Ahead of the book launch for Building Bridges this week, my local paper gave me a lovely write-up. Click on the image to download the high-res (readable) version:
Today is Easter Sunday, the culmination of a week of intense reflection and emotional turmoil for Christians across the world. Easter is a narrative roller-coaster, laced with bitter and subversive irony: the ‘green mile’ of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in which the people unwittingly cheered each step that took him closer to his own murder; and the shameful arrest, trial, torture and execution which turned the universe on its head and brought life out of a spiral of death. The good became bad and the bad became good.
Easter 2013 came comparatively early, bringing it closer to the anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Now ten years on, the bitter and subversive irony is all-too-apparent.
The unambiguously-named iraqbodycount.org estimates the post-invasion Iraqi civilian death toll to be between 111,840 and 122,320, with an added margin of error of a further 12,000 from unverified Wikileaks documents. Iraq may be out of the news but it isn’t out of the woods.
The court-martial and trial of US Army Private Bradley Manning is still under way. Manning, who endured extended solitary confinement and torture at the hands of the US Army, admitted that he did in fact send the ‘Collateral Murder’ tape to Wikileaks. This infamous footage from 2007 shows a US helicopter gunship crew murdering a group of journalists before swooping back around to fire on Iraqi first-aiders going to help the injured and dying.
In this context, just a couple of weeks before Easter in which Christ himself demonstrates the full cost of non-violent opposition to the Empire, former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld tweeted:
What he meant to say was “We who played a role in history deserve your respect and appreciation.” He didn’t get it; instead he received a storm of hate. The Los Angeles-based comedian and writer Rob Delaney said it best:
Where is the irony? As Rumsfeld begged for respect, adulation and honours for a job well done, the country of Iraq is still stained with the blood of its civilians. One of the men who should be begging for the forgiveness of the Iraqi people is asking for their thanks. This is irony of the darkest kind.
As I left church this morning, I noticed a poster for a new book by Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad. With such an Easter-themed title as ‘Father, Forgive: reflections on peacemaking’, perhaps the good Reverend Canon will be able to show a hopeful way forward for Iraq – one that does not rely on ranks, honours and ‘victory’ parades but on self-sacrifice, brokenness and an unimaginable but potent resurrection.
I work at the creative end of the marketing process. Many of my clients like me to be involved in creating the concept for their fundraising letter, publication, website copy or whatever piece of work they want doing. I find this very stimulating, and I enjoy coordinating with other professionals (such as designers) on making the words and visual elements fit together perfectly.
This process works best when we – the creative team – are fully aware of the target audience. This is especially true in fundraising. We need to know who they are, what they’re used to receiving and what they give in response. Once we have this data we can focus our creative energies and professional experience of ‘what works’ and come up with something really powerful. Over time, the experience of what works solidifies into our gut feeling; our conventional wisdom; our common sense.
However, there are times when the data and our experience do not agree. And when that happens, we need the courage to abandon our what our guts tell us is correct and go with what the data says.
For example: I recently wrote an direct mail appeal for a charity. Normally (and I use the word very carefully), a charity waits a minimum of six weeks from the date the appeal lands on the doormats before looking at response rates. The response time can be longer – One of my clients recently received a donation from an appeal they sent in 1988 – but six weeks is a reasonably time to get a good indication of whether or not the appeal is a success.
I was surprised, therefore, to see that a ‘follow-up letter’ was due to be sent to the same people only two weeks after the main appeal. The purpose was simple – to chase the donors and remind them that the charity needs their support.
My gut told me that this was a bad idea. It would upset the donors and put them off giving rather than encourage them to give. It would annoy donors who had just given but not had their gifts processed. It would look like the charity was wasting money on paper and postage. It would result in feelings of guilt creeping into the charity-donor relationship.
Nobody likes a begging letter, so I queried the wisdom of the follow-up letter with the client. I was greatly surprised by what I heard.
Follow-up letters work. This particular charity found that sending a two-week chaser after the main appeal typically brings in an extra £30,000 (minus costs of the second letter). For this particular charity, that was between 30% and 50% extra income per appeal letter.
The gut is built of hard-earned experience across different projects and different clients, but it can be wrong. Data, on the other hand, is there in black and white and is hard to ignore. If multiple appeals show a 30% increase in income, it is safe to say follow-up letters really do work, despite what the gut may tell you.
As somebody said to me recently: “the difference between an amateur and a professional is that a professional never stops learning.” How true.
In the close of 2012 I worked on a warm appeal for Scripture Union, asking their existing supporters for donations to fund their summer beach missions. The appeal ‘hit mats’ in early January and the response was terrific.
For almost all of its 140 year history, Scripture Union has organised fun summer beach missions for children across England and Wales. Hundreds of thousands of children have grown up with memories of halcyon days of fun in the sun on SU missions and many have sent their own children back to the same locations year after year.
The object of the appeal was to find a ‘classic SU story’ and tap in to the supporters’ own sense of nostalgia about childhood and summer fun.
