August 15, 2012What copywriters can learn from Amsterdam

A guest post by Stephen Marsh 

Amsterdam is a dangerous place. Not just because of the drugs.

In the 18th Century, the canals of Amsterdam were the veins through which the city passed. In a time long before cars and trains, the infrastructure of this bustling place was entirely built around water.

Which would have been great if it wasn’t for the number of people that drowned.

A freelance copywriter could give it some spin – ‘Amsterdam – the city you’ll never leave!’ – but the brightest and best of Amsterdam knew that something had to be done. If the city was to continue to thrive, it needed new ways to get around this troubling issue of sudden, watery death.

This was the birth of resuscitation, of putting life into something that is inanimate. From these momentous days in August 1767, there’s something we can all learn about how copywriting should invoke a brand with life – and what happens when it doesn’t work.

Blowing Some Smoke Into Your Copy

In 1767, a group of people in Amsterdam formed the Society for Recovery of Drowned Persons. They had one remit – to formulate some techniques that could be used to treat victims on-site, before any more substantial medical help could be found.

And they had some great ideas. Three of the first concepts that were floated (pun intended, although distasteful) were warming patients up, keeping the head lower than the legs, and putting breaths into the victim. Admittedly, the society found the idea of mouth-to-mouth ‘indelicate’, instead preferring to use bellows. But the idea was solid, and still forms the foundation of modern CPR.

Not every idea has stood the test of time. A cheeky throat tickle is generally perceived to be ineffective by the standards of modern medicine. As for stimulating the victim by rectal fumigation with tobacco smoke, there’s now an entire district in Amsterdam where this is available, but with no real medical advantage.

What these people did is something. Not always something that worked instantly, but something that is better than nothing. That’s what is so important.

What you can do is turn to a copywriter who is experienced enough to improve your chances of success, and creative enough to keep coming up with unusual uses for cigarette smoke and bellows. Not every idea will give your brand the spark of life, but, with the help of a creative copywriter, some of these wacky ideas might just work.

And remember that not every idea that a copywriter offers needs to be words. As my colleague Alastaire Allday wrote over on my blog, sometimes the best thing a copywriter can do is know when to keep his mouth shut.

In fact, that’s great advice for copywriting and drowning alike.

Some Copy Is A Stop-Gap, Not A Solution

Hundreds of years later, we still call on a few of the techniques pioneered in Amsterdam to help people recover from cardiac arrest. At the scene of an incident, immediate response with CPR saves lives.

But don’t forget that it only fills time until something bigger and better happens. CPR can maintain circulation, but it’s only successful alone in around 3% of cases. What most people need is a massive electric shock to the heart.

Same with copywriting.

If you blog, send newsletters, and engage social media, the results might not come instantly. Not everything that you put out is going to light up the world, but that doesn’t make it any less essential. These are the things that build a developed brand, a voice that lays the foundation for success.

Every time that you communicate with your audience, you need to keep the blood pumping around the heart of your business. Because, when the time is right, your brand needs to be ready for the lightning strike that will bring it back to life.

Stephen Marsh is a freelance copywriter based in the UK. Read an interview with him on the Professional Copywriters’ Network here.



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This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 15th, 2012 at 10:59 am and is filed under Blog, Copywriting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

One comment

  1. Jim Thomas says:

    Sitting in an agency on herengracht reading this. Great comparison. The themes are worked together well.

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