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A Copywriter Writes

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DAN WATSON

Kiwi copywriter.

Illustrator on the side.

This blog is filled with stuff that simply comes to mind that's too long to tweet.

It's mostly my observations as I try to make it in the advertising industry. It keeps me writing and, hopefully, gets you reading.

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  • June 15, 2012 11:54 am

    Infuriating Meeting or, Knowing What’s Important

    Last year, Lucideas was asked to pitch for a new iced coffee brand that was coming into Malaysia. We were to provide new package design concepts for the coffee product and its other flavours.

    This was an incredibly exciting project. We wanted to do something completely different and look at where all other iced coffee brands were zigging, so we could zag.

    Because of strenuous timing, we requested an extension, which was fine with the client. We would be presenting to them a few days after the other agencies did.

    The designers spent hours, days, weekends researching, creating and applying designs and I spent an entire afternoon hunched over a brainstorm for possible flavour names.

    Finally, we came together with some concepts we were truly proud of and excited to show off. Just to add something extra (seeing as we had extra time) we had actual models of the cans made up.

    The client phoned and confirmed the meeting.

    Naturally, we were in a rush. Last minute alterations and such had us sprinting to the car while simultaneously buttoning shirts and fumbling with boxes and laptops.

    The traffic jam didn’t help anything.

    To pass the time and ease the stress, one of the designers, Nick, suggested we play Monopoly on his iPad.

    What turned into a passive/aggressively competitive game ensued. Nick seemed to be getting all the luck in his dice rolls. Maybe my mind was still on the upcoming presentation.

    The game had to be paused when we arrived at the client’s office, much to Nick’s annoyance.

    We got in, shook hands, talked about the traffic, the weather, the weekend, the client’s friend’s mother’s dog’s bronchitis and got on with the presentation.

    We walked them through the designs, the ideas behind them, our rationales, our defense for whether people would still associate these designs with iced coffee. We even discussed compromises to set the client at ease.

    The client talked bout what ones they liked, the ones they didn’t like, asked about the addition of extra logos, or alternative designs. Then they picked their favourite and said they would most likely go with that.

    But then, after a short lull, they announced they made the decision to go with the other agency’s design three days ago.

    Silence. People sat up. Eyebrows elevated. Mouths opened.

    "What?" Managed our Business Director.

    "Sorry." Said the client.

    "Why didn’t you tell us three days ago?"

    "Sorry."

    "We put a lot of time into this."

    "We’re very sorry."

    My feelings of infuriation were more of empathy toward the designers, who had put in ten times more into this project than I had.

    The other designer, Edwin, was sitting in his chair, staring at the table. The personification of dejection.

    Nick was typing something rapidly into his phone. Texting the office, no doubt.

    A very civil and polite argument laced with the rage of a thousand hells followed. I had zoned out by this point. Nick prodded me in the side and handed me his phone:

    I can’t wait to kick your ass in Monopoly later.

    At the time, I was dumbfounded by Nick’s lack of concern for the events that had unfolded in that board room.

    Now, I can’t stop laughing.

    Nick had it right. Sure, he’d sacrificed almost a whole weekend to perfect a design that ultimately led to nothing, but he could still let it go in a matter of seconds.

    In an industry as hectic and stressful as advertising, where mini tragedies such as this occur on a daily basis, you have to be able to let these things go and move on.

    I’m probably not so skillful at that as Nick; if I hadn’t decided to start shaving my head in 2010, the job would have probably made that decision for me by now.

    I’m reminded of what my lecturer at university, Dave Brown, told me this in one of his first classes:

    "Advertising is the art of accepting rejection."

    Too right.



    *That’s a shocking representation of Nick in the illustration, by the way. He’d probably want that on the record.

  • April 17, 2012 6:00 pm

    My last project with Lucideas.

    In order to show the intricacies of the creative communication industry to young people in Malaysia, we created The Adprentice, a reality TV show where high school leavers take a crash course in advertising and pitch real ideas to real clients along the way. Their final challenge to to go head to head against a professional advertising agency (Lucideas) to win a full scholarship to IACT College and RM20,000.

    This was my favourite project by far.

  • January 10, 2012 2:31 am

    An Awesome Night Out or, Fuck It

    I’m gonna go ahead and apologise to my father right now, who reads what I write often. He’s mentioned to me once or twice about the language I use on my blog. I foresee extended use of the F word.

