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The age of words

Reports of the death of the written word in marketing have been exaggerated: in fact, wordcraft has never been more important to brand communications
From search to tweet, we are hooked in by phrases that lead us on to deeper content
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

This month’s launch of agency Holmes, Hobbs, Marcantonio prompted some warm smiles. It was the adbiz equivalent of those breezy postscripts you used to get at the end of News At Ten: ‘And finally, in an industry obsessed with youth, a brand new advertising agency is formed by three partners boasting a combined age of….182!’

If that is the fledgling shop’s only claim to fame, those pensioner partners will soon find themselves in a back-of-supplement ghetto of stair lifts, cruises, walk-in baths and beige, easy-care slacks.

In fact, it may already be heading this way, as the agency’s inaugural client is Prostate Cancer UK. You can see how that one came about: ‘Hey, this ailment afflicts older guys, so let’s hire some older guys.’

It would be a pity, not just for the new agency but also for the wider marketing world, if age thus determines fate, as HHM has declared something far more important to stand for: the written word.

Since its founder line-up includes Adrian Holmes – one of the best copywriters of his, or any other, ad generation – this is no empty stance. Holmes was part of a gifted cohort that elevated commercial writing craft, before the art-school inanity took over in the late ‘90s.

The subsequent demise of verbal craft has been lamented by clients, so it is worth looking at the flawed logic that led to it.

Cue the Dave Trott school of reasoning: long-form copy is irrelevant in a fast-paced world; we need strong images and epigrammatic messages now, so I’ll pair up two kids from art school, and one of them can do the words.

Even if the ingoing hypothesis was defensible, the solution wasn’t. Brevity doesn’t require less writing craft, but more. Just as most of us can make a flavoursome casserole, but only a master-chef can produce flavour intensity in a jus, so it takes a verbal master to coax intensity of meaning out of a spare clash of words.

It is why the world’s best aphorists were also some of the world’s greatest writers: Shakespeare, Wilde, Twain, Shaw, Balzac, Erasmus, Anatole France.

The other thing the image-led, art-college crowd didn’t see coming was the predominance of words in the digital environment. From search to tweet we’re hooked in by phrases, winked at by playful fragments that lead us on to deeper content.

Not that it’s all short. As it turned out, body copy refused to die. It’s alive and well and living on the web. One of Groupon’s most significant costs is that of creating long, seductive online copy to encourage trial of the thousands of restaurants, spas and experiences it promotes.

Judging from the variability of its output – ‘the place has it’s (sic) own unique charm’ – it clearly does not find it easy to recruit the talent. Are they looking too young down the scale?

This is the age of words. So my advice to marketers who like to keep abreast of interesting agency start-ups is simple: if you see one launching called Abbott, Brignull, Mayle, make a beeline for it, no matter how youthful your target may be.

Aphorism ads

It takes great writing to condense meaning into just a few short words. Here are some of the best commercial one-liners of all time.

‘“My shout”, he whispered.’
Stella Artois press ad, 1980s. Agency: Lowe Howard-Spink


‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’
Hamlet cigars, 1966. Agency: CDP

‘When an estate car goes from 0-60 in just 9.1 seconds, it had better be a Volvo.’
Press ad, 1982. Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers

‘Behind every great goalkeeper is a ball from Ian Wright.’
Nike poster, 1994. Agency: Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow Johnson

‘Say it with flowers.’
Florists’ Telegraph Association, 1914, In-house.


‘Labour isn’t working.’
Conservative election poster, 1979. Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi

‘If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!’
Clairol press ad, 1958. Agency: Foote, Cone and Belding

‘Think small.’
VW press ad, 1959. Agency: Doyle Dane Bernbach

‘We believe in life before death.’
Slogan for Christian Aid, 1990. Agency: BDDH


‘“I never read The Economist.”’
Management trainee, aged 42.