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Writing

5 Copywriting Tips From Advertising Experts Goodby & Silverstein

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 5 min read

When it comes to writing copy that is effective and on brand, Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein are masters of the craft. They are the cofounders of the advertising agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners (GS&P) in San Francisco. Here, they teach advertising copywriting by sharing a few of their top tips.

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Who Are Goodby & Silverstein?

Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein were destined to meet. After graduating from Harvard, Jeff was a writer and illustrator, with illustrations published in magazines like Time and Mother Jones. Early in his career, Rich worked as an art director at various publications including Rolling Stone. Their worlds collided when they both worked at the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather in San Francisco. Before long, they decided to form their own agency—Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

Since 1983, GS&P has been one of the most powerful ad agencies in the United States. They’ve created their fair share of Super Bowl ads. They’re the team behind some of the biggest brand strategy campaigns—like the Budweiser lizards and the “got milk?” ads for the California Milk Processors Board. Their client list has included brands like Doritos, Pepsi, Cheetos, BMW, Xfinity, the NBA, and Nike. Jeff and Rich have been named Adweek’s “Executives of the Decade” and GS&P has been recognized as “Agency of the Year” numerous times by multiple publications.

What Is a Copywriter?

Copywriters are people who generate the words for audio scripts, ad slogans, and any other text that appears on or with advertising visuals. Copywriters find the right words to craft a slogan, build an advertising campaign, or persuade readers through a call to action—short sentences that get potential customers to buy a product. Copywriters are skilled at conveying ideas in concise, compelling copy with a small word count.

Traditionally, copywriters created ad copy for print media, but today many create content for the Internet that requires a knowledge of search engine optimization (SEO). With web visitors’ short attention spans, copywriters need to have a firm grasp on power words that catch a consumer’s eye. A good copywriter uses certain copywriting formulas and skills, like using the active voice (rather than the passive voice), in crafting an advertisement or social media posts on behalf of a brand.

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5 Copywriting Tips From Goodby & Silverstein

At the heart of the job is the ability to understand what business owners want and translate that into a great slogan. Copywriting requires creativity, the ability to brainstorm to find the right words, and a lot of hard work. If you’re trying to figure out how to become a copywriter, follow these four tips from Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein:

  1. Study language. When it comes to the copywriter’s job, it’s all in the name: They’re the ones who write the copy. If that’s you, Jeff notes it’s important to have a deep grasp of the language you’re using to communicate. In this case that language is English, and you’re responsible for using it to communicate whatever it is that the brand wants to say. To do this effectively, you must study and understand the language. Jeff famously was an English graduate at Harvard University, and he wrote for The Harvard Lampoon before becoming a copywriter. Needless to say, this gave him a real and practical knowledge of grammar, plus it expanded the vocabulary with which he could convey ideas. Saying something correctly is as important as saying it at all. Whether you work full-time using your copywriting skills to create ads for large companies, or your copywriting jobs are mostly in service of small businesses, mastery of the written word is a must.
  2. Bend language to fit a brand and tell a story. That said, a bookish mastery of English isn’t how you become a really good copywriter—it’s how you become a really good proofreader or editor. Copywriting requires a fluid mastery of the cultural language around the brand and the platform. For instance, Jeff mentions that he gets in a lot of trouble for writing “got milk?” because people question its grammatical efficacy. Despite the fact that it wouldn’t technically hold up under grammatical scrutiny, the tagline became effective and revolutionary because of its shorthand. Sure, the tagline could have been “Do You Have Milk?” or “Have You Got Any Milk?,” but the formality of the sentiment was contradictory to the tone of the rest of the campaign. Copywriting is about understanding the implications of the tone and the way the tone is conveyed in the place that it’s meant to be received. As Jeff says, “If you’re going to take liberty with the language, have a reason to do it.”
  3. Read widely. As Jeff says, “Read a lot of stuff because that is the raw material for what you’re doing. And it teaches you about the people you’ll be speaking to, that you have to write to.” Whether you're a freelance copywriter just starting your copywriting career, or an expert in content marketing, your work will always benefit from a robust reading habit.
  4. Use a voice that reflects the brand. At an agency, taking liberties with the style of the copy is as common as taking liberties with the language. But part of honing your craft as a copywriter is knowing when and how to take those stylistically. When Jeff says, “Don’t have a style,” he’s not saying you can’t have a voice or tone that’s unique; rather, he’s saying that great copywriters can reflect the stylistic needs of the brand while also integrating voice or tone. Your goal is to speak for the brand and reach a specific target audience.
  5. Be adaptable. Many agencies have a range of clients across industries, so chances are you’ll need to be able to write copy for a sports brand immediately followed by a car brand immediately followed by a brand that sells feminine products. To do this, you’ll need to be able to stylistically adjust your tone, vocabulary, and perspective to serve the client (not yourself). This will inevitably mean killing a few of your darlings, whether those are lofty ideas or brilliant lines of copy. “I think the other thing about writing is not to have a style,” Jeff says. “Come up with different ways that you write. Write funny ways, write serious ways, write beautiful ways. Learn how to do all of it.”

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