Article category “Effective Writing”

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

Clarity and success.

That quote up there was something taught by Ludwig Wittgenstein (April 26, 1889–April 29, 1951) an Austrian-born philosopher who spent most of his life in England, including teaching at Cambridge.

Since Wittgenstein‘s original statement was in German (“Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt”) there are variations based on how it’s translated. For example, it could also be written as “The limits of my language stand for the limits of my world.”

Because the definition of bedeuten is “to mean” or “to signify,” I might have been less literal. Using Wittgenstein’s own ideas, I’d translate his statement using an English word that has more impact for English speakers: “The limits of my language define the limits of my world.”

It may seem like splitting very fine, blond hairs, but Wittgenstein dedicated his life to clarity and precision of language. (And translation requires bringing both the meaning and the intent into another language, so it’s seldom accomplished with literal translations.)

Wittgenstein also expressed the same idea from a slightly different angle, “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”

He talked about language and understanding as being inseparable, and that the language we use determines whether or not we are clearly understood. Of course, he also said the extent to which we can be understood will be limited if our audience lacks the language to follow what we say.

The ability to name things, and understand each other when doing so, is one of the key things that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Parenthood and responsibility.

While Wittgenstein – considered one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century – was describing the limits of one’s world as an adult being determined by the depth and quality of one’s language, a recent New York Times article describes a study that shows that the very same is true for very young children: their futures can be determined by the quality of the language they’re taught.

There is nothing simpler or quicker than creating a child. Nature designed it that way. (It takes more time to make breakfast.) Conversely, few things are more difficult than raising a child properly and ensuring some amount of independence and success.

More than ever, language is at the core of that success.

Wittgenstein also said, prophetically, “The difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than we know.” That certainly isn’t a statement I’d limit to philosophy.

People who say far more than they know is a symptom of our age. Language, sadly, is seldom used for clarity today. Lawyers, politicians … and even TV news anchor persons make a practice of using as many words as possible in an effort to make certain that all meaning is lost.

As communicators, clarity of communication is what we’re about. Obfuscation is what “they” are about.

It goes double for marketing.

Early in my career, I was interviewing for a position at an ad agency and the creative director wasn’t just looking at my samples, he was reading every line of copy. I felt slightly embarrassed because I had a lot of samples. So, to be polite, I said something like, “I didn’t expect you to read all the copy.”

His reply was illuminating. “I always read the copy because lots of people can be involved in headlines. It’s usually just the copywriter who writes the copy.”

Writing ad copy is a remarkable education. It’s unlike any other kind of writing. Even when the copy is short, it has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It has to be like a very short story that educates readers while exposing them to something new.

The copy has to pay off the headline – which has to be good enough to get people to read the copy – and it has to close in a satisfying way, if possible with humor.

The copy also has to tie in to the tag line, which is often something inherited and which every writer on an account has to work with because tag lines go on far longer than any other element of a campaign.

Copywriters are taught that what we write has to be able to stand on its own. Meaning, if you have to be there to explain it to the reader or viewer, it doesn’t work. (Don’t you wish movie-makers followed the same rule?)

Copywriting is a craft unlike any other, and its demands teach one a great deal about writing.

Most of all, it shows that we have to know how to use language better than “the average person.”

I know full well that Wittgenstein might not be amused to see his ideas being applied to something as prosaic as marketing and advertising. But what he taught applies to our discipline as much as any other, if not much more.

Our job is to touch people where they live – to reach their emotions. In order to touch people’s emotions – because that’s what good copy does – we have to know a great deal about language in order to be able to use the precise language that will get us there.

 


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I’m silently correcting your grammar.

Grammatical atrocities.

That headline thought, up there, is available as a T-shirt, a mug and lots of other stuff. It’s not just a T-shirt, though. It’s a sign. It means that those who know the difference are fed up. Because of how often e-mails, texts, online postings, movies and TV demonstrate grammatical atrocities.

While some of us fret about the declining state of the language, there are others who (incredibly) argue that grammar is not dying, merely changing, as it always has. (Yes, the original Beowulf epic was written in Old English …)

While that may be true, it doesn’t help at all when one wonders “why did we bother to learn correct spelling and the rules of grammar?” And why should we go along with usage that irks, irritates and insults us. (That was alliteration, by the way.)

We cringe when we see “my friend’s advise …

We involuntarily shout “there are!” every time some character in a movie, on TV, or (dread …) “news” program says “there’s” for a plural subject.

And we rejoice that even “Weird Al” Yankovic has declared “enough:” Word Crimes

How we were taught.

Not that long ago, we were all taught that words like “bussing” worked because of the double consonants. However, via means that I’m unable to explain, some double s-consonants were made singular so that “bussing” and “bussed” are now spelled “busing” and “bused.”

Can anyone explain why we don’t pronounce “bused” like “fused?” (And that’s “fused” as in two objects joined together as one, not fussed.)

Same with “focussed,” which is now spelled “focused,” and which now looks to me as if it should be pronounced “folk-used.”

This is the case for a number of words whose spelling has changed … of which we are constantly reminded by spell checkers everywhere.

Take a word like “taken.” We were taught to pronounce the “a” in the “long” form because it’s only separated by one consonant from the vowel “e.” Weren’t you taught the same thing? So why doesn’t “bused” rhyme with “abused.”

But that only covers the “evolution” of spelling. Grammatical atrocities are an entirely different offense.

You are not alone.

Finally there’s outrage. Finally a great deal is being made of the mis-use of some of the most common words in English. Such as “great,” “awesome,” “ironic,” “travesty,” “enormity,” “literally” and “terrific.” Those incredibly common words are increasingly misunderstood and mis-used by people who think they mean something completely different than how they’re defined.

And then there’s Tourette’s punctuation … Do we really want “The best pizza’s anywhere?” Or “Pasta’s & Pizza’s?” Or “Greek Gyro’s?” Eeesh. Doesn’t it make you wonder if places like this are a few beers short of a six-pack? (How can we trust your cooking if we can’t trust your grammar?)

There’s also the constant mis-use of “lead ” when the only possible word for the past tense of “lead” could be “led.” (“Lead” is appearing with growing frequency. As if “lazy” and “stupid” are highly contagious diseases.)

My guess is that this typo, as with so many others, has a lot to do with the Internet. We’ve come to expect to see errors standing out in red when we type online. The problem, of course, is that “lead” (as with so many other grammatical atrocities) is an actual word – in fact, it’s two actual words, with two distinct meanings and pronunciations. So no red. No warnings. Just laziness.

The lesson here is that expecting spell-check to save your ass will leave you assless.

It seems the problem (for the … umm … uninitiated) is that “lead” (the metal) and “led” (the past tense of “lead”) are homophones – words that sound alike but are spelled differently and mean entirely different things. You could say that this all-too-common error could be the result of the confusion caused by the identical pronunciation of these discrete words. I wouldn’t say that. To me it’s unforgivable laziness. (Or, dare I say, creeping stupidity?)

However, one of the more interesting and hopeful aspects of mass online participation is the possibility of an invigorated, reawakened vigilance about grammar, spelling and punctuation. As more and more people place their unedited thoughts and opinions online, mistakes are multitudinous.

Those of us who notice (and we are many) are silently correcting your grammar.


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How to choose a ghostwriter.

The first thing to look for in a ghostwriter.

Naturally, anyone who needs a ghostwriter wants to make certain they’re getting a qualified writer – an experienced, accomplished writer. But it’s even more important to work with a writer who can convey your specific tone and style … or create the correct one.

Every writer has “a voice.” The trick for ghostwriters is to find or create the voice of the “author” for whom they’re working. Equally, the trick for anyone who needs to choose a ghostwriter is teaming up with one who will convey the tone and style that suits you best.

So you need to look for a writer capable of writing in very different styles.

Who needs a ghostwriter?

Typically, there are two categories of people who need the services of a ghostwriter.

The first is people who are successful – in business, politics, entertainment and so on. When those people – who are seldom professional writers – want to write a book, they depend on the services of professional writers.

The second category is made up of people who have had fascinating lives and wish to write about their lives. They also depend on the services of professional writers since that’s not what they do for a living.

What kind of writer will you need?

Even non-professional writers can often write a readable essay – say, one to two pages long. However, the experience will educate them about how the real work in writing is in the editing.

But when you’re talking about a book … that takes a set of very specific skills and abilities. It’s a long-term writing and editing project, and the longer it goes the more work there is to maintain tone and style. And that’s the only way to keep readers interested throughout several hundred pages.

You can begin to narrow down “what kind of writer” you’ll need with some specific questions: Will your book require a lot of research? (Some writers are better at that than others.) Will your book require humor? (Some writers are much better at that than others.) Will your book require exceptional storytelling? (Some writers are better at that skill than others.)

Finding the writer you need.

Publishers and literary agents usually have ghostwriters that they know and recommend. That’s one way to find a decent ghostwriter.

The Internet is another way. It has made it both much easier and much more difficult to find resources. It’s easier because one can search at will, and fairly quickly, rather than depending only on personal recommendations, as in pre-Internet days. But it’s also much more difficult because the Internet is so crowded with so many illegitimate claimants. The way to deal with that is to ask for samples and recommendations.

(It’s not at all difficult to beat one’s own drum. It’s much harder to have happy clients who will readily recommend a writer.)

You can also make it easier to find and select the best writer for your project by being fairly clear in advance about what kind of book, or written materials, you’ll want. Knowing that will make it easier to know which writers might be best suited for you and your project.

If what you need is relatively simple, such as ghostwritten blog articles, then you’ll have an easier time, because articles are far easier to write than an entire book.

Why are writers willing to be ghostwriters? Because true writers love to write and also to be paid for their writing. However, in order to be a successful ghostwriter, the writer must also be someone who either has very little ego or who can easily set aside their “style” to accomplish the goals of the client.

How to avoid surprises.

As in any business transaction, it’s important to establish (and agree to) clear and realistic deadlines, expectations and payment schedules. And that means doing so in writing, with both parties signing the agreements.

A typical agreement covers a detailed description of the project. That will include project outlines and deadlines, what and when the writer will be paid, whether or not the writer will get credit, and who will own the copyright to the book, which is typically the client. The only way to avoid unpleasant surprises is to agree to everything in advance and put it all in writing.

An idea, by the way, does not a book make. If you have a draft, or a decent amount of research and background materials, it will go a long way to making the project successful. A full book project typically takes at least three to six months, but can easily take longer, especially if multiple interviews are required.

It’s also important to remember that a ghostwriter is not a literary agent. So whether or not your book is picked up by publishers depends on other people, not the writer.

What will it cost?

Don’t be surprised if you’re looking at a $20-30,000 (U.S.) investment. The typical range is from $10,000 to $50,000.

You are, after all, talking about someone writing 50,000, 70,000 or even 100,000 words for you, and spending three to six months, or more, working on your project. Yes, you can find people online who will ask far less. But … you will always get exactly what you paid for.

Choose the right writer and you’ll likely be extremely pleased with the outcome, and you’ll also likely find that the end product fully exceeds expectations.

 


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Why writers get hired.

The hardest part of writing is knowing where to start.

Can anyone write? Probably. Can anyone write well? Clearly not.

Everyone’s writing these days – e-mails, online posts … even reviews, lord help us. So it seems that more and more often people who need marketing think, “hey, I can do this myself.

That’s usually when those people come face-to-face with two, daunting challenges: organizing their thoughts … and getting started.

Then, when urgent need or looming deadlines tip the scales toward “it’s time to hire a professional,” it can be challenging to figure out who that might be. One approach is to ask who wrote something you admire. If you don’t know the people who produced the marketing piece you admire, you can contact the design firm or online pub that produced the piece.

As clients begin working with accomplished, successful writers, it can seem as if those writers work magic. The magic comes down to skill and experience. Professional writers can envision the whole piece, almost from the beginning. Or, to put it another way, the experienced writer knows how to take the initial input and expand on it, as required.

We do it with probing questions, with competitive research, with target market research. And with extensive editing and rewriting for flow and impact. (And you thought writing was easy.)

What writers do that’s different.

Highly skilled writing can seem as unattainable as the perfect golf or tennis game. And the very same mysteries apply … is it natural talent that makes the professional writer so skilled? Or is it training, practice and application? Any professional writer will tell you it’s both.

Trades are no different. An accomplished cabinet maker, furniture builder, mechanic, chef or designer is the same – they chose a trade or profession that appealed to them and worked at it.

People who are very good at what they do are nearly always people who have worked very hard at those things, and likely love doing them. That’s why professionals make things look easy. They’ve had lots and lots of practice.

So how exactly do professional writers get over the double hurdle of getting started and getting organized? With specific questions that set the direction for what we’re hired to write.

Which questions? Oh, o.k., I’ll tell you:

  • What’s the key audience for your product or service?
  • What matters most to them?
  • What’s your key benefit – what problem or wish does your product or service resolve?
  • Who’s the competition – what’s their track record?
  • What’s different about your product or service – what sets you apart?
  • What will it take to win?

Drilling down for the answers to those questions gives professional writers the essential building blocks for a solid, relevant, compelling marketing piece – whether it’s a brochure, a Web site, an ad or a commercial. The very same questions apply in every case.

Beware the online writer marketplace.

Now that most of our planet has moved toward “online resourcing,” marketers face a dilemma – how do we know that those distant resources are actually good? A couple of old truisms usually apply: “you get what you pay for …” and … “if it sounds too good to be true, it is.”

The “flattened earth,” brought to us by the Internet, has introduced “developing countries” to the mix of hopeful service providers. From our U.S. perspective, that means that people for whom English (and usually British English) is their second or even third language have thrown their hats into the writing ring. Yes, you can pay just a few dollars per hour for a job vs. American pay standards … but will the end result do you any good?

I own several LinkedIn groups and someone from one of those developing countries (hoping to become part of my professional copywriters’ group) told me that she “writes killer copies.”

Apart from language issues, here’s what’s wrong with trusting those folks with your marketing needs (… and your money): understanding your target market is crucial to success. Slight cultural misunderstandings can be disastrous. A large part of effective marketing is referencing the culture in which we live. To do that requires living in the culture. Even a British writer wouldn’t understand American sayings or references (and vice versa), let alone those other folks.

