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Jottings on Ads and Copywriting

Category: Ramblings

Blank Paper, Blank Mind: Or, the Struggle of the Copywriter

Easy writing makes hard reading. 

So thought Hemingway about great prose.

It’s true for great copy too.

You might think a great headline would flow naturally for the great copywriters, but it can be a struggle for them just as it is for mere mortals.

In most cases good copy is the end product of a long, frustrating process.

They say James Joyce used to nail a couple of sentences a day. On his good days.

I hate writing, I love having written.

So said Dorothy Parker.

The notion that great ideas and writing of any type just comes from sitting at your desk and concentrating couldn’t be further from the truth.

Just think of the great ad campaigns that have been conceived in unlikely places.

Terry Lovelock of CDP came up with the Heineken tagline ‘Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’ after waking up at 3 in the morning whilst in Marrakech shooting another ad.

He’d been flummoxed by the Heineken brief for weeks until then.

‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’ came from CDP too. Both copywriter and art director were stumped on the brief.

So they left work one night, got on the top deck of the bus, sparked up and one said ‘Happiness is a dry cigarette on the number 34 bus.’

David Ogilvy conceived the Guinness Guide to Oysters riding home on the train one night and reading a book about shellfish by a Yale Professor.

‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’ is said to have come to copywriter Maurice Drake of Young and Rubicam after two pints at the pub.

Reading through The Copy Book and Ogilvy on Advertising you’ll find the masters of the advertising art acknowledge the difficulties they’ve faced – and how to get past them.

James Lowther of Saatchi and Saatchi counsels getting out the office completely and go and watch the world go by. Failing that make up some gags or stories about the product.

David Abbott suggests never start writing until you’ve got too much to say. In other words keep researching the product or service – and work wherever suits, if that’s at home, in the office or in a hotel room.

Likewise David Ogilvy wrote: ‘Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or talking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret.’

And Alfredo Marcantonio thinks you’ll need to find everything possible relating to the product – technical data, rivals’ ads, press reviews. Then reducing it all down gets easier.

Steve Hayden, the maestro behind the early Apple advertising, suggests reading things like The Bible or Country and Western lyrics to get you inspired.

Lyrics like…

I’m So Miserable Without You, It’s Like Having You Here

I Wouldn’t Take Her to a Dog Fight, Cos I’m Afraid She’d Win

If I’d Shot You When I Wanted To, I’d Be Out By Now

Velcro Arms, Teflon Heart

I Got In At Two With a Ten, And Woke Up At Ten With a Two

And Malcolm Duffy suggests hitting the Thesaurus and writing out lists of connected ideas and words to your brief.

Once you’ve written something, start re-writing it, playing with the words.

And don’t forget lots of great lines are simply recycled lines. The Stella Artois line ‘Reassuringly Expensive’ was lifted from an old ad’s body copy.

‘I’ll bet he drinks Carling Black Label’ started out as a line promoting milk for Milk Marketing Board pitch that Wight Collins Rutherford Scott didn’t get.

They just substituted Carling for milk and used it.


Like the Murphy’s…



This is something that cropped up whilst I was researching the last post about Guinness advertising.

In their British advertising Guinness have sedulously avoided any mention of Irishness. They don’t want the product being associated with the typical Irish fella slowly nursing his pint of the Black Stuff in the corner.

So they’ve tended to opt for sleek, stylish, cool advertising – none more so than the mysterious Man with a Guinness series featuring Rutger Hauer that ran from 1987 to 1994.

Guinness historically has dominated the British stout market. By the early 1990s they held something like 80 per cent of the market, Murphy’s around 10 per cent, and other stouts made up the other 10 per cent.

What’s interesting is the way Murphy’s went about advertising themselves in Britain at this time. They took the polar opposite approach to Guinness, stressed the Irishness of their product, and found it made for a successful campaign.

