Be a magpie.
‘Just do it’.
It’s got to be the most famous brand slogan in history.
Three short words that have graced millions of billboards, T-shirts, bags and tags for over thirty years.
When Nike first adopted it, they started getting letters and phone calls, and so did their ad agency, Wieden + Kennedy.
People loved it.
They were ripping Nike ads out of magazines and sticking them to their walls — just to see those words several times a day.
One woman said ’Just do it’ had given her the courage to leave an abusive marriage.
It was genius then and it’s genius now.
So where did ‘Just do it’ come from? What inspired Dan Wieden, the legendary Portland ad agency founder, to come up with eight letters that helped turn a niche Oregonian sportswear company into a global multibillion-dollar beast of a brand? He pulled it out of his ass, right? Or perhaps from the unfathomable depths of that mystical realm we call talent?
He borrowed it from a convicted murderer.
Before being executed by firing squad on January 17th, 1977, Gary Gilmore was asked for any last words.
He had three.
’Let’s do it.’
Dan Wieden read about it in a newspaper article in 1988. He swapped ‘let’s’ for ‘just’, presented the tagline to Nike the next day, and the rest is history.
The moral of the story?
Don’t become a murderer, do become a magpie.
Get into the habit of spotting shiny things and storing them somewhere safe.
Your own head, for a start. But ideally, a nest of some sort.
Layers upon layers of found things.
Of witticisms, clever constructs, good gags, and other well-put words.
Neil Gaiman calls it a compost heap:
‘Everything you read, things that you write, the things that you listen to, people you encounter — they can all go on the compost heap. And they will rot down. And out of them grow beautiful stories.’
A compost heap or a magpie’s nest — whatever you call it, you’re going to need one if you want to write well.
You’re not stealing: you’re borrowing, paying tribute, cross-pollinating. Standing on the shoulders of giants and regular-sized humans, including fictional characters.
This is important: do not steal.
We are magpies, not copycats.
Theft is lazy. Our job is to keep an eye out for beautiful things and then keep them close to our feathered hearts and brains until we can put them to good use elsewhere — without damaging the original.
And I’m not talking about collecting examples of great copywriting, although you should be doing that, too.
Copywriting that’s inspired only by copywriting starts to look and feel inbred pretty fast. So we need to throw more varied ingredients into the mix.
Luckily, good words are everywhere. The series you’re binge-watching. The top-rated comment under a YouTube video. The graffiti you walk past every day. Creative ‘Lost pet’ posters. TikTok and Twitter. Your neighbour’s rants about obnoxious (and noxious) motorcyclists.
Start jotting this stuff down, highlighting it in magazines, taking photos and screengrabs of subtitles — even during a session of Netflix and chill, if you’re an extra-committed magpie.
I can’t tell you when and where each piece will come in handy.
But I promise it will.
In the wild.
The dark origins of the world's greatest brand tagline.
They may not have been conscious of it at the time of writing, but don't tell me that the author of this Hellmann's Mayo ad had never heard Jonathan Swift's oyster quote.
There will be no writing assignment this time. Instead, you’re invited to find and share other people’s words. Find at least five 'shiny objects' to add to your compost heap or magpie’s nest, and tell me what they are. Doesn’t matter where you find them, anything verbal will do — anything except copywriting aka text written by and for brands and organisations.
It can be funny or deeply unfunny, shocking or simply clever, thought-provoking or stoopid with two Os, well-written or weirdly twisted and broken. If it made you stop and pay attention, it deserves to be magpied. And don't view this as a one-off: it's the beginning of your evergrowing personal collection. Totally up to you where to keep it all: a Google doc, a folder (backed-up within an inch of its life), an iPhone note, a Pinterest board, or an altar in a dedicated room in your house (in which case, please send photos).
Here are five from my own compost heap.
Shout ‘magpie’ when you spot the one that’s already served me today.
And definitely do shout if you can think of a way we could create a shared magpie pile for the growing Writtn community.
Top-rated comment underneath my favourite fitness trainer's video on YouTube.
Lord, may I one day be as good at words as this commenter on Fragrantica.
That's a solid human truth I will never learn first-hand, therefore it's priceless.
Forgot the name of the series, haven't forgotten this bit.
A compendium of American English interjections courtesy of South Park.
Dare to share.
Share your shiny objects in the comments section below — anonymously, if you want. And please, please share any ideas on the best way to build a shared compost heap for all of us. #sharingiscaring
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Thank you for reading — and writing.
Until next week!