Postmodern Irony

Creative gulfs: UK, France and the US

To say Charlie Hebdo’s provocative satire is not always understood outside France, is an understatement. See this take on the magazine by Arthur Chu. And its satire was not to many people’s taste in France too, judging by its usual circulation — but of course everything’s different now.

This cultural incomprehension reminded me of a time a couple of years ago when I was simultaneously working for French clients and US ones. For in the grubby business of Marketing, such incomprehension not only causes mutual bafflement, but costs people money.

My French client had asked me to write English copy for several French companies hoping to infiltrate the UK market. I was juggling this with freelancing in a London agency, having been asked in to create concepts for a pharmaceutical product launch for a US-owned healthcare agency.

The French wanted what seems to me to be florid, overwrought copy. I found myself constantly pushing back, and explaining that in the UK if you seem to be trying too hard, the UK consumer smells a rat. For a UK reader, copy that’s forested with adjectives and adverbs can be tiresome to follow. I was assured by my French clients, however, that this was often seen as hard-working, persuasive and – what’s more – beautiful copy in France. Luckily, with lots of explaining and laughing at each other, we managed to reach a compromise – but the process took much longer than it should.

Meanwhile the afternoon teleconferences with the New York office were baffling. The US creative directors were unerringly drawn to what seemed, to my English eyes, crazy ideas. Anything psychological, or on a human scale was instantly rebuffed. One concept, however, that was particularly liked was an apocalyptic earthquake with hundreds of people tumbling into the gaping maw of the splitting earth. This was to suggest the dangers of a medical condition. I sat baffled as the US team earnestly discussed this absurd execution, which also dramatised the problem rather than the solution. It reminded me of the apocalyptic English romantic painter John Martin – but not in a good way.

John Martin
John Martin: ‘The Great Day of his Wrath’ (1853)


It goes without saying that the US is full of talented, smart people in agencies, who care passionately about the product and doing the right thing by their clients. It was in the US I first understood that UK creative work can seem half-hearted, underwhelming and small-scale. The reasoning in this instance was that the disease area we were tackling was a big problem to the people who had it. So we should acknowledge and reflect the scale of the problem as felt by the people living with it.

Perhaps it is lazy to say this is about irony. But I honestly believe the UK sense of irony and understatement is at the root of mutual incomprehension of the concepts that ping across the pond in teleconferences Death by PowerPoint and PDFs. I believe that it is assumed in the UK that the audience knows the rules of the marketing game, and not to implicitly acknowledge that means the idea won’t be taken seriously. Some ideas bridge the gulf, of course, but it very optimistic to expect a concept to fly in every territory.

So if these gulfs are tricky in marketing a single product or brand, how much more so are they when entire cultures, countries, religions misapprehend each other. The clue was in working with my French clients, and ultimately with Charlie Hebdo: learn to laugh at them.

Creative gulfs: UK, France and US

I have been working with two agencies lately. One is a French-owned agency, and I am writing English copy for French companies hoping to infiltrate the UK market. The other is a US-owned healthcare agency, where your creative ideas must be run past creative directors in the New York office. This has given me a fresh opportunity to observe again cultural differences when it comes to agency creativity.

Broadly speaking, the French want what seems to me to be florid, overwrought copy. I find myself being asked to make descriptions even more descriptive, and I have to push back by saying that in the UK if you look like you are trying too hard, people smell a rat. And that copy that’s forested with adjectives and adverbs is hard to follow. And, of course, the whole point of advertising copy is that people can read it with minimum effort. To get all Pooh bearish for a moment, I want my copy to slide down like warm honey, not to stick around like chewed thistles.

Unerringly the New York office are drawn to what seem to be, to my UK eyes, risible ideas. Worse still, for pharmaceutical clients anything psychological, or on a human scale is quickly rebuffed. US approved concepts I’ve encountered are usually visually spectacular: over the years I’ve seen things like sharks, two-headed dogs to symbolise cholesterol, apocalyptic earthquakes with people tumbling into them to symbolise the dangers of a particular medical condition. But they just make me laugh. To me they like some absurdist Monty Python throwback.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the US and met extremely talented and smart people. What’s more they care passionately about the product they are trying to promote on behalf of their client, often in a completely irony free way. I also know that to them UK creative can seem half-hearted, and underwhelming.

It is lazy to say this is about irony. But I honestly believe that this is at the root of a cultural gulf, which as ideas cross and recross the pond in teleconferences, and even in portfolios on planes, can cause a good deal of mutual incomprehension.

Empathy and blagging

When I have taught writing, I have often stressed the importance of empathy.

First comes the notion of empathising with the reader. What is it they want to get out of your communication. Facts? Entertainment? And if you are writing some sort of DM how can you make the experience of reading easy, and responding simple.

No writer can experience everything they have to write about. If you are writing fiction, you may have to inhabit a character of a different sex. And as a copywriter you will be constantly called on to write about things you have never experienced. Empathy is an essential tool, and I’ve found being a dismal hypochondriac, for example, surprisingly useful when I write direct to consumer healthcare material.

In the last couple of weeks I have been writing press ads for regions of France I’ve never been to. But empathy still proves a useful tool. For although I’ve never been to this particular region of France, what I can empathise with is the excitement people feel when contemplating a holiday. In doing this I can write copy that seems completely authentic, and of course this is what sells.

My most proud moment, in this respect, was in writing several brochures for Renault Trucks. As a lifelong non-driver, whose only experience of taking the wheel is in funfair dodgems, the account management team were careful to protect me from probing questions.

The feedback from the client, which I will always treasure, was that “This guy knows trucks.” Horrifically, however, after this I was invited to sit in the driving seat of one of their new trucks. Mercifully, after some blagging on my part, I was led away without having to reveal my laughable inability to drive. The Gods of copy were kind that day.