing

Can you sum up your company, product or service in a few short words that either:

  1. Competitively defines what you do or who you are?
  2. Takes ownership of category truism your competitors have overlooked/ignored?
  3. Delivers your benefit in a short memorable way?

These are positioning lines some people refer to as “slogans”. I loath the word ‘slogan’ because to me it implies something, while perhaps clever, empty.

My mentor, the late Gary Prouk, once said that if you read Volkswagon print ads, every sentence could be a headline. Headlines and positioning lines are not easy to write. At least, not easy to write well.

Are you positioned properly and memorably?

Everything you need. Nothing you don’t. (Current client in energy industry)

Helping pets live longer lives. (Ralston’s positioning for over a decade)

Nice people who lend money. (Launch of the Associates into Canada)

Nobody beats Midas. Nobody.* (Midas, USA)

Think Pink (Fiberglass Pink insulation)

These are a few I have written and have often lamented that my writing did not include residuals.

As you can imagine, being paid by the word is not a good business model when writing advertising. Usually, the shorter the better. And if you think writing something short is easy, there are several quotes stating otherwise. “I would have written a shorter letter but I did not have time” is attributed to Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, logician, physicist and theologian. Mark Twain had a similar line as did many others. There is a rather lengthy article on short writing and you can find it here.

There are places for long sentences. These are sentences that usually take you on a journey, describing and carrying you through unfamiliar terrain, with a character you have only just met but will soon be engrossed with, no doubt from an encounter or engagement happening through an event transpiring right there in your lengthy sentence, yet before the sentence has ended you have a clear picture of where your character is, what is happening to him or her and why you should care enough to read on to the next sentence.

It is not uncommon for these to be one sentence paragraphs; a lengthy block of type with who knows how many commas, semi colons or colons but only one period.

In advertising, we are usually discouraged from writing such sentences. (With exceptions, David Ogilvy being the master of those exceptions.) Limited space isn’t the issue. Limited imagination is. So those of us good at what we do in adverting became masters of short sentences. The best of these were what the layman call ‘slogans’ although, as I said, I detest the word.

So in a few short words, try to sum up where you work. If you hate your job, your positioning lines may reflect that and be an inspiration to call a head hunter. I struggled to sum up my company. The name “LowerWorks” may have a lovely double entendre but who cares if we work? A colleague, JJ Murray, has a good one, “The last writer you will ever hire”. Where I ended up isn’t ‘clever’ but it does sum up what we do and why someone should hire us. “Creative marketing proven to work.” And a skeptical response ‘Prove it” is a lovely door opener to impressive case studies.

So much for a few short words. This bloody article is 618 words. Now, at ten cents a word, you can understand why you are confronted with so much blather here on the internet. Many site owners lament about a shortage of content. And at ten cents a word they are scratching their heads wondering why so much of what they push is not worth reading.  

Common-sense-is-not-a-giftI am not a recruiter, personal trainer or life coach. I am a Creative Director/Strategic Planner/writer weaned in the advertising industry and blessed to have worked on some of the most inspiring, aggressive blue chip brands.

My job, quite simply, was to apply the creative process to strategies designed to steal share, grow brands, launch brands and/or otherwise make life miserable for my clients’ competitors. I’m proud to say that I have done that in several categories.

In relative terms, creating work is easy. If you have a strong strategy with a compelling benefit, you find the shortest route between point A (the benefit) and point B (the consumer’s need.)

Where it gets difficult with large clients is getting the work in front of the person who has the authority to say ‘yes’ rather than simply the authority to say ‘no’. A win on the way up the approval ladder is ‘maybe’.

Ultimately, if you are successful, you will find yourself in a boardroom full of nervous people on both the agency side and the client side and the CEO/President/last-stop-before-the-train-leaves-the-station/ authority sitting at the head of the table wanting to be taken through the program succinctly with quantifiable numbers/logic of the proposed approach.

These are waste-no-time meetings.

I have been in many of them. And what I love about a good CEO is that despite their corporate drilling, demanding protocol and well entrenched, documented procedures, the successful CEOs have managed to hang on to one thing that has been drilled out of so many of their employees.

Common sense.

I can name names and I will. Ed Acker, Pan AM. Andrew Seth, Lever Bros. Pat McGinnis, Ralston Purina. Gordon Cheesbrough , Altamira Mutual Funds, David Novak, Yum brands. There are many more.

I could also name a few names of CEOs who didn’t ‘get it’ but all that could come out of that is me being sued. I could point to these companies who have, once blue chip, been delisted off the NY Stock Exchange (think photography) or largely become irrelevant. Or out of business.

Every brand has its story. It has its ups and downs, its trials and triumphs. Like you, it has a lifespan that can be as short as a tsetse fly’s or as long as California Redwood’s. And every successful brand has it champions and its leaders who have not had bludgeoned out of them one of the most precious qualities of leadership: Common sense.

If only we could take those qualities to Washington, D.C.

Oops. Sorry. Stepping outside the bounds of the assigned topic otherwise know as ‘the box’.

Please join me in a toast to common sense and those in business, especially CEOs who still have command of the skill. And exercise it.


Initially I was going to write yet another article on how to get people to open that email you sent they don’t want. So I did some research on the topic and a surprising thing happened. The more I read, the more it sounded like advice I would give copywriters on writing effective copy for ads.

Be human. Don’t be boring. Write conversationally. Don’t write Gone with the Wind. Keep it short.

Email subject lines should be written like, you guessed it, headlines. And for those who haven’t made a career of writing headlines, let it suffice that it is often not a five minute job. Sometimes they just roll off the tip of your tongue. Other times you mull them over for days. That we rarely have days to come up with headlines these days explains why there are so many dreadful ones sitting in your inbox for emails you won’t open.

Numbers often work. “Five ways to make potato dumplings exciting” might get read by some foodies. It was David Ogilvy who mastered that school of advertising. “Five ways to…” “How to…” “Why your potato dumplings are uninspiring.” They do work. The problem is they have been so over used that their credibility comes into question as does the question “Says who?”

In one article on writing effective emails, the author pointed out the power of the word ‘you’. Just like in advertising. Write conversationally. Just like in advertising. Don’t be clever. Be smart. Just like in advertising. Pique someone’s interest. Just like in advertising. An email can easily get ignored. Guess what? So can ads. All you have to do is turn the page. Or channel. Don’t automate your email greeting. See my article “Dear Valued Customer” for more on that.

Here’s some good advice on writing effective emails. Don’t sell the product. Sell the benefit. That insight dates back to the dawn of selling. It’s just part of human nature: “What’s in it for me?” Every advertising strategy has a question to be answered: “What is the benefit?” This is not new to email marketing.

The rules and guides to marketing apply across all media. The delivery mechanism is what differs.

The barrier to common sense selling on the internet was driven by the lack of sophistication of search engines. There was a time when we had to write to satisfy the search engine’s capabilities. This often meant putting your key words in your headline, your first line of body copy and copious times after that. The result? Abysmal writing. But thankfully, search engines have become far more sophisticated and elegant to use a computer term. They are getting better and better at analyzing writing the way we humans speak. Even better, they are punishing writers who try to game the system by flooding keywords in every nook and cranny of their unreadable copy.

No matter whether you are creating advertising in traditional media, digital media or both, a simple rule should help you. Don’t talk at me. Talk to me.

It’s great to be human again. Even if we are little digitized.

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