Word up

Who’s the daddy? The copywriter or the art director? It’s a battle familiar to anyone who’s worked in an agency environment. Designers are notoriously frustrated by the inability of their writing partners to contain their purple prose and horrified when 50 words of lorem ipsum in a dummy press ad become 150 a week later. The scribes, on the other hand, want as much freedom to express themselves as their artistic colleagues. After all, how difficult can it be to change a layout?

In the early days of advertising, the copywriter was definitely 1-0 up. That’s because the whole idea of art direction was actually only borrowed from the movie industry at a later stage. Yes, design was recognised to be important, but it wasn’t institutionalised within agencies. In a world where traditional press dominated, it was something that was often left to staff members on newspapers and magazines, who tended to have very conservative ideas. By the 1920s and 1930s, there was more understanding of issues such as the importance of typography in conveying messages to an audience. And with the later explosion of colour photography in print and the dawn of the TV era, the balance started to shift in the direction of the artists.

The old adage that a picture speaks a thousand words can certainly be true. I remember an ad for Frazzles crisps that I saw a year or so ago which contained no copy apart from the brand name. (Frazzles, for the benefit of readers outside the UK, look and taste like little rashers of bacon.) The ad showed a cartoon pig who was mistakenly sticking a knife in an electric toaster. It’s an extreme example, but there’s undoubtedly a vogue in this era of texting, email and truncated conversation for advertising copy to be reduced to an absolute minimum. The belief is that no one will tolerate lengthy, explanatory copy of the type that was common in the 1970s and 1980s.

There’s a lovely ad for Royal Ascot on the escalator panels of the London Underground right now. The upmarket racing event is known for its sartorial glamour and elegance, particularly in respect of the costumes and hats worn by the female visitors. In the foreground of the ad, we see a lady dressed up to the nines, with the brim of her hat shading her ample cleavage. In the background, a horse appears to have been distracted by the alluring guest and is glancing towards her. The line simply reads “Heads will turn”.

Hats off to the art director, because this is an ad in which design is king. It looks classy, witty and conveys an idea beautifully. But the three words – “Heads will turn” – are still essential. And this is a point that I labour in my copywriting and advertising classes. The very best ads are still the ones where words and pictures combine to create something that is more than the sum of their parts. An example I often show is an ad for a domestic violence charity in the US that was created by award-winning writer Luke Sullivan. It shows pictures of flowers on a coffin and runs with a headline that says: He beat her 150 times. She only got flowers once. There is a shock value because of the confusion between flowers as a symbol of romance and flowers as a token of affection after death. But it’s a confusion that is only created by the combination of the photograph and the writing. Words alone don’t cut it, because without the image of the coffin, we don’t have the association with a funeral. But the picture of the coffin on its own is meaningless in this context and doesn’t necessarily have a relation to domestic violence.

My conclusion is that copywriters and art directors have to learn to live together and will be much happier if they do. If they could manage a smile for the cameras in Northern Ireland after centuries of conflict, I think we should be prepared to bury our own hatchet. As long as it’s understood there will always be a need for some words.

© Phil Woodford, 2007. All rights reserved.

Phil Woodford is a former advertising creative director who lectures in marketing and advertising at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Faculty of course directors.