Joanna Tidball


29 May 2015

Who helped shape your copywriting career?

Potter's wheelI’ve been thinking a bit about how I took the decision to become a freelance copywriter (getting on for nine years ago now) and the things that gave me the confidence to go it alone. My permanent jobs had been in PR, digital communications and website management – so no pure copywriting roles, but plenty of experience of writing and editing different types of content.

I was lucky enough to work with some talented people who gave me opportunities to write, nurtured my writing skills and passed on invaluable knowledge and skills. It struck me that behind every copywriter there must be people who have shaped their careers, sometimes consciously and sometimes not. Here’s my thank you to three people who have helped me to make a success of freelance copywriting – even though they probably don’t realise it.

Rachel Bower, then an account director at Edelman London, now deputy MD: It was in Rachel’s team that I learnt to write professionally, through crafting endless press releases, case studies, opinion articles and news stories. I remember Rachel telling me about one of her former bosses who made her work long into the night, drafting and redrafting a press release until it was absolutely perfect. Rachel was a far nicer boss than that, but she instilled in me the importance of quality in all aspects of client work, as well as how to develop strong client relationships.

Mary Jean Pritchard, publications manager at The King’s Fund: I joined The King’s Fund as website manager on a maternity leave contract, as a stepping stone towards freelancing. I absorbed a great deal of editing knowledge simply through sitting next to Mary Jean. The house style guidelines she created for The King’s Fund are pretty much imprinted on my brain.

Michelle Anderson, then web editor at Nesta, now online content manager at Bank of New Zealand: Michelle was one of my first freelance clients, and what a client – I worked with her regularly for a couple of years and the projects were always interesting (one highlight was interviewing Martha Lane Fox so I could ghostwrite an article for her). A fantastic client relationship, which all started with a cold call – Michelle was one of many (many, many) web editors I phoned to ask if they needed any freelance copywriting support. She wasn’t the only client I got that way either – it’s time consuming and sweaty-palm inducing, but well-targeted cold calling can pay off.

Who helped to shape your copywriting career?

Perhaps it was your first boss or an inspiring writing trainer? A client who gave you your first big break or even another copywriter?

Leave a comment here to let us (and them) know. Or write a post on your own blog and leave a link to it below.

What do you think?

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Rebecca Magnus

May 29, 2015 at 9:16am

I was thinking about this because I really have anyone who has shaped my writing career yet, but I’m really hoping to meet some inspiring copywriters at CopywritersUnite and CopyCon! I have a slightly different background in that I have worked in sales, marketing and a brief stint in PR rather than advertising.

My old boss taught be the power of a really good story to sell product, he would spin yarn after yarn to sell and he told brilliant stories. The problem was that virtually none of them were true and I was frequently left to pick up the pieces!

I learnt valuable lessons though about the power of the story in copy and branding, and how every story must have a kernel of truth to be effective otherwise the whole thing comes tumbling down!

I’m at the beginning of my copywriting journey so I’m really hoping to meet people who will guide me and in return, I can pass on what I know about real selling. Pass it on!

Vikki Ross

May 29, 2015 at 9:59am

Franco Bonadio – the best Creative Director I ever worked for. I was bored writing sales and marketing communications at The Body Shop and he moved me to the in-house Creative Studio where I ended up leading the Copywriting team and writing in-store promotions, web and packaging copy for all new product launches. When I visit The Body Shop now, I’m surrounded by lotions and potions with my words on the bottles.


Honor Clement-Hayes

May 29, 2015 at 11:47am

Helen Greenwood of Shoot from the Nib. She was so delighted to help a young, scared copywriter. After I emailed her to tell her I loved her website, she asked if I’d like to meet for a drink to talk about what I could do next. She ended up giving me my first paid project outside of my day job and even recommended me to a local PR agency.

That first contact with another copywriter gave me the confidence to contact other copywriters, which is my secret to success: bother the people you want to be like and drink of their souls.


Mike Howell

May 29, 2015 at 6:21pm

Nobody as illustrious as your influencers Joanna. I was thrown in at the deep end working in a tiny record company (it was me and the owner) and one of us had to write up an artist biography of the Gipsy Kings. I drew the short straw (on account of my O Level English) and it has been a part of what I have done ever since.It took me a long, long time to actually make it my job.


Rebecca Perl

June 1, 2015 at 5:29pm

Great article, Joanna. It’s good to remind ourselves of the people who have helped along the way – and to acknowledge them. My creative writing tutor at uni was the first person to shape my career. He taught me how NOT to write, which I thought was brutal at the time! Then there was the Editor of a magazine in Munich who took a big chance on me. She made the time to encourage and nurture me, and got me numerous promotions and amazing freelance jobs. And my best friend, who gave me the kick I needed to start my own company. She offered unwavering support – and still does.


June 2, 2015 at 4:46pm

My grandmother did it for me. She never did get around to exploding, but she did make me listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor while I was writing a poem about seagulls. I was six. She was tiddly (but don’t tell anyone), and she conducted the assembled imaginary choral line-up with great aplomb – all the time explaining the reasons why it was a joy to write, simply, for the pleasure of writing.

“It’s unlikely,” she said, “that Johann saw it performed as he wrote it. Words are the same as music, dear – you’ll put it all down on the page, and then other people will take what they want from them, each and every time. Write some more words, dear. Write about the feathers, and the wind, and the waves…”

Bloody seagull. I remember being ever-wary of her green fountain pen, still holding the sopranos at a perfect pitch, hovering above my margins and dive-bombing the page at every spelling error. Lord, how I wished I’d known that father wasn’t the same as feather in advance. Many, many years later, I realised that the Lutheran Church wouldn’t have used the decorative Latin work that Bach wrote: as a writer, always trying to offer a ‘better version’ than the one that’s there at the minute, the allegory is all too bitter-sweet.

The pain I suffered that afternoon, taking two full hours to write a 12-line poem, was a masochistic catalyst for my entire writing career. Grandmother was an English teacher. She would have blushed at the word catalyst, much less at the word masochist. She was also a poet; writing and re-writing drafts about poppies tipping their heads at the beck and call of the Maquis de Sade (I still have that weird little nugget somewhere), and a never-ending search for insight when it came to writing essays about faith, or her sometimes lack of it, in particular.

Her writing did bring spiritual solace in later life, she could recite great gobbets of classic poems in her fading years. But as a child, sitting back-straight a her writing desk, I learned valuable lessons about paragraphs; phrasing; cadence; words that “… have no place in a First Class carriage, dear”. And as a child, trying to set that seagull’s cry down on the page with what limited vocabulary I had at the time, I realised there would always be new ways to describe things. New ways of writing; new ways of playing with punctuation; new ways to hear old music and find something you recognise, in among the jarring dischords of someone else’s harmonies.

Less sexy than saying it was a Creative Director, I know. Sorry about that, Gran.


Ben Locker

June 4, 2015 at 11:14am

My editor on Family History Monthly, where I was her assistant for 18 months from 1998-2000. For months, nothing I wrote was good enough for her. It used to make me furious as she tore my stuff to bits, but she raised the bar high and I made sure I got over it. I think it taught me that while words might come naturally, they get a hell of a lot better if you work at them.