Listen, Think, Write: why only copywriting driven by insights will ever be successful

Andrew Boulton is a senior lecturer on copywriting and creative advertising at the University of Lincoln. He’s also a copywriter with over a decade of scribbling experience at top creative agencies in the Midlands and once for a man who carved dolphins out of cheese.

He was nominated for the Professional Publishers Association Award for Business Media Columnist of the Year despite having little or no grasp of the semi colon. You can follow him on Twitter @Boultini.

Preparation has never been my finest attribute. In preparation for my GCSE History exam I watched ‘Where Eagles Dare’, building up a comprehensive case study based on Richard Burton fighting Nazi spies on top of a cable car. Funnily enough, it didn’t come up in the paper.

Given my lax approach in this field, it is odd that my chosen profession as a copywriter demands research, understanding and the most thorough of preparation.

A friend of mine who has been both a copywriter and a ‘proper’ writer (his words, the arse) once told me that no other form of writing requires more time away from the keyboard than copywriting.

I don’t think he meant this in a Don Draper sense – a copywriter who, by all accounts, spends his day drinking, smoking, shouting, shagging without doing an awful lot of writing.

What he meant was that for any piece of copywriting to be even remotely successful, it needs to be fuelled by thought, research and, most importantly, insights.

A copywriter who thinks they know instinctively how to speak to their audience without taking the time to gather these insights is doing a disservice to their client, the brief and their prospective consumer.

Even the finest writers do not inherently have an intimate working knowledge of the attitudes and behaviours of their audience. More importantly they cannot simply ‘know’ what triggers of language, tone and substance will cause them to react.

Copywriting is as much strategy as it is eloquence. Copywriters must first understand the audience, not through crude segmentations or reductive socio-demographic modelling, but through actually making a real connection with the people we write for.

Knowing your audience means you know how to address them, how to weight your piece in favour of the most compelling point and how to build towards the most persuasive sentiment in your call to action. Copywriters can simply guess the language to which their audience is likely to respond, equally though they could simply cut out every tenth word in a copy of Grazia magazine and stitch those together in some semblance of cohesion.

Copywriting, or any form of marketing communication for that matter, cannot solely be a creative consideration, in the same way that it cannot be purely guided by commercial viability. For any piece of marketing to have any chance of succeeding it has to be a composition of both.

Writing such balanced marketing communications is, like no other kind of writing ‘proper’ or otherwise, a medium dependent on and defined by purpose. A copywriter without genuine, rigorous insights does not have that purpose, just like a copywriter who writes without a clearly defined strategy has no direction.

And without purpose or direction you might as well just be walking up to strangers in the street and hurling Scrabble tiles in their faces.

However, there is just one thing that undermines this whole argument. I actually got an A for GCSE History. But really, what do GCSEs prove?


Andrew Boulton is a copywriter (and cable-car Nazi spy fighter) at the Together Agency.

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