In order for marketing to have its intended impact, it needs to be relevant and emotionally involving.

That’s pretty hard to do when you’re not part of the culture. After all, effective writing involves much, much more than correct spelling and sentence structure. It’s about touching emotional hot-buttons. And that requires knowing not just what those hot-buttons are, but also how to reach them.


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Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of grammar.

We are the reporters. Aren’t we?

Until very recently, journalism was a highly trusted source of information – because editors were watching reporters and insisting on multiple sources for each story. We knew that, as well that the facts in the stories were actually verified. When something made it into print, it was highly unlikely that anyone could successfully challenge the printed version of a story.

Not so much anymore.

Much of what we read in online “news” is barely proofread, let alone edited. (Editing and proofreading jobs are rapidly disappearing, by the way, as print continues shrinking and contracting.) Trusting online news isn’t that different from trusting the news we get at the water cooler. It’s largely gossip, innuendo, rumors … in other words, idle chatter.

And thanks to how easy it is to plagiarize online content, much of what we read online is frequently “mash-ups” – rehashed versions of the very same story appearing in multiple venues. When anyone can post anything, how do we know what we can and cannot trust?

And therein lies the rub. Many of the sites where so many of us get our news these days are, in actuality, “news aggregators.” That’s even worse than it sounds. It’s not people aggregating the news, it’s software that’s aggregating syndicated Web content, such as online newspapers, blogs, podcasts, and video blogs.

Daily Beast, Drudge Report, Gawker, Google News, Huffington Post, Newslookup, Newsvine, World News (WN) Network and Yahoo News are all sites – among many, many others – where aggregation is entirely automatic. Algorithms carry out contextual analysis and group similar stories together.

Other sites combine software-aggregated stories with headlines and articles chosen or curated by humans. But that’s becoming more and more rare. News is being selected based on “hits” rather than editorial (professional human) selection.

David Carr, the New York Times media columnist, wrote an important article  in 2012 about proposed content aggregation guidelines.

Who exactly is checking facts?

Not so long ago, if someone wanted to investigate something (such as the health benefits or risks of 2% milk products vs. 4% – the full-fat percentage – and whether the benefit did or did not merit a switch) one might have written to a food or health reporter to ask them to provide a food science-based answer.

Today, you just Google it. That’s great. Except for one thing. Anyone can post anything online. Facts are hardly facts anymore. And, to make matters far, far worse, low-level writers, all over the planet, desperate for work, create “content” that’s seldom original, and frequently entirely plagiarized. They’re encouraged to do so by content mills and farms – entities that pay those writers a pittance and resell the “stories” that they’ve stockpiled, kind of like stock photography.

Those are frequently the articles that frustratingly appear at the top in our online searches. And, oh yeah, people keep posting and e-mailing the wrong facts, over and over and over. No more encyclopedias, no more dictionaries, no more real research. Just “forwarding.” (Sounds a lot like old-fashioned gossip, doesn’t it?)

One of the more interesting and hopeful aspects of mass online participation is the possibility of an invigorated, reawakened vigilance about grammar, spelling and punctuation. As more and more people place their unedited thoughts and opinions online, mistakes are multitudinous.

But those mistakes seem to have brought about a wonderful movement of writers and editors who are not only pointing out those errors, they’re writing about them. So now we have opportunities to promote greater awareness and understanding of the critical elements of communication that have for so long been taken for granted because “somebody else” was watching – grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Looks like it’s up to us.

Long before the days of “Internet news,” former U.S. Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, famously said, “We’re all entitled to our own opinions. Just not our own facts.”

The June 18, 1972 Woodward and Bernstein story on the Watergate break-in was a front page story in the Washington Post about the previous day’s break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC.

It turned out to be a very big deal. Five men were arrested while attempting to photograph documents and place bugging devices in the offices. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein spent the following months virtually alone among the nation’s reporters in their efforts to uncover the full extent of what the administration dismissed as a “third-rate burglary.”

Woodward and Bernstein didn’t report opinion, they only printed carefully researched facts – facts which ultimately brought down the deeply corrupt White House of Richard M. Nixon which had repeatedly lied to the American public.

Who will do that kind of reporting now? The New York Times, The Chicago Sun-Times and The Los Angeles Times, to name but a few, are paler, thinner versions of their once mighty selves.

Almost exactly a year ago, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off all of its professional photographers, including some Pulitzer Prize winners. Perhaps because we all walk around with cameras, now?

And on May 12, 2014, The Washington Post reported, “The world’s largest independent news organization, the Associated Press, for one, has told its journalists to keep their stories between 300 and 500 words.” The reporter, Paul Farhi, very cleverly ended his article with: “Yes, speed and brevity are more valuable than ever in the digital age. But this raises another question: As stories get shorter, do readers end up missing something impor”

If not us, who? If not now, when?

The worry is that in this age of e-mails, texts, instant messages and online “comments,” the 300-500 words AP gives us will not be reviewed, at all. The journalist will simply watch the running word count and stop at 499.

Yes, everyone wants to scan ever more rapidly for information, news and data. But we were able to do that with print news because – in traditional journalism – we knew that the “who, what, where, when, why and how” had to be in the lead (or lede) paragraph. We only needed to read the following paragraphs if we wanted to know all the details in the lead paragraph.

That worked just fine. But with those journalistic skills falling away, we’re left with dilettantes dumping stream-of-consciousness words on the page. Maybe that’s why AP had to change the rules?

To me, a story needs to be as long as it needs to be. Having an arbitrary, shorter, attention-span-based rule is … inevitably, a dumbing down of content. Growing up, we had to rise to the level of the stories. We sometimes even had to open dictionaries.

Good writing, inevitably, makes us all better writers. Something will clearly be lost with the loss of traditional journalism. Some think short is fine. Others are bothered by AP’s seemingly random guideline. I’m not certain whether there’s a right answer or a wrong answer. But I am certain that AP’s new rule doesn’t offer journalists, or us, the option.

So it comes down to us. We need to uphold journalistic standards. For starters, we need do our own fact checking. Two sites that will help keep us honest are Snopes.com and TruthorFiction.com.

We have also, thanks to the Internet, become self-styled product reviewers, and not just in print – you can even find YouTube reviews of virtually anything online. And you can find stunningly bad examples of grammar and syntax in online reviews on sites such as Amazon.com.

In addition to rampant mis-spellings and botched grammar, you’ll also see how the Internet has helped create “neologisms gone wild.” It’s as if everyone has developed portmanteau Tourette’s.

It’s time. We need to stand up, “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of grammar.” (With apologies to Mr. Shakespeare.)


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“Pay the writer.”

We’re professionals, and consultants.

The title of this post comes from a wonderful Harlan Ellison YouTube rant that’s taken from the documentary about him, Dreams with Sharp Teeth.

I looked for it because I’ve been thinking about the increasing financial challenges of being a professional writer. It’s bad enough that the Internet has opened competition to the world. (And good luck with that.) In addition to that … or because of it, the attitude of clients has dramatically shifted to cost over quality, and it shows. The same thing happened to professional photographers when “stock” came into being.

One incident early in my career stands out as a harbinger of things to come. It was during my first Madison Ave. job as a junior copywriter, at Warwick, Welsh & Miller, an agency that came into being thanks to Seagram’s, the liquor company. Supposedly, Paul Warwick and Samuel Bronfman, the Canadian founder and owner of Seagram’s, were buddies. Mr. Bronfman advised Mr. Warwick that when Prohibition ended in the U.S., branded whiskey would be a big deal. So the agency was founded. And Seagram’s (with V.O., 7-Crown and Crown Royal, etc.) got a big jump on the competition.

One of the very best things about working at that agency was that it was also in The Seagram’s Building, a breathtaking work of Manhattan architecture designed and built by Mies van der Rohe. Warwick, Welsh & Miller was, of course, the agency of record for Seagram’s, along with Parker Brothers, the giant board game company that produced, among many others, Monopoly.

You want to pay us how much?

One day, the entire creative department was sent a memo from the creative director that said Parker Brothers was looking for new board game ideas … and if an idea we submitted was chosen we’d get $50.

I chewed on this for a while then finally went into the creative director’s office to ask, “If they produce a new board game, they stand to make millions, don’t they?” He answered, “Probably. So?” I responded, “We’re supposed to provide an idea that could produce millions for fifty bucks?”

He looked at me as if I had just landed from Mars and after a moment said, “Well, you don’t have to submit an idea.” That was not the answer I was hoping for. But it turned that variations on that answer would be the same for lots of questions that came up over the years. “They” want our finest creativity. But “they” want to pay as little as possible for it.

Hardly any company or business in existence would be profitable without writers. Writers polish a company’s image, promote its products and services, help them rise above the competition … and make gazillions. Yet, we are paid like sharecroppers. And sometimes, as Harlan Ellison so eloquently points out, they don’t want to pay us anything at all.

Writers produce annual reports that help companies sell stock … and make millions. Writers create ads that help companies sell products and services … and make millions. Writers produce scripts that help companies produce movies and TV shows … and make millions.

Think your lawyer, plumber or dentist will work on spec?

If you’re a fan of books, movies, TV shows, and great journalism, then you’re a fan of great writing. But you likely have no idea how much the creators of your favorite books or shows make. Or the fact that writers are often asked to work for free.

We’re consultants and we bill for our time, just like lawyers and other professionals. Yet we’re often asked to do things for no pay, or little pay, and we’re even expected to be happy merely for receiving “exposure.”

Exposure doesn’t pay the rent, or the dentist, or the mechanic, or the painter, or the plumber … none of whom would ever agree to work on spec, let alone anything less than their standard rate of pay.

In 2008, Lynn Wasnak wrote an article for Writers Market titled How Much Should I Charge? In that article, she wrote that advertising copywriting had a high rate of $150 per hour, and a low rate of $35 per hour, with an average of $83 per hour. Catalog copywriting was only slightly lower with a high of $150 per hour, a low of $25 per hour, and an average of $71 per hour. (Are you under-charging?)

Annual reports pay slightly better at $180 per hour at the higher levels, $45 per hour at the lower, and $92 per hour on average. Speech writing/editing for individuals or corporations was at $167 per hour on the high end, $35 per hour on the low end and $90 per hour on average. (Are you under-charging?)

The same article also appeared in Writers Digest. Both covered typical rates for many more kinds of writing and editing than I’ve mentioned here. And if you’re in Canada, you have the benefit of a national professional organization that publishes up-to-date rates: Writers.CA.

You’re a professional. Charge like one.

Ours is a solo occupation, so we often don’t know what others are charging, let alone what the going rates are, and can therefore be cheated. Being aware of the going rates – and being able to point to them – is beneficial for all of us. Otherwise we’ll be expected to provide our highly trained, thoroughly professional services for less than folks who are required to ask, “Would you like fries with that?”

Here’s my version of rather serious joke: A writer is contacted by a new client who needs an ad. The writer gets the input then goes off to create the ad. He does a rough draft, then a full first draft, then edits that, then polishes that, then puts it away for a few days. Then he takes it out and looks it over and finds more things to trim, rewrite and polish. Finally, after two weeks he contacts the client to let him know the ad is ready. The client looks it over and says, “That’s not very much copy. How long did it take you to write that?” The writer responds, “About 25 years.”

P.S. If you happen to watch the classic 1944 film Laura, you’ll hear the fictional magazine writer, Waldo Lydecker, referring to getting 50 cents per word for his articles. Good luck getting that today … 70 years later.

 

 


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What sports announcers do to our language.

Calling the plays, murdering the language.

Most of us have heard and likely used such expressions “legalese” and/or “corporate-speak” to describe (maybe excuse) the mangled language that comes out of lawyers’ offices and corporations.

However, little that lawyers, cube-farm dwellers, and purveyors of “investment opportunities” do to our much put-upon language can match the destructive force of sports announcers. Why? Because the mangled grammar they spew out on radio and television is immediately accepted as “blessed,” fait accompli, normal. And then it’s immediately repeated by others.

Example: if you are an American, and you watched the recent winter Olympics in Sochi, on American television, then you heard such travesties as: “He / She is going to podium!” … or “He / She has medaled!” … or “He / She is medaling!”

The Olympics of verbing.

Meddling is a word. Medaling is not … at least not in the way our sports announcers used it: “Norwegian athletes medaled in 12 of the 14 events.” (Brrrrghhhh.) And “podium” is in no way, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, a verb.

Those horrors are known as turning nouns and adjectives into verbs. And, no, in case you’re wondering, it’s not o.k.

Take a peek at “Verbing weirds language.” Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson.

Sports announcers excel at deconstructing language. Or simply creating their own versions … because they can. They have carved out a unique place in the history of language, doing far worse than splitting infinitives (as in, “to boldly go where no man … ” etc.) – a truly minor offense compared to “verbing nouns.”

Thanks to sports announcers confounding themselves with “pick up the ball” and (the entirely incorrect) “pick a player,” “pick” is now universally used instead of “choose,” despite the fact that “pick” is only appropriate to describe a physical action while “choose” is what we do when we make a mental selection – an intellectual choice.

Pick or choose … pick or choose …

We look at a menu, then we choose something. We look at draft choices for college sports, then we choose one. We do not ever, under any circumstances, walk over to a draft choice and pick him or her up.

We pick fruit, we pick up something that has dropped, we pick at our food, and so on. But “choose” is the only correct word for the intellectual process of selection. (Don’t point me to the AP Style Guide … I’ve kissed them off.) So while sports announcers constantly talk about “picks,” one cannot, in actual fact, “pick a player,” one can only “choose a player” … or a wife, or husband, or a piece of music, or a color … or an item on a menu.

But rules of grammar and language rarely stop people from abusing their language. And you will, of course, find plenty of people who defend “pick” instead of “choose” as an all-purpose verb, transitive and intransitive. I find their position defenseless.

I have no idea if sports announcers in other parts of the world performed similar acts of murder with their respective languages during the recent Olympics – perhaps you can tell me? But such onerous crimes are not, sadly, limited to sports announcers. Lawyers and politicians, for example, have given us such non-words as “impactful.”

