The post-digital copywriter in Singapore

This article explores the role of the Southeast Asian copywriter in the post-digital era, why copywriting is a function of design, and why a career in copywriting has very little in-betweens. Also see Introduction to Copywriting course page [+].

So this is copywriting in the post-digital era

An illustration of three figures, each showing the different functions of engineering, product management, and copywriting.

More often than not, the road to great copywriting is paved with the remains of previous iterations that, for one reason or another, were forced to the ground to make way for a better opinion. And that’s where the trouble lies. Copywriting isn’t someone’s opinion. It’s stronger than that. Copywriting is a mindset; a focusing of thoughts strong enough to penetrate the human psyche and stimulate behaviour changes. In other words, copywriting is almost exactly like branding with words. Branding uses copywriting in its formation, but branding and copywriting are not the same thing. More on branding later, but for now it’s important to understand that branding is more akin to opinion. To build a great brand requires knowledge of the science of branding. Copywriting is that science that goes into brand-building.

So what exactly is copywriting then? To put it in simple terms, copywriting is consumer psychology. It is the process of understanding how the human mind works, (regardless of cultures, backgrounds, and traditions) so that we can influence it to accept what we say, and act on what we provide. A copywriter’s job (at least professional copywriter in Singapore or anywhere else for that matter) is much, much closer to that of a psychologist. Our patients are consumers. Our clinics are information spaces. And our medicines are the documents and collaterals we dispense to our consumers. Dispense the wrong stuff and we’re left peering down the barrel of some serious backlash, possibly with side effects that remain for some time. So yes, copywriters are much closer to consumer psychologists than most realise.

But wait a second. Just because this article compares copywriters with consumer psychologists is insufficient to accept that premise. After all, we could have compared copywriters to airline pilots or restaurant managers and we’d still have plenty of material to work with. So why a psychologist? Or rather, why specifically a consumer psychologist? Copywriters are like psychologists because not only does our work require a deep understanding of the human mind, but the way we study this understanding requires a scientific approach. And that means universal theories, mathematical applications, numbered ratios, physics, subliminal messaging, optics, and color theory. Also, it’s important to learn that copywriters (again by that we mean professional copywriters) are not in the business of writing, and the suffix ‘writer’ in copywriter is quite deeply misleading in explaining what we do. That’s right. Copywriting is not about writing. That’s only about 10% of what we do, really.

Understand what copywriting is and where it comes from

An illustration of three figures showing the different functions of marketing, copywriting, and design.

For most people, copywriting is akin to a creative function. And while this may be true in some cases, copywriting is not, and has never been the sole realm of the creative industry. Copywriting has been around for as long as humans have had civilisations. If this comes as a surprise, it’s likely because copywriting is itself a misunderstood concept. Copywriting has one, and just one, purpose: To sell. Copywriters are in the business of selling. But it’s not just products and services we sell. We sell ideas, aspiration, people, organisations, brands, religion, leadership, emotions, superiority, change, power, and perhaps most importantly ideologies. To better understand the impact of copywriting, it’s good to look at history.

Around the mid 1930s, a man in Germany stepped up to a microphone and began selling the idea of Aryan superiority and the dominance of a superior race. He sold this ideology so well that 17-year old boys and girls (everyday people) took to arms against their Jewish neighbours and in less than half a decade, took a continent, then a planet, to war. Until, around the early 1940s, another man took to the microphone across the English Channel and started selling the ideology of democracy, liberty, freedom from tyranny – and managed to mobilise a nation, followed by an alliance, towards ultimate victory – and subsequently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s interesting to see history through the lens of communication because then we realise that WWII (and every war for that matter) was not a battle of guns, bombs, and tanks. That’s what was used to fight the war. But these were battles of ideologies, and whoever could sell them better. Yes, Hitler and Churchill (and all the great figures of power throughout history) were copywriters.

