Make Your Ads SING like Sondheim: Creative Lessons from a Lyrical Genius


Bleeding-edge creative is a cornerstone of every marketer’s work. We strive to make each ad placement a mini work of art specially constructed and optimized creatively per channel. In the following months, we plan to write extensively about our creative process and what it takes to develop stunning creative.

But first, I recently stumbled upon Six by Sondheim, an HBO documentary that delved into the genius that is Stephen Sondheim as a lyricist and composer of (probably at least one of your favorite) Broadway musicals.

Immediately, I was struck by how similar Sondheim was to AIMCLEAR‘s own fearless, musically-inclined and creative-driven leader Marty Weintraub in the way he talked about his art, and how he still “gets off” on writing a singular, perfect lyric. We can relate. Developing an undeniable headline, or piece of ad copy is magical, personal achievement. Lyrical. Poetry.

15 minutes into the Sondheim documentary (SRSLY), I was emailing creative teams at AIMCLEAR imploring them to watch the documentary for creative inspiration. These theories of musical genius can apply not only to social ads, but to search PPC, display, landing page copy, even blog posts and beyond.

Here, we’ve boiled the analogy of musical lyrics and marketing down to ten inspirational creative takeaways.

Learn To Write For Your Audience, & LIKE Your Audience

“The songs I write don’t really reflect me…they all are about the characters.”

Go beyond- really think about your audience. No, I mean REALLY profile them. Not just their age and what it means now, but what DID it mean? How did they grow up? Were they children of depression survivors? How does that affect their consumer habits now? Did they grow up in the liberal late 60s and 70s? Can you make smart cultural references? What was popular? What meant the most to them and why?

Once you’ve truly profiled your marketing audience, make lists of words that will resonate with this audience. Jargon these real people would use in their professional life. Don’t shy away from slang or internet short-hand (OMG, RLY, SRSLY, LOL), especially when writing for younger audiences, but be sure it’s used correctly, or you risk sounding like a parent who “doesn’t get it.”

Tactical tips: Peruse industry/vertical headlines via AllTop. Dive into niche forums  and +communities. Onelook reverse dictionaries are a go-to. Search “words related to <concept>” as there are some great learning sites with extensive lists surrounding themes. Cultivate lists and have them easily accessible during copy writing.

Word Play Can Make Anything (Even Cannibalism) Digestible

(+2 points for you if you know the cannibalism reference)

Sondheim talked extensively about creating lists of what the characters would care about, talk about, etc. then looked at those lists and made connections. (Sounds a lot like personas, right?) Play on words, themes, repetition, alteration, and the way syllables sound together to form phonetics. Yes, even read advertising creative words in your head (think “cellar door” +2 more points if you know that reference).

Making lists is congruent to the previous, but takes your creative process a step further into something lyrical or poetic, where the true art of copy lies. In this step, scrutinize your word lists. Really take time to absorb the words. Pair them up. Say them out loud. THEN create ways to combine words with the marketing message you are tasked with conveying.

Write to Empower Your Audience

Sondheim, at times, wrote music & lyrics for a specific actor or actress. While writing for Gypsy, Sondheim wrote to celebrate Ethel Merman’s strengths and downplayed her weaknesses. The result? Some of the most memorable show tunes of our time…

Empowering consumers and solving problems has long been not only an advertising tactic, but straight up good business. Take the cue when ad writing and write to empower your audience. At least one of your copy tests should explain how your product/service can minimize threats or adverse outcomes, and THEY are the hero.

Sell the solution, not the service. Sell the performance, not the product.

“Everybody has problems…I think if you write about those things, you’re going to touch people.” –Sondheim

Hook Your Audience Immediately

In the early development of West Side Story, the lead character Tony “wasn’t registering with the kind of weight that made you want to follow his adventures.” And so, Something’s Coming was born and developed by Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein.

Ad copy that immediately registers with your audience is the key to compelling copy, and must be done within the first 30 characters for consumers to even care to read the rest (and ultimately click through).

Reverse Your Process – Write for the Image

The cliché question posed to song writers: “Which do you write first- the music or the lyrics?” spring-boarded my brain to copy and images.

Typically, we as marketers, are so concerned with concise, compelling, copy and calls to actions that at times, images are an after thought.

In reality, images are what draw attention.

Images are what makes “thumbstoppers” in social.

Images are the element that draws the eye to display creative.

The copy (if compelling enough) closes the deal.

