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January 24, 2011Can B2B copywriting be creative?

Though they say you should never give your competitors the oxygen of publicity, I have to admit I’m quite fond of Tom Albrighton’s copywriting blog. While his site’s a little cluttered for my tastes (I’m sure he’d say mine is too brash), I’ll give him this. The man knows how to write. But luckily for us both, we’re not in direct competition. You see, I market myself as a “creative” copywriter. Tom, on the other hand, is proud to be uncreative. Let’s look at what that means:

With a publishing background, I’m much more suited to larger projects where structure, tone and usability are important. If you want professional yet informal, informative yet accessible, I’m all over it like a cheap suit. And I won’t start whimpering if I have to manage a project with 100 keywords, 1000 images or 100,000 words. But if you want a three-word slogan for Apple Tango, I’m probably not your man. (I’d probably suggest ‘apple bubble solution’.)

Fair enough. I’ll gladly take any headline / slogan / short copy work he doesn’t like the look of! But can the principles of creativity be applied to longer projects? To sales brochures? To B2B copywriting? I think they can.

Granted, it’s not always what a client is looking for. I was recently asked to write a sales brochure to corporate clients in a “creative” style. So, for example, I came up with section headlines like “No white rabbits: let us show you the tricks of the trade!” instead of “glossary of financial terms,” which is what I would have written were I not asked to be “creative.” The client’s feedback was unusually blunt. “Eh? I don’t understand this.” Fair enough. I crossed it out and re-wrote “glossary of financial terms.”

The point is, everyone’s definition of creative is slightly different. My definition, my client’s definition, and Tom Albrighton’s definition are all divergent. Tom thinks it’s about creating something original. I think it’s about “thinking outside of the box” — requiring a degree of originality without descending into what Tom calls “crazytivity.”

Being creative: it’s all about the concept.

In many cases, it’s about the “idea” — generating the concept that underpins the copy / design / campaign is the creative side of the work. For example, I helped re-brand a digital agency who were worried they looked a lot like everyone else. When discussing the brief, the word “troubleshooter” came up. I had the idea to rebrand the company as “hired guns” troubleshooting their client’s problems. It was a nice alternative to the over-used word “solution“. And the client’s designers came up with a gorgeous graphical set of windswept prairies and desert sunrises — not a clip art stetson or cowboy cliche in site. Writing the copy was as simple as substituting the word “folks” for “people” and making the occasional reference to digital “pioneers”. It wasn’t crazytivity. It was simply creating a brand identity. As a creative copywriter, that’s something I’m good at.

So maybe that’s what being a creative copywriter means. Being able to have original ideas and knowing how to implement them effectively. Of course, I’ve learned from my mistake with the “creative” sales brochure. As Tom puts it,

True creatives have the confidence to know when creativity is needed, and when it’s not. For them, creativity is a tool rather than a mask.

In other words, sometimes when you’re asked to be creative, don’t. That doesn’t mean some level of creativity in B2B copywriting isn’t possible — or desirable. Last week I had a client enquiry for a B2B project from a company that was impressed with a recent rebranding I helped out on. The client was a software house — nothing particularly exciting. The work, the copy, was very technical — for engineers. But the concept was what attracted the client enquiry. “We liked the fact you used something as simple as putting a ‘+’ in all the headlines to emphasize both positivity and inclusivity — people working together.” A concept as simple as that underpinned over six thousand words of technical copy. Is it original? Probably not. Is it creative? Yes. Did it add to the company’s sense of identity, of individuality? Absolutely.

Creativity is always happening behind the scenes

So when you come to a “creative” copywriter, you’re often looking for ideas as well as words. Sure, I’m happy to offer you words without ideas, but couched in those terms, “uncreative” copywriting doesn’t sound very attractive. Sales copywriting is always about arguing your client’s case. And to do that, you have to convince them with your ideas. So when I say I’m creative, I mean I’m good at coming up with ideas to support arguments — to find your company’s USP and convince potential customers to choose your product. It doesn’t necessarily mean I come up with “crazy” headlines, puns, or “zany” copy.

I’m sure Tom Albrighton uses ideas and arguments to structure his copy, too — after all, I’m familiar with his work, and it’s good. But it’s interesting that he chooses not to call himself a creative. I reckon Tom should cut himself some slack — maybe we’re not, to use his example, painting masterpieces. Maybe we’re painting frescoes, at best.  But we are paid to come up with original words. And original ideas. That means we’re creating something.

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This entry was posted on Monday, January 24th, 2011 at 1:34 pm and is filed under Blog, Copywriting, Me and my business. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 comments

  1. […] spoken before about how much I rate Tom Albrighton’s work as a copywriter. I’m also a fan of Ben Locker, in Colchester (Glad you’re not in London, Ben!). What […]

  2. Thanks for the response and kind words.

    You’re right, of course. There are always creative touches we can bring to the party, even for the dullest B2B brand. What I was arguing against was creativity as a priority or prime mover – creativity that ‘gets in the way’ rather than pushing things forward. In other words, a self-conscious desire to ‘do something creative’ rather than help the client.

    The danger is that the client falls in love with a creative idea that doesn’t necessarily help their business. The creatives get paid, but they don’t get invited back next year, since the idea fails to sell.

    But there’s little risk of that with the approaches you describe, which are based on benefits. Nothing that communicates benefit, whether creative or not, can harm the cause.

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