The Last Word’: how copy­writ­ers can change the world

Written by
Indra Sinha
September 12, 2011
‘Don't start by writing. Start by feeling. Feel, and feel passionately, and the emotion you feel will come through the spaces in between the words.’
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To illustrate this article we’ve chosen a selection of great ads from the recent past, some long, some short, some colourful, some not, but all united by the quality of their copywriting. SOFII is currently building a showcase of fine writing and many more examples will follow. Meanwhile our sincere thanks to Lakshimipathy Bhat, vice president of Bangalore-based agency DraftFCB and his website for these self-explanatory examples.

SOFII’s view

‘Pick an advertising agency, any agency. Walk to where the copywriters congregate and gently whisper the name Indra Sinha. Then stand back and watch.’

So it says on the Wikipedia page for Indra Sinha. Not for nothing did his peers vote him to be among the 10 best agency copywriters of all time.

Ten years ago Indra was asked to pen the foreword to a book about advertising called The Last Word, designed and produced for advertising people in India. From this foreword alone, the lessons for fundraisers are legion, so SOFII is thrilled to reproduce the article here in its entirety. If fine writing is your aim and even if it’s just something you appreciate then what follows is for you. If you want wisdom, insight and entertainment too then you’re in for a real treat. Indra said of the thinking behind this feature, ‘I believe in the kind of revolution that Phillip Allot was advocating in the nineties – a revolution not on the streets but in the mind’. We hope to bring you more of Indra’s thinking on this theme soon in a regular SOFII column. For examples of his fine writing and how he produces it see here, here and here on SOFII.

I am flattered to be invited to contribute a word to this collection of work by India’s most distinguished copywriters, especially at a time when, the West having abandoned the word and turned in worship to the graven image, Indian copywriters have a real chance to seize the craft and make it their own. True, things are changing in Britain. Thanks to a vigorous D&AD programme and the horrifying discovery that agency creative departments no longer contain anyone who can reasonably be called literate, ‘writing for advertising’, as it is now called, is struggling towards some sort of revival. But you can outstrip your British colleagues and I urge you to do so.

Looking through the work celebrated in this book, I am struck by the thought that fine old ads don’t usually find such a congenial resting place. Not even Charles Saatchi can discern enough art in them to judge them worth adding to his collection of pickled sharks, dismembered cows and piss-sculptures. No one to my knowledge has ever opened a museum of advertising, although it would be a useful resource for those in the trade.

Ads, like butterflies, have short lives. Apart from a transient celebrity in award annuals, books like this and D&AD’s Copy Book, most are forgotten the day after they appear.

‘Today’s ads, tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper.’

This is what cynical, or perhaps wise, creative directors used to tell youngsters who fell into the delusion that advertising is art. Architects leave buildings, painters canvases, musicians songs. Copywriters are paid a great deal of money (far more than, for example, civil engineers). Is it right that we should give back to the world nothing but a bunch of fish wrappings?

Copywriting gives one an education, a grounding in the way the world works, that few other jobs can offer. During the 20 years that I was a copywriter I saw all sides of most contemporary arguments. Copywriting led me into meetings in the boardrooms of huge companies and on demonstrations against things done by those same companies. I learned about cars, robots, food, soap, toys, cigarettes, sweets, fountain pens, timber, fish, newspapers, oil, wine, nuclear fuel, the army, the police. I visited hospitals, refugee hostels, sweet factories, oil refineries and nuclear plants, was taught how to drive a Land Rover through a river, how to fire the cannon of a Centurion tank and have sat quaking in a police car during a high-speed chase. I learned how the insurance and banking systems work, as well as about human rights, our plundered environment and the scandal of places like Bhopal. Through my work l learned about the deep interconnectedness of these things. Society is a web of myriad causes and effects. Tugging at a thread on this side of the web can twitch apparently unrelated strands on the far side. Quite by accident l discovered that the copywriter has real power in the world.

This might seem an odd thing to say to people who have been taught that their skill is no longer of much importance and who have constantly to live with the fact that their work is trivial, instantly obsolete, of little interest to anyone but themselves and their friends in the business. But beyond any doubt it is true.

