Seth Godin is a very nice man. Sure, he’s a bestselling author, the quintessential New Marketer and an Agent of Change. But he’s also a mensch.
I know because a few years ago he agreed to meet me—even after I told the Prophet of Permission Marketing that I was a Luddite.
Yup, in an email to him, I told Seth I was a technophobe who couldn’t tell an RSS feed from my arse. Of course, I didn’t use that last word.
How meeting Seth Godin helped me let go of tech Ludditism.
It all started when I contacted Seth in response to his post on Hoteling. Seth was looking for a few roommates to share his cool office. He asked interested readers to drop him a line with their “how and why.”
In addition to the Luddite thing, I also told Seth, as part of our office share, I wanted to bring my aging boxer dog to the work with me. I think I mentioned my dog’s emotional dependency.
Way to self-destruct.
But instead of calling the police, Seth met with me. And while the office share didn’t work out—surprise!— it wasn’t because of my Ludditism.
The meeting marked a pivotal point for me.
After that I started to navigate murky Interweb waters using my own astrolabe and star-gazing methodology: I lurked extensively on copywriting and digital media blogs. I decoded the lingo. And—better late than never—I came to understand the seismic cultural shift enabled by electronic technology.
Somewhere along the line, I stopped feeling pride in my digital incompetence. I saw it for what it was: Ignorance. Not to mention a serious professional deficit.
Today most freelance copywriters can’t skate by on craft and creativity. We’ve got to get a lay of the digital landscape or die.
Just like the real Luddites.
Take a lesson from 19th Century Luddites.
You recall Luddites—the skilled weavers in pre-industrial England? Feeling threatened by new technology that eliminated their jobs, Luddites destroyed mill owners’ innovative machinery.
The Luddites fought change—and paid with their lives: Condemned Luddites were hanged. Today technological hostility won’t cost you your life. But it can kill your career.
Irrelevant personal disclosure: My ancestors were 19th Century Yorkshire weavers from Huddersfield, a bastion of Ludditism.
Mea maxima culpa: I hate new.
Maybe my sluggish adaptability is genetic. I have a thing for old things. I like ancient houses, cars, clothes, furniture, books, cookery, philosophy, educational traditions.
I feel a knee-jerk mistrust of new stuff—popular culture, fashion trends, untried social theories and shiny-toy technology.
Looking back I see that traditionalism informed my first career—in the theatre. Real live theatre in its archaic glory, with only occasional bill-paying stints as a TV day-player.
And technological wariness even informed our family life: When our kids were young we sent them to Waldorf schools and “deprived” them of TV, video games, DVDs or other digital media.
While I’ve written web content for over a decade, I embraced new media, blogging and online social communities only at the 11th hour.
Kicking and screaming.
Peeking out of the bunker—and trying not to run AWOL
Today I see friends in journalism, advertising and other traditional media panicked by the shifting cultural terrain. Globalization, the economic downturn, industry implosions and job layoffs force talented, industrious people to face painful professional realities.
Man, do I feel their pain. Like a shell-shocked soldier, when I finally crawled blink-eyed out of my copywriting bunker I surveyed an unrecognizable landscape.
If you’re a copywriter of a certain age who started working, say, before 1990, you know what I’m talking about.
If you’re a Gen Y or Millenial scrivener, you don’t have a clue. Come, Grasshopper.
Ye olde copy shop
When I got my first copywriting job in 1988, deliverables lumbered along dial-up lines. Copy managers sent revisions by post. Research was gathered onsite at brick-and-mortar libraries, bookstores or client archives.
I remember one client’s paper-based research department took up half an entire floor of their Manhattan offices.
In that airless, hangar-sized room rows of 12’-high metal shelves created corridors that blocked the sun. You could hear the cabbies honking below on 6th Avenue. Otherwise the place felt as remote in time and space as a 19th Century Cheapside warehouse.
Somehow, the material you needed was always on the topmost shelf. You had to push a rickety rolling stepladder close to the shelves. Then you clutched your notebook in one hand, the pipe railing in the other, and wobbled up to the nosebleed section.
There, tucked in cardboard magazine files, you’d (hopefully) find the newspaper, magazine or other dead tree clip you needed.
That company’s research was considered state-of-the-art.
Copywriting curiosities from the pre-digital era
Other distinctive features of the pre-digital copywriting era:
- Longer deadlines. Back in the day, business’ pace wasn’t as harried as it is today. Now clients want four-week turnaround, for example, on projects that stretched out two to three months in the 80s.
- Editorial support. Ah, the luxury of working with a copy manager, copy editor and proofreader. Today few clients keep in-house or freelance editorial staff—but they still expect tight, perfect copy. Which means you have to edit and proof your own work or pay another freelancer for a second set of eyeballs.
- Longer more languorous content: Good copy is always as succinct as possible. But in days of yore, your readers actually read. Today they skim, scan and skip, pressuring you to write the most terse copy possible. As you know, short copy takes twice as long to write as long.
Recovering from latter-day Ludditism
Recovery from technological Ludditism isn’t easy. Especially when the old ways feel so comfy and familiar. But like a shaky 12-stepper, copywriters must accept some brutal truths:
We’re powerless to stop technology’s impact on our profession. The only thing we can change is ourselves.
Professional life is unmanageable with heads stuck in the sand. We need to accept that our professional game has changed dramatically. And permanently. We love Mad Men. But we know chain smoking, mid-morning Side Cars—and interruption marketing dominance—aren’t going to cycle back into fashion.
One door closes, another opens. Creativity doesn’t disappear. If we’re truly creative, we find ways to transfer and transform our skills.
The Leader of the Luddites image courtesy of Wikimedia.