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Write your worst words – why copywriters should try to get it wrong

By Andrew Boulton

January 22, 2019 | 4 min read

As mass behavioural shifts go, the accommodation (nay, celebration) of failure is right up there with smart phones, video streaming and pretending to like grapefruit beer.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

/ Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

In fact, our relationship with the positive powers of failure has shifted so dramatically, vast numbers of people are now voting for apricot man-toddlers and dangerously depleted reserves of food and medicine purely for the glorious opportunity to learn from such instructional catastrophes.

Professionally speaking, most industries are at least embracing the concept of rewarding failure, with the possible exception of parachute instructors and those wilderness types who live in the forest and try to get off with wolves.

Advertising, theoretically, is in the vanguard of the ‘fail-happy’ movement, even if it may not feel like that as you exhaustedly rework a poor advert while your creative director pokes you in the ear with a human shin bone.

So another piece encouraging you embrace every balls-ups – the bigger and bouncier the better – hardly justifies The Drum’s extravagant expense allowance.

My own meagre twist on this practice, however, is not merely to welcome the failures that come naturally, but to actively seek them out.

I encourage the students I teach to begin a brief by writing down the most obvious, most derivative, most uninspiring lines that belch through their minds.

As well as purging one’s creative system of the mucus and foul gas clogging our pipes, it also provides a grotesque glimpse into the depths of failure. It’s a warning, like lining a woodland path with gnawed skulls to show careless hikers that this is a forest filled with killer monkeys. It’s your creative safe-word, an engine-failure light for your imagination.

By seeing your ad at its very worst, the most unimaginable failure in your creative process is simultaneously rendered a reality... and an impossibility. You have journeyed to your creative dark place, lapped at the bottom of your intellectual barrel. And nothing now could persuade you to go back.

Writing badly, on purpose, is irritatingly difficult. You may even find yourself in the hideous position of having created something genuinely effective, when all the while you were aiming for awful.

I find that the easiest way to begin is with the cliches. If you can scoop copy from stagnant old wells like ‘the joy of...’ or ‘keep calm and...’ then you are off to a terrible, and therefore excellent, start.

However it comes, the business of writing down your worst words gives you not only context for your creativity, but also satisfies an intractable need for every copywriter – the need to surpass. Copywriters, however quietly, are competitive beasts, and the thrill of creating better work than someone (your past-self included) only feeds your desire to move beyond the ideas that remain ahead of yours.

Failure is, undoubtedly, the greatest resource we have for self-improvement. So it seems reasonable, even necessary, to seek it out, scoop it up and guzzle it down like a nice glass of turnip lager.

Andrew Boulton lectures on copywriting and creative advertising at the University of Lincoln. Follow Andrew on Twitter

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