10 Universal Writing Tips from an Ad Writing Shapeshifter

Writing ads is one of the funnest things you can do (well I think so, but I may be biased). You get to problem solve for clients, romance the English language, work with clever designers (and all the other team players) and communicate via any number of storytelling narratives to connect and drive a measurable result. See? How good is that?

However, to be an ad writer is to also be a shapeshifter – you need to squeeze an idea and a few well chosen words into anything from a 30 second TVC to a 1500 word blog article to a punchy Facebook post where every character counts. Your ideas need to change shape to make your message as powerful as possible in whichever space it lives. One minute you might be an eagle. Boom. Now you’re a dog. No matter your ad’s ‘shape’, there are some universal rules that should guide your writing to build a compelling narrative across any medium.


1. Be fresh

It’s so easy to do what’s been done before. Don’t. Aim for fresh. Fresh is about being a bit more lateral in your approach, having a few more ‘a-ha’ moments. It’s about rewarding your audience for their attention. For socia media platforms, this might mean embracing technology and getting to market with the freshest digital trend (video is still king in 2018 but then there’s Instagram Stories, the rise of AR/VR, Facebook Live and whatever is new today, that may of course, not be fresh tomorrow). For the actual copy in any ad, it’s about taking the road less travelled with word choice and thoughts. The fresher your ad, the more it will be noticed.

2. Be simple

Simple is always best. Consumers don’t want to work too hard to understand your message. Keep words short. Keep sentences short. Keep paragraphs short. 2-3 sentences maximum. Luckily, the medium will usually demand it, as there are only so many words that can fit on a billboard, or in a 30 second radio or television commercial. (There’s a rule of thumb that you can fit up to 75 words in 30 seconds but ads often demand a LOT less than that, to allow other elements to breathe and find their space). Facebook is much more ruthless and will simply truncate your lovely words once text goes over its 125 single-byte character count. Simplicity sorted!

3. Be relevant

Make your message matter. The more relevant it is, the more it will resonate with the consumer. Making the ad meaningful to the life stage or need state of your audience means your narrative will connect. If you have a great idea, but it’s not relevant, it won’t ‘stick’. No point trying to sell a grain-fed marbled sirloin to a vegetarian. Research your consumer’s mindset and reach out with ideas that will make them nod.

4. Know your audience

Following on from above, this is about really knowing who you’re talking to. It’s absolutely key to getting your message right. What excites them? What’s their deepest desire? Are they male or female? Who’s the decision-maker in the household? Where do they live? On every brief, there’s usually a ‘Target Audience’ section but it often talks in broad brackets. Knowing your audience should go beyond that, and requires you to constantly keep an eye on social trends, popular opinions and key motivators… you know, heart and soul stuff. What drives their purchase decisions on an emotional level? The more you know, the more you can write a story that’s personal and therefore relevant to them.

5. Know your medium

You should write for the medium in which your work will live. How you connect in a social video on Facebook might be very different to how you connect in a YouTube pre-roll video or in broadcast media such as TV and radio. Understand the environment in which your story will be consumed. Is it a Saturday morning leisurely read of the local newspaper, or is it on the commute home from work? Is it during a favourite TV show, or is it an MREC or leaderboard on a favourite website that your audience frequents? Context is crucial.

6. Know your message

What exactly do you want to say? It seems obvious but it’s amazing how easy it is to race ahead with creating an ad before exercising a little discipline and working out with laser-sharp precision what you want to communicate. A little digging, a little treasure map (AKA as a brief) and writing the message out in plain-speak before you start should help you hone your message, so you can tell it in the most engaging way.

7. Know your brand tone of voice

How you say it is almost as important as what you say. Tone of voice or a brand’s ‘personalty’ is such an important part of a brand’s storytelling arsenal. Knowing the way a brand speaks and putting on that coat every time you work on their latest narrative is critical to building a cohesive brand. Are they a friendly, relatable brand? Are they more formal and professional? Do they speak with humour or elegance? Are they cheeky? Youthful? Cool and colloquial? Tone of voice means inhabiting your brand from the inside out. And then, no matter who writes a story for a particular brand, the tone of voice will be the same. You can pass the brand baton, knowing it will always be in safe hands.

8. Respect

As Aretha said way back when, show a little respect and talk with high regard to your audience. Respect their time. Respect their needs. You’re asking them to engage with your communication so, as in life, the more you show a little politeness, the more your story will find its audience and be remembered. Consumers know when they’re being respected too. You’ve spent more time crafting and honing your story for them… you’ve spent longer understanding them… you get in and get out quickly with your communication, because you respect the 60 seconds it takes for them to open that eDM and click through to that link. Respect all round. It helps. Sock it to me.

9. Talk to ONE person

Remember that when you’re writing an ad, even though it may be seen by a thousand, or a million for that matter, it will only be one at a time. So talk to just one. Imagine who that person might be. Have a chat with them. Ads might be mass market, but really they’re only ever one to one… your ad and one person, just sitting down having a conversation. On facebook. On radio. On a website. On TV. On a billboard. In a magazine. In a brochure. (Insert next ad shape here).

10. Words are only half the story

We live in a super visual world, and so words rarely live in isolation. A newspaper article is accompanied by a picture. A television commercial is just that… tele‘vision’. Social media is all about the pictures and the videos. You only have to look at the explosion of spectacular visual options on Facebook (Video, Panorama, Carousel, Slideshow, Canvas, 360 video etc). They connect instantly. So even when you’re a ‘writer’, you need to think visually and how visuals will help to tell your story as well. They work hand in hand. With radio, it’s sounds and music that will help bring your words to life. (But obviously words are the most important. Obs. And I’m not just saying that coz I’m a writer. Actually yes I totally am).

Anywaaay, connecting with your audience through your storytelling narratives no matter the medium should be fun. Hopefully, these universal guidlines will help. So go forth, grab a pen, or sit at your keyboard, get writing, shift shapes and enjoy.


Mel Coenen-Eyre

Senior Integrated Creative


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