David Burn on the Necessary Insanity of Copywriters and the Power of Gutsy Brands.

By Todd Anthony, Founder, Head of Strategy

For Skimmers:

Every once in a while, a person says something that feels both true and extraordinarily rare. It gives you pause…and you think to yourself, “This is a person I’d like to meet.” I had this thought multiple times reading Creative Director, Writer and Brand Strategist David Burn’s blog Adpulp. Today, David is a sought after brand consultant and is on the precipice of launching a new eBook called “AdBrains: Honest Conversations with Advertising’s Icons, Rebels and Rulers” – which you’ll be able to find on his site shortly. I FINALLY got a chance to meet him on Zoom last month.

Can you tell me about your journey to where you are now?

I started my own agency 11 years ago. Prior to that, I’d worked at seven agencies in five states and that itself was a journey both geographically and in another way.

I started out in Portland in 94’, where I was inspired by Janet Champ at Wieden + Kennedy who was working on the Nike Women’s campaign. She was coming in with beautiful poetry. Corporate-sponsored poetry. I didn’t realize that a copywriter could rise that high. She took me in and helped me a little bit. I was so raw. I didn’t know anything. I just knew I wanted to be like her. That was a blessing and a curse because my ambition was really at the highest level. Not just to work at Wieden, but to be like Janet – which meant to bring poetic motifs forward in this powerful way that made people feel stuff. [editor’s note: you can see Janet’s work here]

Nike got millions of calls and letters from people because of these ads. People were calling their moms who hadn’t called their moms in five years. It showed me that advertising isn’t just a pitch. It’s much more than that when you’re building a brand. Of course, Wieden + Kennedy and Nike have been doing that for a long time and Janet was at the top – literally the best copywriter in modern times.

This past year has seen a lot of change. I’m a bit more of a consultant now than I was. Really around brand messaging and brand storytelling. Because you really have to carve out your turf.

What’s your approach to brand storytelling?

Storytelling is an ancient form of communication. We’ve been doing this for tens of thousands of years around the campfire. And now where is the campfire? Well, it’s on the screen.

The promise of digital was that we were going to measure our marketing and advertising. So we have a tidal wave working against us saying, “You don’t really need that creativity stuff. This is a science now.” But people like you and me are trying to say, please wake up. Snap out of it. That’s nonsense. Use your tools, your scientific measurement to measure how strong your story is. How about we do that?

As a society, I think we’re a little bit afraid of the arts.

Yeah, that’s true. It strikes me as odd that so much emphasis in organizations is put on the sales function, yet the person talking to the MOST number of prospects at any given time is the copywriter who executives barely even know exists. I don’t get it. Do you?

Many people wonder if maybe they should just display the offer and call it a day. Yes, that is a type of advertising and I know we’ll never get away from that, but you can’t JUST do that. Because the audience is like, “Hey hey, we don’t know you yet. Slow down. Who are you and why should we care?” And honestly, whether you’re big or small, that question is always in the brief: why should our audience care? Because people don’t care. They don’t have time.

Advertising is supposed to soften up the prospect so people aren’t strangers to the brand and are attracted to the company.

I think clients often forget that. When they’re thinking about their product all day every day, their perspective shifts. The good clients know this is happening and that’s why they hire an agency and trust their creative teams. Because the creatives live outside of the client bubble. They’re able to tap into empathy for the audience much more easily.

The outside perspective, when well delivered, is gold. This is part of the problem with moving things in-house. The outside agency, like it or not, has that distance. And should be able to speak truth to power. In other words, to say, “You’re the client, we love your millions of dollars, but what we really love is to make you even more money and make more customers love you.”

Yes, if you take away the brand Nike, all you have are shoes.

Right. Made far from Oregon, by the way.

It’s interesting that you were inspired by Janet Champ. The emotional qualities of her work were so rich and had so much human truth to it that had never really been spoken. It was as if she’d been given the microphone and was able to say what was on her mind.

That’s why it was powerful. It was raw and it was real. Now look at the ads they’ve made since Janet. Certainly many award-winning ads. But have they ever touched that level of breakthrough creative that’s like, “I’ve never seen that before and I’m not sure I’m ever going to see it again.” My answer is, “No, they haven’t.”  

It takes a lot of guts as a client to approve that kind of work. Where do clients get those guts?

Once a company becomes successful, they often lose their edge. They’re not as hungry. If you dial the clock back to the 1980s when Nike was born and Wieden was born – both companies were emerging and they were hungry – and so they were brave. And all of a sudden they’ve become millionaires and multi-billionaires with offices all over the world – Wieden is in Brazil, India, Tokyo, London – and what does Dan (Wieden) do now? He collects frequent flyer miles, I guess.

Yeah, it’s interesting when you’re a small agency and a client comes along that’s also small but has big aspirations and is willing to trust you. That is everything.

Yes. That’s exciting for everybody. When a brand starts to mature and lose its edge, then the question becomes, “How do we inject enthusiasm and life back into this brand? How do we challenge ourselves? How do we risk everything? How do we become ridiculously successful again?”

How does an advertising creative achieve success?

You have to be lucky! I really believe in expressing this to anyone who will listen. Look, the world is full of talented hard-working people. In music. In advertising. You pick the field. Acting. Why do some of these artists rise up and achieve success while others who are more talented lack commercial success? It comes down to luck… being at the right place at the right time with the right team.

