On Flying Unicorns…

A wise copywriter once said, ‘there is no such thing as mental block.’ And Bob Levenson has written so many award-winning quips about the VW Beetle (‘It makes your house look bigger’) that you can’t really argue with him. And for obvious reasons, he has to be right, or copywriters everywhere would be out of the nnb. There are deadlines, there are schedules to stick to. I won’t argue with a hero of the advertising world.

But what I will say is this: ideas don’t jump out of the ether uninvited. Copywriters don’t have to work alone.

So how can you create the right springboard for your creatives and their multi-coloured, whimsical ways? Well, never assume that it is just your creatives who must be creative. At On Agency, I never have to start a job with that old arch-enemy – The White Blank Page.

Why? Because our planners are just as innovative, just as wordy, just as pun-believable as we are. My favourite brief of all time was given by one of our planners, who sat us down and gave out ShelterBox School Kits – bags full of equipment, sent to us by ShelterBox, a disaster aid charity. Before he told us anything about the project, he asked us to unpack the kits. We found a chalkboard, crayons, notebooks, a pencil case.

‘Draw your favourite toy,’ he said.

And because we are who we are and we work where we work, of course we got stuck in, no questions asked. I drew lovely Amy, a limp Beanie Baby cat, dropped down toilets, trapped in car doors, dragged through Hell and back. I was immediately nostalgic. The planner asked us what these meant to us – I told him about my childhood nightmares of toys thrown onto the fire. He recommended counselling.

This brief was so effective because it didn’t feel like a brief. It felt like playtime at school. It gave the immediate context and emotion I needed to understand the importance of the appeal. Which meant the output was not only interesting, urgent, attention-grabbing, punchy – it was even on brief. And with a proposition acted out with real objects, a key message demonstrated by a canvas bag between my fingers, ideas naturally intertwined with their true purpose – painlessly.

Of course, this isn’t always easy. But Luke Sullivan and Edward Boches have some great insights into writing a good brief. They recommend complete ‘user’ (in our case, donor) focus. Of course. They ask ‘what problem are we trying to solve for our user? Who is having this problem? What is the best way to help them solve it?’ Instead of focussing on what ONE message should be conveyed, good briefs see into a donor’s mind. As Luke and Ed tell us, good briefs ask ‘what the brand can do’ for the donor. And all I’d add to that is this: once the answer has been found, it should be made clear, direct, and surrounded with fireworks. It should be launched into the sky on a unicorn.

That’s why, as a copywriter, only half my job is writing copy at a desk. The other half? Could be absolutely anything. It could be interviewing an inspiring disabled man at his specialist service, and hearing about the time Skepta sent him a free shirt. If the day has not yet involved a trip to Sealife to feed the turtles or drawing toys onto blackboards, then it must only be 9.15am.

It’s this – the real meat, the flying unicorns, the brief made flesh, that makes the difference. If that means you need to take your copywriter to the zoo to better understand the plight of tourist bears, then that is what must be done. Because it’s that nugget of emotion that eventually leads to people at their kitchen counters, returning donation forms and changing the world.

By Emily Ford, Copywriter.