Are you ready to be hoaxed?

From The Guardian (US edition): “Trick or tweet: the boy who hoaxed the football world”

This joins the ranks of recent Winter Olympics sports announcing mentioned up-top. It’s apparently in the same category as “are you joking me?” Not something I’d ever say.

I love the rules of grammar, as I learned them and as I adapted them over time with various style guides. Because they bring order out of chaos. I am generally the opposite of a conservative, but I believe that “descriptivists” (linguists in grammarians clothing) are inviting anarchy.

We – professional writers and editors – are the keepers of the flame. We have to be the final arbiters of what’s correct and what’s not. It’s part of our job description.

To my mind, we need some rules, not just to be told “things evolve.” As in the AP Style folk deciding that “over” and “more than” are interchangeable. (Bah, humbug.) Of course things evolve. I wouldn’t want to be driving the ancient, noisy ’65 VW bug that I was driving during college days in this day and age. It’s just that “evolution of language” more and more often feels like dumbing down of language. Alas …

 

 


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What New Year’s really means.

Guess what: our calendar is only 431 years old.

While most people using the Western/Gregorian calendar might understandably assume that our calendar is now 2,014 years old, that just ain’t so. It is in fact (as of this writing) only 431 years old, having been brought into existence in 1582 to mark the precise celebration of Easter.

Our calendar is called the Gregorian calendar because it was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII via a papal bull – a decree – signed on February 24, 1582. It was several centuries before it was adopted throughout the western world.

Pope Gregory XIII’s motivation for his reform was that the Roman Julian calendar (which had preceded it) placed the time between vernal equinoxes (a “year,” or a full rotation around the sun) at 365.25 days, when in fact it is roughly 11 minutes shorter per year. (Extremely cool math for 1582, eh?)

With the aid of Jesuit priest/astronomer Christopher Clavius (who built on the work of Aloysius Lilius/Luigi Lilio) it was determined that the 11-minute error added up to about three days every four centuries. That resulted (back in Pope Gregory XIII’s day) in the equinox occurring on March 11, and moving earlier and earlier in the Julian calendar.

You know why that irked Pope Gregory, right? The date for celebrating Easter wasn’t at all reliable. And Easter is the single most important date for the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, they wanted to peg the new calendar to the date of birth for Jesus, but that’s quite an iffy thing. No one was really certain of the year and most scholars agree that his likely birth month was actually March. But early Christians hid their celebration on December 25th (or thereabouts) when pagan festivities were already in play for the winter solstice.

Pope Gregory XIII et al calculated Easter, by the way, using the Hebrew calendar to accurately fix the date of “the last supper,” which was in fact a Passover meal that Jesus was attending with his fellow Jewish disciples. Pope Gregory XIII wanted to be sure that Easter was being celebrated on the correct date, year in and year out, so the date of “the last supper” was the starting point for the development of his new calendar.

The fact that Easter is based on the Hebrew lunisolar calendar, by the way, is why it’s a movable feast, unlike Christmas which is always on December 25th.

Today, of course, we think of the calendar as a business tool rather than a way to keep track of religious events. And commerce was the main reason the Gregorian calendar was ultimately adopted. But it’s worth remembering that its origins were entirely based on setting the correct dates for religious celebrations.

Think about this: anybody who uses a computer, anywhere in the world, inevitably is following the Gregorian calendar.

Is it New Year’s everywhere?

2014 will no doubt see further globalization take hold. Our clothing, computers and customer service (alas …) can come from anywhere in the world. Our economy is clearly affected by global events and our export markets can be countries that not long ago did not even appear on our maps.

Brazil, for example, has taken a monster lead on the global stage, having moved ahead of Great Britain in 2011. So, too have Russia, India and China moved up. (Investors call them the BRIC nations and place “emerging markets” investments there.) Portugal, Italy Greece and Spain now worry the rest of the world when their economies teeter, and teeter they do.

So, bearing all that in mind, does January 1 have the same significance to all inhabitants of planet earth? How about to the Chinese or Indians? Or those who continue to follow the Hebraic and Islamic calendars, both of which are based on lunar rather than solar cycles? For the Chinese, 2013 was 4711 (or 4651 depending on their epoch starting point) and the Chinese year 4712 begins on Jan. 31, 2014.

For those following the Hebrew calendar, 2013 was 5773 and 5774. And for those using the Islamic calendar, 2013 was 1434 and 1435. India has as many calendars as it has religions, though in 1957 they settled on the Indian national calendar (Saka) to align themselves with the Gregorian calendar.

The diversity of global populations is one of the reasons that New Year’s celebrations have always struck me as a tad odd. First of all, Father Time is winning, whichever calendar you use. Every new year means that everyone is a year older. Not sure about cheering that. And, as you can tell from the preceding paragraph, the yearly cycle is hardly celebrated (or measured) the same way by all people on earth.

Perhaps some of the old Roman and pagan superstitions lurk in our Bacchanalian New Year’s celebrations. Perhaps we truly think that we and the world will be magically different when the ball drops and the calendar changes.

What do we measure when we measure time?

Clocks, watches, calendars … do they measure actual time, or the experience of the passage of time?

It seems that we “mark time” rather than inhabit it. We tick off the time we’ve used and we look forward to some future calendar event, which might be a religious holiday or vacation, and which will only arrive after we’ve marked off the appropriate amount of time.

But time, according to Albert Einstein, was an indication of our relationship to space and gravity – how fast and how far we were able to move through space. And, in a way, that’s what we’re actually measuring when we say “day, week, month and year.” A day is the spinning of the earth on its axis (creating the illusion of sun-up, sun-down). A year is the time it takes for our earth to orbit the sun completely – an elliptical journey that takes us closer to and farther from the sun, creating our seasons.

Bearing that in mind, it’s possible to see that days and years are in reality markers of time/space travel, while other calendar-based measurements are an artificial construct that in fact simply measure the passage of time as it relates to us. In other words, what we think of as time is highly subjective.

Einstein and Paul Langevin addressed that “relativity” with a theory of time (one of my favorites) that has come to be called the “twins paradox.” It goes like this: one twin leaves the earth traveling at the speed of light and returns seven years later; the other twin stays behind. For the traveling twin, only seven years have passed, so he has only aged by seven years. But for his brother, back on earth, several decades have passed and he is now elderly. How can this be? (For a practical demonstration, watch the Jodi Foster film “Contact,” from a story by Carl Sagan.)

This just in: More proof that time is a human construct

It’s all relative.

The point is that time is not as fixed as we think it is … or as our Gregorian calendar would have us believe. In fact, time is entirely relative. So we do not measure time objectively, but rather subjectively, based on our experience of time on our planet and the calendar we’re using.

We subjectively say, “one year has passed,” “our child is two years old,” “we have a doctor’s appointment next Monday.” All of these are important, yet create a slightly false or inaccurate sense of time, an imposed sense of time, one that doesn’t matter to or affect the movement of the planets around our star, which is what calendars theoretically measure.

Think of it this way: if we were still using the Julian calendar, we’d experience time differently. The same goes if we were using lunar calendars – New Year’s day would come more often. Which is why I just can’t help remembering that the calendar we’ve all agreed to use isn’t even 500 years old, and that it has a back-dated, highly subjective starting point.

In fact, the new year did not always begin on January 1 for everyone everywhere. It depended entirely on which calendar was being used. What we now call New Year’s day is a relatively recent innovation, and an entirely subjective event.

Happy New Calendar.

New Year’s used to be celebrated on days such as the vernal or autumnal equinox – days when you can actually feel something new is coming. That’s what Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was all about.

No one can deny that our lives are run by calendars. They determine when we go to work and when we rest. They determine when we play and when we pray. They determine when we’re paid, and even how much. And all of that works because we all agree to it. Do we have a choice? Not really. But I’m certain if you asked any number of people what their favorite day is, the most frequent answer would be whatever day they consider the sabbath. 

And all of that is why I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. But, hey, knock yourself out.

New Year’s is supposed to be about new beginnings. January 1 strikes me as a very poor date for that. What it really means is that we’re celebrating a calendar event rather than a cyclical, natural event. It seems to come down to celebrating Happy New Calendar. I suppose that makes as much sense as anything else.

 

[This is a revised and updated version of a January 1, 2012 post.]


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Suspension of disbelief.

That’s what it takes for movies to work.

Without our granting movie-makers “suspension of disbelief,” we could hardly enjoy the moment when it seems that the bad guy has gotten away alone on a plane, but suddenly hears some ticking and searches for the source of the sound. He finds the bomb that the hero has planted on the plane, looks somewhat surprised, then … cut to the hero and his pals on the ground looking into the sky as the plane with the bad guy on board explodes in a very satisfying ball of flames, sparks and smoke.

We never ask, “What about the camera crew that filmed the bad guy in his last few seconds? Or the director and lighting people? Weren’t they on the plane when it blew up?”

We don’t ask because we want the story-teller to tell us a story. Because we enjoy being entertained. So we agree to suspend our disbelief for the duration of the entertainment. And we do it most often for movies since they are the most popular contemporary medium for story-telling. (If you loved the movie, read the book.)

Of course, we do it with books, too. Melville’s Moby Dick starts off as a first-person narrative – “Call me Ishmael.” – but as soon as our narrator is aboard the Pequod, he melts into the background. The first-person narrative becomes an omniscient voice, invisible, yet all-seeing, even reporting what’s inside other characters’ heads. Suspension of disbelief at work.

We’ve been doing it since long before Samuel Taylor Coleridge formally named the phenomenon of our willingness to suspend belief in 1817. It has been thus since our earliest ancestors sat around campfires, wearing animal skins, being enchanted by stories of particularly good hunts by someone who was particularly good at telling those kinds of stories – the primordial story-teller.

Not so in marketing.

In our business, we face the most cynical critics and doubters. Advertising may be story-telling, but it’s not always entertainment. (That’s the best kind of advertising, by the way, the entertaining kind, since we’ll all pay attention if it’s fun.)

Just like stories, ads have a beginning, a middle and an end. Except in ads it’s typically the setup (the problem), the solution (how a product or service solves the problem) and the close (the call to action.)

How is it that everyone approaches our stories with such skepticism while swallowing movie story lines hook, line and sinker? Yep, the answer is simple: entertainment. We happily set aside skepticism to enjoy a good movie.

No doubt if aliens landed and we offered to take them to the movies, they’d be somewhat stunned by our ability to accept all the cuts, dissolves, jumps in action and melodramatic, manipulative sound tracks. They’d likely view us with pity, consider us “children,” and wonder how on earth (so to speak) we could possibly run an entire planet.

We want to be entertained.

Is it some mass psychosis? Or simply an agreement en masse to accept the premise of a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional screen?

The smarter ad folk made the leap some time ago to applying story-telling methods to commercials. The great ones, that ones that broke new ground, stick in our minds: “Time to make the donuts.” “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” “Where’s the beef?” “Bud Weis Er.” “Volkswagen: the Force” “¡Yo quiero Taco Bell!”

We remember them, and we talk about them. Almost as much as movies. [Interesting side-note: Alka-Seltzer’s “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” TV campaign was one of the highest-scoring in advertising history, yet sales plummeted. What happened? Chronic users thought they were being made fun of.]

Are entertaining ads and commercials sugar-coating the pill … or effective marketing? In the final analysis, our objective is to be memorable – or, to be more precise, to make our client’s product or service be the one that the target audience remembers. David Ogilvy and others called this “placing a burr in the consumer’s mind” and warned against creating ads that left people “remembering the burr, but not the sales proposition.” [e.g., Alka-Seltzer]

Tricky, isn’t it. We need to entertain to be memorable, but we also need to make sure that what’s remembered is our client’s brand. (It really is something that only professionals can do.)

Super Bowl commercials, like “Volkswagen: the Force,” are the exception to the rule. Those commercials are as much about people remembering the commercial as they are about creating broader awareness for the brand. And in fact competition is so fierce for inclusion in that most coveted of TV placements that it’s not enough to have the dough, you have to have the goods in your ad as well. After all, lots of people tune in just to watch those commercials. Imagine that.

*****


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“Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”

I won’t work for free, either.

As soon as I read the wonderful New York Times piece by Tim Kreider, I knew I had to share it: Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

It’s gratifying to see these facts go “national.” And to see The New York Times bring to light how often the services of professional writers, illustrators and artists are undervalued, or not valued at all.

This Web site is almost four years old and from day one we’ve been writing about the dark side of the Internet, how it has opened competition for creative services to the globe.

Instead of raising the level of quality, the opposite occurred: a drastic lowering of pay levels (lower than could possibly be imagined) along with dropping quality down the toilet.

Instead of seeking professional services directly, many clients now seek out the “online resources” that pit professionals and pretenders against each other, bidding on far fewer projects than there are project seekers. As more and more clients seek the lowest-cost providers online, the rate of pay for professional writing has dropped well below the minimum wage. And the reason for that should be obvious: the third world is in there bidding as well. (Good luck with that.)

I doubt that it’s ever been more difficult for writers and artists to earn a living. Although, in the 1890s, the French writer Jules Renard said, “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”

(He also wrote, “Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.”)

Just say no.

Some of the worst inventions to spring up in this rapacious, virtual, electronic world are content mills, farms and scrapers. Writers are either paid peanuts for original articles (e.g., $10-15 for 1500 words), or our work is stolen and “re-purposed.” The polite Internet term for this form of plagiarism is “mash-up.”*

So did we spend all those years in school and college and university learning and perfecting our craft to work for free? Or to work for one-quarter the hourly rate of the uneducated masses who say “would you like fries with that?”

Sadly, we writers undermine ourselves and each other every time we accept low-paying projects. Those of us who are professionals are no less professional than attorneys or plumbers or dentists. Good luck trying to get any of them to work for $2 per hour.

Part of the problem – perhaps the largest part – as Kreider wrote, is that everyone thinks they can write. That is, until they attempt to produce a coherent marketing piece, or a truly compelling ad. That’s when the fecal matter usually hits the air rotation device.

The services professionals provide do more than turn out carefully crafted messages and marketing – they help clients look more professional. If clients can’t understand that and still prefer to go for “the lowest bidder,” then vaya con Dios.

