29 things I’ve learnt from D&AD: The Copy Book

“To me, all advertising that is truly great reeks of honest humanity. Between every word you can smell the hot breath of the writer. Whether a result of wit, intelligence, insight or artfulness, great advertising invariably transmits itself to the receiver on a fragile human frequency.

What I do, what we all do, is not about describing what a product or service does. It’s about making real how the products or services we write about bring improvement, comfort, even a bit of magic to a single human life.” –Ed McCable

“The basic motivations of people never really change. That’s why Shakespeare is still relevant today. Human history pretty much boils down to the influence of love, hate, sex, greed, hunger, and insecurity. If you want to write great advertising, always go back to the basics.” –John Stingley

“What, after all, is a copywriter? An advocate, rather like a lawyer. Like lawyers, copywriters build persuasive cases for clients by selecting truths that are positive and omitting truths that are negative. This is different than lying. Lying is inelegant and foolish. It is not professionally challenging.” –Paul Silverman

“As with acting, range is the most important characteristic for an advertising writer if one is to be prolific. This is assuming raw talent… In many ways, then, creating advertising actually is the same discipline as acting. You must start by mentally discarding your own identity. You have to become the people you are communicating with. Internalise their interests, joys, fears, tastes, even biases. Often it means mentally and emotionally becoming someone you would never in a million years be like yourself.

I think that’s why virtually every great advertising creative I’ve met is a student of humanity; interested in every trend or personality type or culture they’ve ever been exposed to. They are fascinated by the ‘human condition’. They are incessant people-watchers. And while they often get a reputation for being spoiled prima donnas who refuse to bend or compromise, that is usually because they are defending this very need for uniqueness; the need to break through the homogeneity of modern life and speak in a powerful and distinct way to one pocket of humanity, creating a powerful and distinct identity for a brand by doing so.

This need is often shunned or even resisted by clients who want to be everything to everybody. After all, it’s the nature of the corporate world to try and fit in… Just as you must ‘become’ your prospect in order to create a message that will be meaningful to them, you must ‘become’ your client if you expect to sell them on the idea.” (John Stingley, 2011) Many creatives have failed in this area because they feel “cheap if they attempt to ‘play the corporate game’. However, the truth is that tour client is just another consumer and you must understand their prejudices, beliefs and fears in order to speak their language so that they may understand your thinking. “Some companies are so overwrought with fear and the desire for safety that they will never buy a truly breakthrough way of presenting their product. At the same time, a lot of the greatest advertising ever written is collecting dust in file cabinets because the creatives didn’t think through how to communicate the idea to their client in a fashion that would overcome any reservations they might have.”

“This is what makes advertising so tricky to practice, yet at the same time so rewarding. Advertising is a bridge between the worlds of art and business. It must entertain, intrigue and emotionally move people if you are going to get their attention, yet it must fulfil very basic marketing needs. Those creatives who learn how to cross back and forth between those two worlds are the ones who not only create good work but see it produced.”


  1. Know your audience

  2. Leave the office – open your ears, eyes and mind. Get out and observe.
    “It sounds obvious but it’s amazing how many people in our incestuous little business just spend their spare time with other people in this incestuous little business” –James Lowther
  3. There are no rules
    Great ads are done by breaking rules rather than following them
  4. Remember who is doing the talking
    Image, character, tone, texture, personality must be recognizable, distinctive and consistent.

    “Resist developing a style. You’re trying to speak with people on their own terms.” –John Stingley

  5. Tell a story – should be narrative
    “The secret was to trust not in writing but storytelling. Storytelling is not the same as writing, it is only superficially about things like plot, character and narrative. At the deepest level it is entirely about the reader. Stories change things by enabling people to realise for themselves that they are powerful and can do much in the world, and, crucially, that they want to do it.” –Indra Sinha

    “Put yourself into your work. Use your life to animate your copy. If something moves you, chances are, it will touch someone else, too.” –David Abbott

  6. Observe sonata structure
    Convention in classical music whereby a piece is divided into 3 distinct phases: Exposition, Development, Recapitulation. – End of copy should relate back to headline thought.
  7. Don’t get too precious about your words
    “Know when to shup up. The best copywriting isn’t always in the lines. It’s also between them.” –Mary Wear
  8. Read your copy out loud to yourself – David Abbott

  9. Read poetry
    Study techniques – language, rhythm, imagery
  10. Keep it simple. Less is more.
    Write in ‘spoken’ rather than ‘written’ language.

