Publish your content on The Drum

Why? The only question a copywriter ever needs to ask

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.

The copywriting equivalent of the dream where you turn up for an exam entirely naked, is clutching a useless brief in your hand while some ghastly manifestation of a deadline taps menacingly at your door.

As creatures who rather smugly describe ourselves as ’creatives’ we remain curiously tethered to our written orders. And, amongst the many factors contributing to the huffiness of your copywriter, the absence of a brief will be high on the list.

But, brazen copy apologist that I am, I’d say we have a legitimate complaint. A good brief is to copywriting what a good spade is to digging a grave. Hand us, metaphorically speaking, a child’s trowel and don’t be surprised if the end result is a less than dignified final resting place for your dear aunt Agatha.

But, while I defend every copywriter’s prerogative to pout at an unhelpful brief, I’m also well aware that the quality of that brief is partly our responsibility too.

No copywriter should simply have a brief fed into their input slot like some kind of chirpy, automated word-bot. And complaining about a poor brief without making your own contribution is no better than complaining about the lax safety precautions at a zoo, as you dangle a fleshy limb through the bars of the baboon cage.

And, even for copywriters who have better relationships with commas than they do with actual humans, working with a client to improve a brief is quite possibly the flimsiest barrier in the whole writing processes.

All it takes is one little question – why? (Not in the existential sense – it’s probably better we don’t get too philosophical about life lest we realise that our Diet Hemingway pretensions are slightly undermined by the 800 words we’ve just written about ravioli.)

Instead we should ask ‘why’ in a more practical sense. Why is the client asking for what they’re asking and, more importantly, why should anyone care. And, without taking on the role of an annoyingly curious 7-year-old, if a client isn’t sure how to answer your ‘why’ then that demands a ‘why’ of its own.

It seems almost fatuous when it’s put like that, but you’ll be surprised at how many clients have never stopped to really understand the ‘why’ of their own request. (In their defence, that may be because their own priorities belong very much to the ‘when’ and, of course, the ‘how much’.)

A ‘why’ can be uncomfortable, just as a series of ‘whys’ could easily lead to raised voices, weeping and a mutual exchange of headlocks. But as difficult as challenging a brief can be, the end results are invariably a clearer picture of what matters most – which is often something that nobody had thought mattered at all.

Follow Andrew on Twitter

By continuing to use The Drum, I accept the use of cookies as per The Drum's privacy policy