Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Gordon Brown, the buck stops with you & Labour...

Right. It’s time to draw a line under the whole blame game surrounding the current farcical economic situation once and for all. As a humble Copywriter, I’m under no pretence that I have the solution to the world’s monetary woes, but it seems to me that the British Government is overlooking the fact that so much of society’s financial troubles have arisen from the society that ‘New’ Labour has built.

I graduated five years ago with a mountain of student debt. Plenty of my friends, people I’ve worked with and people I’ve met are in the exact same situation to me. Unless you come from an extremely moneyed background, the only options available to you in your pursuit of further education are student loans, overdrafts, credit cards and debt.

Even the most prudent of students will leave university with several thousand pounds worth of debt, meaning that we have an annual army of graduates with huge debt and limited employment prospects. I found it hard trying to find a creative job that I’d trained for in an extremely competitive sector, having instead to spend several post-university years shackled to the oppressive chains of retail work. I genuinely pity the graduates of today – coming out of halls and into the real world to a job market more barren than a Tony Blair fan club meeting - weapons of mass destruction anyone?

I digress. The issue I wish to make is that the UK now has a whole generation of indebted students, clambering to get on a career ladder that’s as wobbly and creaking as a rope ladder in an Indiana Jones film. It inevitably won’t hold everyone, and as seen, the economy has now ‘snapped’ in spectacular fashion, dropping several UK workers into the unemployment abyss that lurks beneath all of us.

I’m an indebted student. I have finally got onto a decent career ladder after three and a half years of retail work. That low-paid work required borrowing from overdrafts. I don’t have any deposit to get on the housing market as I’m continually seeing my pay packet drained as the Government take back their percentage of a fat student loan – a percentage that leaves me short each month yet barely covers the interest on the loan.

Whilst I know there are so many factors to consider in this complex financial meltdown, why don’t we learn from this and ensure that positive change comes about as a result? Why not offer our citizens free education, enabling them to graduate debt-free, clued-up and able to buy a house – able to feed the economy rather than drain it further. Gordon Brown and his cronies want us stimulating the housing market and buying properties? Sorry Gordon, we’re too busy balancing Labour’s student debt on our shoulders to even think about buying our first house yet.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

I don't want to share Twitter - go away!

Its praises are currently being sung by every newspaper, magazine, website and blog in the universe. A revolutionary micro-blogging site has truly hit the big time, following a meteoric rise of publicity, as its evangelical supporters wax lyrical about the phenomenon that is Twitter.

For those of you that have been living under a digital rock for the past two months, Twitter is a unique social networking site that lets users ‘tweet’ messages of 140 characters. By ‘following’ certain people, their updates appear on your screen, allowing you to keep track of what your friends (and favourite celebrities) are doing.

The site’s poster boy is English actor and television personality Stephen Fry, whose endorsement of the site has been truly remarkable. On his first show following suspension, Jonathan Ross interviewed Fry, who promptly started to discuss Twitter in front of the BBC’s millions of Friday night viewers.

But this, dear reader, is where (my) problem with Twitter officially started. Following that Friday night, Fry’s following on Twitter went from 50,000 to nearly 200,000 in a couple of weeks. The mainstream media clamoured to discover what exactly this Twitter was and I was suddenly left feeling like I’d been cheated on.

You see for those of us in the know before this, it was almost like we were part of a secret club. Twitter was cool – it was our thing that no one else knew about it – sub-cultural capital for the digital age. It’s the same premise as when the band you’ve been following for years suddenly becomes huge and people everywhere start humming the latest single – I don’t want to share Kings of Leon with the chavs down the pub – this is my thing, not theirs!

And so we come back to Twitter. Everyone now has a Twitter page, everyone is tweeting and the secret club that we used to hold in our metaphorical childhood tree house has now been bombarded by the whole world - we’ve been forced to share our favourite toys once again. Bah humbug.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Freedom of speech? It's hard enough writing it!

In a previous column (SEO – Integrity or Dominance) I’ve bemoaned the negatives that client side copywriting can bring, but tongue in cheek firmly back in check, I can’t deny that there are many benefits to working, as my job title states, “in-house.”

The sheer variety that being the only wordsmith in the office brings means that I’m often kept engaged by different writing challenges for several target audiences. The other week however, I was asked to do something I’d never really done before. As much as my colleagues would revel in it, I shall desist from here inserting a humorous quip about ‘making the coffee’ or staying late in the office but get straight to the point - I was asked to write a speech.

The company’s Australian branch is attending a forthcoming advertising conference and as part of this, has to film a thirty-second commercial to be broadcast at the aforementioned event. Anything the company requires writing plops into my inbox amongst all of the virals and “funny” animal pictures my girlfriend insists on spamming me with, which is were I unearthed this latest copywriting task.

I relish any new writing challenge with real vigor.I can do this,” I thought to myself as I stared at the blank screen before me. Look at World President Obama – he recognizes the importance of speeches, hence the appointment of Hollywood favorite Jon Favreau to his speech-writing team – Barack’s boys really are “with it.” Quite fancying myself as a Favreau-esque maverick speechwriter, I started penning my prose.

Two and a half hours later and it transpires that I’m not quite ready for my move to the glitz and glamour of L.A. Having asked my Marketing Executive to read through the initial draft with me, it turns out that we speak a lot more slowly than we read, leaving my humble speech way over the required thirty seconds.

