by Wendy Shepherd. The worst thing about teaching copywriting was being asked a question I couldn’t answer. There’s only one, as it turns out: what’s a concept? I strung a bunch of words together in a sort of authoritative mutter as if I actually knew the answer but, the truth is, I didn’t. I’m pretty sure my students knew that, too.
After years of gnawing on this bone, I’ve come to a new conclusion: we don’t need to know what a concept is — we just need to have them. And, if you’re the kind of person who thinks in concepts, you already know that.
A copywriter friend of mine has recently announced he’s quitting Facebook after watching The Social Dilemma. He feels he’s hopelessly addicted to his feed and needs to go cold turkey. His decision has stayed with me as I doom-scroll of an evening, and it’s made me wonder if all copywriters shouldn’t do the same.
There are two curiosities about social media, Facebook in particular, that make me think it’s deeply unhealthy for my brain. The first is that there are no original thoughts to be found. Not a one. Everything is a recycled version of something else. The second is that it’s inured me to empathy for other people. It’s hideous to realise that I’m scrolling past posts about murder, suicide, suffering, environmental trashing and refugees in order to find something I’m interested in lingering with for a while. What kind of person have I become that I give more time to my mate’s sourdough experiments than sending a message of support to someone who’s struggling?
Facebook is the death of empathy, which is a painful irony considering its algorithm. I don’t want to not care anymore. I need my empathy to think.
You’ve got a concept in the furniture business
I’ve literally never once come up with any kind of worthy concept at my desk. My best work happens on the train, in the car, in the shower, in bed at 2am or once, notably, in a sofa warehouse. This is because conceptual thinking is by nature unconfined, and it’s impossible to feel unconfined sitting in front of a crap melamine desk in a chair that buggers your back. I have to go away somewhere. When your body is busy with regular things, your mind gets to work on the other stuff. This has been studied a lot by mindfulness types, which, much as I detest their adult-colouring version of the world at the best of times, I find very useful in my ongoing quest to spend as little time at a desk as I possibly can. My bosses don’t find this a problem. As long as the ideas keep flowing, they don’t care where I have them.
Get off Facebook and onto a bus. It’s a better place for your brain. If being in nature is your thing, go there instead. Or eat an apple. If you’re stuck in front of a blank page, you’ll only regurgitate other people’s unoriginal thoughts.
Do you really ‘love lamp’?
Rehab has a lot more to offer than you would think. Yes, you do go there to get off the drugs and that happens the second you walk through the door. You spend the next 12 weeks learning how to get off your high horse and stop behaving like an addict, and that’s where the lamp comes in. My first group therapy session in rehab 13 years ago was one of the most-baffling and -infuriating experiences of my life. Two of my peers had a lengthy argument about whether Lynn’s (not her real name) bedside lamp should be switched off at the 11 o’clock curfew or whether she should be able to read her book for longer, to the outrage of Helen (also not her real name). Group was 90-minutes long, and this battle of self-will lasted at least 45.
Eventually, I’d had enough and stupidly blurted out this frustration in a rant that marked me as a treatment troublemaker for the rest of my time there. I couldn’t understand why we were talking about such inane small things when we were addicts with much bigger problems. A calm and truly wonderful counsellor put me down like a tranquillised buffalo with one question: do you know how to do the big things yet?
Big ideas come from very tiny things — a small observation about human behaviour that forever changes the way you think about it. Phil Dusenberry called this the “insight moment”. Copywriters have them on a daily basis. These tiny sparks are the illuminating grist for the ideas mill. It’s always about the lamp.
And you just want to crush some candy
We spend a great deal of time fighting our brains. Disciplining them into a 9-to-5 is often a necessary evil, if you want to eat, but it’s not a natural fit.
I can only concentrate for 15 minutes at a time, so that is how long I work for. I then spend five minutes doing whatever my brain wants to do, before going back for another 15 minutes. I have to throw my brain regular cookies for it to do the things I expect it to. Sometimes, my brain wants to play games instead of writing headlines, so I let it. Invariably I go back to the headlines with better ones. I spent 10 minutes earlier just looking at my collection of fluffy shoes. My brain likes them, too. The ideas happen in the spaces between work. You need to be mindful of the gaps.
I still don’t know what a concept is after thinking about it for seven years. I’ve decided that the act of thinking about it is more important than the result; it’s my own version of meditation and, so far, the only one that works for me.
Let your brain do its thing. Greatness is on the other side.
Wendy Shepherd is a pharma copywriter and true-crime fanatic. Herding Words takes a sometimes irreverent look at copywriting, adland and the human universe in general.