What Mad Men tells us about getting a good copywriting brief

A client recently asked me whether the copywriting industry was really like the US series Mad Men. If you’ve seen the show, you’ll know that it follows the highs and lows of an advertising agency team in Madison Avenue, New York during the 1960s.

I replied that the creative challenges are pretty much the same – without all the partying, hedonism and all-night drinking (well, not at Bright Words, anyway). Whatever the scenario, the key challenge is to find out what the client wants to achieve and then to convey this in a compelling way that sells their products or services.  But this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Here are a few top tips to steer you in the right direction.

The bean ballet

In one episode of Mad Men, Peggy, the agency’s copywriter, puts together an ad campaign for Heinz Baked Beans. She comes up with a high-tech TV ad for a ‘bean ballet’ in which the beans ‘pirouette in the air’ before splashing into the ‘mouth-watering sauce’.

Peggy MadmanThe pitch goes down like the proverbial lead balloon. Heinz hates it. The client tells Peggy, ‘where’s the bite and the smile’. The campaign misses the fundamental point of the product – people enjoying the taste.

Copywriting that hits the target

In Mad Men, the Heinz client tells Peggy, ‘stop writing down what I ask for and find out what I want’. Before putting pen to paper, it is vital to understand the product and what your client hopes to get out of their marketing – whether it’s for the web, a printed ad or a direct mail campaign.

Ideally, I always like to meet with a client to run through the brief before starting work. I’ve recently started work for a print, design and mailing company. I spent a couple of hours at the company’s HQ – seeing how their print services worked, meeting the team and seeing how their mailings are distributed. There’s no replacement for visiting in person and seeing the business in action.

Sometimes this is not possible, and, in these instances, I would have a telecon or Skype call with my client to find out as much as I could about their business. I’m not keen on written/email briefs as you just don’t get the same depth of information or feedback. You can learn so much more from a proper conversation.

Your copywriting brief

Here are a few questions that I usually kick off with. These questions inevitably lead to other questions and follow-up queries which all help me to build a rounded understanding of my client’s business and their marketing objectives.

  • Why are you running this campaign?
  • What benefits do your products or services offer?
  • What key messages do you want readers to take away?
  • Who are you appealing to?
  • What do you want to achieve?

Peggy Madman 02Research is your friend

Understanding the competition is vital. How can you run a marketing campaign if you don’t know what you’re up against? I always dedicate a considerable amount of time to competitor analysis. It’s not about stealing ideas – it’s about stealing a march and staying one step ahead of the game.

It’s not just about copywriting…

Finally, and most importantly, you need to be a good listener when you’re a copywriter.

It’s easy to jump straight in and start thinking up lots of creative concepts – just as Peggy did with her bean ballet. Her mistake was to put the creative thought process before her client’s needs. So, listening is a crucial part of a briefing.

Follow these top tips and you shouldn’t go far wrong.

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