By the Book

Years and years ago—actually when God was a boy—a DDB London copywriter named Alastair Crompton wrote more than a few good ads. If you can lay your hands on D&AD annuals from the late 1970s, you’ll see some.

What sets Crompton apart is that most—if not all—of his award winners feature a headline that is a question. He isn’t a guy stalled permanently in the interrogative, it’s just that questions often make headlines stronger.

This and hundreds of other useful points are made in Crompton’s book, The Craft of Copywriting. If you know the book, you’re aware that it screams effectiveness from the cover with the line: “Clear your wall for an award.” A promising thought, isn’t it?

Curiously, Crompton had an unusual motive for writing his book: self-defense. He was bored witless by young people who should have known more about advertising. While they were bright, they were not at all clear about what goes on in a creative department. They had no idea how to make an ad. Even worse, they hadn’t a notion of how to break the rules of ad making to get more attention.

The Craft of Copywriting satisfies a need. It explains how to stop worrying and start producing great work. It offers know-how; there are examples of terrific ads and there’s an introduction by one of the business’ greatest copywriters, David Abbott. For advertising hopefuls, the book is a cheap and easy road to putting together a great first portfolio. But you’d be surprised how few young people have picked it up.

Too many hopefuls turn up for interviews armed with journalism degrees and portfolios that have just enough brilliance and insight to reach the inept level. A requiem mass is what’s required for this sort of work. What a pity that universities don’t train their graduates to get hold of “how to” books.

In the U.S., the problem is as acute as ever. Not that young people are noticing, but copywriter Luke Sullivan has taken up the Crompton mission with a new zeal and a special ability to enlighten and instruct would-be creatives.

His book, Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This, offers a helping hand. But it seems to be ignored. Job applicants are oblivious of the 11 chapters of advice and brilliant examples. More than that, wannabe copywriters and art directors are missing out on a particular wit, humor and charm that separates our business from ordinary professions.

If you want a job in advertising, Sullivan can save you from falling on your face. Just start reading on page 1.

If you want to go further, consider this: A famous London copywriter named Dave Trott is known for showing young advertising hopefuls a New York Post front-page headline: “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar.”

In Trott’s mind, to get noticed, you have to learn to write something as noisy, or noisier.

Good luck.