Oct 07

“On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.”

Those are the words of legendary ad man, David Ogilvy, who added: "It follows that unless your Hobbes headline sells your product, you have wasted 90 percent of your money." Ogilvy’s words were true when he wrote them in the 1960s and even more relevant today. The New York Times recently ran an article about the egregious misspellings and grammatical errors found on billboards, road signs and storefronts in the city’s five boroughs. Some of the examples were simultaneously hilarious and nauseating. And, as an avid reader of all things social media related, I’ve come across a staggering number of headlines that either offended my grammatical sensibilities or completely befuddled me.

The slow and painful demise of the well-written headline has many causes: there’s the overall dumbing down of society, the rise of the 140-character universe and just plain, old laziness. I think it’s a dead heat for worst offender, though: there’s the award-crazed advertising copywriter who produces headlines intended to stop a reader in her tracks but instead befuddles the bejesus out of anyone with half a brain. Then, there’s the average public relations executive who confuses press release writing with brochure copy. So, instead of a brief, pithy headline that draws a reader in, one is instead bombarded with superlatives, hyperbole and 25-word-long monstrosities. This seems to be especially true for new product releases which, if one were to believe the headline, will literally save the planet.

I’ve been reading a phenomenal book called ‘Your Attention Please.’ It was written in 2006 by Paul B. Brown and Alison Davis. It’s one of the best ‘how-to’ guides I’ve read for writing brief, effective copy in an information overload world. The authors suggest no headline should see the light of day unless it addresses the most important question of all, “What’s in it for me?” I couldn’t possibly improve upon that definition or Mr. Ogilvy’s emphasis on the importance of a headline.

The New York Post and Daily News notwithstanding, the art of headline writing is receding faster than the polar ice caps. It’s incumbent upon leaders in the public relations, digital and advertising worlds to do something about it now. Otherwise, smart and strategic clients will wake up one day, realize their print ads, digital banners and press releases aren’t generating awareness, credibility or, most important of all, qualified sales leads. So, the next time you’re crafting a product announcement for a first-of-its-kind, fastest, smallest and lightest ever widget created by man, ask yourself the question, “What’s in it for me?” think first about the end user of the product or service. Then think about yourself. Save on the words and you just might save an account (and your job).

Sep 09

A Wigotsky in every agency

I must commend PR Week's 2010 career guide. It's chock full of information that's as useful to an  undergrad as it is to an agency principal.

Careerguidecover_117145_117858_117859 Stories include a roundtable discussion on the importance of a master's degree in PR (color me skeptical) and a fascinating profile of Harold Burson and his legacy to the agency that bears his name.

Burson produced a plethora of industry leaders over the years, including Ketchum's Rob Flaherty, CA's Bill Hughes and PulsePoint Group's Bob Feldman. The latter said his training at Burson began the day he joined the firm from Utica College in 1978. Feldman recalls a training program that mandated ALL writing done for clients was to be first reviewed by a former newspaper editor on staff. Feldman says the procedure made a great statement about the firm's commitment to quality.

I agree. I had the exact same experience as a young junior account executive at Hill & Knowlton. We, too, had a former editor check each and every piece of copy before it went to a client. My editor's name was Victor Wigotsky and he made a big impression on me.

Victor was a very demanding editor. Before he'd even give you his edits, he'd ask you what the story angle was and why it mattered. He'd then ask you what primary or secondary research supported the angle. Only when you'd provided the correct answers would Vic deign to review your copy. And, boy oh boy, was he ever meticulous in his edits. I cannot tell you how many times he'd send me scurrying back to my office because I'd buried a lead, hadn't nailed the 5Ws in the lead graph or neglected to correctly attribute a quote.

Victor was never mean, but he was strict. And we learned as a result. I'll never forget how happy I was when one of my initial press releases finally earned a 'VWW.' Those were Victor's initials and secretaries (yes, we all had secretaries back then) were under orders not to mail (yes, snail mail only) releases or bylined articles unless they saw the VWW stamp of approval.

I wish today's PR agency model had the time and financial wherewithal to mandate at least one Wigotsky in every firm. Unfortunately, between the 24×7 demand for constant content and the worst economic downturn in memory, there are few, if any, firms who insist ALL copy be reviewed by a Wigotsky-type first. As a result, I continually hear or read about poor writing when I attend events or scan our trades.

It's too bad that Wigotsky (and his Burson counterpart) are gone with the wind. I think everyone's writing would benefit from a VWW every now and then. Mine included.