One must distinguish between power and influence. Advertising is influential because it reaches millions of people. If you add up all the money that is spent on advertising, it far outweighs any sum being spent on really vital things. AIDS education, worldwide, receives less funding than soap powder. By any objective standard, this scheme of priorities proves that the naked ape is insane, but for the copywriter it creates a big opportunity. The messages you create will be backed by hundreds of thousands of rupees, pounds, or dollars and, unlike the work of poets, novelists and fine artists, are guaranteed huge exposure. This is what I mean by influence.

The copywriter’s power is something else. It is not a given. It must be seized. Power begins when you decide to use that influence to do a bit more than the client’s brief asks.

Strong copywriters bring to their work something uniquely their own. Tony Brignull’s was a quiet, intelligent voice pleading for sanity in a cock-eyed world. Neil French infects us with his irrepressible joie de vivre. You can fill in the blanks for the Indian pantheon. There are people who think that copywriters should suppress their own voices, that they should perform a sort of ventriloquism and speak only with the invented voices of brands. Ignore such people. Any success you may achieve as a copywriter will come from finding and using your own voice.

Success, in agency creative departments, is usually measured in awards, but winning awards, though it may boost your self-esteem and increase your value in the job market, will do nothing to save your ads from being fish wrapping. Awards are the worldwide ad industry’s way of numbing itself against the knowledge that most of what it does is inherently worthless.

I think there was once an innocent time when copywriters could write rhymes about Guinness and puns for Air India and go home feeling that they had contributed to the sum total of joy in the world. We used to think of advertising as a harmless activity that promoted, in amusing and informative ways, the simple benefits of everyday products. I no longer believe this and l urge you to not to accept it either. Modern brands are not created to meet needs. Needs are invented to sell brands.

In the twentieth century, power was still exercised by national governments, at least some of which were democratically elected. Nowadays giant corporations, whose incomes exceed those of all but the wealthiest nations, effectively manage large tracts of the planet. Unelected, unopposed, motivated by profit alone, with no responsibility to anyone but their stockholders, they do deep damage to human rights, health and the environment. If you doubt this, check with Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, or explore the databases and links of

Now we may take the view that the Coca-Colarisation of the globe is not our affair, that the unchecked activities of companies like the one that wreaked such havoc in Bhopal are none of our business, but we would be wrong. Whether we like it or not, our industry is crucial to the expanding hegemony of big business. Copywriters can no longer stand aside from the social and moral consequences of their work.

This is a deep dilemma. It goes deeper than having a crisis of conscience about whether to do ads for cigarettes or nuclear power, or salving one’s conscience by doing campaigns for human rights and environmental causes. It does more than pose the question: how can one write on behalf of Shell, or Coke, or Unilever, or Nestlé, or Monsanto, or Nike? It forces one to question whether it is possible to do ads at all.

It has long been obvious, and must be very clear since the events that have lately engulfed us, that as a global society we are on a path that does not serve us. The great struggle of the twenty-first century will be that of ordinary people to assert their basic human rights in the face of the might, lust for money and ruthlessness of large corporations and the governments that fail to control them. At the heart of the struggle are the culture and politics of greed. It is not fair to say that this culture emanates in its entirety from the USA. Rogue corporations have their homes in other countries and greed lives in each one of us, but advertising people all too often seem to me to be America’s cultural ambassadors. The world needs us to promote a different, healthier set of values.

Every advertisement stands in some sort of relation to current social mores. During the 1980s, most of the advertising coming out of London was clever, narcissistic and psychopathic (like the government of the day, a number of whose ministers have since served terms in prison). Advertising folk were in the vanguard of the money-hymning elite (it was a period when, briefly, to be in advertising was actually respectable) and their work did harm to unmaterialistic values like decency, courtesy, modesty and unselfishness, which no government can legislate into being and no brand can replace.

