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When bad copywriting isn’t your fault (and when it sort of is)

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.

In the last instalment of this column (and if ‘instalment’ isn’t too fanciful a description) there was a certain degree of snootiness on the subject of those people who don’t see the value of a professional copywriter.

Alongside the usual helpful feedback about where and when to use an apostrophe, a few people wrote to me with a common objection. This was to say that my righteous defence of the copywriting profession seems rather flimsy when you are faced with a piece of copy that is, well, bad.

Never knowingly undermined by my own reason, I have devoted this column to a defence of ‘bad’ copy, at least in terms of the copywriter’s own culpability. (Snootiness and self-indulgence – it’s a wonder anyone actually reads this).

The first piece of evidence I’d care to slap haughtily down on the jury’s bench is the suspicion that a lot of the truly awful copywriting out in the wild is not the product of an actual copywriter. Which was sort of the point of the original (snooty) blog in the first place.

Admittedly though, the ‘It wasn’t us’ defence is as unconvincing for copywriters as it is for 12-year-old shoplifters and Shaggy.

The volume of poor copywriting in the world suggests that we would struggle to argue a case for quite so many copy-denying clients getting their chubby, misguided fingers inky.

The likelihood is that a great deal of poor copy can be traced back to some very good copywriters. Which is where the defence fully intends to produce a courtroom denouement so emphatic, it will make the ‘You Can’t Handle The Truth’ moment look like someone quibbling over a disputed parking fine.

The fact is that a copywriter will deliver every step of rigorous preparation, extensive research and purposeful creativity that I outlined last time. They will, in short, produce the best copy for the job.

What happens next however only relates to your copywriter’s ability in terms of how easily they are able to persuade their client. And even then it is depressingly likely that fabulous work, delivered with admirably comprehensive reasoning, will still end up in the bin.

And while a great copywriter can easily overpower any punctuation mark that comes their way (except perhaps the semi-colon), most of us lack the burliness to literally twist a client’s arm behind their back.

So I’d argue that, alongside the very clear set of skills and knowledge a copywriter brings to a brief, there is also a limit to which their influence and intervention can be possible.

Ultimately, this is the point when a copywriter who has presented an intelligent, effective solution to a problem (and assembled the components of that effectiveness bit-by-bit before their client’s eyes) must resign themselves to the fact that their client is one of ‘those’.

What happens next will be familiar to anyone who pesters the alphabet for a living. With expertise and rationality crumpled up alongside the unwanted words, your clients (this stage usually involves quite a few) will set about cobbling together something that satisfies all the usual brand fetishes, to the thunderous exclusion of the audience.

In other words, this copy – this awful, aimless, masturbatory copy – is not your fault.

Or rather, it shouldn’t be your fault providing you’ve performed your part in this ultimately grubby little tombola.

If, for example, you failed to identify the space to be original and effective in your client’s market, it’s your fault.

If you neglected to fill every gap and clarify every obfuscation in your client’s brief, then, yes, the bad copy is your fault.

And if you’re unable to demonstrate what precisely will stop, engage, persuade and activate anyone reading this copy then you are basically just going to reek of blame.

So really, in my wildly prejudiced opinion, the reasons for hiring a professional copywriter still stand. The only caveat I suppose is that the greatest creative writer money can buy is a poor investment if the result you actually want simply requires a meeting room, a fistful of ‘stakeholders’, a load of big felt tip pens and a quietly acquiescent typist.

Now there’s a truth I hope we can all handle.

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