Here is Kreider’s description of the current state of affairs: “The first time I ever heard the word ‘content’ used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, ‘content providers’ — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called ‘art’ — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.”

This is the phase of history in which we find ourselves. This is the point in the evolution of the Internet in which we are attempting to ply our craft while putting food on our tables. These are, the best of times and the worst of times.

 

*[Copyscape can help you learn if your content has been stolen. Simply drop in the URL for your original work into Copyscape’s search field. And if you find out your work has been copied, visit this page: blog.kissmetrics.com]

 


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Et tu, Hugh Laurie?

This really bugs me.

There are things that bother all of us, gnaw at us in small ways, like gnats. It’s like that for me whenever I hear grammatical laziness – grammatical gaffs that are allowed to stand, or (horrors) used intentionally. They’re buzzing around, diving for our ears, making us swat at the air around our heads.

You want an example? All right. Here’s an example of the collapse of grammar as we know it, in none other than The New York Times: “But a cup or three of coffee ‘has been popular for a long, long time,’ Dr. Freund says, ‘and there’s probably good reasons for that.’”

See that? That godawful mis-use of “there’s?” That’s what drives me nuts. “There’s” can only be a contraction of “there is” (not “there are”) so it can only ever be used with a singular subject.

“There’s good reason” – fine.  “There’s good reasons” – the opposite of fine.

That mis-use, which occurs with horrifying frequency everywhere (TV, movies, media) also popped up with stunning regularity in one of my favorite shows, “House, M.D.” I couldn’t understand that because Hugh Laurie, the show’s British star, must know better. (I mean, his best friend is Stephen Fry, after all – the guy who did this.) I could only assume that he wanted to sound more “American.” Adding insult to injury.

“House, M.D.” was a dazzling concept: take the Sherlock Holmes stories and make them medical mysteries. Wilson was Watson. Cuddy was a female version of Inspector Lestrade. And House was Holmes … get it? They even made House’s apartment number 221B. Great show. Except for the grammar thing, and how often Hugh Laurie said things such as “There’s lots of things this could be…” “There’s all kinds of ways to treat that…” “There’s people waiting…” Etc.

Back to Dr. Freund. Let’s say you’re Dr. Freund … or that I am … if I were I’d be wishing that the NY Times journalist who interviewed me had bothered to correct my spoken faut pas so that it didn’t appear that I had a “poor grasp of grammar,” to put it politely, no matter how good my medicine.

What do I mean by poor? Bad grammar, bad usage. What makes it bad? It’s entirely incorrect, by what we’re taught, when we’re taught grammar, and by mutual agreement on singular and plural usages, furloughs notwithstanding.

Please, make them stop.

I know I’m not alone in believing that we should, as often as practical and acceptable, correct grammar, spelling and usage. (Since it’s going to hell faster than an ice cube in a hot oven.)

And I know that I’m not alone in feeling that we’re witnessing an accelerated pace of acceptance of poor language, poor grammar, poor usage – in many instances simply for the sake of hipness, coolness, with-it-ness. How fatuous it all seems.

If you were writing dialogue in a story, I doubt you’d ever write. “he said u should phone him @ home.” Yet, that there is what many of our younger planetary citizens are doing. How long before it’s “literature” being taught in schools. How long before the Oxford Dictionary accepts “u” as a form of “you?”

I think we ought to get things “right” before we get them “wrong.” The fact that we can decipher what was written should in no way excuse how it was written. Laziness of mind is laziness of mind. The more we excuse it, the more it grows, like some ancient Japanese movie monster.

Prescriptivists vs. descriptivists.

It turns out there’s a term for those of us who worry about such things. I’m, apparently a prescriptivist. Had no idea what that even meant until someone pointed out, quite recently, in an online discussion, that “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” are the names given to the two opposing views on grammar rules.

I had, it turned out, been arguing with descriptivists, with whom there’s no arguing, since they believe less in grammar than they do in “usage.” Descriptivists, it turned out, are linguists first and grammarians second. To them, if the mis-use of a word or phrase (such as “there’s”) occurs with more frequency than the grammatically correct way, then it becomes the rule. (See that black hole of grammar, there?)

The problem that occurs for us professional writers and editors is that without a set of rules to follow and point to, anything goes. And that’s not good for either our professions or our work.

All right, I’ll admit it. I live for this stuff – we are, after all, paid for it. What does it mean to be a writer or editor? It’s all about judgement calls. And how can you make them if you have no basis for judgement?

The New Yorker did a piece on this, which, while quite good, misses one of the greatest (as in largest) points about language. The article describes élitist attitudes, but in its self-same élitism misses why correct and clear language is important. Most of us who became writers were the ones who cared as children when the rules were being taught to us. It meant something to us to master words and grammar. It was even exciting. Because we knew those were the keys to becoming one of the people we so much admired: writers.

How could you be one of those amazing story-tellers without being able to write in amazing ways.

Are we judgemental? You bet. When I meet someone who says, “My wife and me like to go camping,” I know we’re not likely to get along, and not just because I hate camping.

Language is more than communication – and clarity of communication is what the rules are really about, not élitism – it’s literally what defines a culture.

They’re everywhere.

There are mistakes all over the place showing what kind of anarchy occurs when rules are either not known or ignored. Network World printed a doozy. “Snowden seeks asylum from several countries including China, Russia.” To my mind that could only have been “Snowden seeks asylum in several countries including China, Russia.” Knowing why is what the whole game is about.

If somebody is writing a letter to a friend, or speaking in a café, I don’t give a damn about grammatical structure and correctness. However, when major publications are allowing these kinds of errors, the apocalypse can’t be far behind.

We were re-watching “Michael Clayton” (an astounding movie) and I cringed when Clooney’s character’s young son was introduced, because at that moment he’s running around his mother’s apartment, shouting, “Mom, where’s my cards?” Several times. Ugghh.

So what about that? A major motion picture seen by innumerable people. What ethical boundaries are crossed when the choice to “accurately render an eight-year-old” risks further imprinting those who didn’t pay quite enough attention in grammar, junior and high school with horrible grammar?

It would seem that, today, fiction is more literate than reality. We never watched “The West Wing” when it was on network television but have been watching it via streaming. It’s amazingly literate, and clearly shows how much literacy matters. Would that it were so in reality.

When aspiring writers attend classes or workshops, they’re often advised to sit in a café and merely listen. When you do, you will hear two things: people typically do not speak in complete sentences, and people typically do not speak with perfect grammar.

The point of the exercise is to guide hopeful novelists toward more realistic dialogue, since hardly any of us will say: “While you’re in the kitchen making a sandwich for yourself, could you please make one for me, as well?” We’d most likely say, “Make me a sandwich, too.” (Despite the fact that the only grammatically appropriate response is “Abracadabra, you’re a sandwich.”)


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Are you paying for plagiarism?

That question up in the headline could mean several things, and could be taken several ways … I mean all of them:

    • Are you promoting plagiarism in your content by using the cheapest possible provider?
    • Are you knowingly or unknowingly paying someone who is providing you with plagiarized or mashed-up content?
    • Are you suffering the business consequences of having plagiarized content on your site?

No, this is not a “public service announcement” of the kind we’re subjected to on DVDs. This is about how the writing profession is being undermined online and why clients who hire inferior writers are suffering along with the professional writers.

You get what you pay for.

There are a great many problems with how Web site content and online articles are being written today. Chief among those problems is third-world pay and a words-per-pound attitude. That’s why much of the content we read online has been written in the developing world, even though it’s intended for first-world consumption.

The drivel we are subjected to in poor-quality links may also have been written by poor sods in North America or Western Europe who haven’t yet realized that, shortly, they won’t be able to pay their rent or buy food.

Many misguided owners of Web sites and online businesses think “content” amounts to nothing more than words on a page – that they’re required to have some measly words on their sites for the sole purpose of giving “visitors” a reason to visit. They are the enablers, the people who are bringing down the quality of online content as well as the value of the Internet.

They have not yet realized that while the Internet has been a tremendous boon to everyone, it has also done what Thomas Friedman termed as “flattening the earth.” Suddenly wannabes in developing countries are competing in the same “space,” for tenths of a penny on the dollar.

Google has noticed.

Virginia Heffernan has written about this (very, very nicely) in The New York Times, describing how Google decided it was time to take down the SEO tricksters who managed to get drivel at the top of our search returns: Google’s War On Nonsense.

“Imagine a sci-fi universe in which every letter, word and sentence is a commodity. Companies make money off chunks of language. Bosses drive writers to make more words faster and for less pay. Readers then pay for exposure to these cheaply made words in the precious currency of their attention.”

If you happen to be a writer looking for work online, you’re likely to encounter the slave mentality clearing houses that Ms. Heffernan has written about, such as oDesk, Demand Media, Associated Content, Answerbag, etc. When you do, you’ll understand why she wrote,

Last year, The Economist admiringly described Associated Content and Demand Media as cleverly cynical operations that ‘aim to produce content at a price so low that even meager advertising revenue can support it.’

Ah, the five-cent click. The new world order of advertising. The “volume” approach to sales.

Side note: While the merger of Publicis Groupe SA with Omnicom Group Inc. has just created the world’s largest advertising company, their combined billings of $35 billion is still not a match for Google’s $50 billion in revenues. (All those clicks, all those dollars …)

So, Google has decided to change the rules of SEO: The new rules of SEO **

Could you survive on $2 per hour?

So, if you you happen to be a writer looking for work online, you’ll soon discover that content mills pay $1-2 for short pieces and $10-15 for a 1500-word article. Think about that. It takes 2-4 hours to write a thoughtful, meaningful 1500-word article. That’s $2.50 per hour, maybe. Plus the time to figure out how to submit that article.

When you do figure how and where to submit, you may notice that your competition on those content mill and farm sites are “content & SEO” providers in the far east, middle east and Africa. That’s when the penny drops. Who can survive on $2 per hour in any Western economy?*

Not that long ago, the average payment for professionally-written articles was $1-$2 per word. Per word. 1,500 words equaled $1,500-3,000. (You could eek out a living on that if you received around 20 assignments per year.)

Something similar happened to the photography profession a few decades ago when stock houses entered the scene. They bought up a photographer’s entire inventory (meaning they then owned it all) and then rented out each photo for $100-300 per use.

Guess what? Pretty soon no one was paying $2,000-$5,000 for major photo shoots. And the photography profession became a mere shadow of its former self.

That’s what’s happening to professional writing now. The bottom is falling out, and the Internet is making it easy.

We’re forcing people to plagiarize.

Yes, content mills and farms (Elance, oDesk, Demand Media, etc.) are the truly despicable part of “the flattened earth.” The Internet started out as an incomparable boon, and then it became the place that may kill professional writing as a profession.

If you’re only being paid $1-2 per hour, it’s easier (or necessary) to rip off what’s already online than to do your own research, writing and editing.

Content farms don’t seem to care. (Well, they have shareholders and CEOs to keep happy.)

But you should care. What if the kind of writers who are able to provide high-quality, carefully written articles become harder and harder to find? After all, how can writers in the Western world survive at the rates Demand Media et al are willing to pay?

It’s time for there to be online tools to check for the ripped-off, mashed-up, out-and-out plagiarized stuff that’s everywhere.

Our online existence has become a double-edged sword. We have virtually unlimited access to “information,” but also enormous responsibility not to spread half-truths and full-out lies.

And, by the way, we also have to be even more diligent about grammar, spelling and punctuation, because the misuse of language is rampant. (Again, thanks to content mills and farms.)

A rather interesting site called Brain Pickings posted something out of The Journal of Henry David Thoreau: “Do not seek expressions, seek thoughts to be expressed.”

In other words, originality is preferable to reworked bromides. And when you think about that, it means its better for both the writer and the reader. After all, aren’t you sick and tired of re-worked, re-hashed, pointless content?

[* We can’t survive on $7.25] [** Google has updated its Webmaster rules]


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Guess what: We are the reporters.

Did you notice the revolution?

Not so long ago, if someone wanted to investigate something, such as the health benefits, if any, of using 2% milk fat products rather than whole milk products, one might have bought a book on nutrition, or written to a food or health editor to ask for a science-based answer.

Not today. Today, you just Google it. When you do, you learn that whole milk products, on average, contain only 3.5-4% milk fat, and that some experts regard it as healthier than low-fat or skim milk products.

Being able to search online, instantly, is a good thing, right? Ah, well, not always. Because, alas, we can’t always trust what we find online. Journalists and authors are held to a standard of fact verification that does not hold with what we find online … yet. Way too much of what we see and read online is merely mash-ups … or opinions. And therein lies the rub. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the distinguished, four-term U.S. Senator and sociologist, famously said, “We’re all entitled to our own opinions. Just not our own facts.”

While we have all benefitted from access to instant information via the Web, we have also become responsible for discerning fact from fiction. We’ve all been deluged with e-mails distorting actual events or statements merely for fun, or to achieve some particular political aim. However, few of us have subsequently used the Internet that brought us those missives to verify the supposed “facts” they contain. And even national television “news” programs have quoted those dubious sources … to their own deep embarrassment.

Even the fact-check sites are not always on the side of … facts. Snopes.com has proven reliable and objective (in my opinion), while Factcheck.org is highly suspect as an objective, fact-checking source (despite its misleading name) since it’s funded and overseen by The Annenberg Public Policy Center which has a very far right political agenda.

Did you check your spelling?

One of the more interesting and hopeful aspects of mass online participation is invigorated, reawakened vigilance about grammar, spelling and punctuation. As more and more people place their thoughts and opinions online, the mistakes are multitudinous. It’s almost a geometric formula: the number of mistakes we see are directly proportional to the number of people posting (or is that algebraic?).

But there’s a wonderful movement afoot of writers and editors who are not only pointing out those errors to the online speed demons, they’re writing about them. The elements of communication are spelling, punctuation and grammar. That’s one thing. The other is that we need to uphold journalistic standards as we become the writers of the stories … And even the photographers and videographers.

