Being a Ghostwriter – The Man Behind the Mask

Having been a Brand/Marketing Manager/Director/VP (TeaMaking) or whatever the then-current job title was in the heady days of the 1980s, I was on the client side, observing the last hurrah of the great Advertising Agencies.

While that gave me some control over what was spent and what got produced, I soon itched to have some of the creative action that went on in those glass and chrome West End edifices (with the impossibly glamorous receptionists). Not for me the suited and booted Client Director role, schmoozing ignorant clients (self included) and having to be the interpreter between us and their Creatives. No, I aspired to be one of those temperamental artistic folk, who were always segregated from the rest of the Agency and given licence to be outrageously brilliant.

Every now and again the hirsute Art Director and Creative Director (scriptwriter) would be wheeled out into the meeting room and would be nervously monitored by their handlers in case of bad behaviour. They would proceed to present their words and visuals, and subtly persuade us to choose the option that they really wanted (usually after showing two duds).

Then they got to go on some totally essential exotic location to make the ad. I especially remember one coffee commercial shoot in the Grand Canyon – or I would have done had I been invited to go… But I’m not bitter, unlike the coffee.

Best of all, they got fabulous salaries (to feed their expensive habits). So how could I get a piece of this? Well, I can’t draw and don’t have the greatest visual sense – but I’ve always written. All I needed was an outlet. I made it my business to write anything that was beneath the dignity of our Agency – press releases, flyers for retail promotions, trade articles, etc.

Earning a Seymour

No, I didn’t get a six-figure salary for writing a single line of copy: in those days we all aspired to earn ‘a Seymour’ – named after the £100,000 paid by Charles Saatchi to headhunt the late great Geoff Seymour. And if you wonder why, consider that he came up with the following one-liners:

  • “As good for you today as it’s always been” (Hovis)
  • “The world’s favourite airline” (BA)
  • “Reassuringly expensive” (Stella Artois)
  • “Made in Scotland from girders” (Irn-Bru)
  • “They’ll make a dishonest woman out of you” (Birds Eye pies)

Those old enough to remember these classics will not doubt their value to the brands concerned. They funded what the Guardian’s obituary described as “the champagne lifestyle for a good-looking young man: there was the Bentley, the Savile Row suits and Montecristo cigars and a farm in Wiltshire. Colleagues recall Seymour sweeping from the green Bentley into his agency’s Howland Street offices in London, wearing a cloak ‘and looking like Oscar Wilde’.”


The new creatives

But now I finally write for others and get paid for the privilege, the scene is very different. Yes there are still ‘full service’ agencies; but they can no longer expect to pull down an automatic 15% commission on every expensive service they provide. Now their lucrative media-buying role is often usurped by specialist media agencies that can also offer the all-important online marketing management services (which are as much about planning as they are about creativity).

And now, creatives tend to work for themselves and sell their services to clients – often at very reasonable rates, more’s the pity. (The barriers to entry are tiny).

And that’s how we do it at Bojingles, and we do fortunately have a reputation that ensures repeat business. We have low overheads because we are a small team of professionals each with a particular set of skills, but with no fancy office. As the lead copywriter/scriptwriter (no hi-falutin’ titles here), I write under any name than my own, so you will see or hear my work appear on various websites, social networks and radio or video advertisements under my clients’ logos, URLs and letterheads.

Is it frustrating to be a ghostwriter? No, not really. It would be nice to be the author of a big national TV commercial (a rare breed nowadays) but few would know it was my work: just as although we are also writing pop songs, if we have a hit then we will probably have to share the credit with the singer and his or her producer and manager.

And that’s one thing that has not changed – Colonel Tom Parker’s companies got production credits on everything that Elvis sang, or the song did not get used. The writer was, and is, at the bottom of the food chain. But there are worse chains to be attached to. So I’d better get back to the next paying article…


Say less, mean more…

If there is one maxim that we at Bojingles would like to stress to any potential radio commercial client, it is this – Less is More.

In other words, when you are putting together a brief for a 30 second radio ad, do not give the poor production company 9 bullet points and insist they are all essential…

Bear in mind that we have a sensible maximum of 80 words to play with (70 is better if we want to allow the script to breathe and maybe to introduce and finish any music properly).  If there is more than one speaker, reduce to 65 or less: conversation is slower and people leave gaps between talking and listening.

Now take away the words we need for the ‘call to action’ at the end – and 90% of you insist on a phone number (often twice) as well as a web address and directions, even though few people these days are going to stop to write a number down.

So we now probably have about 40 words in which to be super-creative. Oh joy. This is why when you say ‘very nice but can you just add in….’ the correct answer is ‘no’.

So if it’s that restricted a format, what can you hope to achieve?

The answer: Say One Thing, and say it well. Then repeat frequently via a canny media plan.

Don’t over-elaborate, and don’t expect immediate results; unless it happens to be a never-to-be repeated offer for sale today, you won’t get everyone out of their kitchens and cars to take instant action. Radio works by repetition.

Above all, trust your creatives. Don’t hamstring them in advance, and don’t try to be your own scriptwriter. Follow these few pieces of advice and you are much more likely to be pleasantly surprised by the results…