Candlepower

Ad and marketing creatives

Editorial Emergency!

Who are you going to call? To answer the cry for copywriting help, husband and wife team Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner set up an agency called, semi-tongue-in-cheek, Editorial Emergency! What kind of emergencies? "Everything from creating content from scratch to putting the polish on it," says Simon. We had a fascinating conversation with him about copywriting and branding-and pitfalls to avoid.

VT: What are some of the biggest pitfalls you see in copywriting?

Simon: One of the biggest is something we call "fear-based marketing." This is when a client comes to us and says, "Hey, I have this service or this product or this website and I really want a distinctive brand. I want it to capture the personality of the enterprise. And I want it to be edgy and fun." And we'll create something for them. Then, suddenly, there's this kind of clammy fear that takes over and we find ourselves being asked to look at all their competitors' websites and, basically, do exactly the same thing that their competitors are doing.

VT: That doesn't work?

Simon: I suppose it's risky to do something different. But I think it's disastrous to try and emulate what everyone else is doing. In terms of branding, and particularly in terms of language, we sometimes find clients in this reactive mode, wanting to use "synergy" and "out of the box" and "leading edge," all that sort of stuff. We gently try to point them in the direction of something that's less jargon heavy and more authentic in terms of content. But we also talk about usage, which is something that's very important to us. People are so careless with language. It can be grating to the "inner stickler," but also, we feel, detrimental to the persuasive power of language -- the language that's associated with convincing people that what you have to sell them is worthwhile.

VT: Can you explain this further?

Simon: It's things like using the word "literally" when you don't mean "literally." People say, "I'm literally jumping out of my skin." No, you weren't. I would have heard about that on the news. Then, of course, there are more basic issues like simple confusion when you're reading a piece. My partner, Julia, wrote a series of articles called Suffering From Homophonia? in which she endeavored to clarify the distinction between homophones that are commonly mistaken for one another, such as "there" and "their," and so on. I think her articles really perform a service because they're an entertaining clarification that can help people write more accurately and rigorously.

VT: You speak about "brand brightening" on your site. What do you mean by that?

Simon: To us it means brightening the language, brightening the selling proposition with more colorful and vibrant words, more memorable terminology and usage. Think about a brand that has a voice that you can identify. Sometimes it's not easily isolated. An example we always point to is Apple. If you ask people what the voice of Apple is, they tell you that Apple has a certain kind of friendly, approachable tone, even though it isn't necessarily coined into a particular slogan or phrase. Every bit of Apple collateral, all their design and everything else complements their voice. The way businesses are branded, more than ever, depends on language. This is more important than having a punchy logo, flashy website or having particular colors and that kind of thing. Think about how much e-mail people read, how many websites people read. Your first and best opportunity to get in front of people, and your most persistent forum for communicating with them, is through language. And if you don't have a handle on how language is going to serve your brand, you're kind of lost.

VT: It boils down to communication.

Simon: Right. The question you have to ask yourself when you're establishing a brand is, What is the voice of this brand? Is it friendly? Is it cocky? Is it mysterious? What kinds of buttons do you want to push with the language you use? And how do you make that consistent for all your communication? We try to point clients in the direction of authenticity because for the most part you're not going to be providing a service that no one else in the world is providing. So people are going to be choosing you based on who you are, and that has to be communicated in your language.

We talk a lot about newsletters, especially these days, the e-newsletter, because they're such a great way for brands not only to define themselves, but to maintain and nurture relationships with existing clients, and encourage those clients to bring in new clients, which is the best way to get leads. For example, one newsletter we particularly like is from a local wine merchant in our part of Los Angeles called the Colorado Wine Company. Their newsletter is very approachable, fun and down to earth, and it has a real voice. And it's consistent with everything else they do. It's short, punchy and very funny. It's also at times a little pugnacious, but always reflective of the sensibility of the people who work there. You know that when you hear from them, you're going to get a certain kind of voice and a certain kind of message. They just do it really well.

VT: Interesting. So customers really have a sense of this business.

Simon: Well, there are at least two other excellent wine stores within a five-mile radius. If you're going to a shop where someone will pick out a bottle for you, you have to trust that it's going to be what you're looking for. The newsletter builds this trust. You're going to them for their judgment, for their sense, and their understanding of their customers.

VT: Let me ask you in closing, have you ever been stumped with an "editorial emergency?"

Simon: The essence of what we do is help people tell whatever story they need to tell. Even if they think they're completely lost, once we start asking them questions and they get comfortable talking about what they do, we find that the story's all there. It just needs shaping, polishing and punching up. The most difficult experience I've had has been with clients who don't know quite what they want. I think, oh, this person really needs my help. But that's what I'm here for.


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Comments from our users:

Monday April 7th 2008, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Brendan L.
This line is so true "for the most part you're not going to be providing a service that no one else in the world is providing. So people are going to be choosing you based on who you are, and that has to be communicated in your language."

Not only do I tell my clients that, I use it personally. There are hundreds of copywriters, but there is only one me. If someone says "I need a writer", well it's a lot harder to win that business than if they say "I need BRENDAN to write this."

Excellent article!
Monday April 7th 2008, 5:37 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth H.
This is an excellent article. I notice that it's all from Simon. Could we hear from Julia? It sounds like they are a great team and my guess is each one writes in his/her own voice. Thanks to VT for another benchmark article on writing.
Monday April 7th 2008, 8:20 PM
Comment by: Julia R.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Julia Rubiner, here, responding to Elizabeth Haak. Thanks for commenting on this story, Elizabeth. It's true that Simon and I are a team of equal partners -- I just let him handle the interviews. And by the way, though we do each have our own distinct writing voices, readers of our newsletter, Editorializing -- even folks who know us well, like Simon's mom -- aren't really sure who wrote what. You know how married couples start to look alike after a while? I think that's happening with us, though more editorially than physically.
Monday April 7th 2008, 11:58 PM
Comment by: Dennis B.
Mr. Glickman gives excellent guidelines for clients and how he serves them: Think deeply about your audience, especially what will motivate them to act, and present the genuine self of your business. But, Lordy, the man commits language sins of his own. True, we have looser rules for speaking than writing, but he sounds like an extroverted Brit mainlining double espresso. Just a few of the sinners among his winning ideas:
"suddenly" (when it was long-standing, common client behavior that caught him off guard), "basically", "disastrous" (it's not a disaster; just a waste of money) "in terms of" (misused and adds nothing) "very" (adds less than nothing) "really" (from a copywriter??!!) Fortunately, his client service ideas and the need to have a consistent voice and identity are solid (or anyway they fit with my experience and biases). I imagine all but the stuffiest clients love his enthusiasm, too. Still, if our speech shows how we think (and may be taken as an advertisement for how we write) let's be careful out there. More really IS less.
Tuesday April 8th 2008, 8:07 AM
Comment by: Joseph M. G.
How much faith can a writer or a reader place in an article about copyediting that starts with "Who are you going to call?" rather than with "Whom are you going to call?"? If Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner okayed the article, then someone needs to donate a copy of Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" to them ASAP. I didn't read the rest of the article. This hurdle is simply too high. As long as it's there, I can't have any faith in what follows.
Tuesday April 8th 2008, 2:39 PM
Comment by: Heather A.
Mr. Gaffney, while you are correct technically, I believe the intent was a little more tongue-in-cheek. Think the Ghostbusters... "who you gonna call?" You should read the rest of the article. He has some thoughtful insights.

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