An Interview With Copywriter and CumminsRoss CEO, Sean Cummins.
You’ll know his exceptional creative credentials by the launch of Richard Branson’s Virgin Blue brand in Australia; the All Creatures Great and Small campaign for the RSPCA; the You’ll Love Every Piece of Victoria campaign for Tourism Victoria; the Best Job in the World campaign for Tourism Queensland, which won a record three Grand Prix and five Gold Lions at the Cannes International Advertising Festival. Sean Cummins is a celebrated creative heavyweight of the advertising industry, and in this interview he talks about copywriting, art direction, the new media landscape and truth of a story. He also shares his experience, insights, predictions and what it takes to create compelling messages with words and pictures. Here is our conversation and the 46 minute audio version:
NDT: In late 2009, after 25 years in advertising you sold your agency Cummins&Partners and left advertising. It was a perfect success story. What happened that made you return to advertising?
SC: If you love what you do, you can’t not somehow lose something when you completely stop stone dead after 25 years. And what goes into that vacuum is a sense of loss of relevance. Everything I ever did in my life for 25 years was about advertising and you probably think well that’s very one dimensional but I think that’s the nature of advertising. In my time off, I had a chance to reflect. And the same thing that got me into advertising in the first place, which was I think I could do better than that, got me back into it.
NDT: You’re quite passionate about the convergence of traditional and new media. Back in 2010, you said, ‘There are better ways to approach new media and advertising agencies aren’t even scratching the surface of what is possible at the moment’. What is CumminsRoss’ approach to aligning traditional and new media?
SC: What’s interesting is that in the intervening 25 years that media companies have gone out on their own, there are several generations of creative people and media people who’ve never worked together! Creative people never working with media people. Media people never seeing creative people. So this time around, I wanted to see if I could bring media and creative back together again, which is why CumminsRoss is a media buying and planning agency as much as a creative shop. We’re kind of this creator of this new paradigm for them and they’re loving it. And it’s fascinating to see them coming together and that’s one of the reasons why I am enjoying being back. So I got to disrupt this industry with this back to the future model to a certain extent.
NDT: One of the casualties of the new media has been the role of the art director, which has been usurped by graphic designers and digital developers. How important is the art director these-days in this new media landscape?
SC: That’s a great question. I think the art director is really an endangered species. You and I lived in the period during the 80s and 90s when all of a sudden there was an ascendancy of the art director, where non-verbal ideas started to be all the rage. In the 60s, every ad campaign idea started with the wordsmith, and he would send the copy to a person who would draw it up. Then in the 80s and 90s came the rise of the art director. All of a sudden, positioning lines, tag lines, slogans and jingles disappeared and you had this beautiful non-verbal, visually splendid stuff but you had to figure it out yourself because the writer had all but left the room. So it’s interesting to see the pendulum swing back to the writer as the person who again seems to be coming up with the ideas and then it’s Macked up by the people in the studio.
NDT: Where is the art director in all this now?
SC: The art director still has a place in being a collaborator in the conceptualising. Art directors bring a different perspective, those non-verbal cues. What’s more important, people need to team up together and collaborate to come up with a good idea. And really, it doesn’t matter if it’s an art director or a writer. But when you are showing ideas at the very early stages, its good to have them drawn up. The role of the AD in the conceptualising phase is to show how it might look, or be expressed. There is certainly a role for them but they’re being challenged at the moment.
NDT: What of the direction of the four arts of visual communications – the layout, the design, the typography and the imagery be it photography or illustration? Who directs those arts if not the Art Director?
SC: I think there’s not an enthusiasm for people doing the art direction because everyone wants to be a collaborator, everyone wants to make film content, and they probably inform the visual cues and capabilities but there isn’t the craft and caring for typography, to direct the photographer. What you’re buying these days is someone’s competency . There’s not that level of care that an art director used to bring over those disciplines. You just have to look at print these days. There are a million words on posters. Currently, I can’t think of a recognisable type face I could put to a client brand. We used to have a typeface that would often be the entire design element of a piece of communication. In the early days of Virgin, we really had nothing but a red background so we spent all our time making sure the typeface was noticeable. We need to get back to crafting and caring every little piece of the way. So an art director can reclaim the ascendancy in the process but at the moment they’ve got to have that passion. To make things look better.
