Here’s a chance to hear the views of one of the most original voices of advertising in the UK. In this podcast for The Drum, the urbane Sir John Hegarty pulls no punches in dissecting the state of the industry today.
He also muses on teaming up with people who have funny surnames and is asked where he gets his youth pills.
Have a listen here.
Back in the second half of the 1980s, the Amstrad PCW was the machine that made word processing affordable to ordinary bods like me.
For about five hundred quid I was able to buy a package that included a computer with built-in monitor, a keyboard and daisy-wheel printer plus software that included the Locoscript word processor. It was called the PCW 9512.
At the time it all seemed like magic. I’d never liked writing freehand, and typing on my portable Remington was always a hassle when you made a mistake. But now, once I’d worked my way through the two hundred odd pages of the Locoscript instruction manual, words would suddenly be the flexible beasts I wanted them to be.
It seemed amazing. You could make an amendment in the middle of a 200 page manuscript and the whole thing would flow and reform to accommodate it…..eventually.
The PCW was painfully slow by today’s standards. There was no hard drive – you had to load up the operating system and programme each time you used it. No graphical interface, just words. And no mouse: only keystrokes. But I loved that machine like no other computer since.
It felt like genuine liberation. I wrote my first novel on the PCW, and when I was first freelancing as a copywriter was able to present professional looking documents to my clients.
Eventually of course the PCW became redundant as IBM compatible computers (PCs to you and me) became more affordable and accessible, but like a lot of PCW owners there was something about that dedicated word processor – before all the distractions of a modern operating system connected to the web – that was uniquely appealing.
When I uploaded my first website to the server back in 2003, the concept of Search Engine Optimisation barely existed. It was important to see if you could get your URL listed by Open Directory and the Yahoo directory, and this was done by doing an oh-so-humble submission together with a brief description of your website’s contents (any attempt at marketing would mean immediate denial of registration).
But these were the blissful days when I was one of just a handful of freelance copywriters to be found on the web and AltaVista was the search engine of choice.
Then along came Google….
Google purported to get better search results through its complex algorithms, with an important element being backward links (i.e. other websites linking to your website). This worked great for a time, but of course before long a whole industry grew up based around the premise of getting your website on the first page of Google for specified keywords.
There were white hat and black hat techniques of SEO. Black hat methods included having hidden text, keyword stuffing, cloaking and mirror websites. And as Google caught on to these underhand tricks, websites that used them got punished by being banished to the bottom of the pile. A kind of death by invisibility.
So to some extent SEO specialists had to clean up their act. A lot of them started concentrating on backward links which were still seen as strictly white hat. This quickly led to websites full of articles whose only purpose was to provide links to websites in need of them.
An army of copywriters, working for a pittance and for whom English was often their second language, came into being to write the articles. Link farms and spam blogs grew up – the web was full of material that had no real purpose other than SEO. And often the websites that used these techniques thrived.
But now suddenly the landscape has changed with Google’s introduction of the Panda and Penguin updates. All the evidence is that Google is going in hard on backward links which are more like spam than genuine articles or comments. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth among the SEO community, presumably because this leaves them with little left to manipulate – which is presumably exactly what Google intended.
So will this mean the death of SEO companies? Who knows? As a collective beast they’ve always shown remarkable powers of recovery. Every time Google closes one door, another one opens. For example, the new restrictions are now being used unscrupulously to target competitors’ websites by creating link penalties against them. If you can’t raise your own rankings, you can at least lower others.
But one thing the better SEO companies are talking about more than ever before is content. They’ve always paid lip-service to the idea that ‘Content is King’, and now they have little choice. And maybe that’s where the copywriters come in….
Like most freelance copywriters my working life is one of feast and famine. Sometimes the phone and inbox are working overtime with enquiries – other times there might as well be tumbleweed blowing through the office.
However, one of the pleasures of being freelance as opposed to employed is that you only have to do the work you want to do. One of the most easily rejected enquiries, which I’m sure every copywriter will encounter sooner or later, is the request for a 20 page sales letter (it’s nearly always 20 pages for some reason) designed to sell DVDs featuring an internet guru who promises untold riches for those who follow his incredible masterplan.
