Advertising writer Paul Burke pays tribute to the late Richard Foster, a true master of the copywriting craft who could slip into any style.
The first line of copy is always the hardest.
Richard Foster told me that.
He also told me this: you’ll know you’ve got your first line of copy if the second one comes to you almost immediately.
Then the third, then the fourth. By which time you should have the reader engaged.
Still with me? Good. Then he was right. Of course he was.
Richard Foster died on 8 February aged 70 and our industry lost one of the greatest writers it will ever produce. Other names from his era – David Abbott, Tim Delaney, Dave Trott – may be more famous but among the copywriting cognoscenti, no name is more revered.
Unlike them, Richard never ran a creative department, let alone an agency. Instead he chose to write. He began his career as a teenage prodigy and retired from it, hundreds of awards later, never wanting to be anything more – or should I say anything less than a copywriter.
He spent the last 25 years of his working life at AMV where, with John Horton, he formed perhaps the most successful and enduring creative partnership in the history of advertising. And it was at AMV, where I arrived in the despatch department, three days after leaving school, that I first encountered him.
I soon worked out that one day, I wanted to do what he did. Namely, have long hair, look cool in cowboy boots, play blues guitar, drive a Porsche 911 and win a D&AD Black Pencil before I was thirty. Needless to say, all those ambitions remain unfulfilled but Richard was kind enough to at least point me in the direction of that last one.
He and John were hosting a D&AD evening at AMV. This involved advertising students, having been set a brief, coming in to show and discuss their work. Richard suggested that I come along too even though I hadn’t had the brief or ever written an ad in my life.
“Doesn’t matter”, he said, “Just sit at the back and don’t say anything.”
At the end, as they all filed out with the brief for the following week’s session at Saatchi’s, Richard called out to me. “Excuse me”, he said, “You’ve forgotten your brief”. As he held it out to me, I realised that he was holding out the chance to stop wrapping parcels and start writing ads.
And to this day, I want to write ads like Richard Foster.
His brilliance lay in his versatility. Like an actor who can slip into any role, Richard could slip into any style, altering his tone perfectly to suit a broad diversity of products and people. And as ex-AMV copywriter Charlotte Adorjan pointed out on Instagram, he was particularly good at writing for women.
He had no interest in corporate power or empty, vainglorious titles. Like the best people invariably are, he was all about the work. And his was good enough to be featured in 29 D&AD annuals.
So isn’t this the best way for us all to remember him? With a mini-exhibition of his work.
If you appreciate fine writing, read every word. Though in particular, the Sainsbury’s olive ad, followed by his piece for the D&AD Copy Book, which explains how he wrote it.
I couldn’t give you a better demonstration of the craft of copywriting.
But then, I’m not Richard Foster.
And no one else ever will be.