    Katt Williams talked about a special hormone that is released into your system from time to time that physically enables you to have a good time.

    It’s called ‘Fuck It’.

    It specialises in the breaking down of inhibitions and when you ask yourself ‘Why?’, it askes ‘Why not?’

    Most people choose to induce this hormone with alcohol and recreational drugs. However, you have to get the dosage just right, otherwise you risk overshooting the Fuck It mark and just end up Fucked Up instead.

    But sometimes, the conditions are just right for the natural production of Fuck It and when that happens, it’s fucking sweet.

    My most recent successful experience with Fuck It happened just a couple of days before Christmas. Lucideas was having their Christmas party.

    Being the only guy in the office with facial hair, I thought I’d dye it white and be the resident Santa Claus for the evening. Why?

    "Because fuck it. That’s why."

    It’s looked hilarious. We pulled out a Santa suit that we’d been using for a client before and they said I should wear it and give out all the Secret Santa presents.

    "Fuck it! Where do I change?"

    I donned the suit and became the cheeky, foul-mouthed, wandering-handed Santa that made every single person in the agency sit on his lap and open their presents. 

    After which, the music was too good to just sit around and quietly drink beer with everyone else.

    "Fuck this! Let’s dance! Come on!"

    After getting five or six people from the agency to dance, the suggestion of taking this party to a club afterward surfaced.

    "Dan, you should totally wear the suit to the club!"

    "Alright, you’re on. We’re going clubbing!"

    The party started to wind down around 10pm and a group of us met up at a pub for pre-drinks.

    "Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas everybody!"

    I bellowed at the pub.

    A very satisfying cheer was shouted back. My Fuck It levels were rewarding me handsomely.

    A guy came over to our table and presented me with a pint of Guinness.

    "There you go, Santa."

    "Oh, thanks very much!"

    *sip*

    "No, all of it."

    "What? Skull it?"

    "Yeah."

    "Alright then."

    That’s when you gotta watch those Fuck It levels. You know you’re in the red zone when you start saying ‘yes’ to everything, even when there’s potential for bad consequences.

    "Yay, Santa!"

    "Yeah *burp* Great, whatever. Thanks for that."

    Fast forward.

    One of Lucideas’ designers and I pulled up outside Zouk, one of Kuala Lumpur’s many dance clubs and sauntered in.

    That classic feeling when everyone who looks at you, smiles.

    That less than modest feeling that you just became a line in someone’s story about their night.

    "And then Santa walked in!"

    We went to a private booth and ordered drinks.

    "Fuck it. I’m embracing this. If you want me, I’ll be on the dance floor."

    High-fives, handshakes, hugs, kisses, a couple of lap dances and many, many photos soon ensued.

    I met many people and forgot many names.

    This was vague, but I was told some guy had to drag his girlfriend away because she was getting too friendly with me.

    I’ll take that.

    I managed to ride that wave almost to dawn.

    The night was epic to say the least.

    And all because I decided to fuck it and do something I had never done before.

    These are the kinds of things that happen when you take opportunities as they come and dive head first into the unknown.

    That’s how I want 2012 to be.

    More ‘fuck it’ moments that lead to awesome happenings. In my social life and my work.

    I’ve already made the resolution to go back to Zouk at Chinese New Year, dressed as the God of Prosperity.

    Happy New Year 

    -Dan

  • October 14, 2011 3:03 pm

    Budget or, Sometimes, We Kill It For Ourselves

    Recently, as is my usual experience since entering the ad industry, I learned something new.

    I learned about the way clients tend to work which, in a lot of cases, could prevent a lot of problems agencies tend to have with idea approval.

    It’s probably one of the most annoying aspects of dealing with clients; you’ve presented to the Marketing Managers, they’ve given their approval and you’re in a great mood because your work is going to get run. When all of a sudden, you get that email that says the idea has been canned because some random manager from higher up was on a different page.

    What I didn’t realise is that in many cases, the indirect cause of this is the agency themselves.

    It’s to do with the budget.

    Simply put, when the client sets their budget and the agency sticks to it, sometimes approving the idea generally lies with the client’s marketing team.

    However, when an idea requires more funding in order to execute, the budget increase has to be approved by a manager higher up.

    And any decent manager (no matter how much you’d love them to) doesn’t just sign things willy nilly. Especially when money is involved.

    So just like that, you have another pair of narrowed eyes, fine-tooth combing through the idea. And should that manager find something they don’t quite agree with, another change is proposed.

