PCN Conference 2013: Review

Tom Albrighton

ABC Copywriting


This post is about the PCN Conference 2013, which took place on 11 October 2013 at Haberdashers’ Hall, Smithfield, London. For live tweets from the day and afterwards, check out this Storify.


Ben Locker (L) and Tom Albrighton (R) welcoming delegates at the opening of the event

Believe it or not, I had never addressed a group from a stage before last Friday. Basically an introvert, I’ve assiduously avoided every ‘opportunity’ for public speaking that came my way. But I could hardly avoid it at my own event.

It wasn’t so bad in the end. What really helped was knowing so many people in the audience, and the feeling of being carried along by a wave of goodwill. By 10am, I’d already seen dozens of positive tweets about the conference, and it made all the difference.

With that out of the way, I could get on with enjoying the thrill of seeing real people, who’d paid real money, actually listening to the talks, interacting with each other and, it appeared, really enjoying it. When you make your living by selling a service you provide yourself, it’s incredible to see something you’ve ‘made’ come alive like this.

Andy Maslen
Why the cutting edge has a bone handle: the age-old direct marketing secrets that still work today

Andy Maslen explains why copywriting is all about numbers, not words

Like an urbane private doctor, Andy soothes you with his bedside manner while he lances the pimple of your pretension. Forget being a ‘wordsmith’ and focus on profit. Abandon what you like and do what works. Set your beautiful, precious words in Courier.

If you see the copywriter’s role as finding the linguistic melody or drama that will bring a product to life in a reader’s mind, it might have sounded depressingly prosaic, even reductive. But as the eloquence of his talk proved, Andy isn’t deaf to poetry, nor does he despise it. He just refuses to put the cart before the horse when it comes to commercial writing.

And, of course, he also takes an impish delight in provocation. But when his points are so well argued, so clearly rooted in experience and proven knowledge, no-one can really complain when they feel the sting of his trident in their buttocks. The only shame would be if the controversy overshadowed the wisdom.

Dave Trott
Predatory Thinking for Copywriters

Dave Trott explains how targeting opinion formers is the best way to spread your message to their followers

I’ve already reviewed Dave’s book for PCN, and since he covered similar ground, there’s no need for me to go over it again. As expected, his talk was a mix of vivid storytelling, cutting insight and mordant humour. Live sketching on a visualiser made the ideas feel real and immediate.

In terms of tone, hearing Dave speak is very different from reading him. The authority of his experience and achievement are still there, and just as powerful. But there’s also a real edge to his delivery.

Despite having nothing to prove, Dave clearly still feels real frustration at those who are too cocooned in their class (middle), education (university), job role (planner) or outlook (branding) to share his punter-centric viewpoint or his commitment to reframing the problem.

As with other thought leaders like Steve Jobs, you’re left wondering if you can follow in his foosteps if you haven’t walked in his shoes. But it certainly gives you something to aim for. If I could bring a tenth of this creative rigour to my own work, I’d be happy.

Breakout sessions

The breakouts were my chance to take a deep breath, grab a coffee and sneak this shot of Dave Trott and Andy Maslen, which I think is my favourite image of the day.

Andy Maslen (L) and Dave Trott deep in conversation while delegates are in their breakout sessions

Panel session
Content marketing, copywriting and creativity

The panel session, featuring (L-R) Dave Trott, Sonja Jefferson, Clare Lynch, Andy Maslen and chairman Ian Guiver

With the panel, we were hoping that the choice of panel members would give a nice range of opinions and perspectives. In the event, it seemed that there was maybe just too much distance between them.

Andy and Dave seemed frustrated by what they saw as the fad of content marketing. For her part, Sonja did her best to take us past the buzzwords to the underlying reality of how people search for products and come to trust brands.

Part of the problem is that ‘content marketing’ is tainted by the overclaims made by some of its disciples. As Sonja pointed out, it’s just one tool in the toolbox. And since all four members of the panel use content marketing in one way or another, we have to presume they agree.

Credit is due to Chairman Ian Guiver, who did an admirable job of steering the discussion.

Graeme Archer
‘I am a camera’: Blogging and the power of human metaphor

Graeme Archer explains why empathy is essential to successful writing

‘All our failures are ultimately failures in love.’ Hang on, I thought we were here to learn about copywriting? Well, we were, and we did.

I must admit, when Ben suggested Graeme, I had my doubts. A Tory who writes for the Telegraph? Was this a ploy to undermine the delicate Lab-Con coalition in the cabinet of the PCN? What if it all got political?

Boy, was I ever wrong. Graeme turned out to be an inspired, and inspiring, choice. A wild card, for sure, but utterly beguiling and supremely relevant. Within minutes, Twitter was humming with praise, and rightly so.

Graeme may be a Tory, but you wouldn’t guess it from the way he speaks. Compassionate, clear-sighted and thoughtful, and impossible to pigeonhole or dismiss, he’s the sort of Tory who makes complacent liberals sit down and have a little think.

Some compared him to a Woody Allen or a Lee Evans. For me, Graeme’s gags, like his nerves, enlivened his performance without defining it. He was more like a jazz player, riffing and improvising on his own ideas, the gaps just as important as the notes.

For a while, he seemed to be wandering and stumbling, always reaching for something just beyond his grasp. Then, suddenly, everything fell into place, leaving his subtle but vital points perfectly clear. We must feel for those we’re writing about, or writing for. If we don’t, the tools in our hands – such as metaphor – betray us, and the cause is lost.

Dee Blick
How to turn prospects into clients “” and write a no. 1 bestseller

Dee Blick tells the story of her journey from ‘marketing mongrel’ to bestselling author, and shares some essential marketing tips

All our speakers spoke from experience, and Dee made her life the heart of her talk. In telling how she became a best-selling marketing author, she showed how every expert was once an unknown, and how the journey from one to the other doesn’t happen without persistence, self-belief and a lot of hard work.

She also shared some simple but powerful truths about marketing. It’s the engine of your business, she pointed out, and worthy of 10% of your time. That made me think about my own new-business effort, which doesn’t get anywhere near that figure, unless posting puns on Twitter counts.

Dee’s off-the-cuff response to a question about data cleansing proved that her marketing knowledge is deep and detailed. But her talk spoke of a struggle to be taken seriously by publishers, ultimately leading her to prefer self-publication over a deal with Wiley. And although she didn’t labour the point, being a ‘Yorkshire lass’ had probably made things harder still. All the more reason to respect her achievements, which delegates rightly called ‘inspiring’.


It was a fantastic day, but when you’re running the show, it’s always a relief when it ends. I went to the pub and drank four pints without stopping, eating or caring. Lots of delegates came too. Although we’d talked all day, it felt like we were just at the beginning of everything there was to say.

Delegates sinking a jar in the Butchers Hook and Cleaver, Ben Locker holding court second from left

I lost count of the people who asked for another event next year, and who am I to argue? One day like this a year will see me right. I hope we can do something just as enjoyable next time, and for many more years too. Whether you were there or not, I hope to see you at #PCN2014.

Working up a stance with (L-R) Dan Adams (@danadamscopy), Richard Harrison (@CopywriterRich), Neil Stoneham (@NeilStoneham) and Martin Williams (@ukcopywriting)

More reviews of the day

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