Ryan Wallman is a doctor who became a writer, a Western Australian who became a Victorian and a social media skeptic who became a Twitter sensation. He’s twice been listed in Business Insider’s ‘30 Best People In Advertising To Follow On Twitter’ and currently works at Wellmark, a creative agency specialising in healthcare, pharmaceuticals and medical technology.
We could continue with further biographical information but it couldn’t possibly do a better job of illustrating his sardonic wit than this re-write of the famous Volkswagen ‘Lemon’ ad he created to lampoon lazy and meaningless modern advertising.
We asked him about writing, marketing fads and the scourge of corporate language.
What makes a good copywriter and good copy?
Aside from knowing the basics of what works, I think empathy is probably the most important trait in a copywriter. Beyond that, a good copywriter needs to have a decent understanding of the world in general – i.e. the world beyond advertising. Which is why it’s so ridiculous to have these ad agencies full of twentysomethings, but I guess that’s another topic.
Copywriters also need to have good judgement, in the sense of knowing what tone is appropriate for a given situation. To use an extreme example, a good copywriter would never use a rape analogy to sell clothes, like that awful ad from a couple of months ago. That degree of tone-deafness is inexcusable.
As for what makes good copy, I think it really depends on the context, but in very basic terms I’d say that good copy is like good conversation. Dave Trott nails it when he says that it’s a matter of getting attention, then communicating, then persuading. Always in that order.
And finally, I think that charm and wit are seriously underrated in copywriting. Of course humour isn’t always appropriate, but it can be such a powerful way to disarm and ultimately connect with people.
Many very good and wise writers say that copy has one main purpose: to sell. Do you adhere to that tenet? Can good copy provoke, entertain and persuade (for example) without necessarily selling?
I agree with the principle, certainly, and I think that Ogilvy’s ‘We sell or else’ video is mandatory viewing for copywriters.
Moreover, I’m highly sceptical about the counter-argument put forward by some modern marketers – that the world has changed, and people have changed, and now it’s all about building trust and what-have-you
Trust has always been important in selling, and the fundamental purpose of copy has not changed. To quote Drayton Bird: “I have lived through hard sell, soft sell, and even mood sell. I have been subjected to relationship marketing and its offspring CRM, to One on One Marketing and curriculum marketing. I used to write advertorials. Now it’s native advertising.”
That said, not all copy has to sell a product as such. Much of the copy I write, for example, is intended to change health behaviours or educate people rather than sell per se. I guess the common thread is that there is a clear behavioural objective.
Why do so many copywriters and so many organisations more generally use the same idiosyncratic business language? Is it fear, ignorance, laziness, sheep-like behaviour or something more sinister?
I think it’s probably all of those things to different degrees, depending on who’s using it. I suspect that, for many people, it’s the path of least resistance because everyone else uses it. It’s analogous to that famous saying that “nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM”.
At the executive and corporate level, though, it does seem to represent something more sinister. When companies talk about layoffs as ‘voluntary separation opportunities’, as I saw the other day, they are not merely going with the flow – to me, that’s deliberate obfuscation.
Defenders of corporate language sometimes say it's handy shorthand or adds some whimsy or variety to the office vocabulary? Is there ever a place for it?
Frankly, I find that the people who say that tend to be pretty short on imagination.
Perhaps it’s useful shorthand for some people in business, but in my experience it’s usually the opposite – it makes the communication more longwinded and harder to understand.
You often lament the language skills of the world's most powerful people - CEOs especially. Some would say CEOs are there to lead, not write. Why do you think language skills are so important to people in power.
CEOs don’t need to be great writers, necessarily. But they should be decent communicators, for a couple of reasons. First, if they can’t communicate with their employees, how can they lead? And second, when you read the guff that some of these CEOs come out with, it truly makes you wonder about their intelligence. It’s not a great look, as they say.
And if you’re in any doubt as to whether this is a problem, I would point you to Lucy Kellaway’s article about a recent memo written by the Deloitte CEO.
This interview comes under the banner of Unconventional Wisdom and you often make fun of the conventional wisdom (or new wisdom) of marketing and advertising. What are some of the worst examples of generally accepted knowledge in the copywriting and marketing fields? What makes them so egregious?
The most obvious example I can think of is ‘brand love’ – this ridiculous notion that people have deep relationships with brands. It’s a widely held belief among marketers, with the worst manifestation of it being Kevin Roberts’ ‘Lovemarks’ model. It’s essentially baseless, and Byron Sharp has thoroughly discredited it in How Brands Grow.
At a more general level, there’s this breathless fascination with technology, to the exclusion of marketing fundamentals. I’m yet to be convinced that big data, programmatic advertising, virtual reality or whatever will change the essence of what we do.
It's easy to laugh at bad copy, but don't even the best copywriters, for one reason or another, come up with poorly written stuff occasionally? Do we need to be careful about how strident and prescriptive we are with our anti-weasel word rhetoric?
Oh hell, yes. There are plenty of reasons why copy doesn’t always end up the way it should. I don’t want to speak for all copywriters, but I’ve certainly written copy that I’m not proud of. Let’s just say I’m glad it’s not in the public domain.
And of course we all have lapses when it comes to jargon. More than once I’ve used the word ‘leverage’ in a meeting. I did feel an immediate compulsion to power-wash my mouth with industrial bleach, but that doesn’t change the fact that it happened.
So yes, we should be wary about throwing stones, but I do think we need to resist the lure of weasel words whenever possible.
You're a bit of a social media phenomenon, but you're very skeptical about the value of social media platforms to businesses. Does social media have its place or is it a complete waste of time in a company context?
Well, ‘phenomenon’ is a massive overstatement. But thanks.
Speaking of overstatement, though, that pretty much describes the way that a lot of marketers think about social media. There’s this whole industry of ‘gurus’ who tout the magic of social media, as if it’s been revolutionary for business. For the most part, it hasn’t.
Of course social media has its place for some businesses, but for many – perhaps most – it’s simply not very effective. As Mark Ritson says: social media is for people, not brands.
What's your advice to someone considering moving into the world of copywriting?
Know what you’re getting into. Don’t just do it because you like writing (even though that was my initial motivation). Speak to some experienced copywriters if you can.
What's the best and worst piece of advice you've ever received?
The best advice was from my first creative director, who also happened to be a former veterinarian so we shared a clinical background. Whenever I was worried about something to do with a project, she would say: “Is anyone going to die because of this? No? Then don’t worry about it.”
The worst was from someone I spoke to when I was considering leaving medicine to go into writing. He said something like: “Don’t forget the status you have. Do you really think you’ll enjoy being thought of as a writer?” Fortunately, I ignored it.
Ryan Wallman goes by @dr_draper on Twitter.