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Always be objective (and other copywriting lies)

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.

Copywriter Andrew Boulton is bad at being detached, but good at pretending to be.

A confession. I’m incapable of objectivity. I fake it and I think I always have done. And, if you’re a copywriter, or some other breed of marketing creative, I suspect you may be faking it too.

I pretend. I say the right things, mimic the movements of someone who has successfully removed themselves from the creative equation, and sit dutifully around the big shiny tables with people who are probably doing the same.

Taste is possibly an inadequate word, but it’ll do for now. And taste is something I doubt human beings are able to truly shake off, especially not creative ones. Taste, for us copywriters at least, is what compelled us to be copywriters. First, we read things we loved to read, then we wrote things we loved to write. And that propelled us into a career where we promised never to do either without permission.

Copywriting is, I’m assured, not about me. Or you. Or any of us, unless by some fluke you happen to be a part of the audience we’re attempting to reach and persuade (which, being trapped within our shimmery marketing bubble, is unlikely).

Except, even though we’re not supposed to say this out loud, it is about us. It is very much about us because whether we have a preexisting affinity for lawnmowers or cheesecake or sugar-free hazelnut syrup or Bluetooth dildos, we will absolutely acquire one. Not on purpose, but simply because it’s so much easier to become something than it is to impersonate it. It’s not that we copywriters are good at detaching ourselves from a brief, but rather that we are really good at attaching ourselves to it.

But there is still the matter of taste. We like what we like and, given the choice, we’ll write what we like too. And, whatever the tone or the topic, most writers will tip at least a little of their factory settings into the writing.

I got into trouble once with a copywriter online when I suggested the only mark we should leave on our work is our invisibility. And I stand by that (sorry, angry stranger). But a good copywriter finds a way that is both right for the brief and satisfying for themselves. In fact, if this balance wasn’t so frequently achievable, I’m not sure many of us would hang around for too long.

Whenever my thoughts drift to objective reason, whether as a copywriter or a teacher of copywriting, I find myself reflecting on a moment from Winnie The Pooh. Pooh, wandering, trouser-less and in search of a snack (a spiritual animal for the copywriter if ever there was one) hears a buzzing and remarks:

“That buzzing noise means something, and the only reason for making a buzzing noise that I know of is because you're a bee! And the only reason for being a bee is to make honey! And the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it.”

This kind of self-interested pseudo-reasoning is not a bad metaphor for a marketing industry that, at times, trims the jigsaw pieces to make them fit. Assigning reason and motive to the senseless because the truth is only allowed in the house if it wipes its feet and shows you its fluffy tummy.

I don’t want copywriting to be removed from the people we’re talking to. I don’t want to hear a buzz and expect my honeyed crumpet to arrive. The kind of curiosity copywriting needs is the up-close kind. But don’t eat your inky heart out pretending you can keep your true writing-self at a distance. Because that would be a big fib.

Andrew Boulton is author of Copywriting Is… 30 or so thoughts on thinking like a copywriter.