This is my article which appeared on Best Media Info last month. Most of the advertising gurus said good things about the article because it was on something they all feel strongly about. I am glad I wrote it and that I had a chance to believe in this art form before it dies a slow and silent death.
We are living life in the fast lane. Status is not about work and social standing as much as a line on social media. And people stay in touch through 140 characters spelt out on micro-blogging sites.
When everything is going short, how can the traditional long copy survive in advertising world?
While advertising greats like David Ogilvy, Neil French, John Caples swore by long copy ads, the recent trend in India – and abroad – has been to stick to shorter passages with a no-nonsense approach. The popular notion is that long copy ads don’t work anymore which is why everyone – from FMCG clients to government offerings – prefers the short copy.
“It is not true that long copy ads do not work anymore. It was never true. It all depends on the brief given to the agency, what and how much you want to say about the product, what the media plan is and whether it allows for a long format. If one is interested in a certain brand, he will read any ad of that. Or if someone is interested in a particular category – like, say, buying a car – he would read ads of that category, whether long or short. So you will have readers, be it for the craft or for the category,” feels Satbir Singh, Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer, Havas Worldwide.
There was a time when long copy was favoured by not just advertisers but by clients as well. Neil French, the British adman who brought an advertising revolution in Asia, has often been called one of the last true bastions of long copy. David Ogilvy, John Caples, etc., all swore by the long copy format. Ogilvy, in his famous book ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’, wrote: “All my experience says that for a great many products, long copy sells more than short … advertisements with long copy convey the impression that you have something important to say, whether people read the copy or not.”
If all that is true, then why are more people going for the short copy these days?
D Ramakrishna, popularly known as Ramki, Director, Cartwheel Creative, says, “The problem is that clients are not ready to say yes to a long copy. Be it for the risk it involves or the financial constraints. What they want nowadays is a bullet point kind of work. Say, these are the benefits, or say this is why you should have XYZ product, something like that.”
Equus Red Cell’s Chairman, Swapan Seth, a votary and exponent of long copy, does not fully agree. According to Seth, while the former glory years of long copy advertising were well guarded by creative craftsmen and writers, most agencies today are ill-equipped to write them. “To take refuge in the client’s un-interest is the excuse of the lazy and untalented,” insists Seth.
Incidentally, Seth makes it a point to churn out two or three long copies each year himself, including the copy for HT’s Mint Lounge and the Wildlife Safari copy for Taj Safaris.
A lot of these arguments seem invalid also to Ajay Kakar, Chief Marketing Officer, Aditya Birla Group – Financial Services. Kakar feels that though it is often felt that marketers and brands do not wish to accept the risk of a long copy, it cannot be generalised.
“It is fashionable to say and presume that long copy is dead. Who has the time to read, etc., are the kind of arguments we come across. But the truth is it depends on the category and the consumer. If it is a high involvement, high cost or high engagement category, I’d like to know as much as I can before purchasing something,” he says.
What Makes a Good Long Copy?
While most people agree that long copies are not as widely used as in yesteryear, it is not dead. The art of writing a long copy however is something that has to be cultivated properly for the art to survive.
According to Seth, many long copies are unreadable. What he himself does is to write them out like a conversation while visualising each line. “A good long copy needs to give information, has to be humorous, should be subtle, and all this while being written in a nice way. All these incidentally are the components of a fine conversation. And a conversationalist.”
However, O&M’s National Creative Director, Rajiv Rao, feels a long copy can be humorous or serious – the tone does not matter. What matters is the headline and the body. The headline itself should be eye-catching, and the body should be something that makes people want to read it till the end. The ad should be understood in the end.
“The long copy is definitely about the craft of writing, not the tone. But just like one shoe doesn’t fit all, a long copy is not always required. You have to know when it is needed. A few instances are there which require a long copy, and that will never change. But can the long copy make a strong comeback? It is hard to say so, though I wouldn’t completely say no either,” Rao said.
Why is it Dying?
The common notion is that long copy is dying with the death of people’s interest in reading. Television and the 30-second TVC have sealed the coffin for long copy, it is widely argued, as the new formats make products attractive in the blink of an eye. But is it really so?
KV Sridhar aka Pops, National Creative Director, Leo Burnett India, explains that long copy flourished in India when print was important. “In the dying stages of print, television came in and print was relegated to a corner. TV took the mantle of emotional advertising. And with that, people started to forget the power of copy. They don’t realise that visuals will restrict imagination. The written word can never be replaced.”
