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In-depth: Is long-form copy becoming a long-forgotten art?

Creative veterans tell BestMediaInfo.com that a good long-form copy ad gives a winning surety when everything else fails. They point to the lack of good long-format copywriters and say snackable and short-form copy has made the skillsets of emerging writers more functional

A good long-form ad copy helps imprint a brand’s name in the consumer’s psyche and that’s why we remember 90% of ads of the early '90s and 2000s. Yes, it was the era of long-format ads where the maximum ad allocation was on television. But now in the time of tech revolution and an attention economy, budgets and allocations have changed. But can the art of long-form writing work wonders for brands or it will soon become a long-forgotten art?

In a conversation with BestMediaInfo.com, creative controllers say a good long-form copy ad is a magic stick that gives a winning surety when everything else fails. However, they said snackable and short-form copy made the skillsets of emerging writers more functional.

Akashneel Dasgupta

According to Akashneel Dasgupta of BBDO, the art of long format hasn’t been forgotten. Instead it has come back with vengeance and digital has given an opportunity to go much beyond 30 seconds. In the last four-five years, more and more people have been doing long formats, but not every piece is a masterpiece.

It began with Google reunion after which brands such as Prega News, Manforce and Ghadi followed suit.

“Right now there is an overdose of long formats but unfortunately not all are interesting,” said Dasgupta, CCO, BBDO Worldwide.

Senthil Kumar

According to Senthil Kumar, CCO, Wunderman Thompson India, long-form writing will never lose its magic as long as the industry has writers in the business of ideas. It probably has lost favour with all those who have been forced to believe that human attention spans are the same as that of a goldfish. “Lazy readers seeking instant gratification look at long copy as creative indulgence and Quick Gun Murugans on both sides, i.e. marketing teams and advertising teams, have settled for the short form or the power of the stunning visual language over the craft of the written word,” said Kumar.

Long format has its own syntax and grammar. There is a measurability index of how many people have watched it till the end. The grammar of writing a long format is different from the 30-seconders.

"The so-called long formats experiment with a lot of other formats. It's not lost; maybe we don't see a lot of it in traditional formats. The traditional description of an ad has also changed these days. Brands have got multiple layers where they can talk about their products," said Robby Mathew, NCD, Interface Communications.

According to Paddy, the right nurturing of talent is not happening in the industry, which used to happen long back. This is because of less attention on training young talent.

Santosh Padhi

“Creative directors of the last 10-20 years got so busy that they forgot the nurturing bit. If young people are not nurtured and trained on how to passionately crack an ad, they will never be able to take advantage of the medium. We were superb 30 years ago with superb long-format copies on Femina, Raymonds, Skybags. But we lost that hat as we were not able to hand it over to the next generation in an interesting way,” said Santosh Padhi, CCO and Founder, Taproot Dentsu.

According to him, 20 years ago the creative people only used to do creative. Now they are involved in various other aspects (briefing, strategy, selling) and also creating at the same time. “He or she played super full with other things and decided what we can let go and unfortunately nurturing was one of them,” he said.

In the 30-second format, people tend to watch the ad fully even if it is predictable but in the long format, if the end message gets predictable, people drop off in the first 30 seconds or a minute.

“If you can weave a story with just the power of words and hold them spellbound, the magic is forever and like swimming; it’s a craft that you can never forget but only gets better every time,” said Kumar.

Dasgupta says the engagement levels should be 95% and the brand selling 5% in the ad film so that the people forget the last moment. Most of the long-format films done are for social causes and the larger good, send out bigger messages or have a point of view. A few of them even sell. People watch such ads only for the content.

Agreeing with Dasgupta, Mathew said, “If you can give me the information concisely and interestingly and can hold my attention till the end, then it works."

In the long-format ad, the payoff is in the last five seconds, but to get to that payoff, one has to have three minutes and 55 seconds of engagement. “The trick of the long-format writing is very different and very few have adopted it," emphasised Dasgupta.

Advantage of long-form copywriting over short form

“In long format, one can start a conversation and get into many aspects of emotions and engage with consumers. A three to five seconds visual ad gives a message and moves out,” explained Paddy.

British Airways' "Magic of Flying" by OgilvyOne, London, took home the Grand Prix in the Direct category at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The campaign helped British Airways highlight the breadth of its destinations. Digital billboards in key London locations featured creative that encouraged passers-by to look up and spot the aircraft flying overhead. A message on the board pointed out the flight's city of origination.

"Storytelling needs time and the long format allows you space and time to tell a story in a much better way. One can break the nuances of the story much better because it allows time for expressions, pauses, layers in the story," said Dasgupta

Dasgupta says most successful long-format films are those that make the brand message relevant to the occasion.

Media has become so fragmented and expensive. Five years ago, the entire spends used to go on TV. Now the client has to distribute it among TV, YouTube and OTT. Taking out so much money to do a 60-second in TV is difficult.

“The cost of the medium has stopped clients from picking longer formats; the other is the shorter attention span of consumers,” Mathew said.

According to Mathew, the format has not been forgotten yet; it will be picked when the brand has a need for a conversation with consumers. “When it is relevant, something important has to say that long format will be preferred,” he said.

Good long-format copy and the writer that inspires

According to Paddy, camera brand Leica’s long-format campaign that beautifully depicts the relationship between a photographer and his camera is the recent best long-form copy ad he has seen.

