Do you ever wonder who on earth came up with the camel?
Is it a horse? Is it a donkey? Is it a sand dune come to life? Is it a couple of bottles of water strapped to the aforementioned horse?
I certainly don’t.
But one thing is for sure, the phrase “a camel is a horse designed by a committee” certainly rings true.
Okay, it really sounds like I’m going in on camels for no apparent reason – but I’m not, I promise. I just needed an excuse to bring up that phrase. Because honestly, things designed by committee are RUBBISH.
(Except you camels, you’re fine).
And when it comes to your content, a “copy camel” can turn a brief into a muddied, watered-down piece of copy that says everything and nothing at the same time.
So let me introduce you to one of my arch-enemies in the writing world:
Copy. By. Committee.
That old chestnut.
What is copy by committee?
Picture this scenario.
You’ve got a copywriting brief for crisps.
It’s clear. Succinct. Says it all. Explains what the copywriter needs to do. What the end goal is. Who the target audience is. What the key focus point is. It’s basically the brief that every writer dreams of receiving.
Now let’s say the copywriter in question is called J.
J is happy – the brief looks good. He’s brimming with ideas. Brimming with creative ways to turn the client’s vision into a reality.
There’s a bit of back-and-forth – a bit of rendezvous between J and the main point of contact – just to iron things out. To make sure they’re both on the same page.
And then BOOM, J is off to work.
3 days later, J and the main point of contact jump on a call.
J thinks this is just a quick one-to-one. A small catch-up to see how the project is moving along.
This is not the main point of contact’s goal at all.
In fact, as soon as J joins the call they’re met with a Zoom room full of faces they don’t know. Faces that weren’t even introduced during the briefing stage. Faces that look DESPERATE to rant.
There’s Jane from marketing. Louis from product management. Bill from legal. Sasha the design intern. Amy from accounting (wait, why is an accountant here?). Hell, they’ve even brought what looks like the barista from the coffee shop next door.
And they all have something to say.
Something to contribute. Something to nitpick. Something that they think should be changed.
I’m not saying brainstorming or collaboration is a bad thing.
But if you’ve got an entire department of people pegging you down with totally different ideas and viewpoints and opinions – especially when you’re halfway through the work – it can be a little disarming.
Especially if all those opinions are far removed from the original brief.
I’ve been on the receiving end a couple of times and let me tell you, it isn’t fun.
I understand where everyone is coming from – they’re just trying to be helpful.
But there’s a reason I call copy by committee the ‘camel of the corporate world.’
And it’s because the final result – the copy – usually always ends up looking 10x different from what had originally been planned i.e. the horse.
3 reasons you should obliterate ‘copy by committee’ from your business
1) YOU END UP WITH FRANKENSTEIN
You know J, our copywriter from the beginning?
Let’s bring him back.
Imagine that he DOES take everybody’s opinions on board.
Lara’s, “can we make it bold, but not excessively bold.”
Jim’s, “I want us to sound like Innocent.”
Sarah’s, “can we be more low-key and not so out there.”
Bob’s, “we need to speak to everyone. What if one person doesn’t like that point?”
And Amy from accounting’s, “there’s no numbers in here – let’s bring some numbers in to jazz up our points.”
Imagine that he takes all of those viewpoints and opinions and infuses them into the copy – no questions asked.
It would look something like this:
This chip is SPICY. But it can also be mild. This chip has 5 pointed edges and three ridges for an extra shot of flavour. But it’s also not too flavoursome.
You’re probably thinking, ‘WTF did I just read?’
And you’d be right.
Is it a spicy chip? Or is it a mild chip? Is it packed full of flavour or is it flavourless? And what about that bit at the end that sounds like it was just tagged on?
It’s basically Frankenstein, but in copy form.
A butchered concoction of random ideas and points of view that – by themselves – make sense.
But bunched together come out sounding like a kerfuffle of nonsense.
Now, this is an EXTREME example, but what I’m trying to get across is how copy by committee can take the brief and warp it.
Morph it into a hodgepodge of ideas.
Leave it without a specific or set point-of-view. Make it to talk to EVERYONE. Not really have a clear focus point.
A bit like when you scroll through a website and leave thinking, “wait, what do they actually do?”
Or in more literal terms, a tagline for spicy crisps that aren’t too spicy and have lots of flavour, but not too much flavour.
Get my point?
The copy either comes across as:
- Diluted and weak. With no clear focus point or opinion. Wishy-washy and trying to ‘appeal’ to everyone but in doing so, actually speaks to no one. Take our spicy (or not so spicy) crisps example.
- Forced or trying too hard. It starts with one tone of voice before suddenly flitting to a second tone of voice and a third tone of voice and a – you get my point. It’s like the copy can’t quite decide who or what it wants to be. Imagine a blog that starts out sounding like Innocent and then drifts off into blase ‘legal speak.’
