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.



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 the briefs I’ve received. Yes, marketers usually know what they want to say. But they sometimes need help to simplify it, or express it differently, so that their audience can grasp it easily.

What’s often missing on their briefs, though, is a detailed description of their prospective customers. I wonder why. Are clients investing less in research these days?

The more audience information and insights you give to your copywriter, the better your communications will be. Below is one of the most effective ads I’ve ever written. It was inspired by a market insight, specifically how ale drinkers viewed lager drinkers.

HobgoblinYour copywriter needs good, strong facts and insights about your prospects. What interests them? What do they worry about? What problems are they having? How will your product or service help them? Or what’s stopping them buying from you?

That last question can lead to a breakthrough in the way your brand is perceived. Take the supermarket Lidl. Until about a year or so ago, in the UK, Lidl was always promoting itself as a cheaper alternative to Tesco and Waitrose. That strategy helped it attract price-conscious shoppers away from its more expensive rivals. But, despite Lidl’s low prices, Tesco and Waitrose customers were unlikely to shop there. They didn’t believe Lidl sold quality produce.

Then Lidl embarked on a different strategy to woo them. It started running press ads featuring lobster and fine wines. Recently it has opened deluxe pop-up restaurants so that prospects can sample its products. And just this past Christmas it ran a commercial featuring a group of people enjoying a delicious feast and then being surprised to discover that it all came from Lidl.

One more point about describing your audience: your advertising and marketing will be stronger if you can segment prospects based on their needs or, in B2B, their industries. Then you can tailor your emails or DM to them, or have separate pages on your website that address their specific needs.

Give your copywriter a good, clear picture of your audience, and your communications will work harder.





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