    The further up the chain you go, the more sensible-minded and less risky the bosses tend to become and you may find that it gets harder and harder to relate the creative concept to them.

    So your ideal plan would be to avoid getting these dudes involved if you can help it, for the sake of not dragging a project out for months on end.

    This scenario played out with a client of ours. In late 2010, a ballsy idea was pitched to them and approved. However, the idea exceeded the original budget.

    The concept was then presented to a Managing Director for approval of the budget increase, but, being a cautious businessman, he had some issues with the idea, so it came back to us with revisions.

    We then requested another budget increase and so more bosses got involved with more watchful eyes on the project and more opinions to consider. Too many people were getting involved at this point and too many concerns were arising.

    This difficulty continued until August and as misfortune would have it, a certain international political incident killed our idea completely as it may have suggested an association with the event, which was unideal.

    Had we stuck to the budget in the first place and kept the involvement from the higher-ups to a manageable minimum, we could have run the campaign swiftly and long before the political incident took place.

    The funny thing is, from where I sit, these changes look like they come out of the blue and it’s just the clients being clients needing the opinions of the entire staff before the go-ahead can be issued.

    It wasn’t until I had a chat with our Strategy Head about the matter that I learned that if we were as creative with our resources as we were with the idea, then things may have been different.

    It makes you think twice about whether asking to up the budget for your brilliant idea is the easier road to take.

  • September 16, 2011 3:00 pm

    Humble Advice or, Rubbing Shoulders With A Malaysian Ad Genius

    Last week, a very friendly and humble man by the name of Yew Leong Tan came into Lucideas for a chat.

    Now, given this guy’s experience, I would be almost certain that he is one of Malaysia’s more influential ad men, along with his late wife, Yasmin Ahmad.

    The two of them were responsible for the famous Petronas ads.

    I was told earlier this year that if Malaysia had to put up any ad work that would make them known around the world, it would be those ads.

    It was a rather pleasant evening as he modestly shared with us his 16 years experience working with Leo Burnett Malaysia.

    Three points stood out for me as we sat, sprawled on bean bags as Yew Leong perched himself on the couch, talking to us all.

    SAY ‘NO’
    As an agency, learn to say ‘no’ from time to time. People tend to think that you show your power and popularity by saying ‘yes’. Define the work you would like to do and the kind of client you would like to work for and say ‘no’ to your clients freely, but within reason, of course. He illustrated with an Apple analogy:

    "Electronic stores probably have hundreds of iPhones in the back, but they’re told to sell only 80 a day. Even though they can satisfy their customers now, Apple says ‘no’ by bringing the product out a little bit at a time. Saying ‘no’ creates a bigger demand."

    'No' is a strong word that gives you power when used correctly.

    STAY OPTIMISTIC
    You know that feeling you get when you get shot down, by a client, your boss or even co-worker? First, that fleeting moment of dread and then that rumble in the back of your mind: a figure of bulk and muscle, covered in sweat and dirt, sitting on a giant anvil surrounded by roaring fire, noisily chewing on a rusty iron pipe and starting at you with burning coal eyes and growls deeply:

    "Keep going."

    Well sometimes, that’s hard to maintain. But no matter what, always fight to keep that optimism:

    "Whenever an idea of yours is rejected, for whatever reason, think of it as a sign that you are meant to come up with something better."

    IT’S ABOUT STORIES
    Technology and trends have come and gone in the advertising industry and they have changed the way we work and the way we’ve communicated to our audiences.

    But one thing remains constant. Always has and always will. Storytelling.

    Ever since man could pick up a stick and draw in the dirt, we’ve been capturing each other’s attention and imaginations by telling stories. If you can tell a good story, you win them over.

    Yew Leong advises that this will always be the core element of our communication.

    After he’d reached the end of his own story, we all sort of sat there in an awkward silence. Yew Leong sat, content and perfectly comfortable to look at us all before someone would speak.

    "Wanna go for a drink?"

    "Love to."

  • July 15, 2011 1:55 pm

    Thinking Ahead or, How Luck Saved Me From Failure And Dickhead Taxi Drivers

    The taxi drivers of Kuala Lumpur are something else.

    They’re sneaky individuals who will try anything to squeeze money out of you. Especially if you show the physical symptoms of a tourist.

    They leave the meter running as you flick through the notes in your wallet so they can snag that extra 10 sen from you, they barter the fare with you while a sign that reads ‘HAGGLING IS FORBIDDEN’ boldly stands out on their door and they’ll make up random reasons and rules to justify charging you extra.

