Friday, October 24, 2014

David Fowler reminded me of David Abbott

Classic David Abbott ad.
Ogilvy ECD David Fowler offered up some advice yesterday to freelancers.  His intelligence, dignity, and smart work at reminded me of one of the greatest copywriters of all time, David Abbott.

When I was an intern at ClarkeGowardFitts in 1988, I saw this giant, heavy book on a shelf. It was a British Design and Art Direction annual. Jim Fitts encouraged me to spend some time with it. That was where I discovered the work of David Abbott. And I said, "Yeah, that's what I want to do with my life."

What David Abbott wrote was just as important as what any journalist wrote. He wasn't some clown screaming, "Come on down!" He was an intelligent, interesting writer whose work mattered.  Here is a piece he wrote about his approach to writing copy.

By David Abbott

I write with an Artline 200 Fine 0.4 Pentel — blue ink, never black. I generally work on a3 layout pads but will sometimes switch to an a4. Definitely low tech stuff.

I write with my office door open — more often than not I keep my jacket on and in defiance of my mother’s instructions, my feet are usually on the table.

Whatever the size of the layout pad, I write body copy in column widths. This habit goes back to my days on the vw account in the Sixties. I knew how many words to the line were needed and how many lines to the ad. Writing in columns made it easier to get the word count right.

Alongside the column I jot down thoughts or phrases that come to mind before I need them. They stay there in the sidings until there’s a place for them. I also write down in the margins all the clichés and purple bits that clutter my head.

I find that only by writing them down do I exorcise them. If I simply try to forget them they keep coming back like spots on a teenage chin.

I rarely plan the shape of a piece of copy. By the time I come to write, the structure of the argument is somehow in my brain. I spend a lot of time fact-finding and I don’t start writing until I have too much to say. I don’t believe you can write fluent copy if you have to interrupt yourself with research. Dig first, then write.

Like many other copywriters, I read my copy out aloud as I write. It helps me check the rhythm of the line and ultimately the flow of the whole piece. I often adopt the appropriate accent or tone, though my general “reading-copy” voice is laughably mid-Atlantic (I read silently if there are other people in the room).

I am a fast writer and in a sense I am not interested in words. I don’t own a Thesaurus, I don’t do crosswords and my dictionary has pictures in it. Words, for me, are the servants of the argument and on the whole I like them to be plain, simple and familiar.

I believe that I’m paid to be an advocate and though I get pleasure from the bon mot, the bon motivater thrills me more. Word-play is fine if it helps the cause but I use it sparingly, or not at all. This wasn’t always the case; I used to pun for England.

When I’m working on concepts, I draw the shape of the ad space and write the headline (or scribble the picture) within its borders. It’s odd but I can’t judge an Economist headline until I’ve drawn a line around it.

When I was younger I used big Pentels and large pads and swashbuckled my way to fertility. An ad a page. Now my would-be ads are much smaller and I might cover a page with six or seven thoughts — though sometimes when I’m stuck I go back to the big pad and the big pen.

A change in procedure is often a good idea when you’re not getting one. I’ve been writing copy since 1960 and by now I’m comfortable with the job. I don’t panic and I know that the best thing for me to do when tired or thwarted is to walk away from the ad and do something else.

The job still surprises me and for every easy problem, there’s a stubborn sister. I might rework a headline 50 or 60 times to get the thought and balance exactly right. If I think there’s an ad in there somewhere, I nag at it until it comes out.

I’m often surprised how quickly time passes when I’m doing this. I look up and discover that I’ve been fiddling with the words for three hours.

Agency life rarely allows for this level of concentration so I also write copy at home, late at night, or I’ll book a hotel room and work from there. (This piece, for example, is being written at the kitchen table.)

I couldn’t work in an open-plan creative department, but I’m sure there are brilliant copywriters who do. Great copy has been written in cafés, on trains, on beaches, on planes, in cars — even occasionally at a desk. How you do it is less important than what you do.

I’ve never been much of a theoriser about copywriting, but here are five things that I think are more or less true:

1. Put yourself into your work. Use your life to animate your copy. If something moves you, chances are, it will touch someone else, too.

2. Think visually. Ask someone to describe a spiral staircase and they’ll use their hands as well as words. Sometimes the best copy is no copy.

3. If you believe that facts persuade (as I do), you’d better learn how to write a list so that it doesn’t read like a list.

4. Confession is good for the soul and for copy, too. Bill Bernbach used to say “a small admission gains a large acceptance”. I still think he was right.

5. Don’t be boring.

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