National Poetry Day falls on October 8th this year, marking a mass celebration of poetry and all things poetical. 

What some writers may not realize is the important role poetry plays in everyday life, including copywriting. Consider this quote from copywriter and advertising legend, David Ogilvy, in his book, Ogilvy on Advertising. He begins by quoting William Maynard of the Bates agency: 

“‘Most good copywriters … fall into two categories. Poets. And killers. Poets see an ad as an end. Killers as a means to an end.’

Ogilvy then writes,

“If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.”

As far as Ogilvy was concerned, there was no place for advertising that impressed without bringing home sales. He acknowledged that good copywriting is enhanced by marvelous wit, but that it’s not about creativity for its own sake. 

Some people define poetry as intelligence, art, and creativity married into one. Copywriting is the same, but it is, according to Ogilvy, “intelligently applied creativity.” It’s not so much about a formula as it is about new twists to proven approaches. It’s not so much the novelty of your words as it is a business strategy tied to those novel words. 

When the two come together, the goal of the writer becomes to create and maintain synergy between the words and the product or service. Which is why poetry and copywriting have much in common: 

  • Both are about choosing words and formulating sentences to produce something captivating.
  • Both copywriters and poets write for an audience.
  • Both must adapt to the circumstances of their readers.
  • Both work hard to strike a chord that gets into the heads of their readers.
  • For both, the delivery is just as important as the content when it comes to getting your point across.
  • Both try to make a powerful statement using as few words as possible.
  • In both cases, the words should draw you in and make your eyes continue down the page. Every line says just enough to make you want to know more.
  • Finally, the worst thing you can do, in both poetry and copywriting, is throw a bunch of unnecessary words into a message. They’ll distract your reader and take away from what’s important.

If you come from a background of poetry and choose the copywriting route, accept that you get to make beautiful things with words that also have a goal: to make money (for yourself and your clients). 

If you’ve come into this profession as a “killer,” set on testing response and measuring results, don’t forget about that creative corner of your soul where poetry lies. 

David Ogilvy was well-respected for his breakthrough work and for launching an advertising agency that remains a powerhouse to this day. Ogilvy & Mather is now one of the largest marketing communications companies in the world. But Ogilvy’s great success comes from reaching beyond pretty descriptions and actually caring enough about language to make his words sing. 

You can be a “killer” and go after clients and business prospects with a vengeance that never takes off. Or you can be a poet and soak in the beauty of language and description, without ever earning a cent for your writing. 

But if you can do both? You might just earn more money than you ever imagined possible.