Though I came into the job as a copywriter, I was given the task of telephoning SU supporters to find this perfect summer story. After following a number of leads, I found Ems Hancock and her family’s amazing story which began way back in 1921 and went on to include four generations. Ems was entirely helpful and together we crafted this lift letter which went in the pack to support the main appeal letter from SU National Director Tim Hastie-Smith.
As a freelance copywriter, feedback on work is surprisingly hard to get. The only reliable way to tell if you’ve done a good job is whether or not you get repeat business. Clients don’t tend to throw good money after bad.
It was therefore especially pleasing to receive an email from Sam Hall at Scripture Union describing the response to the appeal. The initial level of donations was very encouraging and many SU supporters had been moved by Ems’ story to write in to share their own memories.
The best comment of all made my day; it said, ‘Summer missions appeal’ = best SU mailing ever!!!’
As feedback goes, that’s pretty good.
At the moment, a lot of my work seems to be in the area of writing fund-raising letters and collateral copy. This is stimulating work because you have to encapsulate the entire ‘ask’ in your opening line and then build an irresistible rhetorical crescendo to produce the desired result of a donation.
It may surprise you to learn that the opening line comes before the letter itself is opened; it comes in the form of a handful of carefully-chosen words on the envelope. I enjoy the challenge of refining a complex or otherwise verbose proposition into 12 or 16 finely-tuned words.
This helps me appreciate the work of advertising copywriters who face similar challenges. So when I look at printed adverts in the press and magazines, I enjoy thinking through what the ad executive’s thought-process might have been in coming up with the advert copy.
Adverts often reflect the cultural Zeitgeist and provide a window into the joys, anxieties and aspirations of the time. I was therefore highly amused to see adverts from the 1950s and ’60s in a stack of old newspapers I found. I had an endless array to show you, so I limited myself to three, all within the theme of drinking for health and pleasure (however irresponsibly!).
I’d love to see advertising executives try to pitch these concepts now… enjoy!
Imagine the pitch: “We can sell your gin by pointing out the cost savings to be had by switching from a car to a motorbike when driving to and from the pub. People can drink more and still drive home!”
(And, yes, 1607 glasses of gin in a year averages out at 4.4 units of alcohol per day. This would put you over the UK drink-drive limit and then some.)
Don’t go to the gym – drink yourself healthy!
Lucozade is really a health drink. Buy it for your children today.
UPDATED TO ADD:
By sheer coincidence I just saw this advert (below) which reveals a remarkably different Zeitgeist from above:Read more about this advert on the BBC.
America went to the polls yesterday and re-elected President Obama for his second term. There is much that we can learn from the Obama:Biden 2012 campaign because, much like the 2008 campaign, it was a masterclass in the use of crowdsourcing to drive its messages home.
Obama and his team showed they knew what to say, how to say it and where & when to say it.
In the last few weeks of the campaigns, with the notable exception of the botched first debate, Obama pounded Romney until it was almost too painful to watch. As Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks brilliantly illustrated, Obama employed what we could now call the ‘Massachusetts 48′ trick.
By inaccurately stating that Massachusetts was ranked no.48 of 50 for job creation under the ‘businessman’ Mitt Romney, Obama forced the news networks to check the facts and state for clarity that Romney was in fact no.47 out of the 50 states. It led to restatement after restatement by different parties and drove the message home. Obama didn’t need to repeat his message because everybody else was: whether Massachusetts was ranked 47 or 48, Mitt Romney’s record on job creation was a disaster.
This is viral newscasting across the corporate news media, across all networks and the internet. Brilliantly effective.
Others joined in on Obama’s behalf and said things that he could not say without appearing craven and politicising a tragic event. Whilst New York was under water and without power, Forecast the Facts delivered what has been called the ‘most brutal ad’ of the campaign.
The advert featured Mitt Romney’s distasteful joke about Obama’s pledge to tackle climate change.
Taking the candidate’s own words and putting them against real images of your fellow countrymen suffering under a tropical storm creates an astonishingly powerful message.
Whether it was right or wrong to use the reality of suffering Americans to drive a political point home, it cannot be denied that the advert was truly powerful and accomplished what it set out to do beyond all doubt.
Finally – horses and bayonets. What could these have to do with presidential elections?
I only mention them because Obama did – and what followed was a storm of jokes, images and websites scoring points off Mitt Romney – but for me it was the first time I consciously realised that I’d heard actual political news not through a network but through the phenomenon of the internet meme.
When Romney pledged to increase the size of the US Navy to pre-1916 levels, he opened himself up to a devastating attack by the reinvigorated Obama:
“You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
Within seconds, Twitter exploded with jokes about ‘horses and bayonets’. Within 30 minutes, people had already registered websites such as horsesandbayonets.tumblr.com/ and the first spoof images were appearing and being passed around.
What surprised me was that I encountered the memes before the news from official channels like the BBC.
Make your statement; make it powerful, emotive and memorable; and let others do the rest.