NDT: The graphic designers who do my Art Direction in Action course come to find out what an art director is supposed to do. They’re not quite sure. When they find out and have a go in class, they get really excited and discover that it is art direction that they aspire to do.
SC: A lot of art directors come from a graphic design course, but they are the ones that love to push more upstream and get involved in the conceptualising rather than being at the end of the process. They want to be at the beginning of the ideation process. I’m hoping that whoever reads or listens to this, that there is in them an enthusiasm to make things look better. Otherwise, you’re surrendering yourself to the interpretation of the photographer, the director and a finished artist. They’re all artists in their own way but they’re interpretative artists.
NDT: Can you expand on that?
SC: There are two dynamics: the original artists are the ones who think up the idea and then there are the interpretative artists. And what you’re doing is hoping that the interpretive artists – the directors, the typographers, graphic designers, the photographers – actually understand what the hell your vision is. And make it better. But you can have an idea and they can interpret it completely differently and you’re screwed. What’s important, the original artists and that includes the art director, can say to the photographer “look it’s got to be like this” and really explain the mood you’re trying to create and what you see visually, and give references and examples, and then the interpretation can happen. Most ideas are pretty good, it’s just that they fall flat based on the interpretation of the idea …
NDT: The idea gets lost in translation.
SC: Yeah and that translation is the interpretation of an idea. So art directors have a valuable role to be that modem between what they see and what they want to get out of the people that make it happen – photographers, directors, graphic designers, illustrators, whoever’s making that little scamp come to life and be finished. So people have got to care about making it look better.
NDT: What do you mean by ‘look better’? Graphic designers are great at making things look nice.
SC: Creativity, visual or written, fails if it fails to communicate. So when I say “look better” I actually mean communicate faster. The speed of communication is enhanced because of the look – the layout, the way you take the viewer on the journey. If you’re wizzing down the freeway (they always use billboards as a litmus test) and you can’t read it … or you’re looking at the layout of a press ad and you don’t know where to look first … that’s what I call “not looking good”. A layout is a flat narrative. It is there to cosset you through the process. To guide the eye. You may be struck by the visual and then the caption. Or you may be struck by the headline and then the visual. You need to let the reader know what to do with that. So something that looks good is something that goes “bang! I get it … I’ve read the words because I’ve seen the picture” and you move on.
NDT: Your Deakin campaign has been an excellent case study in my copywriting courses on the subject of how to show, not tell; how to articulate an abstract proposition into a concrete benefit and fascination. A sharp example of this is the law degree story with the headline: BEING WORLDLY TURNS A LAW DEGREE INTO JUSTICE FOR A NATION and the copy tells of a Deakin graduate who fought for the victims of the Rwandan Genocide. This contrasts sharply against Victoria University’s headline: ARE YOU PASSIONATE ABOUT LAW? Followed by a line of copy making an unqualified call to action to make VU your choice. The Deakin campaign is a masterclass in how to find what you call ‘the truth in a story’, tell us how you go about the process of getting to the heart of a subject and revealing it’s truth.
