In the merry summer of 1997, when I joined the advertising profession, the creative department was staffed by the writer and the artist. In an intuitive or explosive tandem, subject to chemistry, the print or TV advertisement was created and this led to happiness for brands. By the early 2000s, the idea guy became the primary character but that is not the only reason why advertising no longer attracts writers.
Quite inarguably, writing is a rather difficult matter to demonstrate expertise or authority. Unless, of course, it is the published word as in permanence there is stature that is denied to progressive documents. Progressive, as in presentations or word docs or even full page layouts, as everybody can have a pointed opinion by dint of sheer literacy. This is certainly not fundamentally unfair, as each of us are writers in our own right, whether writing memos, reports, diaries or even customer feedback for a pizzeria. In a peculiar way, writing is like driving as it is a licensed activity and not a commissioned craft and that is the root of the problem. Clients find it easy to violate the submitted copy and agencies do not consider it important to respond.
Yet there was a time when even the most demanding client would have to earn his substitute word or phrase in a presented piece of creative writing, such was the passion and conviction of the writer. Any concession, if at all, had to be driven by resounding logic or overwhelming emotion and certainly never due to flighty opinion. But today, as opined in the first paragraph, we are now in the ideas business and the quality of audio visual exploration supersedes the earlier era of word and image craft. Exactly why it is so easy to spot elementary errors even for notable brands and any expectation of quality is destined to be unrequited in static communication. For those who seek refinement in statutory copy, the outcomes will be invariably futile and direct mailers have slipped significantly as an indirect outcome.
There are a few good reasons why advertising attracts a different kind of creative talent and no longer the winding wordsmith. Due to the TV revolution in India, the marquee medium shifted to audio visual from print and thus advertising became the hunting ground for aspiring filmmakers. The thirty seconds of fame often led to a dramatic cinemacope transition to Bollywood or regional genres and thus the much desired skill set for boardrooms. In the online era as well, this pattern persists as the social media post is devised by assembly line sweatshops while the digital film, while occasionally low budget, still remains high prestige. Yet another telling blow in the quest for cultured craft in plain writing and an erstwhile gourmet standard now reduced to QSR acumen. A great reason why writers today are being diverted to more writable destinations – editorial teams, independent books and journalism.
This conversation will not be complete if the client is excluded for this is a truly eclectic partnership, down the ages. Clients love to comment on advertising output and the erudition in observation often contributes to their growth paths and indeed reputations. In recent times, however, the marketing cadre is increasingly less favoured by the best and brightest, as more lucrative business, entrepreneurial and consulting avenues beckon. Therefore, the lowest hanging fruit is often the hapless advertising copy as it is very easy to consider writing like driving, where an opportunity exists for all to speed. In tandem with a diminishing writing culture of agencies, for factors duly explained, there is little room for craft to flower. Customers at large seem to be very comfortable in the double standards they practice, excellence appreciated in literature while mediocrity ignored in marketing communications.
I still remember a heady night at Enterprise Nexus Mumbai as a two-week-old rookie, apprenticing on a telecom network account. The insanely brilliant Zarwan Patel had just unleashed a masterstroke in two sentences, provoking a spontaneous urge to wake up the client at 3 am and present pronto. My boss duly restrained this dilettante enthusiasm but if you have been in advertising when I was, you must have felt what I meant.
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