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My friend J — also known as J — was on holiday in the Maldives. When I received her beautifully handwritten letter of no less than 3000 words, I couldn’t believe how much fun she was having. The parties, the scuba diving, the cruises and the idyllic beauty were described lovingly in immaculate detail. I was really excited with J’s letter. Except I couldn’t get round to believing she was having fun. Because if she were, how did she find the time to write an exhaustively detailed letter? More importantly, why write to me? I only met her once, in Spain, over a Mimosa.

Meanwhile, my tutor Charles Parker — affectionately known as Charles Parker — was dying. When he sent me a postcard from his deathbed, I thought he was being ‘wicked.’ Then, when I missed his funeral and forgot to convey my condolences to his family, I was flummoxed. Because to this day, I cannot understand why the ‘wish you were here’ postcard was sent to me from his deathbed. It just didn’t make sense.

Then, during one of my ensuing crises of anxiety, it occurred to me that even though J. and Charles Parker selected the right medium (“the written word,” as someone said, “is the deepest dagger you can drive into a man’s soul”), they made a regrettable layout decision. J’s party-girl image and Charles Parker’s sincerity would have remained better intact had they chosen each other’s layouts to contain their respective messages.

Which is just the point. Letters and postcards define the two layout choices you have when you begin considering the visual direction of a campaign. It all boils down to whether you want the look of your print ads to be more visual or more verbal?

Here’s how it works. A postcard is a visually-led ad. Not always, but mostly. Big picture and very few words. That’s very, very few words. A letter, however, is copy-led. Letters have hundreds — even thousands — of words with no picture or a comparatively small visual accompaniment. A postcard is something you will send from a holiday. A letter, on the other hand, is something you might send from your deathbed. Between these two extremes of emotional experience lie the visual solutions to your ad. Which is to say, something that’s light, fun and not wholly important ought to be a postcard. The more serious it gets, however, the more like a letter it ought to appear. It’s that simple.

But whatever you do, be single-minded. Choose one or the other. Either the visual must dominate or the words. Because if there’s no emphasis, the effect will be totally lost. It’s like cramming a lot of copy beneath a big picture. An approach of ‘anything goes,’ with no regard to building relationships, will compromise your audience.

Examples? Well, there’s no hard and fast rule. But typically, lifestyle brands like beverages, perfumes, snacks, fashion and related accessories relish postcards. The images they create telegraph our fantasies back to us. But ingenious agencies have created stunning examples of postcards for brands that would normally fall in the letters category. Take the Economist campaign by Abbot Mead Vickers, London. From the once long-copy, letter ads to the revolutionary poster campaign which continues to evolve with witty one-liners against a red background. Notice: no pictures — but they’re still postcards (and it all started when David Abbott was staring at the magazine’s logo).

And so, the serious side of life is covered by letters. The financial and medical sectors, charities and lobbies, vehicle manufactures or any group that is asking us for a higher than usual investment prefer letters. But letters aren’t meant to be boring. London-based Leagas Delaney‘s beautifully crafted letters for English Heritage and Timberland Boots are part of classic advertising glory.

But isn’t a picture worth a thousand words? Why go ‘long’ when you can go ‘short’? Isn’t everybody saying that advertising today is visual and not verbal? This debate has gone on for as long as anyone can remember. But the fact of the matter is that certain propositions demand words, certain propositions demand pictures. And we must take the right decision based on the product, the market and the proposition.

Which reminds me, I have to write back to J and I can’t decide whether I should send her a letter or a postcard? You’re right: I’ll send her an e-mail.