SC: That’s a big question. The very first thing to do in getting the truth is to understand what your role is. I say often, whether it’s believable or not, I never let my ego get in the way of the truth. It’s about making sure you understand what your role is. My role as a writer is not always to create something. Sometimes its to investigate, to uncover, to do an archeological dig, to be immersed. To find something. After a while you relieve the pressure of constantly having to think up new and random ideas, and you resist the temptation of copying other people because it’s a fashionable thing to do. You just look for the truth. Once you find the truth, it writes itself. It creates itself. It creates a tone. Everyone talks about brand story and that’s probably right but I don’t like using all these buzz words. A couple of years ago it was “engagement” now it’s “brand stories”. To me its just always about being faithful to what the brand should mean and never try to get in the way of it with cleverness, artifice or creativity for creativity’s sake. I’ve become a better creative person by looking at what the tone of that particular brand is. If I was telling your story, I wouldn’t say that you were a juggler just because it was a fun idea …
NDT: I can’t multi-task let alone juggle …
SC: So why would I do that? Yet advertising does that a lot, it expects the subject matter of a brand to somehow extend into competencies and affectations that are not truthful. So with the Deakin Worldly campaign, it was about a bigger worldview – what the student brought to the degree rather than what the degree gave to the student. I remember the Vice Chancellor of Deakin saying, ‘it was the world of the student’ and I walked away with the idea of Worldly. When we presented to a whole bunch of academics, there was one who said, ‘I’m sure there are a few Catholics out there that won’t like “worldly” because in old biblical terms it means not of the spiritual, only concerned about sins of the flesh and the material world’. That was quite confronting for me because, as a writer, I had never heard of that expression before. I know it as meaning a well-rounded person. So we had the word researched with consumers and no-one thought of it in the biblical term. So Worldly campaign dramatised the story of a Deakin graduate and what they do with their degree and the ripple effect of that creates the worldliness. So it was a bit deeper than the usual education transaction of here’s your degree and good luck to you.
NDT: Remember the Caxton awards back in the 80s, recognising the best of the craft of copywriting in print media? All the ads were hundreds if not thousands of words of exceptional writing. These-days, Caxton winners are just a half a dozen words long. What is your opinion about the importance of mastering the craft of copywriting in these times where long form copy is pretty much extinct except for blogging? Is it less important now?
SC: I remember a great ad you did for Captain Snooze*, with a person in a futon dreaming in Japanese characters, and the caption said something like JAPANESE STYLE FUTONS NOW AT CAPTAIN SNOOZE. I thought that was of the most brilliant and funniest things I’ve ever seen. Words were once the dominant communication vehicle, and things have changed. But what I’ve always been encouraged by is that words have not gone away. And over the years, I’ve discovered as a writer my job is a process of concision. We don’t have the attention and the ardour of the reader anymore, we have a quick moment to get to them so make it good. It doesn’t always mean make it short, but make it good. And I still like to write tag-lines and slogans, I’m a great fan of finishing off every communication piece with an epithet of some description. These days, you’ve got to say it quickly, but say it well. Two cases in point that I’ve written recently: one was for Jeep which was:
Three words that say:
The spirit of adventure calls you, come out and enjoy it, forego your suburban travails, and get out on to the open road, do something different, here’s permission to try something new, here’s a rallying cry.
A lot boiled down to DON’T HOLD BACK, which has the precision and deftness of three simple words no longer than 4 letters each, and yet they’re emotional. I try to find that colliding of words and concision that makes it what it is. The other campaign I did was for Australian Dairy, where we had to say:
Australian Dairy brings one billion dollars of capital into the market so it’s an important industry for Australia, it’s a great job being on the dairy farm because dairy farmers are brilliant people and by the way dairy is actually good for you and is an important part of your diet.
How do you say all those competing, somewhat intersecting agendas? The nett of all that came down to one word. A made up word, but one word:
One word with an ‘i’ in it. And somehow that says more than: ‘Australian Dairy. Good for Australia. Good for our Community. Good for you’.
NDT: How do you do this?
SC: You just keep on crunching, crunching and crunching and somehow this boiling down, this concision, gives you an answer like LEGENDIARY and you almost say ‘Whoa! Where did that come from!?’ But it comes. So I think words are incredibly important and it doesn’t always mean it has to be short. It can be long.
NDT: Your Deakin headlines are proof of that.
SC: Just make sure that every word counts and there’s no wastage.
NDT: Do you think a brilliant ideas person can get away with mediocre skills in writing good body copy?
SC: I do, but then you have to have the ability for that idea to come to life and somebody’s going to have to write the words, somebody’s going to have to pay homage to that brilliant idea and so the copy has to be equally brilliant. Again, the interpretative artist. If somebody has a brilliant idea, I’ve got to find a way of expressing it otherwise I’m not being faithful to it. So, you can have ideas and not be a brilliant writer but eventually, if you want to honour that idea, you need brilliant writing.
NDT: As a teacher of the craft of copywriting at RMIT, I’ve been amazed to discover just how many people there are on the client side who are responsible for copywriting. They know they can do better but they are not in an environment like an advertising agency where they can benefit from a Creative Director such as yourself and role models like senior creatives. What is your advice to them in developing their copywriting skills?
