Why did you choose a career in copywriting and how did you get into it?
I was originally a journalist, but then businesses started asking me for help with their writing projects: annual reports, press releases, brochures and web content all became part of what I did. I loved the variety and I loved the challenge of changing someone’s behaviour through writing alone.
Then, out of nowhere, I got offered a job in marketing and communications with an agency in Manchester. I learned a lot, but I was keen to get back to what I’d always aimed for: a professional writing career. At the start of 2016 I left that job for full-time copywriting. It’s been a long road, but I’m very fortunate to be doing something I love.
What work are you most proud of?
A couple of jobs stand out for different reasons. I worked on a guidebook for professional sportsmen approaching retirement. It had no public profile and was delivered only to sporting professionals, but it had major sections on mental health and addiction, so it felt like a job that could genuinely help people.
The other one happened 10 years ago, when a bizarre chain of events led to me writing the copy for a beer menu for a national pub chain. About a month later I was in one of their pubs with a group of friends. They spent ages reading about all these different beers and none of them had a clue I was responsible, so it was a rare chance to see how people genuinely react to your copy.
What piece of copy do you really wish you’d written?
Jim Nelson’s Harley-Davidson stuff is great. Under a photo of a bike surging into an American landscape is the line: “Somewhere on an airplane a man is trying to rip open a small bag of peanuts.”
The other, David Ogilvy’s Rolls-Royce headline, is so famous it’s almost a cliché to pick it: “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” Genius.
What do you do if you hit a bit of writer’s block?
Let the deadline get a little closer: it’s amazing how pressure brings clarity. Maybe that’s an old journalism habit, but it definitely works.
What are your favourite and least favourite writing-related tasks?
Favourite? Getting near the end of a job you originally thought was impossible, but which suddenly transforms into a coherent, effective piece of copy – with a bit of rhythm and style, too.
Pressing ‘send’ on the first draft of a first job for a new client always brings a brief feeling of imposter syndrome.
Any copywriting pet hates?
Integrated. Strategic. Thinking assist or utilise are better than help or use. Copy designed to show the author’s intellect, but which gives no thought to the reader, their situation or their concerns.
I love this quote from Drayton Bird: “Good writing is unselfish. Good writing means you don’t make things hard for your reader. Your reader should have to do as little work as possible… you do the work for your reader.” It should be displayed in every boardroom.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
“Don’t marry a wimp.” When you’re self-employed or working in a small business, and doing something that doesn’t fit in a traditional corporate career, you’ll inevitably have moments of doubt. Having a partner who knows why you’re doing it, and buys into your ambitions, is invaluable.
What advice would you give to people starting out on a copywriting career?
There are the usual things like reading everything you can, writing every day and paying attention to the world around you.
But the biggest thing would be to try to find a mentor. I had a few great mentors in journalism and it helped my career enormously. I didn’t find one in copywriting for a long time, and it’s difficult bouncing around on your own trying to forge a career when you’ve got nobody to lean on for advice or support. Becoming a full-time copywriter took me longer than I’d have liked, and not having a mentor was a big part of that.
What’s your favourite thing about being a copywriter?
Every new job is a chance to better your best work so far.