Literally back to the drawing board, I whittled and whittled – tipping my hat to ancient Homeric similes, if my mighty speech had once been a sturdy oak of idiosyncratic marketing musings, rhythmic rambling and poetic prose, it was now a veritable acorn. As the previous sentence illustrates quite wonderfully, I like to populate my copy with flowery and often unnecessary verbiage, which as I discovered, are NOT good traits in a speech.

This said, I finally completed my task and whisked the copy off to the Sydney office, where luckily, it was received with approval and commendations on the speed of turnaround – little did they know that there was a frustrated copywriter, six cups of strong coffee and a severely chewed biro behind that tiny assortment of three sentences. I guess my plans for CSI London are going to have to remain firmly on the shelf for the time being, since this copywriter is sticking firmly to writing for reading…

(This article was written for and appears on www.writingmafia.com/author/callum)

SEO - Integrity or Dominance?

Let’s face it, when your day-to-day clientside copywriting job involves a predominant focus on digital work, you’re going to be handed some laborious and uninspiring SEO tasks from time to time. Just as Obama inherits an economy that’s on its metaphorical knees, so too the noble copywriter inherits the occasional boring task – both are unfortunate territories that come with their respective jobs. (Should writers get a ‘Write House’ too?)

No stranger to digital copywriting (or laborious literature), I’m regularly tasked with optimizing adverts (that’s ads to you yanks) for publication on several leading websites and job boards. Regardless, however, of whether I’m optimizing yet another generic ad or working on an exciting strapline for a flashy print campaign, I, like most writers, apply the same passionate approach and professional integrity to every piece of copy that leaves my fingers.

This approach ensures that each piece of work is well written, readable, user-friendly and above all, optimized. But what if other, less noble copywriters turn the tables? What if lazy companies (and those really looking to get the edge on their competitors) cheat to get their advertisements above yours?

In fear of compromising my current employers and incurring libelous accusations from those my words wish to accuse, my illustrations on this point may lack the venom and clarity that they would otherwise achieve in an uncensored and perfect copywriting world. I, like most writers, have bills to pay and until Obama really does save the global economy (Gordon Brown’s not having much luck), I shall illustrate my point anonymously.

I noticed a competitor’s batch of ads had suddenly started appearing above those of my own company – an occurrence that knocked not only the status quo of our business interests, but also my creative ego. Whereas (I’d like to think) my digital copy was optimized, coherent, readable and populated with an appropriate keyword density, these scurrilous ads simply repeated the keyword three or four times every single sentence, to the degree that their copy read like a piece of SEO overkill.

The ink in my pen positively boiling by this point, I was presented with the first ethical copywriting dilemma of my career (drum roll please) – do I sacrifice coherent grammatical structures and flowing language for nonsensical keyword saturation? Do I play my competitors at their own game, resulting in my return to the top of the rankings, yet with significantly poorer English attributed to my name?

In the end, although this is an ongoing issue in my working life, my heart won over my head. I remain digitally battling my enemies of English and although their ‘unethical’ methods may rile the purist within, I take great heart from retaining my literary integrity and staying true to my beloved profession.

(This article was written for and appears on www.writingmafia.com/author/callum)

Monday, 2 February 2009

Why I Write

Followers of my Twitter account will have previously been informed about my recent Orwell purchases from my local second hand book shop. Volumes 1-4 of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters have now been added to my bookshelves and it was with great relish this weekend that I started perusing the tanned, musty pages that evoke such pleasure in book collectors worldwide.

The opening essay, ‘Why I Write’, struck me as particularly fascinating. As I writer myself, why do I write? Orwell lists four reasons why he, and indeed anyone, would write and I thought it interesting to compare with my own.

The first of these he describes as ‘sheer egoism’ – the desire for fame, to be remembered and to get your own back on those who previously snubbed you – “It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one”. Now, I’d like to think that my ego is very much in check, although I can’t deny that I would indeed love to produce some masterpiece that could be held up as an example of contemporary literature, as well as laying siege to those who have doubted me in the past. First blood to Orwell.

Point two is given as ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’ – “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement”. On this point, I concur wholeheartedly. In A-Level History, I was accused by my lecturer (and rightly so) of using poetic and ‘flowery’ language to pad out the word count of a rather dull essay on Germany’s Weimar Republic. I remember it clearly – “This is a wonderfully written essay, beautifully worded; however, it tells me nothing about Weimar Germany.” The ensuing nine years have led to many more similar accusations from readers, employers and lecturers, all I haste to add, fully justified.

Orwell lists the third point as ‘Historical Impulse’ – the desire to see things as they are, find out the true facts and store these for posterity. This point didn’t strike me as immediately applicable, but then why else would one blog about American Presidents, BBC advertising and current affairs that pique my interest? Perhaps on a subconscious level, I too am recording my personal history as I also flex my writing muscles.

The last point Orwell makes in his essay is ‘Political Purpose’. Whilst many will immediately evoke Orwell’s ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ as examples of political writing, he argues that there are underlying politics in every piece of writing, borne out of the society and upbringing of the writer who records it.

I must say, this again, is another valid point. From an inherently bitter view regarding the educational system and its resulting accumulated debt, to the writing I produced as a worker under the oppressive regime of retail dictatorship, my own personal politics play out on the page before me.

So it appears, regarding my own literary ramblings and fanciful writing, that he reasons I write, are indeed, the same cited by Orwell. Whilst every writer wants to believe that they are better than their peers and their reasons for writing are individual when perhaps they are not, I take heart from the fact that my reasons for writing share such prestigious company – now for the bestselling novel…