Copy Is the Bedrock of Good Strategy

I had the immeasurable pleasure of teaching at the University of Alabama this past spring in their Minerva advertising program. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a creative specialization inside their advertising program that’s designed to be an undergraduate degree + portfolio finishing school in one. The student selection process is extremely rigorous, and the talent the program churns out is absolutely top notch. If I were a portfolio school, I would be afraid. The program is run by Mark Barry, who is not only a recovering creative director himself, but a really, really, ridiculously good instructor, as well.

When Mark asked me to teach the class, he told me there are no text books, notes, or foundational documents to build the class from. Just a syllabus and a dream. His brief to me was short and to the point. He said, “These kids have already taken basic concepting so they’re aware of how to build an idea out. You just have to teach them how to be better writers.” Sounds simple enough, right? All I had to do was encapsulate the last 20 years of my life into 4 hours a week for 12 weeks.

This triggered in me some hella-deep reflection. I spent a couple hours brainstorming all the things I’d ever been taught by creative directors, strategists, account leaders, and writers. Then I had to remember all the basics that I was taught at the very beginning – construction, syntax, emphasis, punctuation, word choice, etc. Next, all I had to do was condense it down into bite-sized chunks to teach. So how’d I do? I started my first class with a 90-slide deck to illustrate what we would be covering during the semester and what makes a good writer. I had a glorious lecture prepared, and I was ready.


It bombed.

The material was good, but that’s not how you teach creatives. So I went back to the drawing board and realized that I had to be way more tactical and functional than philosophical. So I went back to the basic 4 questions that every strategy needs to answer: who, what, how, and why. The best teaching I ever got in this business was always directed at those four questions, in one way or another. And in my own self-discovery process, I reminded myself of the simple truth that the copy of any creative element should always be the purest expression of the strategy, no matter if it’s stated or implied.

Even though copy is the class, a great writer has to be able to hold the strategy firmly in his/her mind. You have to grasp it, otherwise you’re just creating ad copy. And that’s not the point. The point is to be strategic in every decision you make. So I admitted defeat, re-assessed my audience, built out a plan, and went forward.

My approach? Teach them two very simple concepts, deeply interwoven together: how to break down a problem and how to consistently construct good copy. The latter is all the fun stuff, the former is all strategy thinking.

But this all has nothing to do with my teaching abilities, and it has everything to do with some blocking and tackling of creative that may seem obvious to some, but felt like epiphanies to me. It’s a fact that I’ve always taken for granted as a strategist because I grew up as a writer. It’s why I used to get frustrated with writers who just tried to write ad school headlines all the time. And it’s why the thing I pick on strategists the most about is their writing abilities. Because the thing that makes great copy? Great strategy. And the thing that makes great strategy? Great copy.

Because a strategy without the execution to put it into practice is meaningless.

Any copywriter worth hiring has to know and simplify the strategy, in everything.