On May 31, 2013, a story broke in The New York Times that The Chicago Sun-Times had fired all of its professional photographers, about 30 people, including some Pulitzer Prize winners. Why? Because nearly all of us walk around with cameras now? Because they can’t afford staff photographers any more? The paper provided this highly unsatisfactory answer: “Business is changing rapidly … audiences are seeking more video content with their news.”

So not only have we become self-styled, self-regulating journalists, bloggers and product reviewers, we’ve also become videographers. (You can, of course, find YouTube reviews of virtually anything online.)

Another thing that’s odd about all the amateur content online is the creation of new terminologies. The Internet has become a kind of “neologisms gone wild,” hasn’t it? Portmanteau Tourette’s. The term blog, itself, is a perfect example – a fairly recent portmanteau word made up of “web” and “log.”

Things have changed.

David Carr of The New York Times posted an important story on June 16, 2013, Big News Forges Its Own Path. It’s about how all of Toronto was talking about a Gawker.com story when he was there. He wrote, “I saw and heard Gawker mentioned dozens of times – on the television, in the hotel and on the front pages of both The Globe and Mail, and The Toronto Star, even while I was in line for the ferry. Why? Because a month ago, while the rest of the city’s news media gossiped, looked for string or looked the other way, Gawker wrote that Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto, had been caught on video smoking crack cocaine.”

What impressed Mr. Carr was how new media had beaten out old media … or the established, professional news sources. He went on, “The story got new life on Thursday morning, when law enforcement officials staged a huge raid in the area where the mayor is said to have been taped, and they made a number of arrests. All anybody could talk about was how it might affect the mayor. Mr. Ford has repeatedly denied that such a tape exists or that he uses crack cocaine.”By traditional news standards, what Gawker did was transgressive every which way: it called a sitting mayor of the fourth-largest city in North America a crackhead based on a video that it said it had seen but did not possess. It also asked its readers to chip in to pay for its version of journalism. (“Oh, you mean like The New York Times does every day with its paywall?” quipped Mr. Cook.)

“Traditional news organizations used to be free to break news – or not – in their backyard and on their chosen beats. Now they have to be looking over their shoulder – at everyone. And in virtually every aspect of culture, from business to technology to fashion, the big guys now compete with a range of Web sites that break their share of news through obsessiveness and hyperfocus.”

He added, “The business disruption in the media world caused by the Internet has been well documented. But a monopoly on scoops, long a cherished franchise for established and muscular news organizations, is disappearing. Big news will now carve its own route to the ocean, and no one feels the need to work with the traditional power players to make it happen.”

Further on, he wrote, “If an abuse of power akin to Watergate happened today, it might not take the might and muscle of The Washington Post to get the story. The Mitt Romney ’47 percent’ video, arguably a turning point in the last presidential campaign, came out on the Web site of Mother Jones, a relatively small, liberal magazine.”

Mr. Carr continued, “… once big news breaks, everyone is forced to follow along.” So it’s no longer a case of follow the leader so much as follow the story. And the story could break anywhere, any time.

“Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian, broke the news of systematic surveillance by the National Security Agency, after he was chosen by Edward Snowden as a conduit for a big leak. Having a large presence in Washington and a brand name does not ensure news supremacy: Mr. Greenwald is a former lawyer turned journalistic advocate of civil liberties – an American writing for a newspaper based in Britain while living in Brazil.

“Because a source picked him to break the biggest story of the year, the rest of us did as well. And the video that accompanied it … allowed Mr. Snowden to make his own case before he was defined by media and government. ‘There has been an institutional bias that traditional outlets cling to – that anyone who doesn’t do the things that they do in the way that they do them isn’t doing real journalism,’ Mr. Greenwald said in a phone interview. ‘Since nobody can say that the stories that we did are not serious journalism that has had a very big impact, the last week will forever put an end to that myth.’

“In this instance, the historical strengths of big news organizations like the one I work for – objectivity, deep sources in the government and a history of careful reporting – were seen by Mr. Snowden as weaknesses. He went to Mr. Greenwald because they share values, because Mr. Greenwald is a loud and committed opponent of the national security apparatus and because he is not worried what the government thinks of his reporting.

“Of course, Mr. Greenwald had the international reach of The Guardian behind his story, and Mr. Snowden also shared information with The Washington Post, although it was clear that Mr. Greenwald’s past coverage on the issue was as important as where he worked.

“The way to break a big story used to be simple,” Mr. Carr summed up. “Get the biggest outlet you can to take an interest in what you have to say, deliver the goods and then cross your fingers in hopes that they play it large.

“That’s now over. Whether it’s dodgy video that purports to show a public official smoking crack or a huge advance in the public understanding of how our government watches us, news no longer needs the permission of traditional gatekeepers to break through. Scoops can now come from all corners of the media map and find an audience just by virtue of what they reveal.”

It’s up to us, now.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau offers some piquant guidance to all of us at this cross-roads of global communication: “Do not seek expressions, seek thoughts to be expressed.” (source: Thoreau on why not to quote Thoreau)

Much of what we see in e-mails and online postings is predigested, regurgitated “content.” What Thoreau might have called “manure.” There’s even a virtual army of so-called writers in developing countries with only a glancing knowledge of English claiming to provide “content” and SEO for U.S. and European Web sites, as if “content” is some kind of end unto itself. That, too, is an aberration – the word “content” entirely altered in meaning and significance. (I’m reminded of the truly odd experience of being in a restaurant that referred to main courses as “protein” and side dishes as “root vegetables and starch.”)

So, a funny thing happened on the way to the World Wide Web – journalism has changed, how we get our news has changed, what we consider authorship has changed, even what we considered news has changed. There was an old expression: “it must be true if you read it in the newspapers.” It seems that there could be nothing farther from the truth today.


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Working with virtual marketing professionals.

I’m virtual, you’re virtual, we’re all virtual.

The Internet first appeared in the late 1980s but wasn’t fully commercialized (the World Wide Web we now knowuntil 1995. Less than 20 years ago. Yet we could hardly imagine being without it. The Internet changed the way we read, work, communicate, make phone calls, watch TV, look up restaurants, find directions … and shop. The Internet also dramatically changed the way we do marketing.

Online marketing is now crucial to every kind of business. Because that’s where everyone looks first – to find out about you … and to find you. The other side of the online marketing world is that you can now use the Internet to tap into a global, virtual talent pool.

Anyone who needs marketing to promote their products and services is no longer required to hire an advertising agency. Because there’s a virtual army of writers, designers, marketers and coders available via the Internet to help you achieve your marketing goals.

I’m one of them and I partner with many of them, on both coasts and in-between.

Is there a question in the back?

Some of you are likely wondering, “what’s the difference between hiring an ad agency and working with independents?”

Good question. When you hire an ad agency, the entire process of marketing communications (strategy, positioning, competitive research, media planning, media buying, copywriting, art direction, production services, etc.) is managed for you … and you pay for that privilege.

When you work with independents, you don’t pay the hefty fees or retainers agencies typically charge, but then you have to manage the process and pay for à la carte services, as needed.

It’s pretty much the same as handling your own home renovations – you can hire framers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, plasterers, painters, etc. and manage a renovation yourself, or you can hire a contractor who will manage it all for you … for a fee.

Back to marketing. Agencies will hand-hold clients through the process of figuring out key messages, key audience, and the best way to get the messages to the true target audience. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to participate in the discovery process as well as guide the outcome of your creative, you may be happier with virtual marketing services in the end. Because you’ll control your own destiny, save money and be present at the birth of your marketing.

Quicksand ahead.

The agency model has had to change since the traditional media outlets (print, radio, outdoor, television) that used to pay them 17.65% commissions are getting hardly any advertising dollars these days. Online marketing is now significantly ahead of traditional media spending. The vehicles through which ad agencies used to earn income are rapidly disappearing. Big-budget TV commercials and outdoor advertising are still going, but print (newspapers, magazines, journals) and radio are mere shadows of what they used to be.

Over a short time this will mean that the quality of marketing will degrade since there will be fewer ad agencies in existence, and therefore fewer opportunities for marketing professionals to learn their craft on the front lines. For the moment, there are still a good number of us out there – people who trained in agencies. The problem is that, thanks to the Internet, there are also a great many more people claiming to be marketing pros who really have very little training or background.

So, while a good many of the people who make up the virtual talent pool are former ad agency people, many others are not. Most of those you’ll find online are not, in fact, professionals with years of writing or design experience taught by the pros who came before them.

If you look, apart from experienced professionals, you’ll find both neophytes to marketing, writing and design, as well as wannabes without a clue. So this is a “buyer beware” situation. And – to further complicate matters – the Internet makes it difficult to discern exactly where in the world the self-proclaimed “virtual professionals” actually are. Some are nearby, somewhere in the U.S. or Canada, some are in Western Europe, and others – a lot of others – are in developing countries.

Passports please.

This is where things get tricky. Communication professionals have to know the language better than the average speaker – far better. That’s the only way we can create the puns and double entendres that bring humor to advertising and marketing. And humor really does matter. It’s the golden key to giving your audience a reason to pay attention your advertising.

So how exactly can someone in a foreign country, especially a developing country, for whom English is a second or third language do that? Simple: they can’t.

And this is one of downfalls of seeking virtual marketers online: they may or may not know the language well enough to do what it takes for your product or service to break through the clutter and succeed.

I experienced this challenge first-hand. My parents were Belgian and my father insisted we always speak French at home. So I grew up bi-lingual. But my parents’ French was from the 40s in Europe, and the French I was taught in school wasn’t much hipper. So when, one day, I found myself on the Paris Metro staring at a poster I couldn’t understand, I seriously considered what was going on. It was in French, but I couldn’t decipher it. I looked around at the other posters and had just as much difficulty with most of them. Then I figured it out. They were obviously clever or funny, playing with the language in contemporary Parisian ways. And I had no idea what they meant. My French wasn’t up to it.

It was very frustrating since I could easily get around Paris, order meals, book rooms, get directions – but clearly I was not actually fluent, only functional. The people who wrote the ads were able to deftly and subtly play with the language to grab passers-by. And that’s what it takes to succeed in marketing since the first job of any marketing is to draw attention to itself.

“Two with everything.”

I used to say that a lot during my Madison Ave. agency years when I was ordering grilled hot dogs from a long-gone corner shop on Lexington Ave. and 48th. They only sold hot dogs, egg creams and boxes of cigars. Some of the most successful people in mid-town Manhattan would come to that tiny corner hot dog stand where the hot dogs were cheap and the cigars were not. They probably handled more money each day than most banks. (I nearly always saw bills with Ben Franklin’s picture changing hands there.)

“Two with everything” was all it took to communicate your order. But what would that mean to someone from outside North America? Probably nothing at all until it was explained, in detail, since hot dogs are not part of their culture.

And, to a large extent, that’s who’s out there in the virtual marketing world. People who know they can make more money working with English than their own language. They charge next to nothing compared to Americans. But they also know next to nothing about how to use words and images to make magic – the magic that makes sense to this, specific target audience, your audience.

A long-time client was convinced by a new employee to use one of those off-shore providers to re-do their Web site. The client came begging to us to fix it. And, just like renovations, it can cost far more to have to re-do something than build it right the first time.


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Say what you mean.

Clarity is everything.

If people can’t make it through your messaging, how will they ever get to your product or service? Writing isn’t just about writing; it’s about conveying an exact message. That’s what the old saw “writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” is talking about. The easy part is putting down a bunch of thoughts. The tricky part is arranging all those letters and all that punctuation into something that truly grabs your target audience by the lapels and makes them remember what you said.

There’s truly no point in putting out confusing messaging. It’s a waste of time, space and money.

A local doctor did a landslide business after creating her own billboards. That’s a rather unusual occurrence. But she understood the importance of simplicity and clarity – especially in billboards. Hers were made up entirely of her smiling face, name, phone number and a large headline that said simply “I cure acne.” Those were the only words. And they were the only words needed because the people who needed her help found her.

I’m by no means advocating that every advertisement be that basic. But I am saying that honing your message can really pay off. Hers did. Her business boomed.

Imitation is for amateurs.

People who don’t know where to begin often begin by copying. Example, the “Got milk?” campaign that was so effective and compelling that a local land developer copied it with “Got land.” (Down to the all-black background and white type.) But … notice the punctuation? Did he miss the fact that the question mark was key to the milk board campaign? Or was he trying to say that he has land? (God, I hope not.)

It only confuses things to have writing that sounds like something else. You’re actually making the reader think of the original rather than you and your message.

Another common error is copying style, if not content. People will imitate a tone thinking, for example, that if they sound like Mercedes Benz they’ll be perceived like Mercedes Benz. But … that doesn’t really work, does it? Especially if you’re Subaru. (Not saying they do; only how silly it would be.)

The essential lesson here is: don’t write the way you think others expect you to write. Write the way you want to write. Write in a way that conveys not just what you do but also how you feel about what you do.

A recent LinkedIn article by Vivek Wadhwa described how he worked his way through the challenge of writing articles with advice from journalist friends: “What they said was that I should just write down my thoughts as though I were telling a story to a friend: forget all I had learned about structuring high-school essays; and be brief, hard-hitting, and to the point.”

Extremely good advice. My version is very similar: “Pretend you’re writing to one person, a close friend. Be direct and honest. Be unafraid of judgement.”

Be brief, be clear, be compelling.

When I got my first job at an ad agency in New York, I spent the first few weeks having panic attacks. Every time I got an assignment, I stared at the blank, white page in front of me, thinking I was expected to put down perfect, award-winning thoughts. So, naturally, my brain seized up each time.

I knew full well, however, that I wouldn’t keep my hard-won job very long if I didn’t produce. So, after struggling this way for a while, I got tough with myself one day and thought: “Just put down everything you can think of and edit it later.”

That breakthrough turned out to be every professional writer’s approach. We all do that. So can you. Just start writing. E.L. Doctorow describes the process of placing one word after another as “… just like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlights illuminate, but once you’ve gone that distance you can see the next piece.”

The first time I did it as a copywriter, I put down an entire page of copy … then crossed out nearly all of it. I ended up with one or two sentences. But they were the perfect thing to build on. And when I did, I made sure the copy was brief, to the point and entertaining.

Then I repeated that process with every assignment. Little by little, I began putting less unusable stuff down and more “perfect things to build on.”

