The write stuff

The importance of good copy has often been overlooked by design consultancies. Helen Jones finds the tide is turning slowly, but words are still seen as second best

“I’m a wordsmith and my job is to bring a brand to life, hopefully in an engaging and meaningful way. Unfortunately, many design groups and their clients just want 150 words – and any old words will do – to fill in the gaps in their beautifully designed brochure,” says one disgruntled freelance copywriter with years of experience.

And he’s not alone. Lindsay Camp another freelance writer, says, “I am lucky enough to work with consultancies which do place importance on copy. But if you look at the vast majority of literature – whether it’s brochures or annual reports – it’s clear the words came a long way down the list behind the pictures and the typography. It’s the world turned upside down, as far as I’m concerned.”

Part of the problem, says Camp is that most people – whether they work in design consultancies or at the client end – think they can write. “Because people think it’s easy, they often don’t value copywriting skills.”

However, some design consultancies and their clients have begun to recognise that good professional copy has an increasingly important role to play in all forms of communication, from print through to websites. High quality copy can make all the difference between a consultancy’s message being read by the target audience or going straight in the dustbin.

Enterprise IG for example, has recently appointed a creative director of brand promise to ensure that copy fully articulates a brand’s values. Sheldon Vos, who has a background in both copywriting and strategic planning says, “My role is a hybrid one but I help to create a language for a brand not just a list of attributes. I try to inject magic into logic.”

And last year, Addison appointed Sam Hannam as head of words. Her task is not only to write copy but also to vet freelance copywriters. “We want to raise the copy platform and make the words work a lot harder than in the past. Addison believes that if copy is written to reflect the spirit and vision of a company, it stands a better chance of reaching its intended audiences, who are currently alienated by wodges of corporate guff.”

Meanwhile, David Stuart of The Partners, in his role as chairman of British Design and Art Direction, was a major force behind the introduction this year of the Writing for Design award. It was won by veteran ad copy writer Jeremy Bullmore of WPP in conjunction with Addison.

“Copywriters have been the unsung heroes of the design industry but they are crucial to a design solution. It is a collaborative effort and not about slotting in a bit of text,” says Stuart.

While a few design consultancies have their own in-house writers, most rely on a regular band of tried and trusted freelances. Erika Uffindell, managing director of Uffindell & West whose clients include British Gas, London Transport and English Heritage says, “We use freelance copywriters because we work across such diverse markets and clients. We sometimes work with people who have specific experience in energy or finance and at other times work with journalists if a journalistic tone is required. Using freelances means that we can pick the most appropriate writer for the task.”

In-house writers also develop certain expertise. Clare Hieatt, a writer at Imagination, explains, “I work with Ericsson a lot because I understand the company and its products, so we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel every time it needs something written.” But whether a company uses in-house writers or freelance contributors, it is vital that the writers are involved from the outset.

“It’s a very good sign if you are asked to be involved in a project from day one,” says Camp. “It means that they take copy seriously and it’s also much easier to write something if you are involved in its conception rather than having to work around a brief which might not work.” At The Partners, writers are in on a project from the start. “We put them in front of the client rather than us taking a brief and then briefing them,” says Stuart.

Increasingly, consultancies want to communicate to different audiences – external and internal, across a range of platforms from print, to CD-ROM, the Internet, TV and even audio messages from a board of directors to staff or shareholders. Most writers now turn their hand to new media as well as print. “If you can write, you can write. It doesn’t matter if it is for the Internet or ghost writing for a company chairman,” says Carol King a freelance writer.

Mark Radda, consultant at Wolff Olins agrees. “Although you have to be more succinct when writing for websites, it’s still all about establishing a tone of voice for a brand.” Tim Benjamin, copywriter at new media group AKQA says, “in essence there are few differences between writing for print and writing for the Web. After all, the Internet hasn’t changed the way people’s brains absorb information. Consequently powerful copy remains that which conveys information in a manner that is both relevant to the brand and engaging enough to hold the attention of the target audience.”

Although he admits that the creative solutions arrived at are often quite different to those used in print media. “The multimedia nature of the Internet means that there is enormous scope to develop powerful pieces of communication. This, combined with the fact that one can still help write the rules regarding what works on-line, makes the role of a Web-based copywriter a particularly exciting one.”