    “Pay careful attention to your first ideas. They are formed with the same innocence, naiveté and lack of jadedness that consumers have when first exposed to your advertising. There is value in that innocence and simplicity.” –John Stingley

    “The greatest, most profound line in all of drama is ‘To be or not to be’. And what does it consist of? Five two-letter words and one three-letter word.” –Tim Riley

    “You’re paid to make client’s products look clever, not yourself.”

    “The most powerful words are small ones. The most powerful of sentences are short ones.” – Jeremy Sinclair

    “Smart writing is simple writing. It’s about communication. The quicker the better.” –Andy McLeod

  11. Keep the reader rewarded
    The deal for the reader is that they’ll keep reading for as long as you keep them interested.

    “Effective ad-writing must move at higher speeds than normal writing. To make your writing move fast always assume a passive reader. Not someone leaning forward at his desk to devour every word, as if his job depended on it. But someone sitting back on a toilet seat, riffling and browsing, his mental engine at idle.” –Paul Silverman

  12. Make the most of your deadlines
    “Direct correlation between rising panic and burgeoning inspiration” – Adrian Holmes

    “Being challenged is important, and this is why, if you want to perform at your copywriting best, you must let the clock tick until it sounds like a time bomb. In other words, insist on a deadline and wait until it gets pretty close. Deadlines are the legal amphetamines of professional writers.” –Paul Silverman

  13. Have a mental picture of your target audience
    “Single out your target. Understand their problems, hopes and needs. Ignore everyone else.” –Andrew Rutheford

    “Write from the stand-point of the reader’s self-interest and base your copy on the benefits, tangible or emotional, offered by your product or service. Develop a tone of voice that will resonate with the particular people are you hoping to nobble… go and talk to some of your potential or actual customers. They will become flesh and blood human beings, rather than anonymous ‘consumers’… In direct conversation you will be able to discover how they relate to your product. You’ll hear the language they use when they talk about it and the value they place on it. This is likely to be quite different from the terms used by the brand manager to whom the product is the most important thing in the world.“ –John Salmon

    “The ability to communicate product benefits to customers in language they find credible and sympathetic is one of the major values an agency offers its clients. Copy should read like a letter from a friend.” –John Salmon

    Write copy “as a conversation between two human beings rather than an announcement from manufacturer to consumer” –Chris O’Shea

    “Understand what the perceptions of your product are now. The current attitude of the consumer is the starting point, and the desired attitude is the finish line. Often, clients are reticent to admit what the current attitude towards them is. You have to make them understand. You can’t start a race in the middle.” –John Stingley

    “People who better understand your needs are seen as better able to meet them” –Tom Thomas

    “People who write ads should assume readers are at least as bright as they are. This has the advantage of being true much, maybe most, of the time. It also makes for honest writers – and credible ads.” –Tom Thomas

  14. Relax
    “Once you have placed yourself in the mind-set of the consumer, relax and be human. Don’t be afraid to think cynical thoughts or joke about the product as you work. I’ve found that a lot of great ideas started as jokes which, when explored, could be turned around to make a powerful, positive statement. Ideas that start this way have an honesty the consumer appreciates.” –John Stingley

  15. Do the opposite of what most conventional ads would do for typical products

  16. Don’t just write, consider visual aspect
    Treat your copy as a visual object

    “Wealth awaits the writer who truly values the art director over the dictionary.” –Paul Silverman

    Work closely w typographer and art director
    The best copywriters are often highly visual” – James Lowther

    “Use short words, short paragraphs… automatically break up the copy into bite-sized portions and make it impossible for the reader to stop… cooperate with your art director and be ready to adjust your words in the interests of getting an attractive setting” –John Salmon

    “Modern copywriting is cinematic, meaning that the double-page spread has evolved into a movie screen. Like an ancient Chinese scribe, your job is to write pictures. Use words as though they were frames of film in a camera, and shoot fast.
    Verbs, of course, always make faster pictures than adjectives. a) A sharp, jagged cut in the paper was made by the knife. b) The knife ripped through the paper. ” –Paul Silverman

    “Get attention. An invisible ad is not an effective ad.” –Andrew Rutheford

  17. Craft with care
    “The best copywriters are not always the ones with the highest ability but the ones with the highest standards.”