That’s because writing is like any craft – the more you do it, the more you know which steps to cut out and which to keep. You begin to have the ability – before even putting anything down – to separate the valuable thoughts from the merely distracting.

Write for them, not you.

One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is that we don’t write for ourselves – we write for our target audience. So we have to cull what will bore them and only keep what will make them respond.

That means, as so many writers have quoted, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” (William Faulkner) That, too, is what it means to be a writer.

Writers who fall in love with what they’ve written and are unwilling to change it – even after being told that it’s not relevant – would be better off keeping a journal. Writing is communication. If your objective is to communicate with a potential target audience, you’d better know what they find interesting, and what they don’t.

Or, to pass on the advice I was given in my first few months on Madison Ave., “if you won’t be there to explain it to every reader, then your ad better be able to stand on its own.”


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The crucial importance of tag lines.

Tag lines tell us who you are.

Thought I’d start the first post of 2013 with one of the first principles of truly good advertising campaigns:  truly good tag lines.

Lots of people think of them as an after-thought. Not me. I’m always thinking about tag lines from the first moment I start thinking about a campaign or Web site.

Headlines come and go. Tag lines hang in there through campaigns and often for years after. Headlines are a flash in the pan. Tag lines have to sum up who you are, what you offer and how you think … sometimes in as little as two words.

For example, “Think different.” (TBWA\Chiat\Day, 1997-2002.) Even though it’s been one of the most enduring tag lines of the past two decades, I’ve always been bothered by its flagrant abuse of grammar. (see Grammar matters.) Despite that intentional flaw, one has to admit that those two words (in combination with the Apple logo) have truly defined Apple since the 90s. (Yes, it’s been that long.) Even though they moved on from that tag line way back in 2002.

Copywriters, not clients.

Tag lines are also one of the most important things ad agencies bring to the party. Take military recruitment ads – perhaps the most tag line-dependent campaigns in existence. All those ultra-inspiring, “sign me up” tag lines (“Be all that you can be.” “It’s not a job. It’s an adventure.” “The few, the proud, the Marines.” “We’re looking for a few good men.”) were written by (ta-da!) copywriters, not the Army, Navy or Marines.

The same is, of course, true for every attention-getting and easy to remember tag.

What happens when clients come up with their own tag lines? Take a look at Mezzetta, a California company that makes our favorite stuffed olives, jalapeños, dill pickles, etc. Their tag line? “Don’t Forgetta Mezzetta.” (Are you reminded of the Marx Brothers? I’m reminded of the Marx Brothers.)

A tag line defines the brand.

Brand names tell us the rudimentary facts about a company or corporation: we know that Melitta makes stuff for making coffee; we know that Chevrolet makes cars and trucks, and we know that McDonald’s sells fast food. Those are the simple facts.

Add a tagline and you add an emotional message that makes those brands stand out and stick in our memories. Tag lines take the brand up a notch. (Did they cover this in Mad Men? I can’t remember.)

When Chevrolet wanted to convince people that they built really tough, reliable trucks, they did it with a tag line: “Like a rock.” (Campbell-Ewald, 1992-2004.)

When Avis wanted to take on Hertz, the number one car rental company, they did it with a tag line: “We try harder.” (Doyle Dane Bernbach, 1962-2012.)

When FedEx wanted to put its name on the map as an overnight delivery service (a breakthrough concept at the time) they did with a tag line: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” (Ally & Gargano, 1978-1983.)

When AT&T wanted to humanize the monolithic communications company that was euphemistically called Ma Bell (since they owned and controlled everything in U.S. telecom) they did it with a tag line: “Reach out and touch someone.” (N.W. Ayer, 1979-1983.)

When GE wanted to humanize its massive research, electronics and appliance manufacturing company, that did it with a tag line: “We bring good things to life.” (BBDO, 1979-2003.)

In my opinion, none of those companies would have become what they are without those tag lines. That’s why I call them crucial. Think about this: each of those tag lines accompanied hundreds of headlines through the years. Who remembers the headlines?

Great tag lines through time.

Many of these tag lines are classics, not even used any more. But we remember them. People even borrow them to use for our own purposes. Because they’re so often so pithy and convey so much, folks find they can’t help themselves. (“Betcha can’t eat just one.” – Young & Rubicam, 1963.)

Naturally, you know that none of those companies came up with those classic tag lines. It was their brilliant ad agencies … or to be fully precise, the brilliant creative department folk at their ad agencies.

Here’s a  Wikiquote list of “slogans” and a Web site that lists the results of a survey trying to list the 100 Most Influential Taglines Since 1948. (FYI, can’t stand the term “slogan.” Only folks who haven’t worked in ad agencies would use that term. Almost as bad as “jingle.”)

That list of 100 includes tag lines chosen from a field of 400 candidates. Not a list I would have put together. For example, I can’t believe the UPS “What can Brown do for you?” was actually nominated in place of their short-lived and far superior (IMHO) previous tag: “Moving at the speed of business.” (Ammirati Puris Lintas, 1995-2002)

But that’s show biz.

 


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What I’m thankful for.

Thanksgiving has just come and gone in the U.S., and we’re moving on to the holidays that soften everyone’s hearts … while forcing wallets open. These are the in-between days when we know that the coming new year is another chance to address regrets and disappointments – to change direction, if we feel that’s needed.

This year, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, others sent and posted messages of thanks, taking the holidays rather more seriously than I recall before. It made me think I should add my own.

I’m thankful for:

  • clients who happily pay appropriate professional fees for the services we happily provide.
  • clients who understand the effort we put into writing and designing, and appreciate what we do for them.
  • the opportunity to help new clients introduce products and services with the best possible language and marketing materials.
  • returning clients who appreciate the level of professionalism we provide.
  • clients who appreciate and value the skills, talent and effort required to produce effective marketing.
  • clients who understand what it takes to create materials that break through the clutter and stand apart from the competition.
  • clients who express sincere appreciation for how we polish copy, craft sentences, perfect paragraphs and marry that copy with design.
  • clients who understand the value of the concepts we create for them so that their marketing materials are more effective.
  • the opportunity to do what I love and be paid for it.
  • being in a business that means partnering with other creative professionals.
  • the opportunity to work with people who nearly always teach me something new.
  • the fact that honing copy for marketing helps me be a better writer in every way.

Life is not a straight line. And neither is marketing. There are always ups and downs; periods of perfection coupled with challenges … even disasters. How we respond to those times and events defines who and what we are. How we address all the challenges that life brings defines what our lives add up to in the end.

So, most of all, I’m thankful for the opportunities to do the right thing, every day.


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Is it all right to talk about things you know nothing about?

Only if you’re a member of Congress.

“Write what you know.”

Take writing workshops or classes and you will inevitably hear this piece of advice. Things that sound so obvious often belie their depth. This particular advice is ultimately about producing writing that rings true, whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. When that advice is passed on, it means: try to BS your way through your writing and the BS meters will ring instead.

For copywriters and marketing writers, that means we have to study our subject until we know it well enough to write about it convincingly – which can mean knowing the subject nearly as well as subject matter experts. It all begins with input. If we don’t get good input, we can’t provide good output. That simple. If the client doesn’t know how to clearly explain what they do or produce (an all too-common problem), it’s our job to dig for what we need.

This is a crucial aspect to copywriting, and one that’s not always understood. I’ve often had new clients look askance at me, wondering out loud if I really can write about their particular widget if I’ve never made any. What they don’t know is that a real copywriter is a generalist. A seasoned copywriter can write about anything. Because ad agencies can’t survive on just a single client or line of business – you’re asked to work on whatever comes up. (That’s one very realistic thing about Mad Men.)

We copywriters learn how to dig for what we need. By contrast, someone who has spent their entire career as a specialist, rather than a generalist, say for pharmaceuticals or farm implements, will have serious trouble writing about cars or perfume or shoes.

That’s the first secret.

Here’s the second: understand your target audience. It’s not enough to become familiar with the product or service we’ve been hired to promote – we must also understand who wants or needs the product or service, and why. We can’t possibly write convincingly if we don’t know that. (That’s a hint – if you’re working with somebody who doesn’t bother to learn about your target audience, you could be working with the wrong somebody.)

Example: I’ve never used chewing tobacco but I’ve advertised that product. (Not happily, but I did. See clients.) To do that, I had to learn about the products and the people who do use them. And it’s not just cowboys. They’re called smokeless tobaccos and they’re popular with people who work where smoking isn’t allowed. Ultimately – potential health risks aside – it’s no different than selling laundry soap, brassieres or riding tack: you have to know (1) the category, (2) the audience and (3) how to differentiate your client’s offering.

Yes, it takes work. Being able to craft sentences that sparkle like perfectly-cut diamonds is only half of the six-pack you’ll need for this picnic. You have to know the target audience even better than they know themselves. You have to know how to reach their emotional hot-buttons. You have to know how to get them thinking and talking about your client’s product or service. No matter how dull.

When I was building my spec book, I had a campaign for Mercedes-Benz that was a beaut. But several CDs with whom I interviewed told me, “That’s too easy. Everyone would buy a Mercedes if they could.” (Light bulb moment.) What they said, was “How do you get people interested in your client’s me-too product? Such as deodorant? Or beer? Or fertilizer? Or acne treatment?” That’s the real work. (And, yes, I’ve done all that.)

Are you convinced, yet?

Marketing is pre-sales. It’s the navy shelling the beaches in advance of troops landing. It’s about creating awareness of products and services. It’s what some of the early greats called “planting a bur in the brain.”

Here’s why. Tide advertising isn’t primarily about convincing you that they have the best laundry soap. It’s actually about trying to sub-consciously guide your steps in the grocery store so that the laundry soap you ultimately reach for is Tide. You may not remember why you think Tide is best, but you may remember that you probably ought to buy Tide (your brand here). And that’s all they ask for.

Mountains of research have shown that it takes multiple impressions (exposures to an ad or campaign) for a brand name to sink in – typically five. Ever gone car shopping? Ever gotten to the point when you couldn’t remember which car had which features, or even which one you liked best? That’s the minefield marketing is trying to step through.

Our method is to employ truth. Truth will get you through that minefield. Empty claims will get you blown up. If you really know what you’re talking about, it comes through. If the copy rings true, you might actually convince your target audience about the “superiority” of your client’s offering. And the copy can only ring true when you’re sticking to things that you truly know, and that are true. Surprised?

The opposite of truth.

We’re in the middle of campaign season in the U.S. Something like a four-year flu. Empty claims are flying all around us. The perversions of the basic principles of marketing are sickening to watch. All methodology is abandoned for scare tactics and promises of a better future. Outright lies replace basic truths.

Tobacco advertising requires health warnings  – this political stuff should come with warnings that it will rot your brain.

My point isn’t to rant, it’s to point out that we all have built-in BS meters and we all know when they’re going off. Like now, during presidential election season.

The really good writing in really good marketing and branding campaigns won’t do that. It will make you feel better about yourself for wanting or liking something. It will make you feel like your life could be just a little better with that particular item that just tickled your fancy. And that’s what really good marketing will do.


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Grammar matters.

Can grammar affect sales?

I think so. Easy example: if that short sentence above had been written “Can grammar effect sales?” you, being the intelligent sort, would likely have lost interest in whatever followed. Why should you read something by someone who can’t write?

Same goes for food. Do we really want “The best pizza’s anywhere?” Or “Pasta’s & Pizza’s?” Eeesh. Doesn’t it make you wonder if places like this are a few beers short of a six-pack? How can we trust your cooking if we can’t trust your grammar?

This could go on forever, alas. (Just Google “signs with bad grammar.”) Seen in a church: “No Confessions To-Day.” (Ummm ….) Seen in a car dealership: “Certified Pre-Owned Nissan’s.” (Uh-oh.) Seen in a restaurant: “Please Seat Your Self” (Noooo …)

Too many business owners don’t realize the critical importance of correct grammar and professionalism in marketing and messaging of every kind … even menues. Every printed message tells people who we are, what we’re about and how much or how little we know about grammar.

The fact that you might have been bored in school and have some trouble remembering the difference between “to” and “too” or how to use apostrophes doesn’t have to stop you from presenting a professional, polished image to the public. Just hire writing help. That’s all it takes.

The problem with ‘no problem.’

A non-print example of crumbling language use is the now ubiquitous “no problem” restaurant server response. It always leaves us shaking our heads. Why, you ask? This imaginary exchange posted by Graham Guest in a LinkedIn group may help explain:

“I’d like the steak with fries, please.”
“No problem.”
“I wasn’t anticipating one! And a beer please.”
“No worries.”
“I’m very pleased for you.”

Some establishments are attempting to train the “no problem” problem out of people by educating them as to what they’re really saying with that bland expression – how it bears no relationship to “my pleasure,” or “you’re welcome,” and is an entirely inappropriate response to “thank you” in a service situation.

Surprisingly, when I posted about this in some LinkedIn grammar and writing groups, a lot of people responded that they don’t see the problem with “no problem.” They “understand” what the server means. Bad sign. To us, “no problem” means “I don’t mind that you troubled me for a glass of water,” or “I don’t mind that I had to bring you the food you ordered.” It in no way indicates gratitude for one’s business, or even one’s saying “thank you.”

When we hear it (more and more each day) we know two things: a. you aren’t actually thinking about what you’re saying, let alone understanding the meaning of words; b. you weren’t trained at all by management. And that makes us wonder, “what else is lacking here?”

(Maybe it’s an Americanization of the down-under “no worries?” It might also have arisen out of the Spanish de nada, although no server in any decent Spanish restaurant would ever dare say de nada to a customer. That would be recognized as outright rudeness.)

Commas change everything.

The importance of commas can’t be overstated. Their role in assuring clarity of communication is vital. Equally, their over-use and misplaced use can cause endless confusion. When I’m editing client copy, I often find commas stuck in odd places that could only indicate a pause when speaking. But written text is not spoken text. So it’s most often a mistake – and grammatically incorrect.

Commas are actually quite simple: they separate parenthetical thoughts, and they separate a series. They are not intended to indicate a pause when reading.