SC: Keep on writing and keep on editing and try to love and appreciate the value of writing well. We’re in a cut and paste society these days and often you find that people aren’t writing but regrouping and redacting, but they’re not creating something. And it’s really important to know your own voice. To say it in your own way. Try and talk it out. Verbalise it. One of the tricks I still employ is when I write copy about subject matter that’s either complicated or technical or boring, I’d write like I was writing a letter to a friend. So I’d write:
Dear Nick … it just occurred to me the other day that a lot of people are not eating dairy anymore and I’m wondering why that is …
Writing a letter to a friend gets you into a more conversational tone of voice than if I’m writing a Press Release:
It has been shown that dairy is not consumed as much ….
All of a sudden every word is different because the tone of voice, the subject matter and the person you’re writing to affects the nature and the muscularity of the sentence. It’s really important to know what the tone is, and the best way to know your tone is to write like you’re telling a friend. Then you’re not talking business-speak or journalese. And you’re not using jargon from those categories or the industry. You’re just being a couple of menches having a chat.
NDT: What you’re doing is visualising the target audience as somebody you’re familiar with, so you’re getting the empathy.
SC: Yeah, you’re getting empathy, you’re getting the sense that you own the subject matter and you actually just talk like a real person. And then you find new ways of expressing yourself, because that’s what writing is – to try and find new ways of expressing yourself. The writing to friend approach never fails to surprise me, just starting with a Dear Nick … all of a sudden my whole demeanour, my whole intellectual and writing posture becomes different, you’re sharing something rather than going ‘i-am-com-mu-ni-ca-ting’.
NDT: You’re dialoguing rather than lecturing.
SC: One of the things that I always found funny when people write letters to organisations is they’ll adopt a kind of a faux-business style:
Dear Sir, it has come to my attention blah blah blah, therefore and forthwith and here for out thou art …
They become like Shakespearian! They think there is a business-speak that needs to happen. Sure there is a formality, you can’t become loose and hip with everything you write, but you’ve got to know your audience. I’m amazed how people jump into stiff and formal speak like ‘herewith and therefore’, do you go to a BBQ and say ‘herewith are the sausages and therefore you must attach the sauce …’
NDT: The silly sausage is trying to impress rather than express.
SC: And that’s really a problem because the ego would say, ‘Impress! Fit in!’ but the reality is that the expression is more important and more powerful.
NDT: There are a lot of blogs out there declaring 10 Tips to Writing Killer Headlines, 7 Copywriting Tricks to Converting Your Reader and so on. What is your opinion about these bloggers?
SC: It’s exactly the same as ‘take this pill and you’ll lose 5 kilos’. We are looking for hope. We are looking for magic. We’re looking for a miracle cure to whatever our blockage or issue is, the thing that’s hurting us the most. Some people get an incredible amount of nourishment from getting those tips but at the end of the day they’re usually empty because a pill won’t make you slim but a lifestyle will. And likewise, you’ve got to make a behavioural decision that you’re going to write better and you look at what you’re writing and see that you’re either eating the wrong things intellectually, resulting in high cholesterol writing, which is neither healthy nor good. So change your lifestyle, your behaviour patterns and your attitude toward your writing and you’ll be the better writer. What you need more than anything else is not the literal but a metaphor. A metaphor is valuable for explaining in a less sharp and coercive way what you’re trying to nut out.
NDT: What do you do when people mess with your work or its all out rejected?
SC: I remember an architect friend once said to me, ‘70% of my time I deal with rejection’. If you know that’s you’re hit rate, then you’re comfortable and you’re at peace with it and you make hay in the 30%. But if you think everything has got to be 100%, then you’re not really understanding the game you’re in. That was a wonderful insight. People are going to reject you. People are going to change things. People are going to mess things up. People are going to mutilate what you’re doing and you’ve got to be prepared for that. That resilience also means that the rest of the time you are having the most joyous experience of your life. That’s not bad result to know that at least 30 or 50% of the time things are going to be awesome.
