Read me writing about Read Me

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I’ve written a review of Read Me: 10 Lessons for Writing Great Copy in this month’s Creative Review. You can read it here if you’re a subscriber or buy a print copy.

The book is by Roger Horberry and Gyles Lingwood and is a smart overview of writing for advertising and design (which, as the authors argue, could be better described as ‘brandwriting’). For anyone starting out, I think it’s the best practical primer out there. And for anyone more established, it’s worth buying for the many examples it includes – indeed, it would be nice to see an extended version consisting purely of examples and lots more of them. Even in the days of blogs and online archives, it’s useful to have a physical book that you can dip into for inspiration and reference. 

The book is available from, among other places, Best Little Bookshop (a UK-based alternative to Amazon). 

Abbott and Koenig

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A short post to say I’ve written about the late David Abbott in the July edition of Creative Review. If you’re a subscriber, you can read it here. (The article is an adaptation of this earlier blog post.)

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It’s been an unhappy time for copywriters, with the further news that Julian Koenig has passed away – most famous as creator of the ‘Think small’ Volkswagen Beetle ad. (Art director George Lois has maintained for years that he came up with the line, but seems to have a chronic habit of making similar claims.)

Koenig doesn’t appear in the D&AD Copy Book – possibly because the VW ad predated D&AD by a few years, but maybe also because he was dismissive of awards and classed his trade as pure salesmanship (which it was – just very good salesmanship). There’s a nice obituary in the New York Times.

New Blood 2014

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The results of the D&AD New Blood Awards were announced last night – essentially the 'student' awards, but open to any young person who wants to have a go. The awards take the form of a series of briefs which entrants from all over the world can choose to tackle. I was a judge on the Sky copywriting brief and was bumped up to Foreman when someone had to drop out.

I’ve been involved in professional judging before, but in some ways the responsibility feels bigger here, as you’re aware how much is riding on it for the entrants. An award can be a major boost at the beginning of a career, and having a brilliant piece of work unfairly overlooked can be a real downer that lingers with you for years.

Our brief boiled down to ‘create a copy-led campaign promoting the Sky brand’ – a tricky but interesting challenge for what is, on the face of it, a visual brand. There were 12 in-books, of which four were ‘nominated’ (a big achievement) and of those four, two won a pencil.

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The first was Telescopic Nostalgia by Adam Newby and Will Wells from School of Communication Arts 2.0. It's an interestingly heritage-based route for a technology/media brand – appropriate when you realise Sky has been around for 25 years. Each execution relates various Sky breakthroughs to the cultural context of the times, using an interactive device called ‘telescopic text’, so that a short version of each line expands into a longer version when you swipe it. The device is borrowed from telescopictext.com but the execution is skilful and feels right for a screen-based brand.

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The second pencil went to The Colour of Entertainment by Lyle Martin and Viloshan Appasamy of the Vega School of Brand Communications, Cape Town. The idea is a verbal extension of Sky’s visual brand, where the colour spectrum is a key element. Each execution takes a colour from the spectrum and relates it to the full range of Sky’s programming using a series of evocative phrases.

The posters ignored one of the few ‘mandatories’ in the brief, which was to include Sky’s ‘Believe in better’ brand line as a sign-off. After some debate, the feeling was that it was so firmly rooted in the Sky brand in other respects that it earned the right to drop the line. But it highlights a paradox in the judging generally, where on the one hand you’re looking for evidence that people can follow a brief professionally, but on the other hand encouraging bravery and rule-breaking. In the end, what matters is whether the work is any good.

It would take too long to talk about all the other entries in detail, but I was a big fan of ‘You're better off watching it’ – by Alvaro Palma Tara, Juan Álvarez Porto and Kike Garran of the Miami Ad School, Madrid – in which people humorously fail to describe brilliant TV moments. It’s edited with a comedian’s sense of timing and it plays into a key truth about why people subscribe to Sky – that fear you have as a consumer of missing out on stuff that everyone else is talking about.

I was also involved in the Black Pencil judging, where the best entries from each category compete for the highest award.

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The first winner was Three for XL recordings, by Anna Barton, Louise Delves and Sam Smith from Kingston University – a beautifully crafted interactive poster where sections are torn off and played through a punch paper music box.

And the other Black Pencil went to The Green Switch by Paul J. de Ridder and Yme Gorter of Edinburgh Napier University. The (ambitious) brief was to create an idea to fight climate change on a large scale. This solution proposed modifying Google's search algorithm to take sustainability into account, so that eco-friendly companies and products are rewarded with higher search results. You can argue about the feasibility, but it's exactly the right kind of thinking – a systemic change that could have a big effect without people having to do much.

While it didn’t get a Black Pencil, this campaign for the National Trust deserves singling out (by Robert Sewell and Vytautas Busma, University of Gloucestershire). It owes a lot to Adam Buxton and it’s stupid and over the top, but I love the way it reinvents a brand in a way you can almost see working. The entrants had the nerve to release it as a ‘leaked advert’ on YouTube, where it went viral and won coverage in the national press, subsequently attracting positive attention from the National Trust themselves. It’s exactly the type of irreverent, boundary-pushing work students should be doing.