Murphy’s is brewed to be a lighter, less bitter drink than Guinness. It’s made in Cork rather than Guinness that’s famously made at St James’s Gate in Dublin.

They turned to Bartle Bogle Hegarty for their UK advertising, who found that whilst the Guinness ads were seen by consumers as edgy, fashionable and cool they  were also regarded by some as pretentious, elitist and a bit aloof. What’s more, the Guinness ads had little connection with the actual product sold.

They took advantage of this and positioned Murphy’s as the relaxed, warm, easy-to-drink Irish stout, the unpretentious and down-to-earth alternative to the intellectualised Guinness brand.

Their TV advertising featured a chilled-out Irish character facing life’s disappointments with relaxed good-humour: ‘like the Murphy’s’, he’d say, ‘I’m not bitter’. He’s the physical embodiment of the product and the brand values, and we meet him in what are, to English eyes at least, classic Irish venues.

At a big wedding he laments having been the first boy in Cork to have kissed the bride, whilst a band plays The Wild Rover, that most famous of Irish drinking songs. But never mind, he’s not bitter.

And in the pub he’s lost on the horses thanks to O’Brien’s duff advice, but never mind because he’s won on the St Barnabus steeplechase in which the local priests dash to the church.

The Murphy’s ads ran from August 1993 to December 1995. In that time sales went up by nearly 200,000 barrels.

And the Murphy’s share of the stout market grew by the equivalent of £16.9 million.




Good Things Come to Those Who…Advertise? Part V. The Age of the Epic

This is where things get really interesting. There’s more information available on Guinness sales in the noughties, and conflicting voices on the effectiveness of the multi-million pound epic ads.

Guinness was facing a series of challenges as the new millennium came into view. There was the perpetual issue of brand perception, of appealing to the 18-34 year old demographic. Stout, in particular, had difficulty in making sales among younger drinkers who preferred lighter, blander lagers. By 2007 lager sales represented 70 per cent of British beer sales.

Beer in the UK was increasingly being consumed not in pubs, but at home courtesy of cheap bulk buying at supermarkets. Nearly 40 per cent of the beer sold in the noughties was for home drinking. Despite introducing the widget in a can in 1988 to enable a good pour at home, Guinness has traditionally been seen as a pub drink rather than something to take home.

One of the answers Guinness came up with was to introduce new drinks – Extra Cold, Guinness Red, Mid-Strength, Guinness Golden Ale. The other solution was a new advertising campaign.

Having ditched Ogilvy and Mather Guinness turned to Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. Their strapline for the campaign was ‘Good Things Come to Those Who Wait’ – a nod to the Irish Anticipation campaign of 1994. It takes 119.5 seconds to pour a perfect pint of Guinness, ostensibly a disadvantage now turned into a plus point of the product.

Faraway, exotic locations, mambo soundtracks, stylish direction, multi-million pound budgets: this was epic advertising aimed at lodging itself into the viewer’s mind, creating a talking point the next day. Each ad was a television event.

The positioning of the ads isn’t so far from the approach of the Rutger Hauer ads of the 80s. It’s Guinness marketed as the drink of the effortlessly cool, the individual, the man set apart. What it certainly is not is the drink of the lairy session-drinker who wakes up in a skip the next day.

The AMV BBDO ads began with Swimblack in 1998, made by director Jonathan Glazer and copywriter Tom Carty. It cost £3 million to make on location in Italy where the old swimmer Marco races the pint of Guinness, only his brother fixes things so he always wins.

Then came Surfer in 1999, another creation of Glazer and Carty and a nod to the Irish Surfer ad of 1981, where the Hawaiian surfers wait for and conquer the perfect wave, with a voiceover inspired by Moby Dick. A year later in 2000 came the Cuban snail race ad known as Bet on Black, with more mambo music by Perez Prado.

2001 saw Dreamer, Glazer’s last for Guinness, made in Budapest and featuring a figure who dreams he discovers the meaning of life atop a human pyramid. He also turns into a CGI squirrel along the way, in an ad that used 500 extras and 50 stunt men.