”Huijing Chen, Associate Creative Director at Saatchi and Saatchi Singapore, has written some really good long copies,” said Paddy.

Paddy also gave the examples of campaigns of Hospice, Histimore and Angelena Church.

Dasgupta says the Google reunion ad launched in 2013 (ad for google search) inspired many in the industry to start long-format ads.

The other one is Samsonite’s # KeralaIsOpen campaign

Mathew’s recent favourite was Mother’s recipe’s #GiftOfTime ad. He likes long-form writing of Neil French, a British advertising executive widely credited with bringing the creative revolution to Asia when he was associated with The Ball Partnership in Singapore. His work for Chivas Regal, Kaminomoto and, in particular, the 'XO Beer' campaign for The Straits Times, is used as case studies in advertising schools around the world.

Kumar says, ‘How 32 of the World's Best Advertising Writers Write Their Advertising’ is one long copy series that every trainee writer and chief writer in every agency should read and draw inspiration from it.

But many say short format copywriting, especially for digital, has somewhere killed the storytelling craft in new ad copywriters. Experts said creativity skills in a copywriter are not bound to any format but by doing a lot of 10 or 30-second ads, one tends to miss out on the rigour that takes to write three-minute ads. The level of craft has to be that good that the story opens up in layers and with every passing 10 seconds, something new is added to the story and built on it.

“Whether one does it on digital or print or billboard, it doesn't matter. I think only the medium changes, the content remains the same. One needs to understand a brief of what he/she is writing about and it should be beautiful, witty, funny, up to the brief and makes me remember about the brand,” Paddy said.

“The clear difference is that long-form writers are habitual storytellers and short-form writers are headliners and one-liners. We need both kinds of writers and often a good writer can switch from long form to short form with equal ease. And become legends of their craft,” said Kumar.

Dasgupta differs, “A three-minute ad needs rigour in the writing. A lot of times, 10 to 30 seconds don't require that rigour. By doing a lot of 10 or 30 seconders, one tends to miss out on the rigour that it takes to write a three-minute ad. “The kind of writing needs a far more mature enough SWOT-based approach and not all people can capture the attention for three minutes,” he said.

Mathew says focus on the craft has reduced nowadays and the spotlight is on producing content in quantity by compromising on quality.

Ten or 20-second ads are preferred for humour but when it comes to emotion, long-format ones are preferred,” said Dasgupta.

Speaking on the efforts of agencies in convincing clients to go for long formats, Paddy said, “The agency is not putting enough heart in creating clutter-breaking campaigns; on the other hand, the clients have lost their appetite to do something different. Brands and agencies are not giving enough time to do justice to creativity.”

According to Dasgupta, agencies are trying to do long formats but not everyone is successful in doing it in the right way.

“Maybe 100 long-format films are made every month but we end up noticing just four or five of them depending on the quality of the content. If the content is good it will get noticed,” he said.

“A lot of time, clients insist on the basic selling bit. Long-format films are a slow process. It might not give immediate results but end up with sales in the longer term. A lot of time, agencies are not able to convince clients about the efficacy of the long-format films in the immediate scenario. Long format tends to take time; it builds the brand slowly but more steadily. For immediate results, it might not be the best option,” Dasgupta said.

“When commerce drives art (wish it was the other way round) it’s always going to be difficult for any art form to break free and leap forward into the extraordinary frontiers of craft,” he said.

“Most communication plans are led by a key visual nowadays that needs to cut across multiple mediums and platforms and this kills any idea with the long copy element unless a brave writer finds a way to swing it in effortlessly,” he adds.

“I am 100% sure that all agencies are trying but clients also have to agree on it,” said Mathew.

Dasgupta said if the content is good, consumers will watch for three minutes, but if the content is bad, they will not even watch three seconds. Brands and agencies have to be accountable for the time they ask from a consumer.

Speaking on the less qualitative talent in the industry, Dasgupta said, “There are many more avenues than advertising and the best guys are not coming to the field anymore. Shrinking margin and too much competition restrict people from sticking with advertising.

"It is also a very intense industry, unlike the usual nine to five jobs. Many people move on because they want a simpler, easier job,” he says.

“Many join advertising because they think it's a stepping stone to bigger things,” he said.

Robby Mathew

Mathew says young copywriters have to learn how to make the best use of the medium. “There is no point in making something that will not sell if the demand from the client is to make 10 short ads. We have to work that way only. The clients need to realise that the current form of communication will not give them business in the longer run. When clients start appreciating the advantage of creativity in every piece of advertising, things will change,” said Mathew.

How can one inspire newcomers to pursue long-form copywriting more in their ideas and work and keep the art form alive?

Dasgupta listed three pointers:

  • Young writers should find the right mentor.
  • Think beyond the domain of brand (society, human life).
  • They should not invent, rather borrow something that already exists because there are stories all around us. Any of the things that happen to us in our day-to-day life could be a possible script.

“Imagination is great because you need that to become a writer but apart from that, you need a great observation. You have to always keep your eyes and ears open because stories are happening all around you," advised Dasgupta.

“Develop skill sets, add more knowledge to talent, be well-read, practice command and be comfortable with the language," said Mathew.

According to Kumar, a writer should just focus on the idea and the craft of writing will follow. “With the idea at the centre of the universe, every creative will have to work out the flow of the idea. It can only be led by the word or the visual and on rare occasions you will achieve the perfect balance of the word and the visual, without sacrificing the craft and without compromising on the idea,” he says.


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