Let’s just get this out there: if you’re not on the right team, you’re not going to Cannes, you’re not getting a One Show pencil, you’re not getting written up in CA (Communication Arts Magazine) or Adweek or whatever. So that system is rigged. It’s all bought and paid for. So stop pretending that it’s anything other than that. “We got ourselves some trophies and, oh, by the way, we’ve paid a LOT of money for that.” That’s not good for our business.

Agreed. Anyone can do a great ad for Matchbox cars or condoms, but if you’re on a client that’s selling cloud-based enterprise back-up server solutions and working for a bad creative director and an uninspired client, ya ain’t going anywhere.

It’s so true. When I was on Coors in Denver at Integer group, they had won a Cannes Lion for one of these kinds of ads you just referenced. There was a lot of talk in the creative department about how to move it forward. And I just kept saying, “It’s so simple. When we do THAT for Coors, sell it, produce it, and put our name on it, we win.” You have to do it for the Coors of this world. You have to show them the way… and that is incredibly tough because they already think they know the way.

Right. At the end of the day, it wouldn’t be a terribly hard job except for all the fear.

It’s not rocket science. Getting to the core, or the heart of your brand is not flying to the moon. We can do it. We can do it in a matter of weeks or months and solve your problems. It’s a matter of willingness and bravery and seeing the need that if you do that you’re going to stand out. And that if you stand out, your company is going to be worth more.

I see a lot of writers out there on their own without any copy mentorship or copy direction. Nobody’s workshopping it before it gets to the client. How important do you think mentorship is in the persuasion equation?

It’s huge and incredibly needed. After all, where do you learn the art and science of copywriting? Not in school, for the most part. Even in a portfolio school, you learn to put together a portfolio that’s going to get you hired, but I would argue, you learn a lot more just by working. It’s a specialized field. People don’t understand the specialization. It’s never been explained.

So you need to have someone who’s been working as a copywriter or Creative Director to guide you, not just to create a book (portfolio), but to show you what that business even is.

The number one thing is that we always write for an audience. People who are good writers in college, for instance. They’re sowing their oats with their writing. And they’re like, “Look at me go! I’m so good at this.” It’s up to us as mentors to channel that energy into something for the client. It’s like putting a bit on a wild bronco – they don’t want the bit. They want to run wild with their creativity and their talents and what we have to say is, “Hey, you could have a phenomenal career if you can channel that energy and put it all into Taco Bell and see what you come up with.” And then you can have a nice life, having fun at work, having wild ideas, selling them, and producing them. And you’ll make good money and have a swimming pool in your backyard.

Nice. How would you describe copywriters as a group? What are the unique qualities about them?

Honestly, they’re all over the place. Writers are artists. Narrative artists. They can be difficult, strange and un-business-like. They’re misfits, yes, but I think of all that as being a very good thing. If you can bring that to the suits and their corporations, who are stiff and boring and scared, you can make a difference for their customers…and that’s important.

If we have to be the court jester, well okay, there’s something to that, too. I remember many times going over to Coors and the clients were looking forward to it. They’d say, “Here come the creatives, they’re going to tell us stories and make us laugh for an hour.” That’s really valuable.

So we’re the court jesters of the advertising and marketing world. It’s because we’re the storytellers. We’re ready to walk into a room and captivate. And that’s not done with your notes and screens. That’s done with your personality and your intelligence.

But doesn’t that separate the writer from the business realm? They see you as the entertainment. I mean the court jester isn’t really part of the court, right? He’s just the guy that comes in and does a little dance. So it’s captivating, but also separating.

Well, see, if we’re too attached to the court or, let’s move the metaphor from the jester/court to the lone wolf/wolf pack. If we’re too attached to that group, then we’re not taking that creative journey. We’re the scouts that go way out there to the very edge, without falling off the edge, to get that truth that’s just too far out there to get unless you’re trained to do that.

Right, and that takes time. Clients often don’t understand why we take so much time to do good quality work. They think, “Why can’t you just sit down and do it?” But it takes time to find the truths that are rare and interesting – to get to the outer reaches, right?

It takes time and practice. You just stay practiced. The more you’re producing or writing and reaching – the more ready you are to do that magical, alchemical mystery work the better you’ll be. Leo Burnett wanted us to reach for the stars, and he did.

And that’s really the big message in our chat here: the ad business has been turned into something that the creative people aren’t happy with – and for really good reasons. When’s the last time that you saw a creative brief that said, “Reach for the stars?” Or when’s the last time a client said, “Hey, I need you to realllllly crank this up. Go way out there and show me something that scares me and makes me have to go to bat for this.”

So few people are willing to take that risk. They just don’t see it as part of the job.

Yes, and clients aren’t even looking for the creative weirdos that can do this kind of work. Most of the time, when clients go looking for agencies, they look for trophies in the trophy case. I would recommend something else, and that’s to look at what people are made of in that agency. Get the full picture.

David Burn is an accomplished writer, creative director and brand strategist. His first book, “AdBrains: Honest Conversations with Advertising’s Icons, Rebels and Rulers” is a collection of interviews with advertising leaders (available soon on Amazon). He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Darby and girl dog, Lucy.

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