Closer to our era; in 2008 America was deep in war. McCain should have been the perfect candidate – and indeed he well was. A Vietnam war veteran, a senator, respectable background, distinguished service record. But it was Obama with his ideologies of CHANGE, HOPE, BELIEF, that won him the election. Now just about everyone has heard of Obama. Perhaps less well-known is a key figure to Obama’s success – Jon Favreau (not the actor) Obama’s speechwriter. Jon is responsible for many of Obama’s best speeches that won over a nation. Jon Favreau used the tools of copywriting to win an election for his president. These are just a few examples of how copywriting has changed the world, and is still doing so. Because it’s such a powerful tool, the creative industry caught wind of it (around the 1950s with David Ogilvy) and parsed this awesome tool into advertising. Back then it wasn’t called ‘copywriting’. Some of the terms given were rhetoric and persuasion. The advertising agencies of the golden 50s eventually found their way to using the term ‘copywriting’. So when you become a copywriter, remember, you’re not just serving advertising. You’re part of a rich, powerful, and very proud tradition that’s been changing the world since we humans were first around.

The purpose of the post-digital copywriter

The purpose of copywriting is to sell. That’s it. To make a sale is to influence the mind of the consumer. And that’s the true nature behind copywriting and the basis for our copywriting workshops and courses in Singapore and the South East Asian region. To learn copywriting is to therefore know that our job is not to impress, or express. It’s to sell. And for that we need to influence the minds of people to get them to buy. This is consumer psychology at its finest. Fortunately, the rules of the mind are pretty much the same, regardless of race, religion, backgrounds, cultures, and language. That means we follow set rules, methods, and structured formulas to influence the mind. Without going into this too much (it forms a rather large part of the workshop I teach and I don’t want to take up too much of your time) copywriters are trained to understand the human psyche and the persuasions of committing to purchasing. No one’s really going to call that an art. Psychology may be a softer science than Physics or Chemistry but it’s a science nonetheless, and copywriting is it’s protege, if you will.

A copywriting course in Singapore is not just to teach you how to write a letter or get you to create a brochure, but even more importantly to get you to understand why a letter or a brochure, or even a résumé, is required in the first place. By deep-diving into the mechanisms, purposes, and theoretical reasons behind copywriting (as a tool and as a career) can we then make a real dent in the universes of our clients and our consumers across Singapore’s markets and industries. And that means learning about how typography quite literally shapes words; how design in ancient Athens affects Apple’s and Google’s brands, why copywriters do not have to be great linguists, but great visualisers (something far more difficult); and why the copywriting industry in Singapore works to regulate the influence of copywriting and content distribution across government, public institutions, and private enterprise. That is the purpose of learning copywriting.

Copywriting is design, not art

A moving gif image of an office with suggestion boxes on a conveyor belt being delivered to a copywriter for processing.

What’s the difference between design and art? Art is a personal expression or opinion. It is the opinion of the creator of that piece. If we like the expression, well and good. If not, the artist isn’t likely to change it. It’s like asking J.K. Rowling to change the name from Harry to William, just because Prince William may be considered better looking. J.K. isn’t about to change the name of her hero just because someone prefers something else. If someone doesn’t like the book, tough. Read something else. That’s art. Design, on the other hand is form + function. In other words, design requires a purpose and that purpose must be fulfilled. To understand design, form and function, take the example of a remote control. This may be a really sexy-looking remote with the coolest metal, soft buttons, gorgeous to touch, hold, and behold. But… if the remote is absolutely lousy at controlling your TV, or is extremely difficult to change channels, then it’s bad design.

This is because the function of a remote is to control the TV. No matter how great it may look or feel (the form) if a device does not perform its function it’s considered bad design. This is why, in design-thinking, the saying goes – Form Follows Function. Function comes first, then form. We can have beauty and aesthetics but these should never, ever get in the way of function. Copywriting is about design because it has a purpose – to sell. If your copy is really fluffy or descriptive, or full of words and phrases to sound sexy and catchy, that’s fine. But if these factor get in the way of its function – to sell – then it’s simply poor copy. The takeaway from this is that focus on selling. That’s the function of copywriting. You can beautify the text later if it augments or supports the sale, but beautification should never, ever get in the way of sales. This is why we can sometimes watch a great video or hilarious ad on TV, laugh, get impressed, but later cannot for the life of us remember what the product was. That’s failed copy because that’s failed design.