Irrespective of the medium used, there is one problem common to all copywriters and also to design consultancies – clients who don’t know what they want. “They are the bane of my life,” says one freelance writer who understandably wants to remain anonymous. “Although many companies are pretty clued up, there are some which say ‘oh we want a brochure or a website’ but they haven’t really thought through why they want it, whether they are using the right medium and who they want to address.” He says that problems often lie with who is doing the briefing. “Corporate communications departments usually know exactly what they want and can articulate it, but sometimes marketing departments are clueless. If they haven’t thought something through then they expect you to keep rewriting until something finally grabs them.” Uffindell agrees that this can cause difficulties. “Some clients find it very hard to formulate a brief for copywriters and say ‘it is very hard to express our values’. But if they don’t know what the values of their brands are or can’t define them, then they can be very disappointed with the outcome of the copy.” However, ask a bunch of copywriters who the most difficult clients are and they will answer with one voice – design consultancies which want to create their own brochure.

Clare Hieatt

In-house writer at Imagination

Clare Hieatt previously worked for an ad agency. ‘I’m one of a core team at Imagination (supplemented by freelances) and we get involved in the strategic development for clients, rather than just being handed a brief and being told to get on with it. It’s much more rewarding that way. The work varies from client to client, so I might write a catalogue or a film script or a website.

‘I work closely with a number of account teams and have developed a certain expertise on some clients’ business, so I don’t have to be constantly briefed about the products or the company culture. My role is to develop a tone of voice. When I worked in advertising I found that clients had more say about words and headlines, but in design I think there is a tendency to see copy as part of the whole. Clients tend to trust us so we don’t have to make lots of changes to something once it is written. Like many writers, I have a thing about deadlines which means that I do tend to do things at the last minute.’

Sam Hamman

Head of words at Addison

‘Rather than approach work from a visual point, I look at it from a words and meaning angle. The designers use me and my skills when articulating their concepts for documents. I get involved in pitches – writing them, describing design routes and offering editorial direction for the potential work. Everyone uses me for advice on grammar, strapline writing, as a dictionary. They also ask for advice on how to write more concisely. Designers value having me involved on a project or pitch from the start. Rather than bolt the two disciplines – design and writing – together, we work through ideas together. I think it makes their lives a lot easier and there is no post-rationalising. One designer recently said to me that this ensures that nothing is forced to fit. It makes for a more complete, secure result.

Having a head of words means Addison can offer an editorial service to its clients and meet their needs – whether it’s writing an entire literature programme or sourcing an appropriate writer and briefing them on a project. Being on site also means that if I’m writing for a client, corrections are turned around more speedily. Like the designers, I’m here for as long as it takes. If they need to work into the night and the words are an issue then I’m here too discussing, advising and finding a way to make it work.’

Carol King

Freelance writer

Carol King has a background in journalism. She writes for a number of companies and has particular expertise in technology. ‘I do more and more writing for the Web rather than for print. It is a slightly different way of writing. The copy has to be much shorter – you only have a very small space in which to get the reader’s attention. It’s not linear and you have to be very aware that the words have to be fully integrated with graphics, animation and even sound, and that what you are writing may only be a path to getting the reader to go somewhere else. The most important thing is a good brief and the relevant background information. I’m not a mind reader and I also just can’t make things up about a company, its products, services or values. A good brief usually makes for a good piece of copy.’

Lindsay Camp

Freelance copywriter

Lindsay Camp works for a number of design consultancies as well as for his own clients such as Co-op Bank. ‘It would be nice to think that people were taking copy more seriously but I don’t think that is generally the case. The worst thing is clients who lay down rules such as you can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but” when there is no evidence to support it. Shakespeare, Dickens and Jane Austen used them all the time and so I use that to argue the point. Clients always say they want punchy copy, whatever that means.

‘I’m increasingly involved in projects which need print materials to be translated for CD-ROM and the Web. Stylistically it’s not that different, but one thing is that people will not read a whole website. You have to serve up the copy in manageable chunks. If you talk to people they always assume there is great mystique about the Web, but it’s still about communication. The people I deal with at a client company tend to vary enormously from project to project. One client, Co-op Bank has a specialist whose job is to liaise with the marketing department, the designers and the writer which is quite exceptional.’

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