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July 13, 2018   |   5 min read

Copy Talk | Don Draper Is Dead

Ryan James   |   Creative + UX Copywriter

Exploring the role of the modern agency copywriter.

When hit television show Mad Men first aired in 2007, audiences everywhere got an inside look at how creative agencies function—more specifically, how the copywriters conceive and execute campaigns. Set in the 1960s, much of the show surprisingly still feels relevant. The agency model, with its hierarchy and demanding workflow, hasn’t changed too much over the years. But on the other hand, copywriting has come a long way from the habits exhibited in Sterling Cooper country. Copywriters have always told stories, but they weren’t always preoccupied with calls-to-action or implementing the latest social hashtag.

The Don Draper we see on the screen, the New York “idea man”, doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. Nor do his disciples, who all seem to hone just one copywriting specialty (except for the prevailing Peggy, whose jack-of-all-words spirit brings her success). Today’s copywriter must be nimble, and capable of doing (or figuring out) whatever work comes their way. It’s less armchair essayist, more in-the-trenches ingenuity. Here are three areas every modern copywriter should be prepared to tackle.

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1. Congratulations—you’re now a UX/UI writer!

As explored in our post on the future of web design, User Experience and User Interface are becoming an integral focus of creative work. Some days you might be polishing that fancy piece of homepage copy, but other days you’ll be focusing on the nitty-gritty of functionality. What should this button say? Does this line of text intuitively guide a user toward the content they want? Yesteryear’s copywriters didn’t have to worry about digital elements like this. It was all television scripting and print ad finesse.

Good, successful copy is now the culmination of many working parts. Some are about brand identity and flair, while others are purely about utility. They’re both important, even though one is considered significantly less “sexy” in ideation. Another point is that this copy is short. Websites are feeling more and more like apps, with simple layouts that use visual cues in lieu of the written. Sacrifice your inner Hemingway. Don’t convolute things. You’ll soon realize that the UX/UI world is an art form on its own.

Collaborate with the digital strategists and information architects around you. Learn how to translate their thinking—and sometimes clinical-sounding specs—into impactful writing. Going further, just stop and think about why you like your favorite websites. What about the design makes them feel inherently useful and navigable? Chances are the nuances of copy are playing a huge role. Pay attention to:

  • Directive words or phrases used on buttons/sign-up forms
  • Text blocks that are short, user-friendly and meant to guide
  • Tone of voice and how it almost always favors simplicity
  • Copy approach and how it enhances design
  • Links embedded in relevant, compelling language
  • Brand stories woven across touchpoints


2. Always write with ADA Compliance in mind.

If you’re in the creative field, you’ve probably been hearing about ADA Compliance. Mandated by the Department of Justice, these web standards seek to help those with disabilities access the internet. It’s a topic we explored at length on our blog. Compliance isn’t just a legality. There’s a CX opportunity present—a chance for brands to show they care, and don’t discriminate. Copywriting plays an important part in becoming ADA-Compliant. Let’s look at two important considerations.

Many people with visual impairments rely on screen readers. These software programs read the text found on a website aloud. They’re incredibly helpful, but can be finicky if page copy is written and entered incorrectly. Six different headlines, H1 through H6, are recognized by HTML. To screen readers, headlines function as a table of contents. When screen readers better understand the page, the user will. Formatting headings out of order, or omitting them all together, can make things hard to follow. Think about the order your content is presented in, and use clear headlines to communicate sections accordingly.

Secondly, consider the visual elements on a page; this could be a series of photos or a video. Alternative text describing what’s being shown should be entered for screen readers. Consistency is especially important, as information presented on a page is subjective. What one person finds useful, another may find meaningless or redundant. Knowing that, make sure all content and media is represented through alternative text.

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3. Testing copy is becoming more and more exact.

Frequently on Mad Men, worthy creative concepts are rejected based on gut feelings. “I just don’t like that,” or “It feels too out there.” These remain common challenges. But unlike Don and his crew, the modern copywriter has more than a focus group and a pushy attitude to back their work up with. Today, we can quantify creative work with numbers. In this way, art starts to become a science.

It’s not enough to ask people to trust you because you write for a living, or know what’s going on in the industry and culture at-large. Be prepared to bolster your experience with results that the layman can understand. Rigorously A/B test every piece of copy you can, editing and refining as you go. If your scope is limited and you must pick just a few page elements to test, prioritize headlines, forms and calls-to-action—all of which affect conversion in a huge way.

As touched on in the UX/UI section, it’s also beneficial to test long vs. short-form writing. Some clients may assume that more writing equates to better conversion. Of course, we know this isn’t true in most cases. Our research study CX Revisited found that users have short attention spans, and value content that’s relevant and tailored to them. Long story short? Indulge multiple avenues of copy, and validate why the best one is truly the best.

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Be thankful you’re not a ‘60s copywriter.

It might look glamorous on the television screen, but realize the many challenges behind the mid-century print era of advertising. As a copywriter, you now have a whole arsenal of tools and creative touchpoints to explore. You can use your writerly aptitude to enhance functionality, create a unified online experience for all and test your work with cutting-edge software. Who could be mad about that?

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