At this point Guinness stopped the campaign. It returned in 2005, but in the meantime they used the ‘Believe’ campaign. This started with an Irish ad in 2002 in which a hurler must take a free-in during the last moments of a match.

This was followed by Moths in 2004, set somewhere in Latin America and made using 6000 hours of work on CGI, and Mustang later that year, directed by Anthony Minghella. Both of these were AMV BBDO ads.

2005 saw the return of the ‘Good Things Come to Those Who Wait’ campaign with Noitulove, which is evolution spelt backwards. Three Guinness drinkers travel all the way back through time to become mudskipper fish, with Sammy Davis Jr. singing ‘The Rhythm of Life’ over the top.

The ads went smaller scale again in 2006 with Man in a Fridge and Hands, before Tipping Point in 2007, the most expensive ever Guinness ad costing £10 million. Filmed in Argentina, it’s essentially a giant game of dominoes using books, cars, flaming tyres until a huge pint of Guinness is revealed.

That was the last of the ‘Good Things Come to Those Who Wait’ ads. Since then we’ve seen curious one-offs like Dot, To Arthur 17:59, and Bring It to Life.

For all the millions spent, what was the return for Guinness? Well, countless awards went to the advertising agencies, with Surfer and Noitulove especially feted. Surfer was voted ‘Greatest Ad of All Time’ by The Sunday Times.

But what did this mean for Guinness sales? Swimblack and Surfer did well. Campaign reported that they helped Guinness to their highest market share ever, doubling their normal growth rates. The Guinness share of the UK beer market jumped from 5 to 5.5 per cent in 1999.

But after Surfer the same rate of success was harder to maintain. Marketing Magazine reported in 2003 that Guinness sales flat-lined between 2001 and 2003, with Bet on Black and Dreamer providing only modest returns and receiving criticism for being a little too obscure. At that time Diageo were reportedly less than pleased with AMV BBDO.

2003 was a poor year for Guinness sales – the last six months saw them drop by 3 per cent, perhaps due to a lack of big advertising that year. At this point the Moth advert of February 2004 gave sales a needed boost, up by 1.3 per cent in the first six months of the year whilst the beer market contracted.

The Guardian cites an overall market share rise of 5.1 per cent by 2004 on the back of the ads. But sales were again flattening out when Guinness returned to the ‘Good Things Come To Those Who Wait’ slogan in 2005.

Noitulove was shown from October 2005 for 12 months or so, as the beer market again contracted. The ad helped Guinness buck the trend again, with a rise of 3.6 per cent in sales and another market share boost in the period they were shown.

The effect of the 2006 Fridge and 2007 Hands ads was limited. The BBC in November 2007 put Guinness sales down over 10 per cent in the last two years. Hence the £10 million thrown into Tipping Point, which upped UK and Irish sales by 6 per cent according to Management Today.


So in financial terms the adverts had some success, though not without some bumps along the way. And the impression remains of fighting against the tide of the market; over the long-term drinkers have moved away from stout, and lately away from beer itself, with the total volume of beer sold in the UK down 20 percent since 2009. Guinness sales since 2008 have dipped by 50 million litres.

Moreover, the epic ads were not without their detractors, and there is an argument to say that the epic ads were counterproductive. As early as 2004 one former marketing director of Guinness was highlighting the separation between the Guinness advertising and Guinness the drink; people loved the ads, but they remained indifferent to the product. ‘So great Guinness advertising did not equal great Guinness sales’, said Julian Spooner.

In 2007 Marketing Magazine ran a piece by Mark Ritson in which he argued that Guinness had gone completely wrong with the big ads, becoming too concerned with industry awards, glamourous locations, and big budgets.

What was missing was any connection with the product, so that by 2007 Guinness reached a point where a pint of Irish stout was sold by images of an Argentinian village playing large-scale dominoes.

