An interview with David Klowden

“Curiosity about life, in all its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people.”
 
“The work of an advertising agency is warmly and immediately human. It deals with human needs, wants, dreams, and hopes.”

— Leo Burnett

By Grant Goad

David Klowden, creative copywriter, had to sell an electrophoresis gel.

It wasn’t exactly the sexiest of products. A small item, made of plastic, used by bench scientists in labs worldwide as part of a process to separate DNA, RNA, and proteins.

Not a sequencer. Or a triple-quad mass spectrometer. Or a confocal microscope.

This was an everyday piece of lab equipment—but a boring, “just the facts,” approach to the campaign was out of the question.

By applying a human-focused method based on asking relentless cycles of questions, David came up with a solution.

I had the pleasure of working with David for a short time on the creative copy writing team at life sciences products and services provider Thermo Fisher Scientific. We also collaborated on the company’s loyalty program, Aspire, while I was a member of the web content team.

I recently sat down to talk with him about the gels campaign and his approach to copy writing for the life sciences.

We also discussed the many ways people can get into creative work in the life sciences, the role of human emotions in crafting copy, working on a creative team, and much more.

The background

Grant:             

Tell us about yourself and your background, David. You’ve got a master’s degree in writing?

David:            

I do have a master’s in composition. It’s an MA, and I also have a PhC—a candidate in philosophy degree, which is what you get when you’ve submitted your dissertation prospectus for a PhD, but then you didn’t finish your PhD.

Most people don’t even know the PhC exists, but I’ve got one, from the University of California, San Diego. God knows I’ve paid enough for it. So it should count for something. (Laughter)

Grant:

Do you have a background in science?

David:

Not as a working scientist, but I did take a number of science courses in college.

It’s interesting. If you end up in a position where you’re doing advertising with scientists as your target audience, you’re probably going to get in the role through one of several ways.  

Some people come at it through science. They study science, maybe they have some lab work in their background, and they end up going into marketing.

This is probably through necessity. They’re at a start-up and they don’t have the marketing infrastructure in place—they just end up having to do that work.

In consumer industries, when you get into a marketing department, most of the people come from a marketing background. They studied marketing, branding, or advertising in college and that’s where they come from.

But because the audience here is so specialized and their work is so technical, you do have a lot more of that interaction between people with different backgrounds.

I bet in almost any marketing department in a large- or medium-size life sciences company, you’re going to get some people who have more of a science background and some who have more of a marketing background.

The collaboration is cool and unique. I think it would be tough for a marketing team comprised only of marketers to market to a life sciences audience, without having any scientists on their team.

We have a robust internal ad agency here at Thermo Fisher Scientific, with people like myself, who have a lot of experience at professional advertising agencies. Sometimes, I’ll get on a project and the team will be all advertising folks, and, in the back of my mind, I’m like, we need to get a scientist into this room really quick because we need their input. We need their expertise.

You always want to run your creative ideas by a scientist to make sure that not only is the science accurate, but also that the tone and the way it’s communicating with scientists rings true.

Grant:

Would you say there’s a much lower bullshit threshold when it comes to ad copy and life sciences?

David:

When it comes to talking about the science, absolutely. Scientists will pick your creative messaging apart. The classic example is if the DNA helix is spiraling in the wrong direction. The second a scientist sees that, she’s like, what the heck, they totally messed that up!

Then your audience will be mocking you and somewhat scornful, and they’re not going to be receptive to your message. They’ll think, this company isn’t even vetting its own content.

So it’s critically important that you have those scientists in place.

That said, if you only had scientists marketing to other scientists, your creative might look like a scientific paper in a journal half the time. Or it might look like some weird hybrid between a scientific article and an attempt to sound like advertising.

Image from an antibodies campaign from life sciences copywriter David Klowden's portfolio.
Image from an Invitrogen antibody campaign, from David Klowden’s portfolio.

Emotion-based messaging

Grant:

So how should we approach scientists with our copy writing?

David:

We’ve got to remember that scientists are human beings. They respond to the same emotional drivers and attempts to reach them on a deeply emotional level that all people do.

While we know that most of our audience is made up of PhDs who bring an intellectual scrutiny to bear on any type of marketing materials that cross their path, they’re also human, and respond to the images and messages they see.

Ultimately, the behavior we’re trying to instill in scientists is the same one you’re trying to instill in somebody to convince them to buy your washing machine or your plasma TV or cosmetics or whatever it is that you’re selling.

Grant:

And they have a lot of choices out there. They can buy that product from another company.

David:

Absolutely.

Grant:

So you need to differentiate your product.

David:

And it has to be more than just an intellectual differentiation, where you’re saying, look at the data here versus the data over there. They’re inundated with so many offers. When they’re browsing the internet on their phone, looking at social media, or flipping through Nature Magazine.

However they’re encountering the message, though, they’re more likely to engage if you can captivate them, reach them emotionally, like you do with any advertisement.

