Stephen Marsh

14 August 2012

Stephen Marsh

When and how did you become a copywriter? What did you do before?

I became a copywriter in 2009, mainly because it seemed like something I could do to earn some extra money.

I was working just about anywhere that would have me – since graduating in English from the University of Kent in 2007, I’d been an excellent administrator at a national charity, a top-notch stock administrator at a place that makes checkouts, and probably one of the best theatre box office employees in history.

But, unsurprisingly, I wasn’t satisfied.

It took somebody else to make me realise that the copywriting I did on the side could be a career. Once I committed, I had a run of good luck in building those initial client relationships and the transition to becoming a full-time copywriter was a no-brainer.

What made you want to be a copywriter?

I remember at school I had this one teacher who literally grabbed me by the collar and said ‘Look, you can write, you need to do something with that’. It was probably the most aggressively inspiring thing that’s ever happened to me.

Since then, I’d always written, but rarely anything as practical as copywriting. I didn’t really know what a copywriter was.

But in the meantime, I found branding and advertising interesting, particularly the way that – for no discernible reason – a business turns into a living, breathing thing.

I always think of Google. Somebody must have said ‘Look, this is the worst service name ever!’. But here we are, a relatively short time later, and it’s a verb.

I wanted to do that.

What types of copywriting do you do, and for what clients?

So far, I’ve not been disciplined enough to find a niche. I work with everybody from start-ups to large firms and, in the past few months as an example, I’ve worked on press ads, websites, product descriptions and press releases. Some of this is B2B, some of it is B2C.

In terms of subject matter, I think it’s the copywriter’s responsibility to quickly get up to speed with whatever the client does. I went into this with no knowledge that was relevant to the clients I’ve worked with, and have since written for everyone from private healthcare to private detectives.

What do you enjoy most?

The part where I’m actually writing copy.

If you get me in the right mood, I don’t mind the admin that inevitably comes with running your own business. But nobody becomes a copywriter because they enjoy filing tax returns!

What I enjoy is sitting down with the brief, a strong coffee and a blank page. Finding the most appropriate way to connect with the reader, convey your message and get out again as efficiently as possible.

I also like those instances when you can get really creative with your storytelling. Charity mailers do it all the time, but it’s remarkably effective for any business to spin a good story alongside the sales stuff.

How do you work, and who for?

I’m a freelance copywriter, but do have some relationships with agencies that send work through. Most of that is done through email or over the phone as necessary.

As much as I enjoy dealing with my own clients directly, those agency relationships are an invaluable way to write for bigger, better known brands. I think that extra experience adds value to the services I offer my own clients.

What sort of working setup do you have?

I use a MacBook Air for just about everything. It’s exactly what I need – lightweight and convenient enough to follow me around.

Nine times out of ten I work from my desk at home, but the great thing about being freelance is the possibility of going further afield. I rarely do, but having the option is brilliant.

And my iPhone, of course. Without instant access to my email and a good web browser, I’d almost certainly not have won the business that I have to date.

What one book should copywriters read, and why? (Not necessarily about copywriting.)

I’m just going to recommend my favourite book, which is The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow. You should read it because you’re human.

But, if you’re looking for a copywriting relationship, it’s a book that tells a great story but is incredibly playful with the rules. Suddenly Doctorow launches into capitals, or throws in a sentence with seven dashes and seemingly infinite clauses. And all this is done moving between tenses at any moment.

It’s a good reminder that the best writing isn’t about the rules, really, it’s about doing whatever’s necessary to get your point across.

How have things changed in the time you’ve been a copywriter? What’s better, and what’s worse?

I earn more money (better) but I’m busier (worse).

I came into copywriting right in the guts of the recession, so I can’t give much insight into the economic side of things. There seems to be enough work if you can give clients what they need.

Content farms continue to diminish the value of copywriting. But I’m sure there have always been people undercutting the competition with bargain-basement copy.

I suppose the only valuable thing I can add is that online is getting better. Search engines are cleverer than ever – I read something last year about how Google use real people to check some keyword results – and, as a result, clients are realising that there are no tricks, and no short cuts. You just need really great content.

That’s where a copywriter comes in.

If you could change one thing about your working life as a copywriter, what would it be?

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, I’d like to get involved with more agencies. Partly, that’s just about the excitement of working with better-known clients.

But I have always felt like my strength is in copy directed at consumers, and I have a (perhaps misinformed) view that agencies deal with a lot of those kinds of brands.

I love the B2B work that I do now, but some more B2C would be welcome!

What are you most proud of in your copywriting career?

Some of the work that I’ve been involved with.

When I need a bit of inspiration, I turn to the same pieces of work that I think are the strongest examples of what I do.

One of them is a blog post for a team building company, where I decided to tell a fictional story about an elderly couple to illustrate co-dependence. It’s a genuinely heart-warming story and yet it never gets in the way, the point comes across really well.

And a few headlines for ads that I’ve worked on. My favourite is for a company supplying arson alarms for agricultural outbuildings. These alarms send you an SMS if they are triggered.

I struggled for a while, then wrote – ‘Arsonists won’t tell you when your barn is on fire. We will.’

So simple, but it just says it all. It did well for the client, too, which is always a help.

What advice would you give other copywriters?

Find out what needs to be said, and say it in its most crisp and concise form.

  • stephenmarsh