Disagreeable copywriting – why the best writers never play nice

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 copywriters I know are nice. They have soft hands and smell like willow trees and Maltesers. In the event of a hurricane, they would paddle canoes from bungalow to bungalow rescuing old ladies and their clammy cats.

But the very best copywriters I know are also entirely disagreeable.

It’s a form of disagreeability that doesn’t manifest in the usual ways. It isn’t the sort of prickling hostility you see quarrelling with car park attendants or being noisy in the cinema.

Instead, it’s a wilful, thoughtful sort, one that refuses to regard the map and the journey as the same thing.

To a copywriter, a disagreeable approach feeds invention. It’s the vast, unruly fabric from which the most original thoughts are cut.

Malcolm Gladwell says all innovators depend on a fundamentally disagreeable nature. Not obnoxious as such, but ‘willing to take social risks – to do things that others might disapprove of.’

Copywriting, like any other branch of invention, is the pursuit of a new truth. At its most potent it is a radical act, a transformation of human understanding. Tearing apart a cardigan and re-stitching it as a parachute.

This demands that certain conventions should be challenged. And copywriting, or perhaps creative marketing as a whole, can be notoriously shackled to convention.

Ours is a business that makes a fetish out of its own past. Turning the methods and beliefs of its founding fathers into a dogma they were never supposed to be.

Similarly, copywriting is curiously fond of digging its own trenches before the creative process has already begun – mapping a terrain of language that already exists and finding a way to squeeze one more voice into the din.

But the best copywriting – the work we envy as keenly as we remember – is usually the stuff that seems oblivious to the canon. Like a new writer on a TV soap who has no knowledge of the plot or characters and so transfers all the action to a moon colony.

Disagreeable copywriting is the work that sees the difference between the way things should be done, the way they have been done and they way they could be done. It’s the writer who, attacked by a shark, punches themselves on the nose just to change the rules of the fight.

It’s not easy to be creatively contrary, to replant a conversation whose roots have been buried in the same spot for decades.

But then if it was easy, it wouldn’t be that disagreeable would it?

Follow Andrew on Twitter

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