Aside from the obviously butchered copy, this Frankenstein concoction also scares readers away. It leaves them feeling confused. Left in the dark.
Leaving you with a few less readers and a few less sales.
Not exactly what you’d had in mind when crafting up the brief a month earlier, right?
2) Creates a wholllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllly unnecessary stall (a bit like this title)
Airports are already a pain in the ass.
Queues, queues, and more queues.
But imagine if there were even BIGGER stalls in place – stalls that could totally be avoided. Stalls that – from the outside looking in – are very obviously NOT in the airport’s best interests.
Let’s say you’ve gone through allll the security and you’re ready to take off.
But first, an engineer has to have a little catch-up with the pilot.
Ok, fair enough – makes sense.
Another hour goes by and the airport janitor hops onboard.
Seems a bit odd, doesn’t it?
30 minutes later, the baggage handler says hi along with: the airport manager, flight despatcher, airport planner, and airline reservation agent.
By the time everyone’s finished doing their thing, the flight is delayed by four hours. Backtracked to the last take-off of the evening. And every other flight at the airport is also delayed by another hour.
Copy by committee does exactly the same thing.
It creates stalls. Delays. Disruptions.
To the briefing. To the actual execution. And to your launch date.
Not good if you’re looking to up your content output and stick to a consistent schedule.
Also not good for your entire business full stop.
Because that one little delay can have an impact on the rest of your operations, creating bottlenecks and increasing costs and causing you to lose customers and tarnish your reputation and annoy clients and –
I’m already stressed out just writing that.
3) Strips away a copywriter’s creative license
Us copywriters are creative people.
Give us an inch and we’ll able to make it last a mile.
Tell us a bit about your project and we’ll be able to fill in the missing gaps with carefully executed copy.
Copy that’s not only creative but also rooted in psychology and science.
But when copy by committee comes into play all of that can sorta get thrown out the window.
Forgotten about. Overlooked. Ignored.
Now, I know nobody’s doing this on purpose – that would be a liiiiittle sadistic.
But all the last-minute track changes and all the opinions that ‘just have to get thrown into the mix,’ kinda undermine a copywriter’s expertise and strip away their creative license.
We want your feedback and we want to take it into consideration, but getting it from six different departments isn’t exactly helpful.
Especially when all those opinions conflict with one another (remember our Frankenstein example?)
Put it this way – you wouldn’t tell a pilot how to drive a plane. Or a Michelin star chef how to sear your chicken. Or a mixologist how to muddle fruit to make the perfect pina colada.
Even if you have read every issue of ‘aviation weekly,’ or worked in a kitchen when you were 17, or have a tiki bar installed in your garden.
Kind of puts it into perspective a little, doesn’t it?
Copy (without) committee
I get it.
This is your company. Your product. Your baby.
You want it to succeed. You want everything to go smoothly. You want EVERYONE to fall in love with it the way that you have.
You’re not trying to purposely derail the project or create a piece of watered-down copy or overshadow your copywriter.
All you want to do is be as helpful as possible (but hopefully now you know just how unhelpful this whole process can be).
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
“Great – thanks for enlightening me Konrad. But what do I do instead? Does this mean collaboration gets burnt to a crisp?”
Nope, not at all.
It just means tweaking things slightly. Taking a few cooks out of the kitchen. In effect, making your job x10 easier.
Here’s what you can do to crush copy by committee:
- Only invite feedback from stakeholders who have been there since day one: What’s the point of getting feedback from people who don’t even know what the starting point was? Or what the purpose of the copy was originally intended to be? If they weren’t at the briefing, count them out.
- Create ‘feedback’ deadlines: Open up opportunities for collaboration – but keep them time-limited. Putting a never-ending cap on feedback means you’ll continuously be bogged down with opinions and points of view, delaying your project. Plus it’s just kinda annoying for a copywriter to wake up to 16 unread messages when they’ve already written up a first draft.
- Nail the brief: Create briefs that make it ABSOLUTELY clear what needs to be done. Who is the target audience? What are you trying to achieve? What’s your stance? What’s the focus point? This way, you’ll have something concrete to circle back to every time you need to reassess the copy. Plus, it’ll make you stick to the message you’ve originally planned out.
Leave the camels in the desert
Copy by committee is old, and not in a cute vintagey-retro kind of way.
It clearly doesn’t work.
And it slows you down.
It’s about time it joined the other relics of the corporate world – the back-to-back meetings, the Yellow Pages ads, the annual reviews – and got cast away for good.
So, what do you say?
Ready to wipe the slate clean and make your life x10 simpler?
See you on the other side,