Copywriters and journalists… Who does what?

We learned last week that copywriting is in crisis. In fact according to Tony Brignull, one of the most decorated copywriters ever to grace an agency, “Copywriting is dead”.

What do copywriters even do? It’s a mysterious job and in the new world of content marketing there is some understandable confusion between two disciplines that seem superficially to do almost the same thing: copywriting and journalism.

Copywriter or journalist?

Copywriting is the old skill of writing for brands in order to sell. It might mean writing a press ad, a script for a TV or radio ad, a piece of direct mail. Copywriters are still out there writing ads, but they are also writing websites, social media feeds -– many of the components of modern content marketing.

This landscape is in the middle of significant change and journalists are also coming into content marketing to do ostensibly much of the same job. But there are distinctions.

Copywriters are trained to write persuasive copy, but I don’t think this is enough of a distinction. Journalists must also persuade. If an article is uninteresting, poorly argued or ill considered, then it will fail. It might be better to say that journalists have to sell ideas or a story, while copywriters have to sell.

As journalists and other writers come into content marketing, there is something of a clash of cultures. Those coming into content marketing would be wise to consult the recent video produced by the Direct Marketing Association, Madmen and Mavens, which explores the state of British copywriting.

The film follows two contrasting lunches. One is filled with the finest copywriting talent from the golden era of the 1980s when British copywriting was the best in the world. They were famed for their brilliant creative ideas and execution, and competition among them stimulated a vibrant atmosphere and great work. “Where has the copywriting gone?” they ask in a fancy Charlotte Street eatery.

Meanwhile, in Clapham, some of the new breed meet to discuss what they do. It’s an overwhelmingly digital environment they work in, managing different media, with different demands. One of the interesting juxtapositions in the film shows that on paper, these two sets of copywriters do something similar, yet don’t really have the same jobs at all.

The veterans from the 1980s worked to sell on newspapers, radio and TV when there were vast audiences for each. Ads had to cut through to the living room or train carriage and speak to the viewer. TV ads were often better than the programming.

Today this narrow definition of media is redundant. Digital, which didn’t exist in 1982, has grown to be as big as all traditional media combined and growing.

Copywriting goes digital

If copywriters are taught to sell, then the proliferation of digital media is a huge opportunity for copywriters to make their mark. Unfortunately, the volume of content required for modern campaigns makes this difficult. There is just too much content out there to be written and no time to give over to it.

This is where journalists come in. Like copywriters, they are trained to tell stories, persuade opinion, if not to sell. Unlike copywriters, who could spend a week to perfect a nine-word slogan, journalists are excellent for writing in volume – large quantities of well-written copy. Perfect for content. Journalists have other useful skills. notably, they can spot a story, and are great for topical or reactive pieces. Journalists also excel at interviewing people.

But this meeting of minds has yet to bed down. This discussion pits two creative disciplines against one another – journalism and copywriting. One of the reasons for the dearth of creative campaigns could be that creative is not always an important consideration.

If content is there just to serve an SEO strategy, it can achieve its goal relatively easily – you need to write around your keywords. Digital offers ease of measurement. If you want to satisfy various metrics, it’s usually possible to achieve this by going through the motions and sticking to SEO keywords. You don’t have to be creative.

Creative review

But there is another approach. Good creative increases the chances of a campaign transcending the confines of an SEO strategy, although an ideal campaign will have elements of both creative excellence and good SEO to maximise the chances of your content being picked up.

So don’t blame the lack of good copywriting on the copywriters. Copywriting might be dead, but more likely it’s just in a deep sleep. Until the demand for good creative returns then we won’t see the great creative ideas to challenge those developed in the 1980s.

Good copywriting increases the chances the website will sell. Good journalism increases the chances your website will respond. Decide what you want, but make sure it is creative.

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