    Not to mention they pick and choose when and where they want to take you. If it’s a peak hour traffic, they’re not budging. If they want their last fare of the night to end up close to their home, tough luck. If they decide it’s too far, you’re on your own.

    It’s bullshit.

    And I have no doubt at all that Kuala Lumpur is not the only city in the world where this happens. It’s just that Auckland is not one of those cities.

    It’s become laughable over time as I’ve grown to know the area and become more familiar with the roads and I get some cheeky sod try to charge me 30 ringgit for a 12 ringgit cab ride.

    But one guy in particular got me the worst.

    My artist friend, Michael (@zangatang) visited me from New Zealand and so we went hiking on a track that lay 55km out of the city. We took the train half way to Ampang where we would have to get a taxi to drive the other 28km.

    We got reject after reject.

    "Too far."

    "I don’t know where."

    Or sometimes, it was just,

    "No."

    Finally we got a guy who helped us ask for directions. Ibrahim was his name. Then we asked Ibrahim if he’d take us. He grins and asks:

    "I don’t know. How much will you pay me?"

    Ugh. It never ends.

    We settle begrudgingly on 40 ringgit. He takes us, complaining the whole way, trying to coax more money from us. We eventually made it (a 26 ringgit cab ride).

    We told him to meet us back at the exact spot he dropped us at 5:30pm. We’d be waiting for him.

    "Yes, yes. I come. I be here."

    We hurry our hike so we’re not late and we get back at 5:15. We call Ibrahim. No answer.

    Again at 5:30. Answering machine.

    Again at 5:45. Same English woman’s voice.

    After the answering machine message at 6pm, it has become quite obvious that the bastard has stiffed us and wasn’t coming back.

    So there we were, in the middle of nowhere; a quaint little village at the edge of a rather extensive jungle in the middle of Malaysia, sitting on a make-shift seat made from pipes.

    We were not prepared for this. Call us naive, but I guess we had a little more faith in our fellow man than that. Regardless, we were still well and truly up the creek on this one.

    Forward thinking is a very useful quality to have. I think we can all agree that the guy in the movie that suavely pulls the problem’s answer that he prepared earlier from behind his back is a total boss.

    For a creative person, it’s critical to have this cannon in your creative habit arsenal. Thinking ahead can help you to spot flaws in your ideas or ask the hard questions that the suits would ask to guarantee it gets through. Or even the hard questions that the clients ask that usually have to stumbling over your idea like a newborn giraffe.

    It is the ability to take your ideas and project them into possible futures and judge how they might work or falter. It’s adding logic to the creative recipe that you’re stewing in your cranium. It is solidifying the idea with tangible facts and logistics.

    It’s also anticipating that unfavourable result (as much as we don’t want to) and coming up with something equally as brilliant to come back with. It’s never falling completely in love with the idea you’ve gone with, it’s that level of detachment.

    Of course, you shouldn’t confuse this with self judging. I’ve always seen that as a negative trait to avoid. Forward thinking is productive. It’s the persistence to make the idea work by putting it through the hard yards.

    A lot of creatives, including myself when I first entered the ad industry, tend to come up with an idea and then fling it to the account exec to take care of and move on. If the theory is there, that’s all that seems to be sufficient.

    "This will probably work. Here you go, make it happen. I’m off for a smoke."

    About a month ago, we came up with an idea to add a twitter component to a campaign where we searched within 50km of  Kuala Lumpur for people complaining about their day and sending a ground crew to go and give them gifts and prizes to help solve their problems.

    Logistically, it seemed like a nightmare with such a small team. We practiced how we would do it, we figured out a system and we did a couple of trial runs a couple of weeks before the launch. 

    Then, we chilled.

    The theory was there. We thought we were sweet, despite our CD telling us to run scenarios where the system didn’t work.

    Our target was 40 people with 20 days to do it. Two people a day. Two targets and eight hours to get them.

    Too easy. 

    On day one, we failed. We only got one person. 5% into the campaign and we were already behind. We stayed late to figure out what went wrong.

    It was by sheer luck that the very next day, doing roughly the same thing, we got three people. These fluctuations continued until we eventually met our target on day 20.

    Perhaps if we’d listened to the CD, we’d have knocked out all the snags in the system before going live and maybe even met our target sooner.

