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  • Writer's pictureDylan Parry

Copywriting & AI: How should we wield our new power tools?

Updated: Apr 29

Of all the AI chatter flying about right now, the hot take that resonates most with me is this: "AI won't take your job but somebody using AI will."1

Right now, the mere mention of AI seems for some to be a red flag, signalling a feckless amateur who has no idea what good writing looks like. But to frame it as a direct play-off between human and AI is to miss the point, I think.

Speaking specifically

Generative AI tools undoubtedly have their limitations right now. But as they improve, they will quickly become part of our workflow. I'm already finding that the paid-for tools based on the latest models (ChatGPT Plus, Gemini Advanced, Claude Opus – try them if you haven't) are useful for specific tasks. Tasks like adding structure to a ramshackle set of notes. Or generating a quick set of ideas (which might in turn prompt me to have better ideas). Or offering critical feedback on a first draft.

When I asked Gemini Advanced for opinions on some possible titles for this post, it highlighted the pros and cons of each, rightly pointing out that a Bob Dylan-inspired option ('AI & Copy: The Times They Are A-Changin') might be a little vague or obscure for some readers. An obvious observation, you might say, but when we're deep in the reeds we frequently miss 'obvious' things.

One of the best copywriting tips is this: sleep on it. Sure enough, whenever I return to a draft it always amazes me how many potential improvements spring forth. What I'm benefiting from is a second perspective: I'm still me but I'm in a different headspace. Maybe I'm less tired. Or more ambitious. Or more grounded. Or whatever it is.

Wouldn't it be valuable to always have a second set of eyes on hand, especially when timelines don't afford the luxury of a night's sleep between writing and editing?

Writers, relax

When it comes to the job of actually writing, the results are frequently lame. I asked Gemini Advanced for some suggestions to improve this post, and its response included this: "With AI on our side, we can create stronger, more engaging content for your brand – faster than ever."

While there's nothing technically wrong with it – it's clear and reads easily enough – it's just trite. It sounds like the billion bog-standard blah blah blogs that bloat up the internet. And that shouldn't be a surprise, because that's exactly what the large language models (LLMs) have been trained on. 

Which brings us to the core creative limitation of AI: that it can't truly think, only predict based on what's been done before. Therefore actual empathy, imagination and originality remain off-menu, unlike your favourite human copywriter (wink wink!).

As Ethan Mollick points out, "the most advanced LLMs write better than most people, but worse than good writers." So that's of some comfort, for now. But he also points out that the models' capabilities are doubling every 5-14 months, meaning most of what we can say about them will quickly be out of date.

Focus on what AI can do

Again, to linger on AI’s current limitations is to miss all the things it can already help us with. When you think of it more as an assistant or a muse, rather than a writer, you start to see the specific tasks you can palm off to it right now. Whether that's structuring, brainstorming or critiquing, if it saves you time, it sets you up to do more.

In some cases, AI can already produce writing that is *good enough*, especially if your goal is more to inform than to persuade.

There does seem to be quite a difference between the writing you can squeeze out of the various leading tools, by the way. I'll explore this more deeply in another post but I've found ChatGPT to be a bit corporate and stuffy – no surprise perhaps, given OpenAI's affiliation with Microsoft. Claude Opus produces writing that feels slightly more natural and elegant, which I could see working well in some long-form content. But it's Gemini Advanced that, for me, produces the closest thing to tight, conversational copywriting.

In all cases, detailed prompting is a must – that's well documented. I've had my best results when providing the AI with lots of tonal guidance and examples (to train it) alongside a clear brief. It's made me realise that tomorrow's brand voice guides are going to have to be written not just for human audiences but also AI. That 'model training' aspect is one area where I can see today's brand writing specialists being valuable.

Even if you consider AI's writing to be inadmissible, it can still be valuable in getting the cliched/boring/obvious ideas out of the way. Once you've established where the low-hanging fruit is, you can decide to stretch for those juicier treats up in the higher branches.

Handle with care

Accompanying these upsides are the many valid concerns about precisely how AI is used. From the leaking of confidential IP, to baked-in bias, to factual inaccuracy, it's clear that a beady eye must be kept on these unpredictable new employees. In that respect, perhaps we should view them as something like eager but raw interns? Helpful, sure, but requires oversight.

And that's before you get into all the nefarious ways we're going to see AI deployed, and the implications for trust, justice, security, mental health and social harmony. But let's save all that for another day (looking forward to election season, anyone? Thought not!).

These are such early days, and so much is still unknown, that I think it makes sense to proceed with flexibility and transparency. Despite my enthusiasm for exploring the benefits, I understand that some clients may want to err on the side of caution. For that reason, I'm letting my clients know upfront if I intend to use AI. And if they're not comfortable, I won't use it on their project. Simple.

That's in the near term. The medium and long term are a different matter.

Because what we're watching – and indeed taking part in – is nothing short of an industrial, even societal, revolution. To understand what that means, our best option, as usual, is to look to history. What good did it do the Luddites who fought the introduction of mechanised looms? (That's a great question to ask AI, btw.)

Is good enough good enough?

At some point, AI will offer a 'good enough' output and user experience at a price that makes it impossible for marketing budget holders to ignore. This transition is already underway but could yet play out in multiple ways. The worst-case scenario is that copywriters are not involved in the process. If this happens, we'll see sub-par AI tools/approaches, possibly developed by non-specialists, start to replace us based on cost savings alone. Human copywriting, while still recognised as superior, will become a luxury that only the most silver-laden brands can afford.

On the other hand, copywriters could take the lead by adopting early, finding the smartest ways to use AI to augment our talent and experience. If that happens then I think we could see an altogether better outcome for all involved.

The revolution is here. Let's make it work for us.

What do you think? AI is such a fast-moving beast – nobody knows quite where this is all headed. Are you tickled by the possibilities or troubled by the risks? Is your team using it productively already? How would you feel about your contractors using it? I'd love to know. I'm going to continue exploring I'll share what I learn, right here and in my newsletter, as I go.

1 economist Richard Baldwin

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