Why did you choose a career in copywriting and how did you get into it?
I did a Masters in Marketing, and actually studied copywriting on that course, as well as doing plenty of university and local paper journalism. Then I promptly went into catering for ten years or so.
Later, I did one of those career assessment profiles and worked out what I should have been doing all along, and it’s turned out well. Better than those mega-stressful weekend late nights keeping punters fed and watered.
What work are you most proud of?
Pieces where the business is struggling to describe its business case, proposition, model or strategy. Where deep thought is needed to help them express themselves. Every business should be able to explain what it does on one page of A4.
What piece of copy do you really wish you’d written?
Like most copywriters, I wished I’d done the Economist ads – “I never read it” Management trainee. Aged 42. Or “Huh?” Economist non-reader. Though a word of warning. Like the many client briefs that call for Ronseal honesty or Innocent tone of voice, those that call for Economist wit very rarely actually mean it.
What do you do if you hit a bit of writer’s block?
I try to explain what I’m writing about in a hypothetical letter to a friend. Though sometimes you simply need a tight deadline – that sorts most blocks out.
What are your favourite and least favourite writing-related tasks?
In both cases, turning gibberish into clear, everyday English. With some, you can see the client is going to be pleased with the result, which is now something meaningful for the reader. With others, once you turn the trite gibberish into everyday language, there’s nothing left. Clients can write pages and pages of rubbish about “driving a commitment to integrity and customer-focus, delivering on our promise and collaborating to go the extra mile”, most of which could be summed up as “we’ll do our job”.
Any copywriting pet hates?
Yes, what I call ‘addy’ copy. The sort of breathless, glib stuff people come out with when they haven’t got much copywriting experience. They try too hard to fill the page with ‘salesy’ words and lazy adjectives. It’s as if the copy is saying “look at me, look at me, I’m a copywriter, look at me”. The best copy, like the best football and rugby referees, you don’t even notice.
My other pet hate is the word ‘deliver’. In some companies it seems to be the only verb they know. Deliver is for pizza, post and babies – for everything else there’s a better verb.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
Don’t ever leave the room or phone call until you know exactly what they want you to do, and where you’re going to get the information from.
What advice would you give to people starting out on a copywriting career?
Strangely, it’s not the writing that’ll make you a great copywriter. That should be a given, the least clients should expect. It’s the thinking. Learn to focus directly and quickly on what the key message or story is (the proposition). This may or may not be what the client has told you it is, you have to work that out. Then any ‘clever’ headline, concept or introduction has to be judged simply on whether it states or supports the key message, and nothing else. After that, concentrate first on WHAT you need to say, not HOW you want to say it. Playing with the words can come later.