Had it all gotten too self-indulgent, when the product was supposed to be the star?

Good Things Come to Those Who…Advertise? Part IV. Ogilvy and Mather, Rutger Hauer, and Black and White

Ogilvy and Mather took over the Guinness account in 1985. Their first ads were the Pure Genius campaign, notable especially for its poster featuring seven figures illustrating the process of evolution from ape through homo sapiens to pint of Guinness. Come 2005 and it would inspire the noitulove ad.

The copywriter for the Pure Genius campaign was Mark Wnek. He was also behind what came next, the Man with a Guinness ads starring Rutger Hauer, not long after his turn in Blade Runner. The gag was that with his blonde mane and dressed all in black he resembled a pint of Guinness.

From 1987 until 1994 Hauer featured, often pint in hand, in the Guinness ads, some of them directed by Ridley Scott. He would utter surreal, gnomic aphorisms such as ‘It’s not easy being a dolphin’, ‘If you keep an open mind you’ll discover dark secrets’, and telling viewers by means of telepathy of his lost teddy bear Horace.

You could say that all the subsequent stylish, TV event Guinness advertising begins with the Man with a Guinness campaign. The reasoning was that by creating a cool, mysterious figure indelibly linked with the product, Guinness itself took on that same edgy, mysterious aura.

Remember that Guinness was constantly fighting the perception of being a drink of the older generation rather than the young, especially with the growth of lager since the 70s. An injection of mystique was the Ogilvy answer.

The figures that I can find suggest it worked a treat. According to Creative Bloq sales were up by 22 per cent in the first three months of the campaign, and an additional 37 million pints were sold every year.

The campaign with Hauer ended in 1994 and there wasn’t a new campaign from Ogilvy until 1996. In the intermission the Anticipation ad, shown in Ireland since 1994 and hugely popular, was introduced into the UK the following year.

It’s sometimes known as the Dancing Man ad and is the first that I can actually remember, largely due to the soundtrack of ‘Guaglione‘ by the Cuban mambo bandleader Perez Prado. His music would be used again in 2000’s Bet on Black, and the notion of waiting for the pint to be poured became the centerpiece of the ‘Good Things Come to Those who Wait’ ads.

The second major Ogilvy TV campaign was the Black and White series, sometimes known as the ‘Not everything in black and white makes sense’ ads, running from 1996 to 1998.

Once again we find Guinness targeting the 18-34 year old male demographic, those who knew and liked the Guinness advertising but wouldn’t normally drink the actual product, preferring lager.

The ads follow a similar structure: all are in black and white, feature a quotation, and try to play with the viewer’s preconceptions – just as the ads want you to reconsider your preconceived view of Guinness if you wouldn’t normally touch the stuff.

So we have an old man marrying a much younger, pregnant woman with Pete Townsend’s line ‘I hope I die before I get old’. Women work down mines, arm-wrestle, drive trucks and need men the way a fish needs a bicycle.

And in 1997’s Statistics we hear a series of stats on the average amount of wind a cow creates, the number of clowns who never fall in love, strippers who are convent educated, and that men think of sex every six seconds, before the Vic Reeves line ’88.2% of statistics are made up on the spot’.

After one year of the campaign Guinness announced they had achieved their highest ever total share of the UK beer market, at 5.2 per cent. Fast forward another twelve months, though, and Ogilvy and Mather had lost the account.

The problem came with an ad with the Diana Dors quotation ‘Men and women shouldn’t live together’ and apparently featuring two gay men. It sparked controversy that Guinness could have done without. So they ditched Ogilvy and Mather soon after.

Good Things Come to Those Who…Advertise? Part III. The Television Age

The first TV ads for Guinness were shown on the first night of commercial broadcasting in 1955. Those first TV ads were effectively the Gilroy posters come to life – the zookeeper gets his Guinness stolen and so on.