    “The good is the enemy of the great” – Adrian Holmes

    “Know there’s always a fresh way to tell an old, old story. Stand-up comedians are brilliant at this, taking the most mundane subject – life – and retelling it in ways that make us laugh, wonder and think.” –Mary Wear

  18. Seek perfection.

    “Object to everything as you write it. Keep rewriting until you say yes. Build your ad on a series of yes responses.” –Paul Silverman

    “Even if the essence of your first ideas is correct, explore every possible expression of that essence. Write every headline 100 different ways. Advertising is art, and like poetry, every comma will affect the balance of meaning.” –John Stingley

  19. Fight for your idea
    “People don’t like great ideas. They’re original. Which means they’re unfamiliar and therefor frightening. This explains why mediocre advertisements sail through without touching the sides, whereas people always find a million and one reasons why a great idea should never run.”

    “Take the account team and client along with you and explain why you’re doing what you’ve done. Why you’ve rejected other approaches. Charm them. HAVE DRINKS WITH THEM. Remind THEM OVER AND OVER AGAIN OF YOUR THINKING.” – James Lowther

  20. Knowledge is key – know what you’re talking about
    Study, research, and memorize thoroughly before you start writing anything.
    “I make it a practice to never do anything until I know everything.” – Ed McCabe

    “Consider the familiar cycle of ‘Ready, Aim, Fire’. ‘Ready’ takes a second, ‘Fire’ takes a fraction of a second, but it’s the ‘Aim’ part that’s most crucial, that can seem interminable, what with the squinting, focusing, steadying, and just when you think you’ve drawn the exact right bead, you waver and have to begin all over again. And so it is with the making of advertising. When I write, it’s with explosive passion and bravado. With a tinge of insanity even. But before I write, I’m painstaking, plodding, disciplined – and uncommitted. Passion has no place in the planning.”

    “Only with absolute knowledge of a subject can you hope to transcend the banality of mere facts and experience the freedom of insight.”

  21. Your ad cannot look like an ad as people are not interested in ads.
    “To make your writing move fast, always assume a passive reader.” –Paul Silverman

  22. Steal from the greats.
    “Following the great advertising tradition of ‘borrowing’ from someone much cleverer, I would say that copywriting is persuasion dancing. So if it doesn’t dance, go back and do it again until it does.” –Mary Wear

  23. Work at the best place you can
    So you can be inspired by all the successful creatives to do better work and to get help from them if you’re ever stuck.

  24. Save all the headlines you write as you are struggling to come up with the greatest line of your career. Some may find a place in your copy.

  25. Don’t just accept cultural change, embrace it and try to understand what leads to it.
    Advertising is a living chronicle of the evolution of society. –John Stingley

  26. Since facts are more believable than claims, it’s better to express claims as facts. (But a little humor can sugar the pill)

    “In advertising, claim is often a euphemism for lie… At your arraignment all you have to do is plead Puffery… To lawyers and censors, it’s okay to lie as long as you lie on a grand enough scale.” –Tom Thomas

    “learn how to write a list so that it doesn’t read like a list.” –David Abbott

  27. Give the reader permission to believe
    “Despite universal cynicism towards salesmen in general and ads in particular, there’s a part of us that really wants to believe we’ll have more and better sex if we use a certain aftershave or hair conditioner… needs enough supporting logic to accept your premise and not look like an idiot.” –Tom Thomas

    Make it illogical for the reader not to believe.

    “Intrigue your reader. But not irrelevantly. Lead him or her in the right direction.” –Andrew Rutheford

  28. Be the smartest choice in your category. –Tom Thomas

    “It works because everyone wants to be seen as having done something intelligent when he buys a product, or at least not having done something dumb, buyer’s remorse being timeless and universal.” –Tom Thomas

    “Always demonstrate your product’s superiority if you possibly can.” –Andrew Rutheford

    Give the product credibility.

  29. Create an aspiration to buy
    “Create a desire
    – A shortage perhaps.” –Andrew Rutheford

    “If a product embodies your aspirations, its advertising doesn’t need to be a salesman any more. It can be an alluring inner voice whispering encouragement to act on those urges… In short, an ad is, by definition, a half-truth; it only argues the case for the product. The case against will cheerfully be provided by the competition, and will be helped along by the healthy cynicism a reader brings to every ad.” –Tom Thomas

    “You don’t have to logic people into a corner, you can charm them into wanting to come out and play.” –Mary Wear

    “Clinch the sale. Make the buyer want to do something, and make him do it.” –Andrew Rutheford

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