A conference of copywriters: #PCN2014

PCN2014 welcome

I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I set out to the second Pro Copywriters’ Network Conference last Friday. It was my first copy-specific conference, a day out in London, and the first time I had been in a room with more than a handful of other copywriters. How exciting!

The conference was organised by Tom Albrighton and Ben Locker, both copywriters with successful companies, who founded the Pro Copywriters’ Network. Hats off to them, it was a brilliant day. We kicked off with welcoming words and a spot of housekeeping, and then it was straight in to the talks, discussions, and breakout sessions, with pause only for the (really very nice) refreshments put on by the Haberdashers’ Hall.

I present to you my highlights. Please leave any questions you have in the comments, and I will endeavour to raid my notes and answer them. I would like to point out that I was delighted to meet not only copywriters, but marketers and designers at this conference. Interdisciplinary learning is a fantastic thing!

First up: Tim Rich on Storytelling

Tim Rich worked with BP on internal and external comms before, during, and after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A man worth paying attention to, I thought. I was right. Tim drew our attention to the attempts at storytelling – good and bad – that prevail particularly in business-to-consumer communications, but that are also becoming more common in business-to-business marketing.

Why is ‘storytelling’ so ubiquitous at the moment?

  • They are somewhat in vogue, and people are jumping on the bandwagon
  • There is (justified) anxiety about a failure to connect to people with traditional approaches in traditional media.
  • Stories are much warmer than traditional media, and do stand a better chance of getting meaningful messages across.

What makes a story?

One thing’s for certain: NOT the words ‘our story’ stuck on the beginning of the piece you used to call ‘about us’. Nope. That won’t do. This slide of Tim’s put it nicely…
What makes a story
(We were all shamelessly snapping his slides throughout.) So to help us avoid ‘the cat sat on the mat’ style non-stories, Tim presented us with a crystallisation of his thoughts on stories over the years:


These three elements have instant narrative momentum. It’s important for the challenge to be real and meaningful, whether it is a problem that the brand faces (internal comms), or one that it solves (external comms).

In this iconic ad, the challenge is clear, the action is facilitated by the item the ad promotes, and the transformation is pretty darned warm and fuzzy. How much more meaningful connection a could one wish for?

This example also illustrated a broader point about how we tell our stories:

We should think like producers, or dramatists, to get the most impact out of the stories at our disposal.

Don’t give up on stories! And be confident.

Adorable 80s ads aside, Tim had a serious point to make about storytelling. It is in fashion. Things that are in fashion – even things that work really well – inevitably fall out of vogue at some point. We were exhorted not to give up on storytelling: when executed well, it’s an immensely effective mode of communication.

The key is to go back to the challenge every time, and there must be confidence in two senses:

  1. Brands must be confident enough to tell their stories with conviction, and not slip into the corporate comfort-zone of remediation, impact minimisation, and apologies.
  2. As writers and communicators (designers and marketers, he was looking at you, too) we are at the point of tension between the client and their customers. Rather than simply serving up what the brief asks for, we must be confident enough to push for what is best, and what will solve the problem.
  3. In general, we need to be more like Zippy, and less like George…
Zippy and George

Next: Rory Southerland ‘Behavioural Economics’

(Or: What copywriters have always known, but often found hard to explain). From the VP of Ogilvy&Mather Group*, we were treated to an absolute deluge of fascinating insights, project anecdotes, examples and explanations. I barely managed to get my favourite bits down, let alone every juicy piece of hard-earned advertising knowledge. So here are a few thoughts about our industry according to Rory Southerland:

  • He proposed behavioural economics‘ (aka a type of psychology) as the toolkit with which we can arm ourselves, in order to justify ideas and concepts with something other than cold hard marketing data. Marketing data is very important in this decision making process, but it does not always hold the whole picture: the brain is not rational, so advertising can’t really be built on rational calculations.
  • Getting marketing buy-in from CFOs is hard, and the language we have to work with is no great help. Rory compared it to astrology: when you’re speaking to a fellow believer, it’s all meaningful and proper communication is possible. To the uninitiated, it’s not easy!
  • Test counterintuitive things, because your competitors won’t. Red Bull is a terrible-tasting soft drink that comes in a smaller package, and costs, twice as much, as other soft drinks. But it’s huge. Test counterintuitive things.
  • Asking people what they think doesn’t always get you to the truth of the matter. When you ask people why they enjoy a certain thing, their left brain makes up words that sound plausible to justify the right-brain’s not-very-rational warm-and-fuzzy response.
  • Psychology is important in this business. Rory mentioned impulses, instinct, intuition, and plenty of other irrational things over and again in this talk. He deferred very often indeed to evolution, and psychology. He is championing these insights through #ogilvychange.


Several interesting things came out of the Q&A, although the presence of Jillan Ney – whose talk was very interesting – caused some of the writers and marketers in the room to start asking broad questions about social media methods and getting buy-in. These weren’t well placed in a room full of copywriters, but the conversation turned to storytelling, the productivity of crises, tone of voice, and UX design. Yes, you heard right, and in fact that last one was my favourite…

Why aren’t there more leads UXs from a copywriting background?
Nobody really knew! One thing worth saying (and I can’t decide whether is a cause or a symptom), is that copy has slipped down the priority list to, as Tim Rich put it ‘one above lorem ipsum’. Relative to other aspects of usability, it is addressed very, very late in the design process. A possible answer is that there isn’t so much mingling between copywriting and the other disciplines, as there is between say design and development. There were marketers and designers at this copywriting conference – would that be the case the other way around?

How can we change the situation?
My two cents: Copywriters should get stuck into information architecture when the opportunity presents itself. In the content side of my job I have started to look at IA more and more, and it seems to me to be a great learning platform for UX.

The consensus was that as writers and communicators we should get involved in the design process much earlier on (this applies not only in UX). A nice quote from a developer at an agile app agency was that ‘writing should be a priori’. Tim Rich also had a great suggestion to encourage the interdisciplinary learning that is possibly lacking amongst writers: go to design conferences! And join the conversation there.

A really good day

Sitting listening to these important industry figures sharing all this knowledge, I was sad that various other mark-makers weren’t there too. I have done my best to share my insights here and in a presentation to everyone, but I think next year the only solution will be to make a day of it! A huge thank you to the organisers, and here’s to PCN2015!

*I was a little bit starstruck, I have to say!

Written by Chloe Marshall

About markmaking*

mark-making* is an award-winning creative agency specialising in branding, campaigns and communications