How to write an ad.

January 9th, 2018

(500 words on words.)

Even in an Instagram-driven, character-count, soundbite world, advertising writing matters. Whether it’s on TV, radio, a magazine, newspaper (remember those?), an outdoor board, web page, a phone script – it all starts with the copy.

But hey, you (and many of my past clients) might say, “my kid’s a pretty good writer. After all, she got a 93 on her English essay. How hard can it be?”

Writing a great ad (and by great, I mean compelling, motivating, clear and stabs your heart like a lightning bolt) is hard work. It can take a long time to get it right. And sometimes, it just takes perseverance. Sally Hogshead, author of Radical Careering and Fascinate and a damn good copywriter, quotes Luke Sullivan (another damn good copywriter and author of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This) as saying work ethic trumps talent. As an example, Sally once wrote 800 headlines for an ad in attempt to get one good one. It worked.

There are no real shortcuts, although when you’re really pressed, you can always reach for John Caples’ 1932 classic “Tested Advertising Methods. ” There you’ll find such nuggets to increase readership and effectiveness as “Begin with the word ‘New’ or ‘Introducing.’” It might seem laughable, but there is good advice in this book – as it comes from the idea of an ad should be written to sell.

Great ad copy begins, appropriately enough, with the headline. Unlike News/Ed writing, where I was taught to write the headline last, most of the time your ad writing begins with the headline. The concept is usually sold with a headline and a layout – the essence of the idea. The headline is the single hardest part to get right, and the most important. If you don’t grab attention, immediately communicate something of relevant interest, and leave the reader wanting just a little bit more – then all the rest of your effort is wasted. They’ve turned the page, changed the channel, or clicked on to something else. That’s why Sally wrote 800 headlines to get just one.

So as promised, some basic advice: Start at the beginning and let the story unfold, captivating readers with wit and intrigue. Start at the end, and backfill to get to the powerful close (the way some people complete mazes.) Or heck, start in the middle. Just start.

For those who can’t be bothered to actually read the copy that a writer has slaved over, here are some easy to scan bullet points to writing a great ad:

  • Have an idea. Otherwise, you’re writing catalog copy.
  • Keep your reader in mind. Remember, the ad should be about what they want to read, not what you want to say.
  • Think visually. Show, don’t tell.
  • Pacing matters. Write like you talk.
  • Editing always improves everything.
  • When in doubt, leave it out.
  • Hard work beats brilliance every time.

So remember, give your copywriter time to get it right. It’s not as easy as it looks.