Grant:

Can you give us an example of the emotional approach to copy writing for scientists?

David:

Sure. An example of this would be a campaign I worked on to market electrophoresis gels to bench scientists.

Think about who is really doing the work of preparing gels. A lot of this kind of lab work is done by grad students, and sometimes undergrads who are earning credits by working in a lab. Mainly young people.

So the way I approached things here was, OK, I’m not just marketing these products to scientists, but to young scientists, and they’re still young people. They’re college kids. When they’re not in the lab, what are they doing? How do I reach them on an emotional level?

The product was a gel cassette. And one thing I noticed is that the cassette itself looked like a theater, a stage.

The product you create with one of these gels, the results, are measured in what are called bands. They’re these little lines, that you can analyze and they will give you genetic information.

So I thought, what if this gel were lighted as if it were a stage, and maybe beautified, with the light bouncing off it? To emphasize the beauty of the product because it was a special wedgewell design.

And in the foreground, if you just had a silhouette of all these heads with lighters up, just like a concert, right?

You could use dramatic lighting at the front. Then you could see in the gel, the star of the show, with these perfect, beautiful band results.

And the headline is “See the Bands.”

Image from life sciences copywriter David Klowden's campaign for Bolt protein gels.
Image from David’s “See the Bands” campaign for Life Technologies.

You could easily create an ad that compares before and after results, but it wouldn’t be exciting. It’s not going to give you any kind of emotional feeling.

But in this campaign, you see these beautiful results starring in this spectacular rave, or rock concert, and it just says “See the Bands” in big letters, and it’s compelling. When you see it, you’re pulled in.

It also enables us to run promotions and tie-ins, like winning tickets to a concert in your city.

We did a whole campaign around that and it was really effective. Young scientists, when they’re not in the lab, want to be out doing things like going to a concert.

And they know that getting good results and having an experiment be easy is part of what’s going to get them out of the lab sooner.

So even just three words and that message on one image tell a story that resonates with this particular niche group of scientists.

Writing for your audience, international or niche

Grant:

Thermo Fisher Scientific is a global company, with customers all over the world. Is there anything you do in your writing specifically to reach this audience?

David:

Definitely. This speaks to what we were just discussing. One universal with scientists is that there is no universal scientist, right?

Grant:

And it’s a small world these days. In science, particularly, there is so much collaboration and business happening internationally.

David:

So, I do shy away from things that are too idiomatic, or too unique to U.S. cultural references. There are times when I might write a longer piece and I reread it and ask myself, if English is my second language, am I going to understand everything?

So that is one filter, for sure.

But there are cases where, even within the sciences, you might be marketing to a very small group. You might know them by name. There might be 25 of them—you’re trying to sell this $200,000 piece of equipment. You might be able to market to them specifically based on their demographics.

Either way, you need to connect with people emotionally. It’s not enough to convince them of something intellectually.

With scientists, it’s kind of a weird paradox. It’s taking what is apparently a scientific and analytical case for something, but you position it in a way that makes it feel more emotionally persuasive.

It’s the way you create a very clean design and simplify. You use just the right amount of description. You choose your words carefully, so that even though you’re telling the truth, just giving the facts, you make it a pleasure to read those facts.

You entice the reader to take a look at that web page or to dig deeper and browse the products.

Always remember that people hate advertising. I think that any good advertiser probably has a love/hate relationship with advertising. Hopefully more hate than love.

To be a good advertiser, you have to be just as annoyed as your average person, who’s constantly inundated with pitches.

Once you own up to that, you can start asking yourself, OK, what’s not annoying? What’s really going to get me to click the button or stop and read something.

Image from the Gibco 24 Hours of Stem Cells campaign, from life sciences copywriter David Klowden's portfolio.
Image from the Gibco 24 Hours of Stem Cells campaign, from David’s portfolio.

On asking questions, and the importance of curiosity

Grant:

You mentioned your previous experience as an academic. Has this had any effect on your copy writing?

David:

It has. I studied writing, the ethnography of writing, how the teaching of writing is a practice that can be studied anthropologically.

I have an anecdote that should help answer your question nicely. Years ago, I was asked by a professor at San Diego State University if I would contribute a chapter on copy writing to a communications encyclopedia.

During the course of my research, I read every single piece of literature on copy writing I could get my hands on. Most of what I found was by the old-school Mad Men guys like David Ogilvy, the information biographical in nature.

But later, I came across one particular book that ended up being the only one I kept going back to. The content was made up of nothing but questions. There were more question marks in that book than in a Dr. Seuss book.

The author’s approach was, that whatever the project, whatever the idea, you have to ask questions. Once you’ve answered one set of questions, you move on to the next set of questions.

He argued that the way to get to creative solutions that will work is to constantly question and interrogate both about the project itself and what you’re doing.

You can’t have an ego in advertising and copy writing, really. You have to be willing to watch your babies die all the time. And part of that is you’ve got to kill them with questions.

