Q&A: Herschell Gordon Lewis

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Herschell Gordon Lewis
Herschell Gordon Lewis

Herschell Gordon Lewis, a writer, filmmaker and direct marketing veteran, discusses the evolution of copywriting and its challenges

Q: How has a copywriter's role changed given the pace of technology and evolution of agency structures?

A: For an effective copywriter, and we have to isolate the effective from the generic, the ability to transmit information has become secondary to the ability to optimize information. That suggests a syntactic talent of being able to harmoniously arrange the elements, as opposed to simple descriptive talent, which for years was how people gauged their creative team. We lead people rather than simply say what we have for sale. 

Q: What has changed the most about direct marketing in your tenure? What has remained unchanged?

A: The biggest change is the opening of the floodgates of competitive media choices. What hasn't changed — and what is getting stronger — is that the brand is becoming secondary to response, and that's something a lot of agencies don't accept. That's why a company like Zappos.com can outsell the more traditional brands. What matters is the offer, not who is making the offer.

Q: What should be any copywriter's goal?

A: The eventual purpose is causing someone to perform a positive act as a direct result of exposure to a specific message. That's why direct now has a respectability it didn't have before. 

Q: What things do you look for in a good copywriter?

A: I would rather see samples that range from plastic pipes to computer software than one string of samples all related to a single major brand. That tells me the person is capable of adapting an implicit ability to sell instead of simply regurgitating corporate philosophy. 

Q: What is the biggest challenge for a copywriter given the saturation of media messages consumers face?

A: People no longer have implicit skepticism of advertising, but rather they dismiss it before they read it all the way through. You may only have 140 characters to sell something, which is not easy. I can use one medium to refer people to another, but that means I have swapped a one-step conversion for a two-step, meaning response ratio goes down. 

Q: When you talk to younger people just entering the business, what do you tell them? 

A: I warn them that cleverness for the sake of cleverness may well be a liability rather than an asset. I remind them that despite Facebook and mobile's suggestion to the contrary, respectable grammar will never go out of style. To any of them who object to being a salesperson, I suggest looking for a different profession.

Q: How has the fragmentation of media influenced the craft of copywriters?

A: The medium is not the message; the medium just affects the message. Despite how connected someone is, the maximum number of hours in a day is 24, so we have a competitive situation out there. The approach has to match the target's own experiential background. You're expertise is tied to the medium rather than salesmanship.


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