For those who didn’t get in-book, I would say a lot of the work showed flashes of skill and talent – many of the entrants clearly knew how to write a decent headline and will probably go on to have brilliant careers, regardless of whether they happened to impress a particular group of judges on a particular day. (I would even say sometimes it’s better to be Will Young than Gareth Gates, but I’ve worked out most of the entrants would have been about six years old when that happened.)

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The exhibition graphics and branding by The Office of Craig Oldham also deserve a mention – a strong, humorous voice carried through into every element. The hoardings around the exhibition space in Spitalfields Market had a real presence – I can imagine a lot of members of the public being engaged and entertained by it. It was good to see some of the work recognised in Writing for Design in the D&AD Professional Awards.

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And before leaving the subject of awards, I was pleased to be involved in a project for Cystic Fibrosis that made it in-book in Writing for Design this year. The idea for a writing-led identity was down to Johnson Banks and I helped with some of the executions. But I think it’s a nice example of a writing-based identity that does a serious long-term job for a client.

This post took ages to write.

More on the New Blood Awards here.

Lead us not into uncredited appropriation

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This year’s version of the Nation’s Prayer (see last post) must be the least successful yet given England’s performance. Someone in Costa Rica must have written a very strong version.

Nevertheless, the prayer had an interesting life, in a story that ended with a Sun journalist reading the prayer out (uncredited) to a congregation of England fans beneath the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio. There’s an entertaining film of it here but I can’t share it because it’s behind their paywall.

I’ve written the whole story up in this post on Creative Review, touching on some of the wider issues it raises about popular culture and attribution.

One thing I forgot to mention was the reviews the prayer received after it ‘went viral’ via a couple of dodgy accounts on Twitter:

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Properly warms the heart.

Thanks to everyone who ordered the prayer card (sorry, no refunds) and shared it on Twitter or elsewhere. Thanks also to Creative Review for spotting that The Sun had used it, to Stig Abell at The Sun for putting it right and making a donation to Street League, and to Tim Rich of 66000milesperhour.com for some helpful advice along the way.

We may return for Euro 2016, if England make it.

Top image copyright 2012 News Group Newspapers Ltd

The Nation's Prayer 2014

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Following no popular demand and one explicit request not to do it, we’ve decided to release a new version of The Nation’s Prayer to mark the impending 2014 World Cup. This year, we have chosen to go one step further and produce some prayer cards that you can buy and place strategically alongside your remote control and chosen beer.

If you remember, we first came up with The Nation’s Prayer in 2010 (read it here) and released an updated version for Euro 2012 (here). It’s written in the tradition of the Bus Driver’s Prayer, of unknown origin but popularised by Ian Dury.

This year has presented a particular challenge as there remains a chance Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may be replaced at the last minute, which will present an existential threat to line 5. We’ll have to deal with this if and when it happens.

Keen sports fans will notice there is no place in the poetic starting line-up for reserve keepers Ben Foster and Fraser Forster, nor for Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw. This will be embarrassing if Gary Cahill goes on to score a hat-trick in the final, but we will take that risk.

Prayer cards are sized 127mm x 76mm and come in a protective plastic sleeve, the way prayer cards do. They cost 66p.

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Think of England and order yours here.

Mr Paxman interrogates the poets

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If you’re one of those strange people who don’t follow the poetry world closely, you may not have been aware of the recent Paxman Controversy.

As the chair of this year’s Forward Prize jury, he made some characterisically brisk comments about the need for poets to engage with the outside world, even calling for an ‘inquisition’ where the more obscure poets could come and explain themselves (a suggestion that I don’t think was meant to be taken entirely seriously). Nevertheless, it caused understandable consternation among poets, not least because the ‘poetry world’ is arguably more accessible and politically engaged than it has ever been, but also because popularity isn’t necessarily the best measure of poetry’s worth in the world. 

Anyway, the whole thing got me thinking about how a Paxman-esque inquisition might work, which led to me writing and publishing this poem (it originally appeared here):


Mr Paxman interrogates the poets

Who set fire to the tyger? 
Will you apologise to the people of Slough?
So you’re admitting you ate the plums?
Twas not, in any sense, “brillig” was it?

“Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song” –
You stole that, didn’t you?
Nothing depends on a wheelbarrow, does it?
Are you saying you set fire to the tyger?

In what possible sense is anything “dapple-dawn-drawn”?
Was there really a man from Nantucket?
These people you call the best minds of your generation – 
presumably not smart enough to avoid being destroyed?

You write about shepherds and daffodils, 
but I believe you were grammar school educated?
Why did this imbecile kill the albatross?
Shall I compare thee? I’ll ask the questions.

Did you threaten to set fire to the tyger?

 

As these things sometimes do, it did the rounds on Twitter and eventually got noticed by the people at the Forward Arts Foundation. Before I knew it, an email landed in my inbox:

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In some ways, my poem bears out Paxman’s criticism in that it’s full of smart-arse allusions that probably exclude as many people as they entertain. But fortunately he saw the funny side (I think...)