copywriting: the star performer is always the headline

Killer headlines are the kings of copywriting.

Who could forget the headline ‘A diamond is forever’?

Or Nike’s ‘Just Do It’?

‘You’re worth it’, anyone?

A headline can make or break a brand. Many of these above were written a long time ago, conceived by a group of copywriters amid the swish and glamour of 60s and 70s New York – not dissimilar to the characters of Mad Men. Just saying. Effective headlines haven’t changed much since then. They still dial into what we want. They appeal to their market.

An effective headline can launch a company, drastically increase sales and make a forgettable brand a household name.

A bad headline will probably do the opposite - so no pressure.

Of course, this applies to the most visible headlines, the ones on buses, billboards and banners, but to a lesser extent it relates to every headline a brand makes public.

The grandfather of copywriting, David Ogilvy said, “On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.” That’s right folks. Most of us only read headlines or at least we’ll only keep reading if the headline has convinced us to. So, headlines are the most important and the most powerful part of any written sale.

Short Writers Always Win

Apparently, 90% of copywriters prefer long copy to short. They love to stretch their prose’s legs, use beautiful and brilliant descriptions, make a good argument, fill a page…or four. But I’m different. I’m in that 10%. What I love to write most are headlines.

Of course, I’ve been known to pen a blog – case in point. But nothing is more satisfying than a headline that works. My fellow copywriter Orla agrees that “it’s 100% the best feeling when you nail a headline”.

A headline has to do so many things. It must grab attention, excite interest, offer something different and capture the brand tone of voice. Oh, and it must do this with the fewest words possible.

Sounds difficult, doesn’t it? But we love it. We step into the shoes of consumers every day - the slick trainers, the elegant heels, the polished oxfords. When we get those wellies on we know what makes their wearer tick, what they want and need. This is not forgetting the type of shoes and company we’re selling. Flip flops demand a very different headline to hiking boots.

This week at seventy7, us copywriters, or as we prefer Team Words, came up with a headline that was just one word. We proved the copywriting fact that the fewer the words the more effort has gone into crafting them. Imagine distilling a host of meaning into a single word. Imagine encapsulating the values of the brand and selling a single item…in just one word. You can imagine how many words we came up with, and how many we rejected. We gave arguments for each one, standing up like solicitors in court defending the words’ right to represent the brand, but in the end, the verdict was clear. It said everything we needed in: One. Single. Word.

Words always work within a context. The designs of the creative team always feed into what we write. Also, the mouth-wateringly good seventy7 photography is a massive inspiration. The artwork is what expresses the message and our copy complements and enhances it.

But a good headline is short and sweet, not unlike my fellow copywriter Orla and myself.

The Headline Header

The copywriting legend David Ogilvy is an inspiration to Team Words. His copy is clean, powerful and very very effective. He gave the facts and he didn’t see the need to sugar-coat them with adjectives - beautiful, brilliant, breathtaking wouldn’t have touched his page.

Let’s just appreciate the clarity of this ad line for a moment:

“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in the New Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”.

It states two benefits in one sentence. Impressive, right? But advertising has moved on since the 60s. Today, we like to receive information in bite-sized chunks. The twenty-first-century buyer probably won’t pay attention for 18 words. This ad is 14 words too long. Long sentences usually don’t cut it. They get the scissor treatment.

But still, it’s hard not to respect Ogilvy. After all, he was the original Mad Man.

Mad Men? Or Ad Women

But what about the Mad Women of the 60s? At seventy7 Team Words are women so of course, we need our copywriting lady heroes.

My personal copywriting hero is Fay Weldon. I was even lucky enough to be tutored by her. Every time I sit down to write I still hear her saying, ‘Clarity and brevity’. She is a wise woman.

In the ultra-glam world of 1960s London, she was a powerhouse as the head of copywriting in a big advertising agency. No mean feat for a woman at the time, especially as she was so young. She undertook heroic tasks, like explaining to the public what hair conditioner was and she nailed it with the world’s first ever hair conditioner advert. She promoted the Egg Marketing Board by coining the famous phrase ‘Go to work on an egg’. She had a flair for witty and attention-grabbing headlines. Although, she didn’t come up with the phrase ‘Guinness is good for you’, despite her cheeky claims.

While on the topic of Guinness, this was a genius slogan. As a school girl in Ireland, this was sold to me by teachers as the ultimate cure for the common cold. After all, ‘it’s good for you’. I can’t blame them. A catchy line is hard to forget.

Team words have learned from the greats like Fay Weldon and David Ogilvy, but we also look ahead and we know what works today. Each new client and each new project allow us the chance to think about something in a new light. What’s unique about this candle, necklace or four-man tent? And now what’s the pithiest way to say it? Let’s test a few options. Let’s edit them. This is a copywriter’s day, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.   

But, what does the future hold for copywriting? Well, this might sound a bit obvious but the internet. It’s exploded and it’s full of words. Words that grab our attention. And some that get zero clicks. But even though there’s a new advertising platform that no Mad Man or Woman could have imagined, the fundamentals of good writing hasn’t changed. Great copy is carefully crafted. Clever. Clear. Often witty, and when a headline ticks these boxes they were written by a damn good copywriter.

Drumroll, please…

Team Word’s Tips for Creating Headlines:

  • Always brainstorm
  • Lead with a benefit
  • Humour sells
  • Fascinate with a story
  • Tap into emotions
  • Be Specific
  • Positivity works better than fear tactics
  • Usually, the simplest answer is the best
  • …and always keep it short, even if it can’t be sweet

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