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The Influencers

Copywriters: A Threatened Species?

INFLUENCER: Creative Director at TMW Unlimited, Tom Harman, on the state of copy in the era of programmatic

Copywriters: A Threatened Species?

Ask any advertising student today what they want to be, and chances are they’ll say a ‘creative’. It’s pretty rare to hear someone shout ‘copywriter’.

It’s as if the craft of copywriting has slowly slipped into obscurity, like some short-lived social network from the early noughties. Foursquare, anyone?

Look at any agency website: do you see copywriting listed under agency capabilities? It’s become hygiene. De facto. Generic. Anyone can do it. Even some clients believe they could write their own copy, if they weren’t so busy.

Copywriters are feeling more existentially threatened than ever before. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can now decide what copy is effective and then rewrite our headlines. Algorithms can optimise subject lines to increase open rates for emails. Even chatbots, while still relatively young, are getting smarter.

In the era of programmatic, copy is becoming increasingly templated; straightjacketed; word-counted. Should we start to feel worried for our jobs?         

Maybe it will be the case that by 2018 a fifth of all ‘business writing’ (that’s the super dull stuff, like annual reports) will be done by machines. But fear not: computers still can’t manage what any decent copywriter can do, which is to inject humanity.

After all, what machine would’ve looked through years of Lynx advertisements and then come up with ‘Men in progress’, the title of our recent online content series for Lynx? This work, much of which is via stripped-back video in black and white, is a good case of knowing when to write, and when not to write. We wrote the initial treatment for ‘Boys don’t cry’, and that was it. There was no script. No preaching. No message to land other than to demonstrate that masculinity has never been more complex or contradictory than it is today.  

This digital campaign challenges the idea that men shouldn’t cry or show vulnerability. Because the fact is that creativity centres around challenging perceptions, preconceptions and stereotypes. Machine learning, on the other hand, learns from what’s gone before. And - to date, at least - linguistic analytics can’t fully grasp all the nuances of emotion, or sarcasm, hyperbole, exaggeration or disingenuity – as far as I’m aware. 

And as for clients actually getting down to writing their copy – I don’t think you should worry about that, either.

Here, at TMW Unlimited, we recently launched ‘The Write Stuff’ – our very first in-house writing competition – open to anyone, not just copywriters. Entries were judged anonymously, so it didn’t matter if you were the MD, a graduate account exec, or even a copywriter. You stood an equal chance of winning.

After an intense process, the winners were chosen and guess what? They all came from the creative department.

It was a healthy reminder to us all that copywriting is harder than it looks; it’s a real craft. It demands time to write, and then rewrite.

In the next month, we’ll be presenting our winning entries to their respective clients as proactive work, and hopefully they’ll surprise and charm the pants off them. After all, there’s no chatbot that can make you feel, ‘I wish I’d written that.’ Well, not yet, anyway.



Tom Harman is Creative director, TMW Unlimited