Less is more?

July 20, 2015

When copywriters write headlines, endlines and slogans, we normally try to keep them brief. Our thinking is that short lines are more likely to grab the reader’s attention than long ones. And like a small snack, short copy is easier to digest than a mouthful of words. Short is simple. Less is more. That’s why we try to chop every unnecessary word from our copy. But . . .

Less can be less

Sometimes, writers are just too brief. I recently saw a tagline for a personal cloud storage brand that just said “Absolutely”. That’s all. It was simple, I’ll grant you, but rather ambiguous (Absolutely what? You could take the word to mean a number of things).

And then there are ads with one-word headlines. In my view, they rarely work. One word, big and bold, is  likely to catch your attention. But it needs to be unusual (e.g. one you’ve made up) or shocking, like an expletive. Otherwise it won’t draw you in to read the body copy where you’ll learn what the ad is about.

The following print ad, from Uruguay, doesn’t have any words, other than the logo:

Art Director: Rafael Ramírez (no copywriter credited)

Art Director: Rafael Ramírez (no copywriter credited)









Do you understand the ad above? I didn’t. But then I saw the following version, with words:

Hyundai with copy (Medium)

Translation: “Don’t lose control for a message.”









Don’t you think it’s better with words? I think the earlier version, without any copy, while simpler, doesn’t communicate as effectively. It’s a case of less is less: less copy, less effective communication.

Of course, ads with no words at all can work very effectively, as the following example, from Mexico, shows:

Copywriter: Abraham Quintana

Copywriter: Abraham Quintana







And more can be . . . more

The other day I stumbled upon the following headline for a clothes shop:

Screen shot 2015-07-20 at 10.58.40



Great line, don’t you think? Most clothes shops wouldn’t bother with the second sentence. And some designers would want to get rid of it too, because they’re obsessed with the notion that less is more. But that headline is an exception to the rule. The second bit makes me smile. It forms a connection between me and the shop owner. It makes me want to go in and check out the sale. In this case, more is definitely more.



Data and technology help you reach your audience. But are they enough to convert them?

Google knows you’re reading this. Amazon is about to recommend the boxed set of Mad Men, the final season, to you. And Facebook has decided the name of the child you’re having next year (just kidding on that one).

Isn’t it amazing what technology can do?

Not all of it is helping us. Every once in a while you see news items about how it’s taking our jobs, accompanied by a list of professions it’s replacing. I always check to see if copywriting is one of them.

The changing ad industry
Technology has dramatically changed the way agencies operate since Don Draper’s day. Not only does everyone now work on a computer; some practically live in front of their machines, eating meals and putting on their make-up and deodorant. And digital marketing has created all sorts of new agency roles, too – developers, UX and social media specialists are just some of them. Yet there are no more secretaries, and no researchers either, because everyone has Google. And there are fewer printed things, such as proofs, for us to check (still, I’ve never seen the paperless office computer marketers promised us 20 years ago, have you?).

Technology has also changed what agency people do. Now, in addition to ads, we make websites, apps, online direct marketing, and “content”. When we create campaigns they have to work across all sorts of media, from digital posters to social. And everything we do is more precisely targeted than ever before. Recently I had to write web copy that would change according to the device users were reading it on; so iPhone users would get one message, Android owners another.

The ascendance of Maths Men
Technology has become essential for helping us reach our increasingly fragmented audiences, which brings me to Sir Martin Sorrell’s “Maths Men”. These are the people who use data and algorithms to target customers – a skill the marketing world appears to value above all others.

Just recently, the British entrepreneur (and former adman) Luke Johnson commented on the state of the industry in a Sunday Times article, titled “Silicon Valley robber barons tuck into Mad Men’s lunch”. He said: “Today advertising is based less on creative faith, more on analytics.”

But some of us creatives wonder: is planning and buying your media more important than what goes into it? Is the media “impression” more valuable than the brand idea, the quality of art direction, design and copy?

Your customers aren’t machines
Using technology, you might be able to track me down in my bathtub and know when is the best time to talk to me about my pension, a new car or whatever you’re selling. But what are you going to say to me? And how are you going to say it?

Your highly targeted ad/content is worthless if it doesn’t interest me.

When your algorithm finds me, it needs to do more than just hit me with a relevant message. Whether you’re using digital posters, social media or other media, you have to engage me and make me feel something. I need to be surprised, charmed, inspired, made to think differently.

Could an algorithm write your copy?
Have you read copy written by a robot? The following is a piece generated by an LA Times algorithm last year:

“A shallow magnitude 4.7 earthquake was reported Monday morning five miles from Westwood, California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The temblor occurred at 6:25 a.m. Pacific time at a depth of 5.0 miles.

According to the USGS, the epicenter was six miles from Beverly Hills, California, seven miles from Universal City, California, seven miles from Santa Monica, California and 348 miles from Sacramento, California. In the past ten days…”

Informative, but not very exciting, is it?

Human-to-human marketing
One approach that effective advertising uses is humour. Why? Because it breaks the ice between the advertiser and their audience, and allows a conversation to begin.

