Michael Lee of Madam: In a world of 140 characters great writing can still give a brand its voice

Michael Lee is a former ECD of Euro RSCG New York, handling Volvo worldwide. In 2012 he set up agency search consultancy Madam.

While Twitter and texting appear to be reducing our communications skills to the level of a grunt, there has been a spate of TV spots in which the power of long copy has been applauded by the industry, consumers and award juries alike.

Spots like the multi-lauded “Born of Fire” spot for Chrysler by Wieden +Kennedy, which gave Detroit, a city considered lost for decades now, something to be proud of. These words didn’t just sell a car, they uplifted an entire (admittedly now bankrupt) city.

I remember watching this ad in the jury room in Cannes and feeling the hairs on my arm stand up. It was also interesting that the power of the words were not lost on the international jury. Jokes and special effects used to be the way to win at Cannes. Maybe not so anymore.

In that same jury room was the Levi’s “Go Forth” work, which used the power of Walt Whitman with his “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” poem. And that wonderfully insightful spot for Puma called “Afterhours Athlete” that deemed the night a sports stadium in itself.

More recently, The Richards Group piece for Dodge silenced a nation with the words and voice of Paul Harvey on “So God Made a Farmer,” and Chrysler struck the nation’s nerve with “Halftime in America.” And BBH’s ode to Susan Glenn appeared to seduce the Cannes jury just recently.

All stunning, beautiful, powerful writing that many people thought was past us.

So why is this still working? Why do we still love to listen, to be inspired? Why do we, in a world of 140 characters and cybergrunts, react to voices like that?

I spoke with Susan Hoffman and Joe Staples at Wieden + Kennedy and Ted Royer at Droga5, the creative leaders behind these pieces and many more.

Hoffman (left) opened with a spirited argument for great writing. “At W+K we encourage writers to write. That culture started with Dan and David. Dan was a prolific and very demanding writer. We look at the craft of writing – whether that’s a poem, an ad, or a blog, it doesn’t matter. People want a point of view from brands. Great writing can give a brand its voice.”

I think that’s it: A point of view.

Brands need to stand for something, and powerful words help that. In my mind, a brand needs to ask itself two important questions: What does the brand love, and what does it want more of in the world?

Hoffman continued, “The internet hasn’t helped; everyone’s an expert these days. This stuff is hard work. You should speak with Joe Staples who was the creative lead on ‘Born of Fire.’ That was months of work, with four writers working on it, and it was still being developed and rewritten on the shoot.”

Low and behold, Joe Staples was conveniently skateboarding by Hoffman’s office.

He chimed in, “It’s the cheap end and the luxury end of business that’s doing well. The Walmart/Tiffany syndrome. It’s the soft/mediocre middle that isn’t doing well. Those middling brands who don’t have a voice. Don’t have a point of view.

“Let’s consider that in the context of communications, that Twitter is the cheap/disposable end of the market, and a two-minute voice-driven spot like Jeep is the other end. Both have a strong voice. It’s the mediocre stuff in the middle that loses its way. At W+K we see copy as an opportunity to build a series of arguments. The Jeep spot we did for the Super Bowl was a build. A two-minute spot that, line by line, laid out an argument, more like a speech.”

Perhaps after four years of particularly negative political advertising leading up to the last US election, people want positive thinking and a refreshing, optimistic perspective. Perhaps it was the honesty and simplicity that struck the nerve.

Ted Royer, the newly appointed chief creative officer at Droga5, continued that thought. “It’s easy to scare people with stuff – that if you don’t do what we say, something bad will happen. At Droga5 we want to inspire people; we do positive work here – great writing goes straight to the mind of the consumer, helps people reframe how they think.”

In Puma’s case, they had to take into consideration that their audience and consumers weren’t just traditional athletes: “But even those playing ping pong, darts or bowling still want to win,” Royer said. “There’s nothing better, more compelling than truth.”

“However,” he adds, “our attention span is waning. Too many words, and people turn off. Regardless, we love them.”

And indeed they do, judging from their new work for Spotify.

Back to Hoffman: “At W+K we write to encourage our audience to think, and we write strong enough words to push them to a response.”

That’s the stuff.

So let’s applaud all the scribes in our industry and remind them that their art is far from forgotten in our world of 140 characters. And let’s encourage to them to continue giving brands their heart and soul.

It certainly leads to some great work.

This post first appeared in Forbes.

Back to top button