Everything you think you know about advertising copywriters is wrong
Copywriter. It’s a problematic word. You’d think people who write for a living would have come up with something better by now. But we haven’t. Probably because we’re too bloody busy.
“Copywriter” is problematic because it covers a multitude of different roles, from people who manage companies’ social media accounts to classic ad agency types who sit with an art director and come up with campaigns.
So we’re not all what you think we are. Especially those of us who work in creative teams in agencies. Here’s why:
1. It’s not all about words
Advertising is primarily a visual form of communication. There, I said it. But it’s also a place where images almost always work with words. So a copywriter’s job isn’t just about words. And it isn’t just about images. It’s about how the two work together.
If a copywriter starts writing headlines without considering how they work as part of a visual communication, they’re only doing half their job. It would be like a comic book writer writing all the word balloons, without thinking about what’s going on in the pictures.
So the word “copywriter” is misleading. Words are only half of what we do.
The problem with “copywriter” discussed on one of my business cards.
2. We’re not necessarily good with grammar
Copywriting isn’t about following the rules of grammar. I don’t even know most of the rules of grammar. I sit and read what I’ve written and if it sounds like someone talking, then it works.
I write sentences with no subject. Like this one. I usually write for a reading age of about ten. And I start sentences with ‘And’ all the time. As for fancy punctuation, I’m with Kurt Vonnegut on that one: “Do not use semicolons. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
Grammatically speaking it should be "differently". But that sounds crap.
3. Most of us aren’t trained professionals
Have a look in the dictionary and it will tell you a profession is, “A paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.” But anyone can declare that they’re a copywriter, whether they’ve had any training or not.
Do I have a diploma proving I’m a copywriter? Nope. Have I done any formal training? Not really. Do I have some letters after my name proving I’m a copywriter? dO I Fu Ck.
So being a copywriter is a bit like being an artist – the difficult bit isn’t “being” one, it’s learning your trade, developing your skills and convincing other people that you’re good at it.
My portfolio proves I'm a copywriter, not my qualifications.
4. It’s anything but solitary
There’s a traditional image of writers as anti-social hermits who sit bashing away on typewriters in cold rooms. Think Jack Torrance in The Shining. But working in an ad agency is nothing like that at all.
Most of the time I’m sitting with an art director discussing creative ideas. My whole working life is spent talking through concepts with creative directors, presenting work to account handlers and discussing executions with directors, illustrators and various other people. If I want to be alone to craft some body copy, it’s actually quite difficult. I have to stick my earphones in and find a Brian Eno album on Spotify.
Me, at work, the other day.
5. Defining a distinctive writer’s tone is NOT the aim
If I write an ad and someone can tell it’s by me, that’s a bit disappointing. Because the aim isn’t to be some sort of creative auteur. The aim is to make brands distinctive.
Ideally, every brand I work on will have its own vocabulary, way of thinking and way of talking. Defining those things is what ad and design agencies get paid to do.
The perfect tone of voice for Jack Daniels would be totally wrong for, say, Haig Club.
6. There’s no fear of the blank page
If you’re a (cough) real writer, like a novelist, poet or a journalist, you have to generate your own starting point. Ditto if you’re a painter, sculptor or visual artist.
But if you work in marketing, you get a brief put in front of you every single time you start a job. And that brief was written with the sole purpose of trying to stimulate your brain.
So the idea of the blank page being scary is total nonsense. The blank page is the wonderful, glorious, exciting bit at the beginning, when anything is possible. It’s the boundless, dayglo playground you skip about briefly, before realising the client “doesn’t want to rock the boat”, the existing brand guidelines are excruciating and oh, there’s not really any budget. The blank page – I bloody love it.
The blank page. Bring it on.
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