Your ads do not have to reflect the prevailing culture. You can attack it. Subvert it. Set out to change it. This isn’t your job, but you can make it your job. It is far more important than the job you are supposed to be doing. I have said that the copywriter has real power. That power is the preserve of strong copywriters, who have learned to use their own voices, and consists in this, that whatever clients and planners may demand or expect, it is ultimately you and nobody else who determine the precise nuances of a message and its underlying values. You can, if you know how, go beyond a client’s stated objectives and create impacts in the world that are neither called for nor envisioned in the brief. Although, officially, you must achieve the purpose of your client, you can (and I am suggesting you should) at the same time covertly pursue an agenda of your own.

By a curious irony, the same giant corporations that do so much damage in the world are also those that fund much of the world’s advertising. Who pour thousands of billions of rupees and dollars each year into guaranteeing that their messages are seen. But for all their marketing managers and planners, their think tanks, polls, surveys, focus groups and teams of researchers, they are unable to create messages for themselves. All they can do is come up with a wish list – a brief – that lands on your table.

Their huge budget, in that instant, becomes yours. Seize it.

Instead of funding fish wrapping, use it to do some tangible good in the world.

There is another culture that does not often find expression in advertisements. It is the culture of the heart, of the innermost ideals shared by most human beings, wherever they may live in the world. Most people are fundamentally good, kind, and unselfish and left to themselves would choose to live in peace and quiet. Writing addressed to these virtues need not be sentimental Disneyising, which is a sort of opium for the masses; it can be a strong, direct exchange about things that touch people’s lives.

To write for and from the heart involves breaking the basic rules by which most modern advertising is conducted.

A direct-marketing guru once told me that every campaign he did played on one of just three motivations – fear, greed, or sex. His work was predictable and his guru-hood rested on response rates of less than one percent. It is far more effective to give up overworked formulae, stop trying to manipulate people and speak directly to the reader’s moral sensibility. Some of our Amnesty ads had response rates of 450 per cent. For every pound they cost, they raised £4.50, a staggeringly good result.

Ask yourself before tackling any new brief: how can l find a way to do this which will be genuinely valuable to people?

Devise campaigns that commit your client to positive social action. A paint-maker could be coaxed into a campaign to clean up a dirty city. An air-conditioning giant might well be persuaded to take on the problem of air pollution. (I once got an oil company to spend a lot of money cleaning up rivers.)

If you have a client with murky secrets, propose a strategy of apparent openness. This may seem like a cynical PR play, but once light and air start getting inside it’s difficult to reverse the process.

A particularly nasty company could be permitted to make extravagant claims, for which they can later be called to account.

Advertising can often pave the way for reform. Commit the client to certain aims and courses of action. You’ll be surprised how often you will effectively end up creating company policy. Once it has been said in public, they can be held to it.

It is sometimes possible to use the budget of one unpleasant company to expose and embarrass another. I know these tactics work because I and like-minded friends have used them for years.

Find ways to involve the public in your work. Be a voice for the real feelings of ordinary people: their anger, frustrations, despair, hope. Work with them. Speak out on issues that need airing – corruption, specific injustices. You don’t need to be deadly serious. Use humour, mockery and satire to make your point. Such campaigns are generally very popular. They produce happy clients as well as getting good work done and you can run them for anything from pickles to banks.

Give as much time as you can to worthwhile causes that need help and cannot afford to pay for it.

If you can do nothing else, make people laugh.

You can’t do these things with every brief. Often, opportunities are there, but hard to spot, like moths camouflaged against bark. Hunt them out. Strong copywriters make their own chances.

Most of what you do will hardly seem to make a difference, but once in a while, you will create an almighty impact. Finally if, given the vastness of the problem, guerrilla action by a few individuals seems futile, remember what Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, once said:

‘It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.’

[1] D&AD stands for Design and Art Direction, a trade association for design people in the UK. The D&AD pencil award is one of the most sought-after accolades for the aspiring creative.

© Indra Sinha, 2011

About the author: Indra Sinha

Indra Sinha

Pick an advertising agency, any agency. Walk to where the copywriters congregate and gently whisper the name Indra Sinha. Then stand back and watch.’

So it says on the Wikipedia page for Indra Sinha. Not for nothing did his peers vote him to be among the 10 best agency copywriters of all time. Now nudging the age when other writers often hang up their boots Indra’s still crafting great creative ads for some of the worlds most urgent causes.

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