Copywriting is about curiosity

So far we have seen a few theoretical considerations. There are tons more but I’ll spare you too many details, and instead give you two practical tips. The first is that copywriting is about curiosity. By itself, copywriting is a tool. Like a hammer. It’s not very interesting by itself, till it’s used to build something. Then the magic happens. Which means, to be a great copywriter is to get curious about the topic you’ll be using copywriting for. And not so much the copywriting itself. Therefore to learn copywriting rapidly and for the long-term, think about issues and topics that you’d like to sell. Remember, these can be products and services, but also people, organisations, ideas, religions, emotions, philosophies, and ideologies. So pick a topic that really interests you, then try to sell someone on your point of view. You can do this verbally or via written media. But the idea here is to go beyond convincing someone of your point, and getting them to buy into it. Do this a few times and you’ll see it’ll make a world of difference. That’s the first practical tip.

Copywriting is about everyday settings

The second practical tip I’ll leave you with is absolutely great for budding new copywriters, and I encourage all of my students in my class to do this. We happen to live in a world of junk mail. How much stuff gets deleted off our devices and disposed from our mailboxes. But here’s where you can make a difference. Grab hold of just one of these junk mail pieces. Instead of throwing it away, ask yourself why it’s junk. Is it the way it’s written? Is it too cluttered with words, or plain poor typography, or is it just unclear what the selling point is? When you’re done analysing this piece, re-write the message for that flyer or brochure. Apply the rules of copywriting you’ve learned so far.

Re-write the entire piece as a copy written document. Then, send it back to the company that created that flyer, with your compliments. Do this enough times, and guess what? First, you may well land a job as a freelancer from a grateful company that never saw this act of expertise and charity coming. Second, even if no one offers you a thank you note for your effort, no sweat. Do ten of these self-given projects, and boom! You’ve got yourself a portfolio. And not just a spec-work based portfolio, but a collection of real-life collateral that you’ve worked on to make better. Now when you’re applying for that job to an ad agency, imagine the power of your pitch and approach to copywriting. Several of my students have seen amazing results from this little tip that works wonders.

Copywriting is interdisciplinary

An illustration showing the different functions, in the form of hats, that a post-digitl copywriter has to perform (wear).

This is a short, simple, and extra-special tip. To be a great copywriter is to become an expert at interdisciplinary thinking. This means your reading and learning extends to way beyond just copy blogs and design books. Read Calculus books to learn about how the Golden Ratio (1:1.618) affects design perceptions, from the Mona Lisa, Vitruvian Man, and The Parthenon in Athens, to snail shells, galaxies, and the human body. Read how the sub-conscious always retains 100% of everything and why subliminal messaging relates to that. Read about how the physics of the eye determines where logo placement and messaging is placed (chunking and 24 fps). Visit NASA’s websites to see why images drive engagement more than anything the written word can produce. (Teaser: in copywriting, the ‘writing’ part in copywriting is highly deceptive). Talk to people from completely different walks of life. Make smaller words out of larger ones on the ride back home. Spell backwards. Play with life around you. And have faith that what you’re doing will give you the ability to put a real dent in the universe.

The Introduction to Copywriting course [+] gives aspiring copywriters and content producers a solid understanding of the copywriting and content industry as it stands today, and where it will be tomorrow. This is a comprehensive copywriting workshop that covers the entire spectrum of learning, from preparing your ideas for final edits to executing copy strategy and selecting content distribution channels. The course facilitated a constructive and realistic understanding of the communications industry for copywriters, as well as for professionals, executives, and individuals who use copywriting at work and for self-promotion. Also see this article on how to become a copywriter in Singapore [+].