[02 jun 2023]

I've Got 99 Problems With Your Copywriting


And this is how to fix the biggest of them all

I’ve got a red wine stain on my copy of George Orwell’s Why I Write, and that’s strange – I don’t drink red wine. I don’t really drink, to be honest. So how it got there? Fucked if I know.

Through the mystery purple ring on the cover, though, is a cutting summary of what his book’s about: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

I like it because it’s how I feel about the way your agency writes. Maybe not the murder bit – unless you’re a PR for OJ Simpson (too soon?) – but the appearance of solidity to pure wind? That’s you, that is. That’s you and your marketing copy, from press releases and pitch decks to your cringiest LinkedIn posts. 

And it’s how George would’ve felt about your copy, too. 

“No one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed,” he wrote. “[Modern] prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

Although he didn’t know it when he wrote this essay back in 1946, he’s agreeing with the biggest of my 99 gripes with your copy: the exhausted hyperbole and gross industry jargon that you, like everyone else, use to bolster what you’re selling. The solidity to your pure wind. The Pivot Tos, the Reaching Outs, the Deep Dives, the Revolutionisings, the Iconics, the Delighted To Announces, and the Growth Hackings. Goddamn Growth Hackings. The tired, skin-crawly bumf that, like the carving knife you use to cut through tough plastic packaging, has been dulled to uselessness.

And I know you’re guilty of it. Because I see it. One thousand examples. Every day.

Before becoming ACM’s senior copywriter, I was a print magazine journalist. Ten-and-some-more years in a crumbling industry that I loved. And still love. It’s the most stressful fun I’ll ever have, writing and/or editing for FHM (RIP), ShortList (RIP), Hypebeast, The Guardian, MPORA (RIP), Outdoors Magic (RIP), Amuse (Vice’s adventure and travel platform, RIP), Whitelines (RIP), and more. It means I still get 100s of press releases a day, 99.9% of which go right to my trash and 99.8% of which use the same set of words and phrases, as Orwell says, for convenience rather than meaning. Allow me to present some of my favourite lazy marketing mainstays, collected from emails received in the last 24 hours:

Tasty, right? Over to LinkedIn, my own personal hell, for a little more…


Why do you do this to yourselves? To your clients? To my inbox? When did an industry based on human communication become unable to communicate to humans? Who, or what, do you think you’re talking to? Are you happy?

I’d like to make it clear that I’m not some maverick copywriting mercenary who’s hijacked ACM’s tone of voice, driven it into a wall, and set it on fire just to get everyone’s attention.

Nooo no no. There’s been a Pentagon-grade radar for bullshit jargon installed at ACM since day one. 

“It just stinks of a lack of independent thought and, ultimately, creativity,” Matt Barr, ACM’s co-founder and CEO, pinged me earlier. “The cliches, the terms, the fact that everyone is suddenly using ‘marketing piece’ and ‘deep dive’ as phrases – agencies are just saying these things because they think they should. They’re not finding the most effective and creative use of language, or even questioning what this set menu of vocabulary is saying about them. It’s so public, too! It’s out there for prospective clients to see. Are you appealing to a new client with your lack of creativity? What does it say about the work you could do for them? The whole thing, it fascinates me.”

But yes. Back to the why:

“The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy,” Orwell said, unaware he’d be summing up the state of my incoming emails 77 years later. “It is easier – even quicker, once you have the habit – to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.”

Nowhere is this more obvious than in PR – a service we built our reputation on way back, and that we offer for clients like Arc’teryx, Danner, YETI, and more. Journalists, like the me from 2010-2022, aren’t asking for your press release to be filled with unputdownably engaging and uniquely arresting prose. They want it to be something far simpler than that. Far simpler than smushing together a predetermined set of jargon inherited from awful press releases before yours. They want simple, human messaging that’s quick and easy to read. They want you to speak, not write.

Oh, I’m just a has-been hack, though. My industry ‘use by’ date is up. What do I know? You’re right. So take it from a couple of highly influential pals of mine, then.

“Most press releases I receive fail to engage on a level that I can get on board with,” Nick Pope, Esquire’s Executive Digital Editor, tells me. “So any email from a PR who can talk to me on a more personal, human level will stand out. I’m always surprised by how few questions I get about the brand beyond ‘What are you working on at the moment?’ – it feels like a lost opportunity to get a better feel for what we’re about, the challenges we face, and how that can be exploited.”

Joe Mackertich, who I worked within kissing distance from at FHM, Mr Hyde, and ShortList, and who is now top brass at Time Out London, says this: 

“I’ve got PRs asking me for coverage every second of the day. Some of them know me. Some of them know of me. Some of them aren’t aware of me at all. It’s a churning hellscape in my inbox. I attempt the Zero Inbox thing, and that’s only possible with a kind of dead-eyed, Terminator-style approach to deleting or archiving stuff on sight. There are certain PR names and agency names that are basically invisible to me at this point. Which is unfortunate for them. But that’s what happens if you send one too many emails about plastic beach furniture or fixed-rate ISAs. The ones that I do see tend to be ones that are either from someone I know, or have an appropriate, focused subject line. Generally, they’re also written in an informal, human way. It’s reassuring when it sounds like the person who wrote it is quite busy and is just dropping you a line to let you know something. A 2000-word press release for some debuting NFT rapping hologram feels hilariously misjudged. In a way there’s something poetic about how unreadable, ambient, and pointless they feel. A safe rule of thumb is simply to talk to me like we’re in the pub, so that when I do get a moment to come and meet you for lunch, I know we might actually have a human conversation. No one’s ever actioned an activation in a pub.”

The good news is, we can change you. If you’re up for it. 

“Modern English, especially written English,” says Orwell, “is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”

And here’s how you can do it.

Dave Trott, creative director, copywriter, and a recipient of the D&AD President’s Award – an honour for “an industry hero, a legend whose contribution to the industry has been nothing but inspirational” – wrote this in his must-bookmark blog in 2015, and it still stands. Get your coat, we’re heading back to the pub for a chat:

“Recently I was looking at a young copywriter’s portfolio. The body copy was readable and persuasive, and that’s rare. I said ‘This is really good copy, where did you learn to write like this?’. The student said Nick Wray [another award-winning copywriter/creative director] taught him. He told me Nick had said ‘Write as if you’re talking to a bloke in a pub and trying to convince him. Because you’re only ever talking to one person’. I thought that was great advice.”

This is our approach right across the services we provide, and in everything I do. Whether it’s a gigantic creative campaign for [huge new global client that’s getting announced next week], SEO descriptions for adidas TERREX, a research report for Breaking GB, or a FOMO-inducing event for YETI, at ACM, we talk, we don’t write. Our personal approach gives us the edge. I don’t use competitor agency material for reference because I write material other agencies would be afraid to send. I write how I’d like to be spoken to. In PR, we’ve cultivated relationships with writers, editors, and freelancers that inform us of not only what they need and want, but what they like. We’ve thrown jargon on the pyre. We drop wet blankets over even the smallest sparks of wafty industry speak before they get out of control. And that’s what makes us readable and persuasive.

That’s what makes us the best at what we do.

That’s why we get results where others can’t.

I’m more than happy to send a copy of our new Tone of Voice document your way, if you’re looking for a lengthy read for your next holiday. Otherwise, I’ll leave you with six points from Why I Write that partly sum up our approach to writing at ACM in 2023. And should inform yours, too. Please. Please.  

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. 
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. 

I think the stain on my book cover might be Ribena, by the way.

– Chris Sayer, ACM senior copywriter and NOT a mercenary