Value ‘Ad’-ding

Sometimes the people we work with ask us to add value.

And we’re like, “hey man, no problem, one order of value coming right up!” Because that’s what we do.

We’re adding value all over the shop at the Department of Words. It’s a veritable conveyor belt of value-addage. There’s reams of the stuff just lying around. And there’s nothing we like better than sticking it all over your briefs, along with some glitter and dry pasta shells.

“Don’t mind us,” we say “we’re just over here, adding some lovely value to all your ads. Hope you’re ready for this big pile of value coming your way.”

In fact, sometimes (just for giggles) we like to take some value away. Like a giant game of value Jenga. We take turns to pull it out from the bottom, until the whole campaign is teetering on one very dubious double entendre in the headline.

I do worry though, that a person only get’s a limited amount of value in their career. What if we’re using ours up too quickly? We could end up in value debt, having to steal crumbs of it from the art directors when they’re not looking. It’s a troubling thought.

Maybe we should switch to writing words that make sense and help people understand things instead? I think it could work. We’re going to need some rebranding though. With fewer bullshit phrases. And less glitter probably.

Copywriting explained in simple terms

I’ve just come across the brilliant upgoer5 site. It is a text editor which only allows you to explain things using the ten hundred most used words – I guess ‘thousand’ isn’t used enough.

I had a go at describing what a copywriter does. Which was harder than expected as words like create, advert, product or market are not in the very limited vocabulary.

This is my effort…

What I do at work is write things that are meant to change people’s minds about something, or get them to buy it. Sometimes it’s just writing, sometimes it has pictures too. The actual writing is usually quite short, although it can be longer. To get people to be interested enough to read the writing, I try and make it funny or make them think in a different way about what I want them to buy or consider. It is always good to tell them something they don’t know, or that may surprise them to learn. Another way is to tell the person what will happen if they do or don’t have the thing I want them to buy. People don’t think it is hard work, but it is. It takes a lot of thinking to do it well. But most people still think they could do it better than me if they tried. They would be surprised how hard it is if they tried. It is fun though, you learn about lots of different things and it feels great when you come up with a good idea.One thing that confuses a lot of people is why my job is called ‘copywriting’ as it is nothing to do with stopping people from doing exactly the same thing as someone else. That’s called ‘copyright’, but I write ‘copy’ – which I have to agree is a strange way to talk about words.

Try it yourself, it really makes you think about what you are saying.

Something like this would certainly cut down on the buzzwords and jargon that infest so much B2B writing, but I do think we would need more than ten hundred words.

Wordy Rappinghood

Showing my age now, but had a ear worm (Wordy Rappinghood by Tom Tom Club – listen  here – (should that be listen hear? ) this morning on my way to work, and thought I should look up the lyrics.

So here they are in all their Wordy Rappinghood glory – enjoy!

What are words worth?
What are words worth? – Words

Words in papers, words in books
Words on tv, words for crooks
Words of comfort, words of peace
Words to make the fighting cease

Words to tell you what to do
Words are working hard for you
Eat your words but don’t go hungry
Words have always nearly hung me

Continue reading

For now, our art directors are safe from the machines

I read about a “metaphorical search engine” named Yossarian Lives at the weekend.

Supposedly it can take any word and generate visual metaphors from it. Sounds like what an art director is for. Could Yossarian Lives be a handy tool for the lazy gits? Or might it one day replace them entirely? (Needless to say an awful prospect.)

My curiosity whetted, I went to the website. First, I had a look at the team responsible – a lot of PhDs in computational linguistics. Lots of logos of seed capital companies. Impressive.

Next I had to set up an account – this was an exclusive search engine. My expectations were rising.

Finally logged in, I typed a few words associated with our clients. First, for reasons not worth telling, I tried ‘thrive’. These were the first few images:


Getty-tastic! But conceptually right on the button. These images captured not just growth but the natural connotations of ‘thrive’. I was very impressed.

Maybe it was time to start buying goodbye cards for the art directors.

Then I tried the word ‘home’, for a hotel client who specialise in being welcoming, and got this:


OK, with a long, drawn out emphasis on the O. Just as odd, further down the search results were a lot of soft porn images. I guess it depends whose home we are talking about.

I searchd ‘sharing’ for a confectionery client we have, and got this:


Whuh? Because US ideals are for sharing? Don’t get it. Next I tried the word ‘possible’, part of another client’s positioning, and got:


At this point I felt like I had started chatting with a stranger who was friendly at first but was now having a pencil-related meltdown before my eyes.

We will check in with Yossarian Lives again in a few months to see if it’s improving, but it seems fair to say that, for now, our art directors are safe from the machines.

Proof-reading and the Fail on Sunday


All of the words in this promotional banner on the front of the Mail on Sunday are spelled correctly. And no doubt that if you turn to page 2, it may well say that there’s 25 grand a day and that there’s a £1million prize somewhere along the line, or that it’s going to be giving away £25,000’s until they all add up to £1million eventually.

But I never got that far, because I looked at it, thought that a £1million lottery that offers a £25,000 prize is as dodgy as the Mail’s views on most things and moved swiftly on. (After taking a quick snap for the Dept. of Words.)

It’s a great reminder that when we are proof-reading, we need to think about more than typos. We need to always be aware of how someone would see it when they are coming to it cold, without knowing all the ins and outs, or why the client insists it should be like that, or how it was done last time.

Copywriters have to be able to deal with the details, but the ability to step back from the details can be just as important.


