Herding Words: One dangerous voice
by Wendy Shepherd (@thewordshepherd) I had a horrible creative director when I was 30. He was famously horrible, and what made him so was his pedantic attention to minute details, his immaculate shirts — and his flawless work ethic.
He was so ironed it was impossible to imagine him getting muffin cream on his tiny little beard or disappointing his mother. I loved him, even when I left work at 8pm and he phoned me to ask why I’d gone home while my art director still laboured over an errant piece of Arial in a PowerPoint presentation. I didn’t appreciate him until about 15 years later, though, when I realised what Howard’s real game was.
He was a lot of things but he wasn’t a power freak. Even though he coiffured every tiny detail of his creative department, his voice was never the one that came out at the pitch. Somehow, he managed to run a whole department of great, strong, brave creative voices, all of whom were heard in the end product, no matter how junior they were. That was why he made passive-aggressive phone calls. That was why he often kept us grinding away into the small hours. That was why he insisted we take ownership of the brands we worked on, which, frankly, must have killed him a little bit.
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Howard knew the value many voices bring to the dubious art of advertising. There’s a troubling dearth of people who do.
If corporate brand managers were actually unicorns, they’d be the kind that nursery kids make — a toilet-roll horn stuck badly on a wine-tube body and then painted erratically with the gay abandon that’s only appealing when it’s not your kid bringing it home. They have amazing job titles, too. I sometimes go on LinkedIn just to find new ones — brand custodian, customer chief, brand magician, and even head unicorn. Normally, they work for a single brand, and occupy the grey territory between advertising and marketing. Nobody really knows what they do but they seem to spend a lot of time running around convincing people they’re doing it.
Technically, they’re supposed to take care of the brand, make sure it’s staying true to itself, and getting out there appropriately and in the correct language. Brands need consistency, integrity and identity but they also need flexibility. This is where the unicorn’s horn falls off.
What you get when there’s one person in charge of driving the brand voice is a one-dimensional brand. “We don’t say hi; we say hello” is all very well in the brand guidelines but, when it extends to editing everything into the narrow groove of a single voice, all of that starts to become meaningless. The brand loses integrity; it becomes hard to believe; and, worse, it becomes hard to buy into.
This is how to kill a copywriter: give them a job creating copy and content for a brand; let them get excited and run with it; then rewrite absolutely everything they submit except the prepositions — every single time. Not because they write abysmal copy but because you need your brand to sound exactly the same every time, and how it’s supposed to sound is like the brand manager. Coincidentally, this is also the way to kill a brand.
There’s a good reason copywriters and brand managers aren’t the same people. Copywriters are endemically flexible beings, able to bend and spin some pretty ordinary words into something remarkable. If they aren’t given the chance to do that, why hire them? If you’re going to rewrite everything yourself anyway, one of two things is happening: either you’re incapable of generating original ideas and have to rely on a thought-starter with a whole job they didn’t realise they were doing, or you’re so up yourself you can’t see the brand for the backside.
Copywriting’s already in trouble. Not giving the craft a chance to rise and breathe is bad for copywriters, and bad for your brand.
Bend it like Bernbach
Another top bloke who knew the drill was Bill Bernbach. If you’ve been around a while, you’ve probably heard of him. If not, he’s worth a trip down the Google rabbit hole.
He started DDB (Doyle Dane Bernbach) back when the Mad Men were selling more Luckys because they were toasted. He was a different animal, though. While David Ogilvy was pushing research, Bernbach was talking about creativity as the special sauce. “It’s like love — the more you analyze it, the faster it disappears,” he said. You can’t quantify it and, if you try, it slips through your fingers.
By now, we’re all weary of the “robots are going to take our jobs” refrain but we can’t ignore the truth that being that intangible version of human — a creative thinker — does set our often-depressing species apart. The problem is that creative thinking doesn’t happen because of a manifesto of brand values. Bernbach was vehemently against confined thinking. “Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula.” Perhaps it’s time we relooked how we approach the mighty brand voice, and allowed ourselves to bend the rules.
Young people are foolish
A friend of mine owns a major PR firm. At least once a week, she complains about millennial staff members. She finds them feckless, in short, and wont to do whatever they like with little regard for the task at hand. Yet she hires them for exactly the same reason. Her company remains extremely successful in a very dire economic climate, and part of the reason is because she allows voices she doesn’t entirely trust to have a go and see what happens. It’s risky business but she stands by it, and if her ebullient clients (and they’re big clients) are anything to go by, she seems to have tapped the special sauce with this business bravery.
New people are also foolish. Like crisp new brooms, they often sweep into a creative department with bright, unjaded eyes and completely misunderstand the brands they work on for at least two months, turning out copy that’s refreshing, galvanising and not entirely shit. People like Howard would swoop on these people, promote them at once, put them in charge of the brands they got wrong, and let them fly. He was exactly the same with anyone who showed any thinking that had nothing to do with the brand formula.
Writing for a brand is a tricky gig. Perhaps that’s why brand managers get such ludicrous titles — a little attempt to elevate the job from word janitor to creative thinker. Allowing the rule-breakers to emerge above the editor’s pencil is important, though. Otherwise, a robot might as well be doing it.
Wendy Shepherd (@thewordshepherd) is a pharma copywriter and true-crime fanatic. She contributes the regular MarkLives.com column, “Herding Words”, which takes a sometimes irreverent look at copywriting, adland and the human universe in general. Other BHAGS occupy the rest.