    I may not be the best forward thinker ever, even after my time in the ad business. But I know that you need this skill like a Catholic priest needs an alibi. I’ve just been lucky in a lot of my exploits.

    Michael and I sat for almost an hour in the middle of a random township somewhere in Malaysia. My plan at the time was to eat what’s left of our provisions. That bastard, Ibrahim still hadn’t called back.

    Then just out of the blue, a bus pulls round the corner. It wasn’t going to KL, but close enough to catch another, regular bus to the city. Pure luck.

    If the bus hadn’t come at that time, I would probably be telling you a more interesting story about how Mike and I walked and used sexual favors (I’d eaten all the food already) to get rides back to KL. 

  • June 15, 2011 2:02 pm

    "Find good references. Then beat them."

    Iz Mady, the Head of Design at Lucideas said this once to the art director and designer I work with. Although this was meant for design at the time, it does work for practically anything.

    I guess it’s the reason a lot of us go trawling through the award annuals for inspiration. Which is all well and good, as long as you remember to do one better than those references. 

  • April 19, 2011 1:41 am

    Judge An Ad School By Its Ads or, Getting Schooled Again


    Is that an eagle wearing a trencher? Christ…

    My agency, Lucideas recently did some work for a new client, a local advertising school which had some God-awful stuff trying to cram 27 messages into one print ad.

    My Creative Director, Zac Labang said that this was one of those blatant opportunities to do something cool and award-winning. I suppose you can’t ask for much better when the client themselves ask for something award-winning, not to mention the client is an AD SCHOOL; one of the best kinds of clients.

    I instantly lit up. I felt like I was back at university, getting briefed and, like all university ad briefs, there were no rules; no brand guidelines, no sponsor’s message, no Facebook pages or Twitter accounts.

    Just a simple idea to go on a page in the newspaper.

    Rather relaxing, compared to what is usually asked of an ad campaign these days.

    And like university, I found myself being schooled once again in things that you really ought to remember when creating advertising.

    Having said that, we’re always re-learning stuff. Droga5 Creative Director, Guy Roberts once said to me before giving me advice,

    "Here’s something I was taught when I was 17, and again when I was 19, and again at 21, and when I was 25…"

    What I re-learnt this time:

    SMASH THE CATEGORY.

    Zac reiterated what Paul White first taught this to me a couple of years ago. It’s the ‘zig when everyone else zags’ principle; it’s part of what Paul Arden meant when he wrote ‘Whatever you think, think the opposite’. Simply look at the competition and go in a different direction to what they do.

    Looking through the newspaper at all the colleges’ ads ‘persuading’ students to come to their open days, the first point was to do an ad that was simple and uncluttered. The sea of stock photography of smiling students said to us that an actual idea in our ad would make it stand out.

    This was too easy. The above ‘zagging’ is what you should be doing anyway. The fact that schools boasting effective communication courses were not doing their ads like this to begin with is embarrassing.

    SHOW, DON’T TELL.

    Again something you learn right off the bat in any ad school worth its salt. In this case, we saw one ad in particular that sang out amongst the bullet points, text boxes, sponsor logos and the other three headlines (no joke) that they ‘develop you to be an industry-ready communicator’. How? By showing exactly what not to do? Talk about irony.

    Don’t state the claim, simply prove it in the way you do an ad ESPECIALLY if you’re an ad school. I mean, shit, practice what you preach.

    Helps cut back on the body copy too.

    Speaking of which…

    TELL THEM WHAT THEY WANT TO HEAR.

    In your communication, there could be a slight chance that the reason you think you’re hot shit means nothing to the consumer.

    A student looking for a good college isn’t trying to compare their ability to equip them with global skills in a borderless world nor is interested in the fact that the university has leading research intensive facilities.

    Research does come in handy when figuring out what your audience what’s to hear. If you know what they want, then talking to them will be just like drinking through a straw without tipping the bottle up: simple enough, but if you still have trouble, then you’re kind of retarded.

    Finally…

    KEEP REFERRING TO THE BRIEF.

    You can make kick ass ads, but if they don’t say what needs to be said, the they’re about as useful as a mesh condom.

    When coming up with the initial concepts, I read the brief once and went to work. Each half decent thought was quickly drawn up and stuck to the wall, by the time it was time to meet, I went in with about 20-odd ideas.

    More than anyone else who came to the meeting.

    All of them off brief (by a smidge).

    Yep, felt like I was back at university.