How critical is a comma? Take the recently photoshopped cover of Tails, a pet magazine, that made the rounds of the Web with Rachel Ray on the cover and this doctored (series) quote:  “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.”  Someone had removed a single comma after “cooking,” which made all the difference.

Commas matter. Properly used commas matter most. The person who perpetrated the joke understood that, even though he or she is a dunce.

Hire proof-readers.

Proper proof-reading protects your reputation. Without proof-reading, we look unsophisticated at best and ignorant at worst. We all need proof-readers. There are some simple, basic mistakes that our eyes simply miss. When glancing rapidly at text, we’ll skip right over things like “the the.” (I do.) And spell-check can often make things far, far worse.

Here’s a doozy from The Washington Post that would have made it past spell-check: “After the iconic and illusive Apple chief executive died last year, Wired magazine submitted information requests to the Pentagon and FBI for copies of Jobs’s secret records. Top Secret, actually.”

The first comment posted after the article sums things up nicely: “Jobs was ‘illusive’? It seems any hack can get a job with the Washington Post these days, as writer or copy editor. Where can I submit my resume? I would never let a bonehead error like that get by me.”

It’s shocking how often I spot typos in the digital versions of The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other once-honorable pubs. They’re clearly using kids for the e-mail alerts that go out each day with headlines, and they’ve cut proof-readers. It shows. And it’s embarrassing.

Blame it on spell-check? Stupidity? Hard to know. What’s clear is that proof-readers are worth their weight in Au.

Oldie but goodie: NY Times on typos


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Whose New Year’s is it, anyway?

Our calendar is barely 430 years old.

Any marketing person with training and experience begins any assignment by looking at context and environment – perspective. I can’t help approaching New Year’s that way. While we may think our calendar is now 2,012 years old, it is in fact (as of this writing) only 429 years old, and was created not to mark the passing of 365 days of our revolution around the sun, but rather to know when to celebrate Easter.

As you likely know, the calendar we use is the Gregorian calendar, also called the Western or Christian calendar because it’s based on significant dates in the Christian bible. It was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII via a papal bull, a decree, signed on February 24, 1582, and took several centuries to be adopted throughout the western world. The motivation for the Gregorian reform was that the Roman Julian calendar placed the time between vernal equinoxes (a year) at 365.25 days, when in fact it is roughly 11 minutes shorter per year. (Pretty cool stuff for 1582, huh?)

That 11-minute error added up to about three days every four centuries, which resulted (back in Pope Gregory XIII’s day) in the equinox occurring on March 11, and moving earlier and earlier in the Julian calendar. You know what that meant, right? The date for celebrating Easter wasn’t reliable. And Easter is the single most important date for the Roman Catholic Church.

Easter, by the way, was calculated using the Hebrew calendar to accurately fix the date of “the last supper,” which was in fact a Passover meal that Jesus was attending with his disciples. Pope Gregory XIII wanted to be sure that Easter was being celebrated on the correct date, year in and year out, so the date of the last supper was the starting point for the development of his new calendar.

Today, of course, we think of the calendar as a business tool rather than a way to keep track of religious events. And commerce was the main reason the Gregorian calendar was slowly adopted over time through much of the world. But it’s worth remembering that its origins were entirely based on religious celebrations.

Think about this: anybody who uses a computer, anywhere in the world, inevitably is following the Gregorian calendar.

Is it New Year’s everywhere?

2012 may well be the year that globalization truly takes hold. We, in the U.S., have come to grips with the fact that we are no longer an island unto ourselves, dictating “what comes next.” Our clothing, computers and customer service (sadly) can come from anywhere in the world … and usually do. Our economy is clearly affected by global events and our export markets can be countries that not long ago did not even appear on our maps. Brazil has taken a monster lead on the global stage, moving ahead of Great Britain in 2011. So, too have Russia, India and China moved up. (Investors call them the BRIC nations and place “emerging markets” investments there.)

So, bearing that in mind, does January 1 have the same significance to all inhabitants of planet earth? How about to the Chinese or Indians? Or those who follow the Hebraic and Islamic calendars, which were both based on lunar rather than solar cycles? For the Chinese, 2011 was 4708 (or 4648 depending on their epoch starting point). For those following the Hebrew calendar, 2011 was 5771. And for those using the Islamic calendar, 2011 was 1433. India has as many calendars as it has religions, though in 1957 they settled on the Indian national calendar (Saka) to align themselves with the Gregorian calendar.

That diversity of global populations is one of the reasons that New Year’s celebrations have always struck me as a tad odd. First of all, Father Time is winning, whichever calendar you use. Every new year means that we’re all a year older. And the yearly cycle is hardly celebrated the same way by all people on earth. Perhaps some of the old Roman superstitions lurk in our Bacchanalian New Year’s celebrations. Perhaps we truly think that we and the world will be magically different when the ball drops and the calendar changes.

What do we measure when we measure time?

Clocks, watches, calendars … do they measure actual time, or the experience of the passage of time? It seems that we “mark time” rather than inhabit it. We tick off the time we’ve used, or lost. And we look forward to the next calendar event, such as a religious holiday or vacation, which will only arrive after we’ve marked off the appropriate amount of time.

But time, according to Albert Einstein, was an indication of our relationship to space and gravity – how fast and how far we were able to move through space. And, in a way, that’s what we measure when we say “day, week, month and year.” A day is the spinning of the earth on its axis (creating the illusion of sun up, sun down). A year is the time it takes for our earth to orbit the sun completely – an elliptical journey that takes us closer to and farther from the sun, creating our seasons. Days and years are actual markers of time/space travel, while other calendar-based measurements are an artificial construct that in fact measure simply the passage of time as it relates to us.

Einstein and Paul Langevin addressed that “relativity” with a theory of time that has come to be called the “twins paradox.” One twin leaves the earth traveling at the speed of light and returns; the other twin stays behind. For the traveling twin, only seven years have passed, so he has only aged by seven years, but for his brother back on earth several decades have passed and he is now elderly. How can this be? (For a practical demonstration, watch the Jodi Foster film “Contact,” from a story by Carl Sagan.)

It’s all relative.

My point? Time is not as fixed as we think it is, or as our Gregorian calendar would have us believe. In fact, time is entirely relative. So we do not measure time objectively, but rather subjectively, based on our experience of time on our planet and the calendar we’re using. We subjectively say, “one year has passed,” “our child is two years old,” “we have a doctor’s appointment next Monday.” All of these are important, yet create a slightly false or inaccurate sense of time, an imposed sense of time, one that doesn’t matter to or affect the movement of the planets around our star.

Think of it this way: if we were still using the Julian calendar, we’d experience time differently. The same goes if we were using lunar calendars. Which is why I just can’t help remembering that the actual calendar we use isn’t even 500 years old, and that it has a back-dated, subjective starting point.

In fact, the new year did not always begin on January 1 for everyone everywhere. It depended entirely on which calendar was being used. What we now call New Year’s day is a very recent innovation, and an entirely subjective event. New Year’s used to be celebrated on days such as the vernal or autumnal equinox – days when you can actually feel something new is coming.

New Year’s resolution? Nah, thanks anyway.


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Occupy Madison Avenue?

The harm we do.

(As David Mamet repeats ad nauseum,) here’s the thing: advertising is the life-blood of free-market capitalism. It’s the critical building block of our competitive marketplace. Without advertising’s ability to create awareness of options, choices, innovations and benefits, none of the global, powerhouse brands would even exist. None. And the world would be a very different place.

If it weren’t for highly effective marketing, we’d likely have just one brand of automobile, or soap, or burger. We’d likely have just one place to buy clothing. Might as well be communists, right?

But that doesn’t mean that all we do in the name of competitive advantage is good and just. Much of what we’ve done is inexcusable. For one, our profession has permanently affected language in negative ways that may well never be changed back.

Just one example is “think different” (created by TBWA\Chiat\Day … not Apple.) That intentional aberration of adverb use (along with its gap-toothed cousin from AT&T, “rethink possible”) has wrongly taught at least one generation, and infuriated a good many of us.

Another highly annoying example is “lite,” the moronic bastardization of “light” that has become the norm for beer, music, “healthy menu options” – just one more aberration that confuses the hell out of school children. Does this stuff bother you the way it bothers me?

Granted, the English language is highly inconsistent. We say bite, but not nite (or lite … or nite-lite). Bear and tear serve multiple purposes. It takes practice and focus to keep it straight. Knowing and sticking to the rules is the only way to make certain things are as clear as possible.

Language defines us.

So, is it all right to be hip and cool at the expense of language? Be careful how you answer that. To many (me included), language is culture – the very thing that defines who we are.

English in the U.S. is already 400 years away from English in the U.K. We’re culturally distinct. (The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have said that in less than 200 years’ time we’ll need translators.)

How powerful is language? Imagine that one morning every German suddenly could only speak Italian, and all Italians could only speak German. Would they still be Germans and Italians? If that morning had occurred in the 1930s, would there have even been a WWII?

You see where this is heading. Language doesn’t just inform us, it defines us; language conveys our level of consciousness; language is what distinguishes us from all other life forms. So how can ad agencies be so casual about its fundamental laws of use?

The before-our-time Madison Avenue slogan “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” outraged grammarians and educated people everywhere back in the 50s. Yet it stuck. For 20 years. Such is the power of advertising. If you’ve seen it in print, it’s hard to argue against it.

“Winston tastes good as a cigarette should” hardly would have sounded as snappy in the brand-making, RJR cigarette-selling jingle of early television days.

“Think differently” would likely have not had as much of an impact as the entirely incorrect version that has come to define Apple.

But at what cost?

This is your brain on advertising.

The very language that we’re taught and depend on to communicate clearly and effectively is what suffers the consequences. At the very least, we’ll have more and more misguided “copywriters” bastardizing the English (or your choice) language.

What am I talking about? Take a look at these jaw-dropping, grammar-destroying automobile commercials:

Mercedes C-Class Coupe – More power. More style, More technology. Less doors. (Uggghhhh. I can hear the copywriter’s mind working … “People say ‘more or less,’ right? Not ‘more or fewer.’ So it must be ‘less.’ Besides, we don’t want to be less hip than Apple…”)

Honda Civic – To each their own. (Ouch. This noun subject and possessive pronoun disagreement may well have arisen from a desire to be ‘PC.’  … “You know, why ‘his,’ why does it have to be male-oriented all the time? What? Singular, plural? What are you talking about? Let’s just go with ‘their.'” “Yeah, dude, ‘their.'”)

[That’s a whole other topic: if you don’t use a cliché in its original form, it loses its power.]

This slope is very slippery.

See where this is going? See how things are snowballing? As more grammar-flaunting (grammar-ignorant?) “copywriters” decide that they, too can bend the rules, the ill-advised will be increasing the number of the ill-educated. And who’s at fault? Yep, ad agencies.

It must be a conscious decision to warp grammar in order to suit a marketing concept. There’s even a warping of a “rule” to justify it: The Pareto Principle – the 80/20 rule, which originally described how 20 percent of Italian landowners owned 80 percent of the land.

As applied in advertising, the Pareto principle has come to mean that 80 percent of sales come from 20 percent of a specific target audience. In the case of messing with language and grammar, the ad agency self-justification seems to be that 80 percent of people won’t care about bad (or non-existent) grammar … or even recognize it. (Shudder.)

Clearly, I’m one of the 20 percent. Are you? Wonder if we should occupy something …



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Social media fatigue and really bad writing.

The sheep in wolf’s clothing.

A great deal of social media is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. There’s absolutely nothing simpler than posting an opinion or an article to a blog, or a brief message on Twitter, etc. Does that mean everything we see and read is trustworthy, reliable … even true?

One of the biggest lies is about SEO. So many folks out there are still shouting that SEO is the end-all and be-all of marketing. But you know better. You’ve been frustrated by pointless search results that bring up mash-ups of rehashed articles that ultimately say nothing of interest or importance. That’s why Google has clamped down on SEO abusers.

And that’s one reason we’re all suffering Social Media Fatigue.

Here comes the research.

The Gartner Group’s December, 2010 and January, 2011 survey of 6000+ social networking users – among the first adopters of Social Media – showed that they’re experiencing fatigue and are visiting social networking sites such as Facebook less often. Gartner’s recommendation:  “Advertising and marketing firms should re-think their stance as this survey might point to the beginning of boredom as a result of the ‘social media fatigue.’”

They said “people are bored,” but they didn’t say “why.” I can tell them. It’s not just about being overwhelmed by too many sites and options multiple times per day; it’s because of the truly dreadful writing you find on so many of the sites. If there actually was good content, would we be so bored? So fatigued?

Professional writers constantly see pleas for help writing “content.” That’s because so many businesses have launched Web sites and Web-based businesses without really thinking through content. So when we get there, we find little of value, and simply click away.

These dolts believe that all they need is “words” to hold people’s interest … any words. So they’re paying SEO and “content writers” to provide said words.

However, most of these so-called writers couldn’t create compelling match-book covers. Bad content is bad content. People will always click away.

Welcome to the Wild West.

The World Wide Web is the Wild West of today. Seemingly, anything goes. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and more and more software comes out every day that does most of it for you … except for creating compelling content.

Think of it this way: you’ve decided to launch a new magazine. It’s going to be a doozy. It will top all other magazines that have come before. So, how will you do that? Could you possibly, just maybe need some really good writing to fill those stellar pages? Are there that many great writers out there with articles at their fingertips to enthrall the throngs waiting for your whopper publication? Sadly, no. (You knew that, of course.)

Listen up people: no content, no audience.

Web sites that are like this fictional magazine are desperate for stuff to fill their pages. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of truly bad writers offering wholly unoriginal, uninspiring content. Once again, we get there, take a quick look around … and click away.

That’s why contemporary marketing departments are stuck between a rock and a mouse click. They feel they have to have a “social media component.” But they’re never entirely sure it’s working. Maybe that’s because it’s not. If it was, you’d know. If we found something tremendously interesting, we’d spread the word in a nanosecond.

The wedding dress story.