You’ve got to ask, What would somebody do if they see this? Is this really going to get somebody to click here? How effective is this going to be? Who are these people?

The same goes for science. The one thing I’ve noticed that differentiates successful scientists from the rest, is that there’s just this undying curiosity. As long as they’re curious to know why something is the way it is, or to figure out some problem or to get some kind of answer, the more they’re going to be willing to go back and fail every day.

Grant:

And that’s what science is about, constantly failing and asking more questions.

David:

Exactly. That’s where I think that good, creative advertising aligns with the approach to science that we call the scientific method. Of course, copy writing isn’t exactly scientific, but even science isn’t exactly scientific.

At a certain point, a scientist has to be somewhat intuitive, and ask the question—I think this might be why this is happening. I’m going to investigate.

Working on a team

Grant:

What’s it like working on a copy writing team as opposed to freelance?

David:

The whole creative component, the question of how to communicate with scientists and get them to take actions, is only part of the process of creating advertising for any large organization.

If you’re working freelance, you’re out there on your own. You have to do all the vetting yourself. There’s a lot of responsibility on a single person.

Grant:

You’re your own editor, quality control editor, fact checker, etc.

David:

Yep. But when you have a larger organization, you’re part of the team. Collaboration is just as important, if not more important, than the creativity itself.

If you’re in an internal agency, your client is your internal business partner. You’re going to have to negotiate with them.

And that’s why it’s important not to think, oh, I’ve cracked the nut here. I’ve solved the problem with this incredible ad.

And then you pitch three different concepts and you’re really hoping that they go for concept two. That’s the one you love. And the business partner looks at concept two and they dismiss it immediately.

They kind of like concept three, but they want a little bit of concept one added.

And then you’re like, oh man, now you’re Frankensteining this. It’s going to dilute it. But you have to be willing to engage in that dialogue. Sometimes the creative approach, at the end of the day, may not be what you believe would be the best way to market that product.

But ultimately, you’re not the one that’s going to make that final call. Your client is.

Another aspect of working in a large organization on a team is the checks and balances. When you get down to the tactical level of creating the actual digital content, collateral, etc., you’ve got internal reviewers reviewing the content, you’ve got art directors reviewing the work of the designers.

You’ve got a legal team vetting everything to make sure it meets legal muster. You’ve got quality control folks, you’ve got a brand team that’s trying to protect the overall company brand. They have a vested interest in everything.

You’re going to have a lot of cooks in the kitchen when you work for a large science company.

The way I feel, even if I don’t agree with everyone, is how can it hurt to have someone say, Hey, have you considered this? I’m definitely at the point where I very much welcome people reviewing my work and tearing it apart.

You’re entering into a collaboration that’s hopefully going to make things better.

Example of life sciences copy writing from David Klowden's portfolio.
Image from one of David Klowden’s campaigns for Superclonal secondary antibodies.

David’s advice on getting into the business

David:

If you’re an art director, graphic designer, a creative, or a writer, don’t wait to get hired. Just start putting your stuff out there in the world.

If you need a portfolio to get an interview for a graphic design job, don’t wait until you’ve only got real ads to show. Just make ads.

Do your best graphic design work, build a portfolio. It doesn’t have to be a real ad. It just has to be a good ad.

It’s the same way with many writers in television. They get started with spec scripts.

They’re like, I want to be a TV writer. So they don’t wait to get hired by a studio. They just write an episode of Game of Thrones. When you’ve got a spec script to show, someone might just see it and say, Hey, this is good. We should look at this person.

In fact, that’s how I got into copy writing in the first place. I’d written a biography for a musician friend’s website. For free.

A creative director at an advertising agency saw it and asked to interview me. When we did the interview, he asked me if I’d ever thought of working in an ad agency.

And I said no, I don’t want to. No thank you.

And he said, well, it pays this much money.

And I said, OK. When do I start?

My second piece of advice is for marketing people interested in getting into life sciences. The industry is booming in certain places, like here in California.

In San Diego, there’s a lot of biotechnology and life sciences going on here. It’s a good industry to get into in this area because there’s a lot of opportunity.

You need to have some science background. Don’t just study marketing in school, but make sure to take some science courses. I was recruited into life sciences by a headhunter. I had minimal experience, with just one campaign I’d done for a pharmaceutical company.

But, as I mentioned earlier, I did have college science in my background. And, when I was writing a newspaper column, I’d written some articles on scientific topics, so I could demonstrate that I had this interest in science.

This applies not just to science, but whenever you apply for a gig, make sure you study the company. Look at their website and familiarize yourself with what they’re doing.

Also, familiarize yourself with the current shift to digital. Learn as much as you can about digital marketing.

And that brings us back to the topic of curiosity, the thirst for knowledge. The more curious you are, the more the chances of other people wanting to work with you.

Any person who isn’t curious is not going to make it in science or marketing.