Words we wish we had in English

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking: “It’s snowing outside, so today’s Dept. of Words post is bound to reference Boas’ original fieldwork among the Inuit communities of Baffin Island, circa 1880, detailing how many words the Eskimo people have for snow. Yawn.”

But you’d be wrong. *GUFFAW*

Because it turns out Boas was a moron. Or at least a lousy linguist. The “Great Eskimo Snow Hoax”, as it has been termed by certain (and certainly melodramatic) academics, was a flimsy and unfounded piece of research, now widely discredited.

But there are lots of other great foreign words that can’t be directly translated into English. My favourite is Age-otori (Japanese), which means to look worse after a haircut. Or gigil (Fillipino), which is used to describe something so unbearably cute you just have to squeeze it. You can find 23 more here.

The gigil Dept. of Words

Waterboarding the brief

Jack Bauer interrogating suspect

‘Interrogating the brief’ is a basic agency skill. But a lot of times it’s hard to get the answers you need, even if you put the account guys in a stress position with Britney Spears looping at top volume. (We’ve all done it and, yes, it is a lot of fun.)

So, your interrogation effort stalls and you find yourself taking on a brief that’s lacking in fact. Maybe you don’t know what the selling point is because the product isn’t ready yet. Or you’re advertising buildings and, six months in, not one of the dozen people who’ve worked on the account knows whether or not said buildings exist. (True story.)

For a while, working on such an ‘information-light’ brief can be fun. You can fabricate product highlights or fill a brochure with eye-opening-because-made-up statistics. The idea is that when the client sees what you’ve done, they’ll be provoked into disclosing the truth. (Just calling and asking for it without a brightly coloured PDF to wave around would never work.)

But things will go downhill. You will have guessed wrongly – that’s guaranteed – and the factoid you’ve built your campaign around will turn out to be not-so-fantastic. Suddenly you have copy that reads: “For every toilet roll you buy, we will plant 0.00034 trees.”

And it’s unlikely you’ll be able to warp your work to fit the facts. You’ll end up producing something schizophrenic, or having to start again.

Which is why we would (somewhat idealistically) advise copywriters everywhere to be totally relentless in that initial interrogation.

Do not be nice. Do not be railroaded. Don’t pick up a pen until you’ve got the information you need – unless you’re going to use that pen to stab someone in the eye.

Someone knows what you need to know to do your job, and you are going to become Jack Bauer until they cough it up.

Tough rooms

Indisposed as I am to go outside in January, I’m reacquainting myself with a favourite radio show: This American Life. Broadcast from Chicago, it’s got a great archive of programs online, including this one:

This episode, Tough Room, collates stories from comedians, journalists and missionaries about the moment words take meaning. Not when they’re authored of course, but when they hit the ears and eyes of other people -  on stage, on the page, or in the cutting room.

I found it a comforting listen. And not just because you realise other people make stuff up for a living. But because it reminds me that interpretation is often completely unpredictable. And although it’s my job to control words, it’s sometimes better to try more of them, and worry less about any of them.

Word of the day: cloche

This week’s word of the day is cloche.

I just became re-acquainted with it during a brainstorm. As the husband of a keen gardener, I knew it as a cold-frame to protect young and tender plants from frost. It also reminded me of Clochemerle, the old TV comedy series about the battle to erect a public urinal in a French village.

But neither of those are as useful to us in an agency today as one of its other meanings. Because cloche is also an often hemispherical, but sometimes more ornate silver dish cover that you see in posh restaurants when they want to create a piece of theatre as the chef’s creation is revealed to surprised and delighted diners. The dish cover is removed with a flourish, often accompanied by the word “Voilá!” (pleasingly appropriate as cloche is from the French for bell).

Well we don’t do a lot of posh lunches where I work, but think it might be productive for us all to mentally lift the cloche when we present our creations to surprised and delighted clients. There’s no need to say “Voilá!” though.

Did you write this Morrison’s advert?

One of the things we would like to do with this blog is acknowledge copywriters who labour in anonymity – the unsung practitioners of the craft.

Take the nameless person who put these words in sequence:


‘The naughty foods you love. Now on their best behaviour.’

Now, this is not flashy stuff. A sturdy headline, no more. It successfully gives a bit of new life to the familiar personification of sweet food as naughty. When I saw it in the gym yesterday, I think it caused the release of a solitary dopamine molecule in my brain. I thought: that’s okay. I would have been happy with the line myself had the brief come to me.

To be clear, this won’t win any awards. But neither would a sturdy, honestly laid brick wall, or a wooden shelf put up properly.

Sorry if this sounds like faint praise. It isn’t meant to be. An analogy:

Imagine the many unknown craftsmen employed to decorate cathedral a millennium ago.

medieval bosses

I picture hundreds of men lined up, stony faced and sack clothed, in a some kind of vast stone studio, each one engrossed in making a small ceiling adornment. It would be hard to call these men artists – they were a paid-up part of the medieval power system, probably mainly motivated by the thought of an extra goat for their families. They were undoubtedly skilled but there is little reason to think they were geniuses.

Yet, within strict parameters, these people had a degree of creative freedom and must have toiled quite sincerely over many years. I would like to imagine, during a break for mead, one man looking over at another’s painted clay roof boss and – thinking it not bad – giving a silent nod of recognition. From one unsung craftsperson to another. It would have communicated something like: “You’re okay, I hope you don’t get smallpox.”

This post is meant in the same spirit.

If you wrote the ad above, please get in touch and we might feature you on the blog. We won’t celebrate you exactly. But we will respectfully acknowledge you.

It’s better than nothing, right?