Some years ago, a fellow who seemed in every way a down-home, even red-neck kind of guy put his ex-wife’s wedding dress up for sale on eBay. The writing was down-to-earth, straightforward and hilarious. For example he wrote, “I’ve been told that you have to have someone model clothing. Since I don’t have anyone to do that, I’m just putting on the dress myself.” Yes, he had photos of his burly self in a wedding dress. The reaction was likely the textbook definition of “going viral.” It had more hits in less time than anything ever before on eBay. He even got multiple marriage proposals. And the dress sold for a very high figure.

So “social media” can work, if the content is compelling, interesting or relevant. But that’s rare these days. Most of it isn’t any of those things. And that’s why we’re just plain bored with it.


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Communication: Practical Magic

The title of this article is from Abe WalkingBear Sanchez, who posted this on LinkedIn: “Words are magic. The very idea that by making sounds we can paint pictures in the minds of others, is magic. We choose whether we practice white or black magic.” – Jack Brightnose, Cree Medicineman.

That post really made me sit up and take notice. A writer’s life is all about communication, yet how often is it about the magic? WalkingBear’s teacher knew a great deal more about what was to become my life’s occupation than I did. I’m sure I had some teachers along the way who understood what Jack Brightnose taught. But what I remember most was their individual preferences for certain authors and certain kinds of phrasing. Not the reverence for the pure power of words shown by Jack Brightnose.

The dark side is always there.

Everything we do in marketing is about communication. But everything we do often becomes so habitual that we forget about the magic of words. In the world of marketing, the ultimate objective of communication is to influence, and perhaps sell something. In many cases, such as tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals, that’s leaning toward black magic – designed for profit, not for the good of the public. And I’m not making judgments about tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals – I’m talking about how they’re sold, how the words and images are used.

This is the dark side – the black magic – from which we professionals avert our eyes when asked to write copy for things that we might never ourselves purchase, or allow anyone in our family to use. It’s always there, in the background. And it’s hard to avoid when you enter the world of business. After all, that’s why agencies are hired, to help sell stuff. And as soon as anyone is trying to sell us something, motives become questionable.

Clearly free will was taught by Native Americans. Our choices define us. If we choose to profit by using words to convince people to buy our stuff, stuff we know can harm people, we have chosen black magic. But somehow that has been completely forgotten. The idea of profit as justification has wedged itself between white and black magic like some form of religious indulgence. In modern society, the profit motive excuses the intentional use of black magic.

Communication makes us human… sometimes.

What struck me when I read what Jack Brightnose had taught WalkingBear was how little respect is left for the magic that is communication. It’s virtually the only thing that sets us apart from the world of beasts. Sure, we have clothing and automobiles and iWhatevers, but would we have any of those things without the ability to form and understand words? Clearly not. We’d still be among the beasts, with bodies covered in hair, as we foraged and hunted for food and shelter.

Words lifted us out of that prehistoric life. Words gave us the lives we have today. It’s a little disheartening, though, to think that in only a few thousand years we went from “In the beginning was the word …” to sitcoms. No doubt that particular road to hell was paved with a loss of respect for the magical power of words. Instead, the shine of silver and gold became the lure, and the use of words to get the booty became the meaning of the words, not the magic inherent in communication.

So choices had to be made and we made them. Landing and keeping jobs became the new hunting and gathering. And we’re often asked to make tough choices as a result. The words used to force us into those choices are definitely not white magic. If only it were easier simply to walk away.

Can’t forget why we communicate.

Am I undergoing some sort of religious awakening? Nah. I’ve simply been reawakened to why I first fell in love with words when I was a boy. WalkingBear’s post reminded me of that. I’m sure the magic was what attracted anyone who chose to live as a writer. But being reminded that there’s always a choice between white and black magic is the real awakening.

In an almost indefinable way, I think that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show gets its mojo from calling people on their misuse of communication. He calls out liars and connivers and deceivers. He pulls back the curtain to reveal that The Great Oz is in fact a fake. And we all instantly recognize the truth of the revelations. We laugh, but recognize that what we laugh at is tragic. His show reminds us that we’ve learned to ignore the deceptions, because they’ve become standard operating procedure. We don’t pay attention, until our attention is drawn to the deceptions.

The Internet has both exponentially increased communication and brought it down in ways we could never have imagined. Not long after the explosion of the Web onto our psyches, it became obvious that sites (early on given the ludicrous euphemism “portals”) were only of value if they provided relevant information. Content (could there be a more demeaning term for writing and communication?) became critical. Site owners became desperate. So “content writers” were born, largely manipulators of existing content into mash-ups. Most of them are rank amateurs, often linguistically challenged, who are apparently happy to make a few dollars per day.

Here’s another fascinating quote that goes beyond marketing: “All poetry begins as self-expression. But if I only write for myself, who’s going to want to read what I’ve written except me? I tell my students that, at some point, writing stops being self-expression and starts being communication, or it fails. Whether you read me or not, I’m writing for you.” – David Kirby [Kirby’s “Thirteen Things I Hate About Poetry,” in Lit from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art & Craft of Writing].

That was from a post by Erika Dreifus who has a blog and newsletter titled “Practicing Writing.” And it’s about the other side of what Jack Brightnose taught: in order for words to be magical, we have to remember that we’re not using them for ourselves alone – we’re using them to communicate, to paint pictures in the minds of others.



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What does it take to be a copywriter?

Can the answer be in a book?

There was a rather interesting question posed on a LinkedIn group:  “What ‘must-have’ copywriting book do you recommend?”

That seemed to imply that reading a book on copywriting could allow anyone so inclined to become one. Nothing could be more misleading. Of course, if the question was meant to learn how to become a better copywriter, then it’s slightly more possible. But it’s still the same answer: copywriting is a craft, like any other, which will only improve with continual, ceaseless practice and experience.

You really have to want it.

I’ve never known anyone who woke up one day and decided they had to be a copywriter. To want that, you’d have to desperately want to earn your living crafting finite messages in an enormously competitive field. You’d have to want to perfect the use of language, metaphor, euphemism, vernacular – all of it –  so that what you write might not only stop readers, viewers, listeners and visitors, but might also convince them to focus on your message. You’d also simultaneously have to be far subtler than the morning news.

Screaming headlines do not make any of us more interested in marketing messages. To be universally appealing, copy must be clever, enticing and compelling. And if you’re targeting a very specific audience, you also have to be unerringly relevant.

So before you count on a book to guide you into this parallel universe to diamond cutting, you damn well better have some relevant life experience – as a reader and writer – before jumping into these shark-infested waters.

Further, no book on “copywriting” will get you a job. Only your samples will. And you’ve got to have the chops to get there.

Catch 22, again.

With a nod to Joseph Heller, copywriting is one of those professions in which you can’t get a job until you’ve had one. No, that wasn’t a typo. You have to have extraordinarily impressive samples of the craft to even be considered for a job. The wormhole we’ve all found is to create a portfolio of spec samples until we have actual, produced ads to show.

To pass on the very sage advice I was given when I was starting out: “only do samples of things you really love so that that will come through in the writing, and get a young art director to help you so that you both have samples to show.”

I took that advice to heart and created a pre-job campaign for my favorite Indian restaurant. If they ever did much advertising, they certainly would never have done the full-page, four-color ads I created for them.  But they were great ads, in all humility, because they were fun. The first headline in the campaign was “There’s no such thing as curry powder in India.” Which is true, and educational. I had fun doing the sample ads, and people had fun reading them.

It took several months of working on my spec book along with willing art directors to get to the point when I actually landed my first ad agency job, on “Madison Ave.” In advertising, you’re only as good as your last campaign. That’s why everyone’s portfolio is worth its weight in Au (http://bit.ly/lM7nWn). So like many others I knew, I had duplicate portfolios in case one was lost. Why would a portfolio be lost? Because advertising headhunters were forever shuttling them around to various agencies looking for copywriters and art directors.

And that’s another fact of life about advertising: to grow your portfolio, you often have to keep changing jobs. (My first assignments were on Seagram’s 7-Crown and Crown Royal, and Schaefer beer. All booze, all the time. I needed a change after a year of that.)

The book I recommended.

So was there a single book that everyone agreed on? Ha. Every single answer was different. And each showed the author’s background, preferences and proclivities. Nearly all advertising books are either memoirs, which don’t help neophytes get past square one, or self-advertisements, which are equally unhelpful.

That’s why my recommendation was: “Get yourself a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.”

No book can ever guide one into how to write – the most any book can do is describe what it”s like to write. You really have to work and work and work. You have to find your voice, play with tone and style, and ultimately just keep doing it. Inevitably, as you do, questions of grammar and style will come up. The NY Times Manual of Style and Usage is great, along with the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook. But for something small, handy and wholly reliable, I most often turn to the The Elements of Style.



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Has social media fatigue set in?

My problems with social media.

Quite recently, Google began severely limiting how several of the largest placers of SEO (search engine optimization) can do business. Why? They finally had to admit that the quality of online searches had been significantly degraded by “SEO tricks” that always placed certain companies (e.g., JC Penney) at the top. People were starting to lose interest in even searching on Google. And, worse, Google was losing credibility.

That’s one problem. The other problem is the very anti-climactic explosion of so-called “social media marketing.” Is it really marketing if it’s social media? Seriously.

Jaron Lanier, one of the original Internet gurus, has himself said that much is wanting in terms of what happens when we view “search results.” His warning is that the methods of aggregating data now leave out the human element. In other words, searches will bring up results, but they may be futile, and worse, frustrating. Why? Because SEO can be rigged, like bad slot machines. What Lanier says is that SEO is ultimately marketing to machines, not people. It’s based on bringing about certain results between computers, not humans.

Sadly, social media marketing can indeed force us to momentarily look at results and ads that are wholly irrelevant, but if a certain percentage of naïve folks click on those links, the SEO “gurus” rate that as a success. It ain’t necessarily so. It’s a numbers game, not a targeted marketing campaign.

The next big thing isn’t really that big.

Very few of the very young proponents of social media know much about advertising. Most of them are technologists, not conceptual creative people. They also know little about recent advertising history. For example, how everything about advertising changed in the 1980s when the Saatchi brothers and then the WPP Group (led by Martin Sorrell, the disgruntled former employee of Saatchi & Saatchi) ran amok with mega-mergers.

The tone, quality, look and feel of American advertising was never the same again once so many professionals ended up on the streets as a result of what the British call “redundancy.” (A very appropriate term since both the Saatchis and Sorrell are British, and are now either Lords or Sirs … follow the money.)

Part of the outcome of all the ugly mergers was the burgeoning of smaller shops, most in places other than New York, Chicago or L.A. Boutiques became more common, and creativity got a second chance at life.

Then, over the past decade, social media started to poke its head out of the horizon. To those of us who came of out Madison Ave. agencies, trained in surgical marketing techniques, we instantly saw social media for what it was: a shotgun approach to marketing or branding. The social media approach is diametrically opposed to the targeted marketing approach.

I know of lots of folks who will claim that you can slice and dice Facebook, Twitter, etc. like other media, but I frankly believe they know not what they talk about. You can also see numbers on how many people drive down a certain highway. That doesn’t mean they’re all heading to your business.

Where’s the science? Where’s the methodology?

My experience has shown that you can’t truly target a specific audience through social media. You can “assume” you have, and you can also “hope” that you’ve attracted the right “followers” for the right reasons. Saying, “dear client you have 5,000 fans on your Facebook page” is ultimately a far cry from buying lists for specific zip codes or doing magazine buys like “Vogue” or “Car & Driver,” or buying TV spots during the Super Bowl.

Just because someone “likes” your company on Facebook doesn’t mean they actually “like” your offering. That’s a whole other kettle of fish. And even if you have 30,000 “followers” on Twitter, what does that actually translate to in sales? (I’m waiting …)

The biggest advances in advertising (e.g. Doyle Dane Bernbach) were symbiotic with the growth and sophistication of research and media departments. Social media is an entirely different ball game, and has very little to do with what was achieved in the best years of Madison Ave. when advertising became both a science and a methodology. The creative was always the wild card, but it could always be measured against a very well-defined strategy to make certain it was at least on target. (Remember creative briefs?)

With social media, you’re ultimately saying the same thing to everyone at the same time. Google Adwords, for example, are very similar to billboards on highways. They have milliseconds to get their message across. And there’s no way of knowing that the exact right people are on that very highway on the very same days when the billboard is up. While clicks are an indication of something, they’re not at all the same as telling us know how long people actually stay on a page, or what they do as a result of “visiting.”

You’re on social media right now, right?

Am I suggesting we ignore social media? Of course not. (I’m doing this blog, aren’t I?) I’m saying that marketing is evolving, and that social media is still figuring itself out. We don’t entirely know where things are headed. What we do know is that we all zap TV commercials now, we listen to anything but radio in the car, and print media is struggling to stay alive. Things on the social media landscape are nothing like the creative for which some of us won One Show, Clio or Andy awards.

We can (and must) create “spiders” with online media, but are their results anywhere as precise as knowing who reads “Nature” or “Sports Illustrated” or ” Better Homes and Gardens?” Clearly not.  Yes, social media results can kinda, sorta tell you who’s searching on “dry skin issues” (although blocking “cookies” defeats that). But it doesn’t help you much beyond seeing numbers for the search. You may know that some folks drilled all the way down to a $2.00 coupon for some dry skin treatment. But then what do you really know? Was there actually a sale, or was there merely someone intent enough to actually drill all the way down?

There are only two ways I can get information about who’s visiting this site: Google Analytics (anonymous) and comments.  The lack of precision is my bugaboo. Along with the fact that social media is largely dependent on numerical averaging vs. real “reader/viewer/listener/visitor” stats about “real humans.” (Back to Jaron Lanier). Alas, what we get more than anything with social media is spam. Put yourself “out there” and the “there” bites back. (I delete around 10 per day.)

The Internet has changed the world. Literally. And social media is one of the outcomes. It’s certainly here to stay. But it’s also certainly far from fully formed. (Infancy would not be a stretch.) When a client asks for links to FB, Twitter, blogs, etc. on their new Web site, I always ask, “Who’s going to maintain them?” “Who’s going to keep the content fresh?” “Who’s going to make sure your spiders are up to date?” Hardly anyone ever knows the answers to those questions.


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