Two years ago, technologists at Edinburgh University used a computer to generate jokes that were then judged by humans. One of the judges, a professional stand-up comedian, admitted that the jokes were funny, but added:

“Jokes aren’t just about making people laugh, they are about making people connect with other humans – and computer jokes don’t do that.”

Yes, the Maths Men are great for helping you reach your audience and talk to potential customers as individuals. But ultimately, it’s the Mad Men who will do the hardest part of the job: connecting with your audience’s emotions and enthusing them about your brand.


What is the letter s worth? About £9 million according to recent news. That’s how much Companies House has to pay out to settle a law suit. Apparently the government agency mistook Taylor and Sons, a previously financially-sound, 124-year-old Cardiff company, for Taylor and Son, a firm that ceased to trade six years ago. The mistake cost the company its credibility, and suppliers stopped trading with it. This forced Taylor and Sons out of business, and its 250 employees out of work.

That’s a terrifying thought for any business owner. And whoever made the error at Companies House mustn’t be over the moon either.

The story reminded me of the many mistakes I’ve spotted on famous company and brand websites – not just errors of spelling, but of grammar and logic too. Do they matter? I think so. Sure, firms are unlikely to face £9 million lawsuits for a misspelt word here or there. But spelling mistakes, and worse, are there on many websites, for all the world, and potential customers, to see. They make the associated brands and companies look careless and untrustworthy.

I think there’s a simple reason these mistakes occur: lack of quality control. And I believe they happen because companies are rushing to get their web content out there, in front of their audiences. Also, with the nature of online publishing, there’s bound to be a feeling of, oh, don’t worry about the odd mistake, we can fix it easily afterwards.

In contrast, in the offline world, it takes longer to publish those messages in a newspaper or mail pack, or broadcast them on TV. And if there’s a mistake, it’s harder to put right after the ad goes to print or on air. So there’s a strong incentive to get the copy perfect beforehand. That’s led to certain sign-off procedures for offline work. My clients and agencies are much more likely to give me printed materials to proofread than they are web pages that I’ve written.

With my online work, I usually have to ask to check it before it goes live. I like to proofread it – not just for any mistake I might have previously overlooked but also errors that have happened when the designer or someone else has fiddled with my copy.

Here are three steps you can take to control the quality of your copy more rigorously:

  1. Have every stakeholder, including your copywriter, check all of the copy that’s relevant to them before it goes live.
  2. If you can afford a professional proofreader, use one.
  3. Make sure all stakeholders are automatically alerted about any changes.

Checks like those above will help you improve and maintain your brand image – and prevent expensive mistakes.



How well do you know your audience?

January 18, 2015

As good marketers and their agencies know, there are two essential bits of information copywriters need before starting work: 1.        A description of the people we’re selling to (your audience or market) 2.        What needs to be said to those people (your proposition) Pretty basic, you say? Well you’d be surprised by a lot of […]

Read the full article →

Why can’t B2B be more like B2C?

January 28, 2014

Think of a consumer ad campaign, current or past, that you like or maybe even love. Easy, isn’t it? Now think of a business-to-business one you have similar positive feelings about. That’s harder, wouldn’t you say? Apart from IBM campaigns over the years, there are few b2b brands that have made an impression on me. […]

Read the full article →

How to give your direct mail piece a fighting chance

September 2, 2013

There’s so much talk about digital these days, you might think traditional (paper) direct mail just crawled away into a corner and died. But, like radio after TV came along, paper DM is still here. If my letterbox and workload are anything to go by, there’s still plenty of DM landing on Britain’s doormats. I […]

Read the full article →

Four things marketers can do to make their lives easier

February 13, 2013

Ever heard of Hutchison Whampoa? It’s not the catchiest name for a brand. Especially for one that arrived late in the UK mobile phone market. So when the Hutchison Whampoa company launched a new mobile brand here, they had the good sense not to use their name. They knew they needed to stand out from […]

Read the full article →

Could a copywriter have saved HMV, Blockbuster and other high street chains from bankruptcy?

January 24, 2013

Creatives don’t think like chartered accountants. Most of us don’t know how to run a big organisation. We don’t know what management consultants know. Even so, we can and do see things that so-called business experts don’t. Coming from outside a client’s business, we have a fresh perspective. We get to know their business and […]

Read the full article →

Can you sell absolutely anything?

December 5, 2012

There have always been niche markets for bizarre things. Believe it or not, some people want to buy wolf urine. Apparently it’s good for warding off deer. Which is why it’s for sale on Amazon. And there are willing buyers for practically everything offered on eBay. One of its customers bought a man’s entire life […]

Read the full article →

New work by Wild Colonial Boys

November 28, 2012

I have a creative partnership with art director Jeff Suthons, called .Wild Colonial Boys, and we’ve recently created a new campaign for brewer Daniel Thwaites’ Wainwright ale. Our work includes print and online advertising, a website and point of sale. Our campaign, like the beer, is inspired by Thwaites’ fellow Lancastrian, the fellwalker and author […]

Read the full article →