It’s not until the following decade that things get interesting. 1966 saw the introduction of the After Work ads, where we see shipyard workers, farmers, and factory workers finishing work for the day and indulging with a drink. ‘Guinness Gives You Strength’ is sung over the top, and the positioning has become more focused – this is a working man or woman’s drink.

J Walter Thompson took over the account in 1969. They gave us the Black Pot ad of 1976: ‘There’s a certain pleasure in slowly putting away the Black’. Many of their ads were set within pubs and were made up of dialogue between a Guinness drinker and a Guinness sceptic as the one contradicted the other’s preconceptions, though one rather ingeniously features the single word well said ten times.

And in 1981 they started the ‘Bottle of Guinness Supporters’ Club’ campaign. The positioning is similar to the After Work ads – Guinness as the drink of the working man. In the ads a builder or mechanic tells the story in rhymed song of how they managed to fix something before heading to the pub to join the Bottle of Guinness Supporters’ Club’ – ‘it’s real full-bodied like a man’s drink should…’

What happened next sets the tone for much of the advertising of the noughties. Allen, Brady and Marsh took over in 1983 and created the Guinnless campaign, with then unknown figures like Angus Deayton and Robert Bathurst helping those afflicted with the strange disorder of Guinnlessness to order a proper pint.

What’s interesting is that the ads are clearly targeted at a slightly different market, the younger, working male demographic – and this is something that characterises Guinness advertising from now onwards, the problem of the pint’s perception as an ‘old-man-in-the-corner’s-drink’.

I’ve found conflicting reports on the campaign’s effectiveness. Allen, Brady and Marsh lost the account after a year, but according to The Independent the Guinnless campaign halted a decline in sales.


Good Things Come to Those Who…Advertise? Part II. The Gilroy Era

The first Guinness ad was published in the national press in February 1929. We know this because it says at the top in capitals: ‘This Is the First Advertisement Ever Issued in a national paper to advertise GUINNESS’. You can read it here on the Guinness website.

An unpromising headline maybe, but the rest of the ad is pretty good, stressing the product’s health-giving qualities. Guinness builds strong muscles, feeds exhausted nerves, enriches the blood, revives after bouts of influenza, and is a natural aid against insomnia. And at the bottom we find the famous slogan: ‘Guinness is Good for You’.

Guinness had a problem after the First World War. Sales fell away through the 1920s in Britain. Ireland was now an independent state, and Britain gave tax relief to its native brewers that made a British pint cheaper for consumers than an Irish one. The American market too was lost due to Prohibition, making for declining sales worldwide.

Guinness chairman Lord Iveagh regarded advertising as only ever a last resort and a sign of a poor product – but last resort time it was for Guinness. So in 1928 they turned to ad agency SH Benson, first of only five companies to hold the Guinness account in Britain. Benson’s were responsible that first ad, the result of going out into pubs and asking drinkers why they chose Guinness; it was good for you, they said, full of iron.

But it’s after 1930 that things really get going. That year saw the first poster produced by John Gilroy, Benson’s in-house artist. Over the next 25 years Gilroy created over 100 press ads and 50 posters for Guinness, working with copywriters who included literary figures like Dorothy L.Sayers and Bobby Bevan.

He gave Guinness the zookeeper who loses his pint to his animals, the sea lion who balances a pint on his nose, and the iconic Guinness Toucan – all paired with slogans like ‘Guinness for Strength’, ‘My Goodness, My Guinness’, and ‘Lovely Day for a Guinness’.

So did the introduction of advertising lift the flagging sales? Absolutely it did. The Guinness of the UK beer market rose in the next decade, with the new-found success enabling the building of the Park Royal Brewery in London in 1936 to the designs of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

During the Second World War the Army asked Guinness to set aside 5 per cent of its total production for them. Of the figures I can find the most telling is that between 1939 and 1950 total sales were up by 65 per cent.


Good Things Come to Those Who…Advertise? Part I.

