Corporate Writers Need More Time to Think

June 06, 2010  |   Posted by :   |   Corporate Writing,Slideshow   |   6 Comments»

“I can hire people to do everything but think.” — Chief Marketing Officer, Fortune 50 Company.

Not too many years ago, I was meeting with the CMO of one of America’s largest health insurance companies. He was describing his marketing division–with an in-house staff of more than 100–supported by a dozen ad agencies, PR firms and design shops. And despite all those warm bodies, none of them could fog a mirror, he said. Not an original thought in the bunch.

He was exasperated–and who could blame him? Aren’t creative people supposed to be good thinkers? Perhaps there are a lot of reasons why the quality of thinking, and therefore corporate writing, is in decline. But I’m certain of one–and it rests on the shoulders of many clients and employers who demand good thinking in the first place.

It’s a matter of focus. Consider the plight of freelance writers today: Why are they so often expected to be skilled in HTML, CSS and a mind-numbing expanse* of other Web acronyms? Aren’t there highly-qualified technical professionals out there who already have these programming skills? Shouldn’t a company hire a corporate writer because, well, she’s a good writer?

How did the corporate intelligentsia get something so simple, so wrong?

My accountant would make a lousy mechanic. My dentist doesn’t do landscaping on the side. Why should my corporate writer be great at writing code?

Which brings us back to our CMO’s dilemma. He’s in constant search of what has become the most elusive prize in business: better thinking.

But, you can’t learn to think better if you’re a copywriter sitting in an HTML class at your local community college. You can’t see the right angle that solves a tough marketing problem if you’re busy building cascading style sheets.

No, if you’re going to be a better thinker, you have to be in the business of better thinking. Period. That is the hallmark of the best copywriters I know. It is how you stand alone among all those writers competing for the same work. And how, if you’re so inclined, you can help clients and employers see that corporate writing is a talent unique among all corporate professions–and at its heart is a skill mastered by few, but coveted by all:

Think.


*The exception is SEO. To write effective online copy, a corporate writer should understand the importance of keywords, title tags, meta description tags and so on. But notice I said ‘copy’ and not ‘content.’ That’s a rant for another day…

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6 Comments for this entry

  • Jim Haynes

    June 7th, 2010 on 9:58 am

    Andy ~ Great post, and couldn’t agree more! Though it does seem that we are asked to do more and more technical work, it does take away from the time available for actual creative, thought provoking and engaging copy. And your disclaimer at the end shouldn’t be forgotten, when you compare “copy” to “content”…but it seems with so many applications for copy that have now gone online that the line between the two has become blurred in the last few years! Challenging topic for sure! Jim – Hat Trick Associates

  • Sean

    June 7th, 2010 on 2:07 pm

    Andy,

    Great mini-rant. It seems, to me anyway, we’ve lost the art of skilled craftsmanship in so many areas.

    And why?

    A need to keep up, to do more, to be more?

    Sure it sounds noble but there is no nobility in a job done half-baked.

    Excellence is work. Thinking excellently requires hard work and as you posted, there really isn’t time for much else when effective thinking and writing happens.

    I think the problem is that too many people don’t believe thinking is work… that it’s only work when you see the keys being punched or a box being moved.

    We’ve lost sight of the difference between highly effective work and activity.

    It’s “cool” to look and to be so busy you “don’t have time to think”.

    It’s a shame but true.

    The companies that lead in any industry are the ones that allow thinkers time to think.

  • Mark Laporta

    June 7th, 2010 on 11:23 pm

    The situation you describe results from sheer ignorance. Many industry professionals have no idea of a copywriter’s real function in the creative process. They just want a stream of words, cut to size in the appropriate shape and color. Thinking? They only want typing or, better yet, faster typing. We don’t want to keep The Team waiting.

    The idea has been lost that a) thinking is involved b) the quality of our thinking affects the quality of the result and c) our thinking is directly impacted by the data we receive from clients and colleagues. Skimp on the background work and the project will suffer.

    In other words, you can’t produce great copy in an environment that’s hostile to it. Copy, the genuine article, can’t be hammered out by committee or “brainstormed” around a gigantic table. It also can’t be written effectively at 2:30 a.m., no questions asked, when “the decision” is finally handed down.

    But this, as the phrase goes, is our challenge. If we want copywriting to be better understood, we must help our colleagues grasp the critical role we play at the strategic, conceptual and sales ends of the process.

  • LuAnne

    June 8th, 2010 on 9:13 am

    Excellent post, Andy! Having just trudged through months of job-searching, I was incredibly frustrated by would-be employers demanding every computer skill and program proficiency imaginable. Luckily, I found an organization that values my strategic thinking as well as my writing talents.

    As children of the computer age, any of us can learn a program when needed to expedite the communication process. But that can’t be the focus. A writer who can captivate the audience and leave readers feeling a little richer, a little humbler, a little wiser for the experience – well, that gem is hard to find.

  • Jennifer Frazier

    June 15th, 2010 on 1:46 pm

    I’ve been writing ad copy for nearly 25 years, and I need that time to stare off into space and begin crafting the story in my head. Then when I get to my keyboard, my thoughts flow through my fingers in a very natural way. Why someone would want to muck up that fluid process (which leads to the best copy), is beyond me. Just as good IT developers don’t necessarily make good Web designers, neither do copywriters trying to be programmers. Sure, there are some who promote themselves as the “jack of all trades,” but there are only a few I’ve found that can really do it all, and do it all really well.

  • Andy Bartling

    June 15th, 2010 on 10:43 pm

    Corporate Writer Insider note: Here’s a comment from a member of Linked In’s Copywriter International group:

    “So true. And even without the increasing tech requirements, the skyrocketing workload decreases ‘think time’ within most corporations today.”