Some years ago I spent quite a bit of time watching a number of these videos. I already suspected a scam but wanted to be sure before I told the client I couldn’t be any help. The people who make the requests for sales letter are nearly always victims of the scammer.
Basically it works like this. The ‘guru’ makes DVDs of himself at a conference full of potential dupes. He’ll be on stage talking about how he never got any grades at school, worked in a fast food joint, was a real loser and generally despised (you can usually understand why) until he discovered the secret of making wealth beyond his wildest dreams.
And guess what – he’s now going to share his secret with all of you! And effectively he does. It’s quite clever as long as no one actually thinks too hard. Because the way he got rich was by getting people to pay him to explain how he got rich. And the way he got rich was by getting people to pay him to explain how he got rich. There’s no product, no real service, just a cleverly and deceptively worded play for the basic greed in people.
And it’s a closed circle, but he gives the impression anyone can do the same.
Well of course anyone could if they were as much of an ingenious sleaze-bucket as the ‘guru’, but most of the people who approach me wanting a sales letter to sell the DVDs are perfectly innocent, sometimes financially desperate people – they’re just one of those born every minute.
It’s effectively a pyramid with the ‘guru’ at the top and all his dupes unconsciously doing his dirty work and paying out good money for bad videos and going to the trouble and cost of hiring copywriters in the belief that their magic with words is going to make their fortune. But all the time the only real money is funnelling back to the douchebag.
One way to make it more difficult to run this kind of scam would be if all freelance copywriters refused to take the work on, however much they need the coppers in their coffers. Being able to turn work away if it’s going to make you feel grubby, is one of the great freedoms of freelancing.
This is a clever commercial by spread and cheese manufacturer Kerry Low Low which uses the stereotypes of women in food commercials to sell its own product. But will it mean these stereotypes will never be used again? Fat chance.
With all the recent stuff about the Leveson enquiry and press regulation, it makes me glad that the advertising industry in this country is so effectively regulated. And believe me, it is.
When I joined my first ad agency as a trainee copywriter, it was impressed on me from day one that everything I wrote had to be Legal, decent, honest and truthful. This was the essence of how your work would be evaluated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the event of any complaint by the public.
Can you imagine a trainee journalist on a tabloid being schooled in these four principles?
Freedom of the press is essential for a civilised society but so is the right of the individual to privacy, even if they have been so rash as to appear on X-Factor or Big Brother.
On the Plain English Campaign website there is an interesting tool that helps you check the clarity and simplicity of written material. It’s called Drivel Defence (though I think Bullshit Detector might be a more appropriately Plain English type of name)
Anyway full marks to Plain English Campaign for trying to stem the tide of jargon and management-speak, especially that found on company websites. You can find out more about Drivel Defence here.
One Friday, Creative Review called me with an offer I couldn’t refuse – £900 worth of ad space for just £125, as long as I could get the artwork to them on Monday.
This is the ad, which actually stands out reasonably well among the other classifieds. However, as I expected there has been scarcely any response to it. No phone calls from eager clients, no significant increase in website traffic.
My feeling is that the only way to use this kind of trade press advertising effectively is to be a constant presence, month after month, year after year.
Eventually you’ll get remembered and recognised, but of course in the process it’s going to cost thousands of pounds at normal insertion rates, and unfortunately that just isn’t something I can afford.
Well worth a watch, this is a very nicely presented speculation on the creative process.
As a freelance copywriter, it’s sometimes necessary to make sure the radio station you’re listening to is a commercial one just to keep up with things. (I favour BRMB, a Birmingham station, that has a good variety of local and national commercials).
But the truth is my favourite radio stations are mostly commercial-free and web based. Just recently I came across a terrific source of virtually non-stop music that has become a permanent resident on the Squeezebox in our kitchen.
It’s called Radio Paradise and, to quote, “is a blend of many styles and genres of music, carefully selected and mixed by two real human beings.” What’s amazing is that such an eclectic mix, with so many not-so-famous artists, can hit the sweet spot of the inner ear with just about every track.
If you want to give it a try, you’ll find Radio Paradise right here. Happy listening!