Many people hold the same view as Pops. But then again, Prathap Suthan, Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer, Bang In The Middle, feels that nothing is killing long writing, because if that were the case, then the first thing to have closed down would have been newspapers and magazines.
“It is not the form of writing which is in question. Nowadays, we absorb much more in a second than we did a decade back. Besides, clients may not encourage it because of a lack of space. More importantly, people who write long copy aren’t there anymore. They have gone on to mediums which are more accepting of a long piece, like blogging. Some people have left writing altogether. Only some of us are left who like and use long copy. Advertising has moved to telling stories in three words or thirty seconds. In such a scenario, the craft itself is going down,” says Suthan.
Suthan incidentally regularly writes long copies and uploads them on the agency’s Facebook page. These are not for any particular client, but created just because he and a couple of others at Bang In The Middle like long copies. According to him, this act not only protects his writing skill by sharpening it, but also sort of creates a branding for the agency. “It proves to the world, that yes, we are here and we can write about anything under the sun and make it interesting.” (As proved by his recent tribute to the ‘Gajar ka Halwa’.)
Agnello Dias, Co-Founder & Chief Creative Officer, Taproot India, feels that change in media habits are the reason why long copy is going away. “Persuasive writing has been fractured with increased media fragmentation. We all know the basic tenets of mass persuasion: AIDA – Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. These were one of the few commandments in the bible of advertising writing. Currenlty, the first three (Attention, Interest, Desire) seem to have become the sole preserve of television or the internet and therefore conventional copywriting is relegated to information or data dissemination.”
The Digital Sphere: Boon or Bane?
Is digital also leading to the demise of long copy? According to Rajiv Rao, it is so. He is a strong believer that long copy is meant only for print and can never work in digital where audio visual takes a front seat.
But Pops feels otherwise. He explains, “There is so much written material in digital. What matters now is to see how the new generation of writers use the medium. They might just make it more interesting, more argumentative and more thought-provoking. We must accept that media habits have changed. The early morning newspapers have been replaced by iPads and cell-phones. There is too much content out there, with no one to curate or filter anything. But things like Kindle give you hope. That whatever the screen, people read. And as long as people read, long copies can work.”
Josy Paul, Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, BBDO India, feels that it is futile to complain about long copy’s survival. “Nothing ever dies. They take on new forms. They evolve over time. Long copy is alive and clicking and is finding its way into many different streams – long radio scripts, long internet films, long content pieces, long blogs and so many other creative pursuits. You’ll find long copy is all over the Net. People are writing and writing. It’s like the floodgates have opened for long copy. There’s a sudden outpouring. Looks like the world of advertising had trapped long copy in some old notions of print ads.”
Taproot’s Agnello feels that “clients don’t believe in it any more as they feel TV and internet alone more than covers all the persuasion thrusts that they need. It may not necessarily be the right belief but it certainly is a belief.”
A recent ad in the US for Apple sparked a debate about a revival of long copy. But while many people heaved a sigh of relief, assured that long copy is not dead, many others felt that only a huge brand like Apple could pull off something like that.
According to Satbir Singh, it is a misconception. He feels that the use of long copy should be decided on the basis of what the product is and how much information is to be given, not the brand’s reputation or standing. A new product may want to give more information, or play up one of its features. Then the long copy makes sense. “But then, some brands have a heritage of writing long copies while some have deliberately stayed away from them.”
Ramki agrees. But he also says that “bigger brands may have more resources or spending power. They don’t have to start from scratch like a new brand. But then again, long copies are popular for new politicians and, say, new real estate projects. In both cases the information provided is of paramount importance.”
Why would a politician use it? According to Ramki, a long ad is likely to have a better conversion rate. “Whether it pulls more is a statistical question. But it converts more. If 100 people read your ad, 30-40 will be persuaded to buy it. That is a high percentage in comparison to those who are just intrigued by a short copy or TVC.”
So, while most of the top creative minds lament the disappearance of the long copy, they are hopeful that it can still survive if practitioners choose appropriate mediums for it. As Josy Paul said, “Why complain when every medium is welcoming the art. Let’s forget the past. Let’s embrace where long copy is finding new ground. Everything is relevant if you are connected with people and their dreams, hopes and fears. After that it’s the skill of the writer to keep the reader hooked.”
When so many top-notch long copy exponents still feel strongly about this once thriving art, long copy may yet survive. But the real danger, at least in a country like India, is that the skill with the written word itself is diminishing across spheres.