When and how did you become a copywriter? What did you do before?
I started at Barkers, a recruitment advertising agency (and the world’s oldest ad agency), in 1993. Two of us joined on the same day, both equally green, the only survivors of a process that had begun, apparently, with 1,500 applicants. (This was the last big recession.)
Before that, I was working in Dillons bookstore on Gower Street. I had come to London seeking the traditional F. & F., and a bookshop seemed a natural place for someone of my literary leanings. But they put me in the Medical Department in the basement, among the mildew and the semi-psychotic perusers of graphic trauma textbooks. By the time I applied to Barkers, 18 months into my ‘stop-gap’ job, I was half-crazed myself.
The creative frustrations of recruitment advertising soon became obvious, but I met some fantastic people and went through a superb writer’s ‘boot camp’ (small spaces, lots of information). And I learned how to drink properly.
What made you want to be a copywriter?
I didn’t want to be a copywriter. I didn’t even know the term. By the time I answered Barkers’ ad in the Guardian, I was applying for almost anything. I had one interview with a ludicrously posh PR headhunting agency who wondered if, as a vicar’s son, I might have trouble with the less scrupulous aspects of their work. I would probably have sold crack to schoolchildren by that point.
The Barkers ad said ‘Write me off this pag’ – the headline vanishing into the bleed at the edge of the page. Which was quite nice. It revealed an extraordinary world to me, in which people might be paid to write stuff. I did everything I possibly could to get it.
What types of copywriting do you do, and for what clients?
In my time I’ve done just about everything – job ads, graduate brochures, DM, TV, radio, posters, annual reports, packaging – you name it. I’ve even had my words carved in stone, for the wall of a spa in Stockholm. These days I tend to work in the ‘branding’ field – a field whose fences are shifted around more or less daily, but which involves me largely in developing or re-defining tones of voice, writing guidelines, and producing core brand ‘collateral’ like websites, corporate brochures, that sort of thing.
The good thing about working at this stage in the process is that it’s the source of everything else. So if you prove your worth in the tone of voice/brand department, the client often decides you should be doing lots of the implementation work, like ads or brochures. So, happily, I still do a varied mix of stuff. I think that’s important, both for the work and for one’s sanity.
What do you enjoy most?
Writing fiction! No, but seriously – writing fiction. The copywriting’s good too, though. For sheer enjoyment, I think it’s hard to beat working on concepts on a clear, compelling brief, in the company of a gifted designer or art director. That process can be a joy.
In terms of actually writing copy, I don’t think any particular type of work wins. It’s about the client, the project and the quality of the brief. You could do a global above-the-line ad campaign with a £10m budget, and hate every moment if the brief’s a mess and the client’s a nightmare. Or you might write a DL leaflet for a small business or charity that is, in Raymond Carver’s phrase, ‘pure gravy’, because the message is sharp and meaningful, and you’re free to make it as good as you can.
How do you work? (In-house, freelance, through agencies etc)
I’ve been freelance for 10 years this September. When I started, I did a lot of working on-site at agencies, especially ad agencies where you need to sit with the art director. But these days it’s almost exclusively done from my study at home, with plenty of going off to meetings, workshops and whathaveyou, mainly in London. The work comes from direct clients and agencies alike, almost always through word of mouth, which is nice.
What sort of working setup do you have? (Office, desk, computer, etc)
Luckily, our house has an ideal space for me in the basement. I have a MacBook Pro that goes just about everywhere with me, and at home I plug it into a monitor, which saves hunching over the screen all the time. I spent a lot of money on a Herman Miller chair, which is superb.
Recommend one book that copywriters should read, and say why. (It doesn’t have to be about copywriting.)
At Barkers, I was lent a copy of John Simmons’ We, Me, Them and It, which I remember as a brilliant little primer on copywriting. I keep buying copywriting books and then being too busy doing copywriting to read them. In my ‘downtime’ the last thing I want to think about is copywriting, frankly.
Reading poetry is obviously enormously useful for copywriters. Our job is so often about concision and precision; finding that perfect phrase that feels freshly minted, and speaks volumes in a handful of words. Among my own favourite poets, apart from the obvious Shakespeare, are Michael Ondaatje, Philip Larkin, Pablo Neruda, Raymond Carver, Rilke, and Tony Harrison.
I have a rule of thumb though, which is never to attempt to write copy in verse form. The few cases where this has been done well are vastly – vastly – outnumbered by those that make you want to smack your head against a wall. Or, more sensibly, smack the offending copywriter’s head against a wall.
How have things changed in the time you’ve been a copywriter? What’s better, and what’s worse?
It’s getting better. Obviously it’s getting better for me personally. I’ve been at this for 20 years, so I get paid more than I did at the start, I can choose my projects to a greater extent, and I work at home – which is especially valuable now I have children.
But I think it’s getting better for writers generally, and especially in the design and branding field. The value of words is appreciated to a hugely greater degree than it was 10 years ago. Tone of voice has become a proper discipline, and writers are regarded, I think, with much greater respect than they used to be. Clients have woken up to David Abbott’s dictum that ‘Those who write well, think well,’ which is generally true. So our broader, more strategic abilities are being recognised more, I think.
Plus, we have social media now, which are often focused heavily on words. Whole new markets have opened up for writers. It’s a good time to be a copywriter, I think.
If you could change one thing about your working life as a copywriter, what would it be?
Assuming ‘higher rates’ is a given, I would like to do more of the conceptual work I mentioned earlier. I do a fair bit, but far less of that sitting-with-an-art-director teamwork stuff that I did when I was more active in advertising. It’s such a pleasure, and I miss it.
What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened in your copywriting career?
I went to my second meeting with a new client, only to be told that she had just died in an accident. Everyone at the office was very upset, obviously. They thought they’d told everyone they needed to, but they’d overlooked my meeting.
I had only met the client once, but her colleagues didn’t know that, and were very worried about breaking the news to me. One of the team spoke very kindly and gently to me, even as he was trying to stop himself weeping. I felt awful, like a salesman turning up in the midst of a family tragedy. The whole experience was just surreal and dreadful.
The grimmest thing I ever did was a recruitment campaign for one of those loan companies that offers small amounts over very long periods, with extortionate interest rates. I had to write ads to recruit loan collectors, and salesmen who hawked consumer goods on the never-never.
I was shipped off to Redditch for some first-hand experience of the job, and spent one of the most depressing stretches of my life watching this bloke flog a deep-fat fryer, for something like £2.50 a week, to a single mum who clearly neither needed, nor could afford it. Miserable.
What single piece of advice would you give other copywriters?
I find this almost impossible to answer. But I think it would be to stay open to anything and everything. Read every variety of book: poetry, fiction, non-fiction, drama. Watch movies. Go to exhibitions. Read the papers and quality magazines. Listen to different sorts of music. Watch people. (I suspect most of us do this anyway, but career creatives can easily become too narrowly focused on the industry.)
You need as much knowledge of the world as you can cram in; as many reference points as possible. (New freelancers take note: virtually anything is a business expense under ‘research’.) Plus, it’s just a more interesting and fun way to go through life.