NDT: Sometimes you eat the bear; sometimes the bear eats you, right?
SC: Yeah, Sometimes it’s today for you, tomorrow for me. You just have to roll with it. Be professional, do the best you can and maybe you’ll live to fight another day. And you know what, there often is another day.
NDT: Many of my students ask me how should they approach an agency for copywriting or art direction work? What do you and Jason want to see from an aspiring creative? How should they go about the business of getting an interview with a creative director?
SC: First of all, don’t ring up and don’t LinkedIn. Send me something, be inventive. Write me something. When I look at folios – often a lot of student folios have been written to the same briefs, because they’ve gone to the same schools and colleges – I can see they’ve gone to AWARD School or this or that. I always say to them, ‘Okay, which of the stuff you’ve shown me is you?’ and they all say, ‘Oh it’s all me’ and I reply ‘No, no, no, which one is really you?’ Which is the closest to your heart?. I’m not looking for 15 different renditions of the same brief, I’m looking for them. Because I’m hiring the person, not a vessel. I’m hiring their outlook on life, their opinion, their point of view. Sometimes I can see it so I don’t ask the question. But a lot of times i say, ‘this is fine, you look competent, you can function in a normal society but which one is you’ and I’m often pleased when they dig deeper and respond and I go ‘right! tell me about that? why is that you? and then I get to know who I am hiring. It’s a quick way to get to the person.
NDT: What’s a folio look like these days?
SC: They’re all sliding around and flipping things on an ipad or laptop. I still like seeing drawings and stick figures because then I’m allowed to be involved in that idea. I’m allowed to … you know we were talking about the interpretative artist … so I’m allowed to go, ‘Ahhh, I know how I could make that look!’ So there’s a lot of value in showing really raw stuff. When you show finished stuff there’s nothing for me to do, I just have to take it literally that’s how you do it. Try and be as non-literal as possible.
NDT: So you’re saying that in an interview, you want to be involved in the ideas presented?
SC: Definitely, otherwise I’m just being a rubber stamper on their way to something else. Because we’re a collaborative business, you’re collaborating with everybody. The smart person brings everybody into the process. Essentially, it should be everybody’s idea. It’s the humility of the creative person to ask how much am I willing to give of this credit to get this idea out. The answer is ‘as much as you need to share’. I don’t care how many names are on a piece of work. As long as we’ve done a piece of work that we can all be proud of. Life and truth will always follow you as always the person involved in these great ideas and it will come to pass that people will know that you were probably pivotal.
NDT: It makes sense in the collaboration process, but what about the prospective copywriter’s and art director’s craftsmanship with words and visuals?
SC: You look for the diamonds in the whole. But generally speaking they’re students and what you’re looking for are the areas where they can improve their game. It’s like a young player in a football team, you know that you can coach them up. My role as Creative Director is to coach as much as it is to approve or not approve. It’s to actually make them a better player. I look for the potential, not the experience. There are a lot of people with plenty of experience but zero potential. I want people with potential above anything else.
NDT: You were quoted as saying we’re at the beginning of the golden age of advertising …
SC: That was actually the journalist saying that not me, I think we’re at a different age in advertising and it fascinating. You can’t predict a golden age, you can only look back and say ‘that was a golden age’. I just think it’s a really interesting period. We have to understand the past so that we know the future. The problem is that people are so future-gazing they don’t understand. The more you know of the past, the more you know about the future because man doesn’t evolve so quickly that he escapes from the fundamentals of life and love and loss and lust and longing and all those emotions. No matter what channel we communicate through to people … you know I could summon up a 3D ad to dance in front of you, if it doesn’t fundamentally speak to you then it’s just wizz-bangery of the moment. Its’ the quality of the message, it’s the relevance of the message, and it’s the humanity of the message that will never change. Anybody who loves this business will make this period notable.
And getting back to your first question, at the end of the day I came back because I love it, forget the relevance-loss.
NDT: I think we have identified the truth of your story and it must be … love.
SC: True! From a 50-year-old man perspective, you don’t want to lose relevance before your time but the reality is you do it because you love it.
NDT: Thank you very much Sean, it’s been great talking with you again.
SC: You’re welcome Nick.