Tactical tip: try a new approach to creative: FIRST choosing stunning, emotional images, THEN write copy that authors the image.

Bonus tactical tip: when searching stock image sources (yes, you CAN find stunning images in stock) use emotion words like: frustrated, over-joyed, enthusiastic, feisty, confident, suspicious, etc. We <3 fotolia as a source for incredible results based on emotion words.

Step Out of The Box Creatively

Writing lots of copy can often put you in a rut. We’ve (probably) all been there…

When asked about where Sondheim writes, contrary to logic, he disclosed that he wrote away from the piano. Always writing at the piano would bind Sondheim to his own weaknesses (admittedly, he had a lazy left hand) and fall back on existing constructs.

Surely, we copy writers often write in the same way, with the same surroundings, maybe even the same playlist.

To expand creatively, we must also expand our horizons and environment. While it’s a beautiful thing to have processes in place, do not shy away from trying a new tilt- be it group-writing, post-it notes, or a change of scenery.

Trying out a new creative approach is especially useful when writing for drastically different verticals, or even B2C in one session and B2B in another. Distinct audiences can require vastly different frames of mind.

Sondheim also credit alcohol (in moderation) to creative inspiration. We won’t. But… #justsayin

Use Unexpected Resources

Brainstorm- not just with those involved with the project, but use your network of real-life people (online pals count too)!

Tasked with writing a song about marriage for Company, Sondheim, who had not been married himself, interviewed a good friend, happily on her second marriage. The result is a hilarious number, full of inside-jokes, that perfectly encapsulates marriage.

Copy writers- having trouble relating to your audience? Need to write about parenting but you’re only 26 and the thought of kids (right now) makes your stomach drop? ASK a parent! Ad writing for accounting software? Ask the accounting team. Targeting developers? Consult the IT department.

Remember the famous pot smoker segment AIMCLEAR produced to sell sugar cereal and promote criminal defense attorneys? A good chunk of those slang keywords were uncovered through innocuous interviews.


Be Crystal Clear

Sonheim pointed out that lyrics are drastically different than poetry as an audience member can’t go back, in the moment, to re-listen. Lyrics must be crystal clear as the song is always in momentum, and in the case of musicals, must compete with the music, costumes, lights, movement, and so on.

The same logic can be applied to advertising: if you don’t grab a browser’s attention and succinctly convey your message, you can bet your bottom dollar they’re not going to take the time to re-read any portion of your ad. You’ve already lost them. Additionally, similar to musicals, there’s a lot of distraction in online spaces and little that ties the user to the moment.

Take a critical eye to copy. Identify what can be cut without impacting the message.

Creative Must Be Defensible

Sondheim knew that once a number was produced it was going to be picked apart by the cast, directors, and ultimately the critics and audiences for years to come.

“What makes you think anyone’s going to by X from this ad?”

“Why do we think anyone’s going to fill in the form from this landing page?

Scrutinize copy and make it defensible before bringing it to the creative director, editor, or client. Be prepared up front with justification for your creative – this can be the lists you made, research you’ve done, etc.

Art Takes Time

“To make art sound effortless, takes a lot of effort” – Sondheim

Product + Brand + Call to Action can work, but will rarely be GREAT.

Great copy takes understanding, passion, and inspiration.

One of the biggest takeaways taken from Six by Sondheim is that art takes time. OK, so we marketers aren’t Sondheim, or Pollock, or even Banksy, but that does not mean our work can’t be mini pieces of art. Approach your next creative copy challenge with these pieces of inspiration from Sondheim, but understand the process will take significantly more time than you may expect. Take solace in the fact that it SHOULD.

And Finally, On the Genius of Sondheim by His Peers

(Think about this in cutting through the clutter of social channels)

Sondheim: “Audiences don’t listen to lyrics incidentally very much, because there’s so much to take in..”

Arthur Laurents: “They don’t listen nine times out of ten for the right reason. The song starts and it says ‘when you took my hand…’ and they say yes, you took my hand we fell in love, alright, let’s get through this song, but Steve’s lyrics always have a development of what has been said, in the scene. They always carry further. They’re always written in the diction of the character. I mean, not only funny, I think it’s easier to be clever than to carry a character further.”

These 10 creative lessons not only highlight what makes Sondheim’s songs stunning, memorable masterpieces, but are a checklist for great marketing copy. Watch the documentary (seriously, even if you’re not into musicals) and learn from a lyrical genius. It’s amazing (and beautiful) how similar lyric writing and copy really are.

©flickr Julian Mason 


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