I've already said that I much prefer print ads without headlines.

Nevertheless, it's worth getting good at writing them. Why? Because often you will fail to crack the brief visually. Happens to me a lot.

Or sometimes, due to lack of time, lack of money, yada yada, you may 'have' to use a stock-shot or product shot with a line.

So let's start with the basics.

How long should a headline be?

I’m not trying to lay down ironclad rules, and I certainly haven’t got any neuro-scientific evidence to back it up, but it does seem to me that there’s a certain length of sentence that’s appropriate for the kind of thoughts we typically try to get across in an advertisement. A length that can be inhaled in one breath by the reader. And that length is roughly 8 to 14 words.

If a thought needs a lot more than 14 words to communicate, it’s too complicated for an advertisement. And if it can be said in less than 8 words, it normally isn’t saying enough.

(Of course, words like ‘disintermediation’ or ‘supercollider’ might falsify the count, as maybe would lots of teeny words)

Here’s a great old campaign for Porsche by Fallon McElligott.

Nine words. [Sorry about the appalling quality of these scans]


Eleven. I think of 11 as the magic number. I’m not sure why, but there just seems to be something particularly pleasing about 11-word headlines.

The best headlines don’t look like headlines

There’s a sure-fire way to get your headline ignored - make it look the headline of an advert.

No one actually wants to read adverts. So, it probably won’t get read. And it will be boring, and probably not win any awards either.

Making a headline look like something other than a headline is a very good arrow to have in your quiver.

In fact, many of the world’s best headline-writers are quite open about their secret weapon – a great art director.

With a really well art-directed headline, the idea and the execution are seamless. I like ideas where the headline is written in a place where type naturally occurs. Which means that your headline can be a photographed object - a visual element in its own right, which just happens to have type on it - rather than a boring old typeset headline.

So, think what your headline could be written on, that you could photograph as an object.

Or if there's no object you can put your type on, is there some object you can make your type out of, to make it more visually interesting? If it’s an ad for baked beans, why not make your headline out of beans?


Some Creatives will tell you that puns are bad and you should never use them.

I don’t agree with that, though I understand why they say it.

They say it because there is a finite pool of words that have a dual meaning. Hence, most are well-known and have been used in adverts before. And just as any joke becomes less funny the more times you hear it, so do puns.*

However, if you can come up with a play on words that feels totally original, I see no reason why it can’t make a good advert.

Here’s a great example for Timberland, by Leagas Delaney.

It was written by Tim Delaney himself. And if puns are acceptable to Tim Delaney, there’s no reason for you to turn your nose up.

Indeed, year after year, you will find ads in the awards books that are based on wordplay.

*Just as you could make an exception for jokes that are “so bad they’re good”, you might say the same of some puns. Like the old headline for the airport Hilton that read “Out of the flying plane, into the foyer.”

Punchline comes at the end

The construction of a headline causes some Creatives endless heart-ache. It needn’t. The principle is very simple: you put the punchline at the end.

Here’s an example:

Would this witty headline (and it’s a pun, incidentally – so take note, anti-pun people) have been as effective if it read: “My bitches and I love Irn-Bru”?

Not quite.

‘Bitches’ is the punchline so it goes at the end… just like the punchline of any joke.

For serious headlines, exactly the same principle applies. The key word or phrase goes at the end.

Tip No.36 - How To Do Direct
Tip No.35 - How To Do Radio
Tip No.34 - How To Do Press
Tip No.33 - How To Do TV
Tip No.32 - How To Do Digital
Tip No.31 - How To Do Posters
Tip No.30 - Look At Weird Shit
Tip No.29 - Presenting To The Client
Tip No.28 - Presenting To The Team
Tip No.27 - Presenting To The Creative Director
Tip No.26 - How To Deal With Rejection
Tip No.25 - Look Creative
Tip No.24 - Don't Be Afraid To Ask
Tip No.23 - Your Idea Has To Be 120%
Tip No.22 - Read Iain's Tips
Tip No.21 - Don't Behave
Tip No.20 - How To Discuss Ideas
Tip No.19 - Read Hugh's Tips
Tip No.18 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part IV - How To Turn A Placement Into A Job
Tip No.17 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part III - How To Approach Agencies (re-print of Tip No. 7)
Tip No.16 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part II - How To Put A Book Together
Tip No. 15 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part I - FAQ
Tip No. 14 - Make Friends With Traffic
Tip No. 13 - Get Reference
Tip No. 12 - Don't Stop Too Soon
Tip No.11 - Be Very
Tip No.10 - Breaking Up
Tip No.9 - Working Well With Your Partner
Tip No.8 - Finding The Right Partner
Tip No.7 - How To Approach Agencies
Tip No.6 - Never-Seen-Before Footage
Tip No.5 - Dicketts' Finger
Tip No.4 - Two Blokes In The Pub
Tip No.3 - Play Family Fortunes
Tip No.2 - Should You Take A Bad Job?
Tip No.1 - Don't Overpolish