The idea that advertising agencies need more than mere translation of their copy is not new. But it took a young copywriter, Simon Anholt, to transform the idea into reality. Previously, the delicate task of adapting copywriters' immortal prose had been left to translators, who were paid a mere pounds 40 per 1,000 words.
Mr Anholt saw his opportunity while enjoying the prize he was awarded as Young Copywriter of the Year - a tour of leading agencies throughout the world. He realised that even when advertisements were translated properly - which was not always the case - the work was handled by the least talented people in the agency, and usually no attempt was made to adapt the content to the local culture.
When he returned home, he set up World Writers, with the motto: 'Translation no, copywriting yes.'
To achieve his objective, Mr Anholt had to lure good copywriters to London from agencies all over Europe. This, it transpired, was not too difficult, since many bright young copywriters from Europe wanted to spend some time here. Selection was not a problem either: when asked why they want to write copy, candidates simply have to reply: 'Because I love words.'
He now has two writers each for French and German, as well as one each for Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Flemish, Swedish and Catalan - plus two for English, since many international campaigns, such as those of Olivetti, do not originate in Britain. Italy is also the source of European advertisements for Swatch.
Mr Anholt is aware of the danger that his writers may start thinking in English, so he tries to make sure that they remain tuned in to their own cultures.
'We subscribe to 400 magazines,' he says. 'We don't just read them; we pull them apart. We have cable TV in the office. We try to ensure that they speak only their own language and live in a sort of cultural capsule. In addition, they have a month's sabbatical every year to give them total immersion among family and friends.'
These precautions may seem over-elaborate, given that the writers do not usually stay more than a couple of years: 'They're young; they go back knowing that they've had great training in copywriting and in international advertising,' Mr Anholt said.
World Writers is definitely not in the translation business. Mr Anholt has set up a separate company, Translators in Advertising, to cope with brochures, mail shots and other, more prosaic material.
'Any copy is a mix of facts, which can be translated by bullet points, and voices. The copywriter has to work out what the voices, the signs, add up to. They have to look at the consumer and the identity of the product. The copywriters are briefed, but they're not shown the English copy. They have to be like great actors imitating their masters' styles.'
In the five years since he set up World Writers, Mr Anholt has never been able to keep up with demand. From the start, he says, some agencies - such as those in Sweden - were sensible enough to realise that they needed help. But he has had difficulty coping with the bland assumption of some UK-based agencies that they know it all, and that they are the centre of the world. He says their executives also tend to claim they are more fluent in foreign languages than they really are - and they also think they know Europe.
'A German agency is the best-led,' Mr Anholt says. 'They may lack the creativity, but they stick to sound, long- term strategic thinking.'
His most obvious were agencies with clients needing a consistent image across a dozen or more countries - hotel chains, airlines, car hire companies and international brands such as Pepsi and Nike, which is Mr Anholt's biggest account. He handles six airlines and nine motor manufacturers but says this does not create any conflict of interest.
He can provide lots of examples of the snares of poor - or merely literal - translation. In Cantonese, for instance, 'Coke adds life' became 'Coke brings your ancestors back from the dead'. More important is the need to adapt the whole tone of an advertising campaign to the audience's requirements. 'The British insist on sophisticated dialogue, while the Italians need heaps of emotional cliches, and the French, surrealist humour.' To make matters worse, it is illegal to use foreign words in French advertisements.
It was French national style which forced a change in the Nike slogan 'Just do it'. Says Mr Anholt: 'It's a command, and the last time anyone tried to command the French there was a revolution.' The solution was the equally neat slogan 'La vie est a toi', which I can render only as 'Your life is your own'.
Mr Anholt's biggest problem is political: 'Sixty per cent of our efforts are devoted to calming local managers,' he says. Local brand managers were accustomed to an agreeable life being wooed by local agencies. But if the copy is being written in London, the country manager no longer has a local agency to lean on: 'They have to take the responsibility.'
Five would-be competitors have been started by former employees, but none has survived. The result is that potential clients 'have nowhere else to go' but World Writers. Mr Anholt is now going into competition with his clients by starting his own agency, and that could be a different story.
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