Monday 11th January, 2010
I love it. This advert for a copywriter, published in The Times on 23rd January 1964, has it all.
Let’s run through the inner meaning. There’s a lot to learn from so few words. At a glance, you can easily spot the following.
Simplicity: We want the best copywriter in England.
Taste: No oiks.
Grand assumptions: No women. No Scots, Welsh or Irish.
Condescension: Send your stuff to the great David Ogilvy himself.
Wit: A life in a single page. Pfffft.
Shed-loads of wonga: £10,000 was worth about £128,000 in today’s money.
Advertising by, for and about copywriters wasn’t always so good, though.
You don’t believe me? Then let’s jump back to the aftermath of the First World War.
Experienced copywriter required
The first ever mention of a copywriter in The Times was in a classified advertisement, published on 19th April, 1919. If not inspiring, it was nice and short – and got straight to the point:
Five days later, it was joined by another, more detailed advert – also the first in The Times to mention a freelance copywriter.
Like the Ogilvy advert 45 years later, the advertiser believes it’s not just the ability to write good copy that’s important – it’s education and character and class (though, interestingly, not sex). The image is a little grainy, so it’s worth jotting down the relevant section for your benefit.
COPYWRITER WANTED (either sex). – Advertiser has a vacancy for an advertisement copywriter. Applicant must have had a first-class education, be widely read, a grammarian, and student of class psychology. Also be well acquainted with men and matters, possess a versatile general knowledge of commerce and literature and of the arts and sciences. Observant, quick in thought, rapid in action, and able quickly to absorb and grip new propositions, and write human, arresting, but polished, dignified “copy” and pamphlets. Preference given to applicants who have had experience in U.S.A.
Actually, now I look at it, it doesn’t actually specify a candidate who’s any good at copywriting. It just goes to show that some things can be left unsaid.
An unusual opportunity for a copywriter
Copywriting was a boom industry as we headed into the 1920s and, as the advert above hints, people were looking to the American advertising market for ideas, experience and innovation. Within a couple of years, adverts for copywriters themselves were getting rather more sophisticated. Take a look at this example from 21st January 1921.
A big headline. A box. But still the same desire for a copywriter with the right social background. And once again, the ladies didn’t get a look in. They would have been better off taking the approach adopted by this gentleman.
He says more in half an inch than most of advertisement-writers say in half a page
By modern standards, this is incredibly waffly. But it does show how high a salary a good copywriter could hope for in 1923 – £2,000 was the equivalent to about £60,000 in today’s money.
On the subject of waffling
Even my cursory trawl through the Times archives revealed that copywriting from 1920 to the 1960s was incredibly verbose (and often dull) by today’s standards, and that Ogilvy was the man who reined it back in.
Think back to the advert at the beginning of this post – the one from 1964 demanding the ‘best copywriter in England.’ And then compare it to the following.
Concisely-written boredom (1962)
Short, but boring. And it supports my theory that copywriters have been overusing the word ‘persuasive’ for at least five decades.
Longer and duller (1960)
I felt so guilty about reproducing that advert in full that I left in the infinitely more entertaining Bournemouth ad to prevent you dying from ennui.
Soft, strong and thoroughly unabsorbing (1960)
To be fair, there are some nice bits in this advert – if only you could be bothered to wade in deeply enough. And that’s why, for all his not wanting to hire women in 1964, David Ogilvy’s concision had the most welcome and lasting effect on copywriters everywhere. I’ll be blogging about him in detail another time, but let’s end on a simple, sound, workmanlike advert from 1967. I’ve no idea who wrote it, but – for me – it shows the shape of things to come.