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Copy vs. Graphics: Bickering Spouses of Advertising?

In this age of social media, viral videos and search engine optimization (SEO), the role of imagery and copy in marketing is like ever-present background noise. And yet from billboards to websites, the healthy marriage of copy and graphics is almost always a critical component in the successful execution of promotional efforts.

The relationship between copy and graphics is practically as close as conjoined twins. Think about it. How often to you do you see promotional copy without some kind of image? Or when was the last time you saw an ad that had no words?

As with any couple, there can be tension between words and picture—often thanks to the “in-laws.” People who bring copy into the world are fond of saying that “Copy drives creative.” Meanwhile the graphics artists point out that nobody actually reads Playboy for the articles. Wisdom comes from understanding that whatever is done must be for the sake of the concept.

How this conception takes place varies quite a bit. It can be a lovely process, or sort of messy (intimate collaboration vs. a brainstorming free-for-all). But once a marketing concept is born, skill and patience are needed to help it achieve its destiny of carrying an important message into the world. Good marketing agencies work this out for their clients. But what if you’re a smaller business with only ad hoc marketing assistance? Where do you begin?

  • Understand how the concept will carry the message. It’s easy to get carried away with a possible concept; they can be very cute and lot of fun. But if the connection between a creative concept and its intended message isn’t readily apparent, start over. Also, remember to keep your branding in mind—especially how the concept supports your overall value proposition.
  • First, focus on the concept and come up with a visual OR First, focus on the concept and come up with a headline. Sorry, but sometimes the graphics needs to lead, and sometimes the copy has to do the trick. If one person is doing this alone, it’s relatively easy because they can go with the best idea that pops up. If you have people splitting duties, you can have them collaborate; let them work independently and present dueling treatments; or make the executive decision to have one of them take the lead.
  • Creative elements must support and complement each other … completely. A lot of really great headlines have been killed by stock photography or limited graphics resources that don’t quite meet the needs. This is why images often end up being in control when all is said and done. (It’s usually easier to change a few words than come up with the perfect picture.) The key takeaway is that they have to work together!
  • Maintain consistency throughout the promotional piece. Typically, this is more of an issue for copywriters than graphics artists as there are often headlines, body copy, a call-to-action, etc. supporting just one concept. (Avoid the copywriting equivalents of mixed metaphors!) However, where multiple images are used (such as a brochure) they too should be in keeping with specific copy elements and honor the creative idea throughout the piece.
  • Let the people involved in the creative process take a final look before publishing (or ‘going live’). Just because people work together, they don’t necessarily work side-by-side. Sometimes an artist may find that the image that delighted her isn’t available for commercial usage. Or perhaps the writer (who convinced everyone he’d written the all-time greatest headline) wakes up in the middle of the night realizing it’s actually stupid. One creative person may frantically issue changes that the other knows nothing about … or maybe they never had a meeting of the minds to begin with. It’s critically important that they all have the opportunity to serve as creative quality checks before it’s too late.

While it will never be set in stone as to whether copy or imagery is more important to rearing a successful promotional concept, they each have their important specific roles. Imagery catches the attention of an audience, and copy justifies that interest. As long as they’re doing this, you know you have a creative union that works.

Other online articles you may want to peruse:

The 10 Commandments of Great Copywriting

25 Epic Design Tips for Non Designers

11 Best ways to Brainstorm Creative Ideas