Advertising: "I like words too much"

As I said before, I am a great fan of long copy.
Following, there is an interview with Neil French, from Taschen Magazine, summer 2006 edition. He is one of the greats as far as long copy goes.

T: You always talk about the importance of copy.When you are flicking through a magazine, for example, you see a lot of images, and you keep flicking. Should a good ad be like a good book that you don't want to stop reading?

NF: Well, the short answer is yes, of course. But while you're flicking, you need an art-director to make you stop flicking and start reading! Only then can you concentrate on making the copy work. There's one recent ad I wrote that many people have asked for reprints of; it's on walls of copywriters' offices all over the world...if not on the walls of art-directors. The headline is "Nobody reads long copy anymore. Here's why." And of course there are columns of copy. Basically what it says is that if you can write interestingly then people will read. And if they don't, it's your fault for not being interesting.

T: Would you say something about advertising today?

NF: I don't think it has changed that much since I started. It was like being an apprentice, so when I started I looked at all the stuff that had been done before. But I think I was the first bloke to do an ad which was entirely copy. No picture at all. No, actually there was one before. The first one was written by an American chap and I think it was written for Cadillac in the 1930s or something. No picture, just text. I loved that. I fell in love with it. For years I carried it around in a folder with me to remind me what the masters do. It was the Mona Lisa of copywriting.However, in those days most ads were headline, picture copy and logo. Certainly, when Helmut Krone was the kingpin of the art directors and everything was in three columns, that became the way to do it. Just recently the whole genre has changed. I think Marcello Serpa's agency changed everything. He is a really clever guy. He realized that he was not going to win a huge amount of awards at Cannes with Brazilian ads because nobody else reads Brazilian except the Portuguese. His flight of genius was not to do any words at all. No headline, no nothing. Just a picture, and astounding picture and a logo on the bottom right. He invented that, and everyone all over the world just slavishly copied the style, without understanding the genius of the original reason!

T: And what about your way of doing ads?

NF: I like words too much. I'm just not a visual person. So I started by writing copy, trying to copy other copywriters. I copied Bill Bernbach for a while, unsuccessfully of course. I copied David Ogilvy for a while, unsuccessfully of course. Then at some period I found my own voice and then I was all right. I still prefer long copy. Let's say you have ten people and you show them a nice big picture ad with the logo in the bottom right hand corner and see what happens.Well, eight of them at least will look at it before flicking. Two of them might look at it a bit longer, but there is nothing else they CAN do but look at it. You can't do anything else. Now, if it's a long copy ad, and if it's good copy, eight of them will still just look and flick. But maybe one of them will read the first paragraph before he flicks. And only one out of ten is going to start, and enjoy it, and get through to the end. But him I've got. I own his soul for five minutes, or whatever. Now I'd rather have one person completely sold on my product, than ten who vaguely remember it. For me that is power.

T: Is it hard to get copy-ads approved these days by big clients?

NF: I have been really lucky because I have a reputation in Asia and the clients tend to call me personally and say "can you do us some ads, Neil?"If I had to go and get them on cold call I would starve. In fact, in the WPP Annual there is only one copy-only ad... and that is because the client called up and said he wanted one. It was great fun, because when they asked me I said he doesn't need a long copy ad.What he sold was sold totally on the basis of price. His product is cheaper than any competitor's and as good as them all.We have had the client for a long time. It is a hugely successful, nofrills airline in Asia. How difficult is it to say "Everybody else 500 dollars, us 50 dollars"? It doesn't take creativity to say that. Anyway the client said,"No, you misunderstand me,Neil. I want a long copy ad." And I said,"No, you don't need one." And he said,"Let me put it another way. Write me a long copy ad.""Ah. I see. Right. OK." It was a tough job. I sat there forever throwing bits of paper into the bin. Bad idea. Bad idea. Bad idea. And then I found a way in. I am not sure if it is a great way in, but it an amusing way in. And I wrote it, and he liked it, and it ran. I personally doubt that it put another bum on a seat, but I think the point was made and I think he just wanted to prove that you can make a long copy for a cut-price product. And he enjoyed bullying me!

T: So if you have a good idea you keep the client.

NF: If you can get the client enthusiastic about his own advertising that is fantastic. You know, clients are not always stupid. They frequently come up with good ideas themselves and I am happy to go along with that. If a client has a good idea I will say,"Oh, yes!", and steal it, and get an award, and keep the award, and give the client no credit whatsoever!T: You write things for all kinds of clients. Do you think it is better to do a worldwide campaign?NF: No, not really. I wish it were, because wouldn't it be wonderful to deal with the people who approved the new Honda ad, for example? I guess it is worldwide now and I would have loved to have done that. But I am not that good, I could never have done it. Everyone would love to see their advertising worldwide. I think there is only one campaign I have ever done which went worldwide and that was for the United Bank of Switzerland. Generally speaking, I tend to do everything on a local level. I have done campaigns in Brazil for Brazilians, in Mexico for Mexicans, in Spain for the Spanish and in Singapore for the Singaporeans. All over, but very rarely does it go more than regional.

T: Does it have to do with specific and more personalized solutions? Is it also a fact that locals can usually find a better way to tell a story?

NF: Yes, and also that I am a disbeliever in global answers. I think people are so similar, and so different. Actually we are more similar than we are different, Look at a row of people from all over the world and there will be a slight change in colour, a small change in shape, but that is about it really. All the rest is the same. All the buttons that make them work are the same. But in order to get there, that is where culture comes in. That is where the different cultures operate on a different level. So for Singaporeans the way to the heart is entirely different than that for Brazilians. Germans are very different to even the Spaniards. Or the Japanese to the Americans. Talk about poles apart. They are planets apart. And that is what interests me. I know where we have to get to. It's the road that's interesting.

T: One would think that if you have a worldwide account you can solve a bigger problem easier, but in the end it might be nice also to have the pleasure to solve everything possible around you.

NF: I find it very much more interesting to be able to go into a town and listen to people talking about my ads. Very rarely are they talking about a worldwide campaign. Who remembers the name of the person who invented the Marlboro cowboy? Somebody invented him. It is a worldwide campaign, probably the greatest ever written, but nobody knows who did it. Buried. It is kind of sad. Who wrote "Just do it"? Who did the design for it, the swoosh? I know, but I bet not one in a thousand advertising people know. Not one in several million ordinary people. So I like the applause, I like the adulation. I am not kidding you here. It would be foolish and stupid to say I didn't like it. And you just don't get it from worldwide accounts. You might get a lot of money for your agency, but you don't get famous. Creative people don't get rich doing worldwide campaigns. Sad, but true. Because you are so powerful, they burry you quickly. It's true. I mean, who wrote "It's the real thing" for Coke? Nobody knows. It went worldwide. Somebody wrote it. Why aren't they super famous, after all it's one of those campaigns that changed the brand. But no.

T: What is your view on advertising as a selling tool?

NF: Yes. Well, when I grew up in this business there was no such thing as interactive television. Interactive television is probably the only truly direct response, where you can press a button and buy a product. That is real direct sale. It always amuses me when people say this is a direct sale ad. And I say, "So what is an indirect selling ad?"

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