Of all the TV advertising that I remember from growing up in the nineties and noughties it’s the Guinness ads that shine brightest in the memory. Sure enough, as soon as I could, I too became a suppliant at the altar of the Black Stuff.

Guinness has been one the most prominently advertised products in the UK for over 85 years now.

Beyond these shores it’s also inspired notable adverts like the original Surfer ad and the award-winning Gaelic skit The Island for the Irish market, and David Ogilvy’s Guinness Guide to Oysters series of advertorials from 1950 for the American market which effectively invented so-called native advertising.

So it’s perhaps a little surprising that these days Guinness tends to make the headlines for being Diageo’s problem child, with sales in long-term decline. Last year The Economist reported Guinness sales had dipped from over 250 million litres in 2008 to under 200 in 2014. In the year up to November 2012 sales were down by 10 million pints.

Which left me with a question: just how effective has Guinness advertising been over the years – and those big-budget epic ads of the noughties especially – in boosting sales? There’s plenty out there on the web about the history of Guinness ads, but less on their impact on the bottom-line.

I’ve had to pull as much data together as possible from newspapers, press statements and trade magazines. And, of course, this is a pretty imprecise game – there are always countless other factors like drinking habits, promotions and sponsorships that impact on sales, so don’t take what follows as absolute gospel.

Part II coming soon…


Facts. Cold Hard Facts.

Sometimes copy seems to write itself. You find facts, information or customer feedback that so clearly transmits the benefit of a product or course of action to your target market that it needs little in the way of elaboration.

David Ogilvy once built an ad for Rolls-Royce around 13 factual points about their new model: the engines were run for seven hours at full throttle during manufacturing, five coats of primer and nine of finish were used, three sets of brakes installed, and 98 separate tests performed before the car could leave the factory.

And for his headline he simply used a quote from the Technical Editor of The Motor magazine that at 60 miles an hour all the driver hears is the sound of the electric clock. It all creates the image of a reliable, rigorously well-made, luxury vehicle. And guess what? Sales shot up.

This kind of information-rich copy of course relies on thorough research into the product, company and target audience. Dig first, said the great copywriter David Abbott, then write. It’s the research process that’ll uncover facts with impact, that make you think twice, say bloody hell, and stick in your head.

10% lower emissions. 25% extra space. Beats the price of x by 5%. Proven to be more efficient than y. The sort of facts that make the benefit of your product abundantly clear.

It’s especially effective in advertising from public health organisations like the NHS. A fizzy drink can contains 6 teaspoons of sugar. The average smoker needs 5000 cigarettes a year. A single fact can speak volumes.

And it works well in a B2B context when your audience is more technically-minded than the average consumer. I once wrote some copy for the website of an SEO company looking to attract small business customers based around the facts that well over 80% of consumers were now searching for local services online through search engines with over 90% of all clicks going to pages ranked on the first results page.

I suppose you could call this type of copywriting lacking in wit or creativity, even a little bit dull. But look at many print ads with witty headlines and read the body copy and you’ll often find facts in there that make you sit up.

One example. One of my favourite pieces in the 2011 edition of The Copy Book is a piece of direct mail sent by Bloomberg to media buyers for major airlines advertising Bloomberg TV. It was written by copywriter Steve Harrison and each letter was accompanied by a label-less champagne bottle.

It starts with some discussion of whether the champagne is the 1992 Dom Perignon or the great ’66. To find out you’ll have to give us a call. Or maybe ask a Bloomberg viewer, since they’re partial to good champagne, especially during long-haul flights.

And then come the killer facts – 96% of Bloomberg viewers took an air trip in the previous 12 months; 78% took between 3 and 5 flights; and 54% took over 6 flights.

Now if you’re the media buyer for an airline you’re starting to think we need to be sure we’re attracting these frequent flyers who love quaffing champagne whilst following the markets. Better get Bloomberg shown on your flights.

No surprises, then, that 22 interested media buyers came straight back to Bloomberg.