“So you, like, trademark stuff?”
The role of the copywriter has become increasingly murky.
Even within my own agency — there are some hilarious, throw-away interpretations of what my role is, which are a daily reminder that the position itself is one of many hats.
To some, I’m a creative. To others, I’m a ‘space filler’. To some, I’m a ‘content storydo-er’ (wtf) and to others— I’m a personified dictionary, paid for the sole purpose of removing their need to google how to spell a word.
Most of the time, when I tell normal (non-ad) people what my job is, I am met with two responses.
A) a blank stare or,
B) a sudden glazing of the eyeballs, accompanied by the comment: “so you like, trademark stuff?” (I do not do that).
I’m a creative copywriter. Or a conceptual copywriter. Or, an advertising copywriter — which are confusing (and potentially outdated) ways of referring to someone who writes down words better than other people.
“So you’re just a writer then-” hold up, bucko. I’m not done.
I had no idea what a copywriter was, when I became one. I don’t mean that facetiously — I literally had no idea what a copywriter did, or that they even existed. I was just an oblivious youth, with a knack for making strangers hit the ‘Like’ button on Facebook… who had somehow stumbled into an agency.
During university, I realised that social media was starting to become serious. Social was making a jump, at the time — from personal to professional.
Facebook ‘pages’ didn’t exist yet, but big brands were starting to make waves, youthful brands were starting to go viral and as I watched — I noticed that small businesses were starting to look a bit… well, silly.
I grew up with the poison.
I’m the ‘guinea pig’ generation of social. I witnessed the birth (and consequent death) of MySpace, the rise (and plateau) of Tumblr, the never-ending boom of Facebook and the cult uprising of Instagram. I speak fluent ‘Meme’ (Me Gusta!), and even managed to write a 10,000 word dissertation about parody Twitter accounts — @SoVeryBritish and @QueenUK.
Yep. I found that much to say. Somehow.
Anyway, dripping in youth and naivety, I saw opportunity amongst those small, vulnerable, typo-tweeting businesses. An opportunity to help them grow their business, yes, but moreover — an opportunity to earn a shit ton of money by doing what I perceived to be very little. Social came naturally to me, so this was going to be a walk in the park.
One by one, I located every company in a 50 mile radius who had under 500 followers on Twitter (I’m somewhat obsessive). I emailed, and emailed, and emailed — and to my delight? Small business owners are apparently way, way too busy to do their own social media. Not only that? They had no idea what the hell they were supposed to do on it. Social media was an alien, complicated world that they frankly wanted no part of. Most were all too happy to chuck £70/week (oh, my pitiful rate) at some kid with the balls to say:
“Hey, I don’t mean to be rude but your company tweets like the town imbecile — want some help?”
Before I knew it, I had clients in Asia and was staying up til 3AM for Skype meetings, which was mostly nodding and smiling, as they barely spoke a word of English. As it happened — tweeting ‘professionally’ was not the “making £90/hour from my smartphone, while getting my nails done” dream ride I had imagined.
In fact back then, people were used to brands posting several times a day. Once you take on three or more decent sized brands at that rate (with three or more platforms each)… social media quickly turns into a 24/hour job, a crash course in customer complaint handling, a degree in translating broken English and one hell of a learning curve in what will grab someone’s attention. Don’t get me started on the hard life lessons a twenty-year-old girl must learn regarding ‘people who say they will pay’ vs. ‘people who actually pay’. Poor, stupid, young Copy Clare. God bless your naive heart.
Either way — one account led to another… led to another… led to me asking the boss of my weekend bar job to hire me as an in-house social executive (yup), led to a job at a magazine (climbing)— and then finally? One day? I emailed an agency.
No idea why. I didn’t have a bloody clue what they actually did.
Long story short — their copywriter, with 10 years experience, decided to leave the agency, so they took a chance on the kid (that had wandered in by accident) to fill those shoes.
I’ve always said that there’s no better way to learn than a baptism of fire — and that is, more or less, exactly what happened. My first job was a corporate brochure, which hilariously, took me five days to write. The second? Three trade brochures for white goods, in all their glorious, technical detail. That took less time, but Christ, was I stressed. Flyers, websites, social schedules, adverts, taglines, pitches and scripts all flew at me at speed — and God’s honest truth? I was shit. But when you start? You always are.
I knew I was shit, however, which was a God send. I can’t stand being shit at anything, so I knew I had to get better — and at record speed. I read every book I could get my hands on, pored over what other agencies were doing, spent every moment eavesdropping on what other staff members were talking about, listened to podcasts, watched talks on youtube from the copywriting deities, etc.
Eventually, I got better (mostly through making blunders at extreme speed) and now I’m ‘Senior Conceptual Copywriter’.
(Yes, for people who are paid to give things precise, concise names — we haven’t really mastered the job titles.)
Regardless, I believe I had an upperhand.
Now, don’t get me wrong — as far as I am concerned, copywriting and content writing are two completely different things. In fact, in my opinion, digital has been a bastard for copywriters everywhere.
‘Copywriter’ has become a general term for people who write words for ‘content’ — which isn’t exactly true, but isn’t exactly untrue. It is the result of the internet bastardising the job title.
Copywriting, in its traditional sense, is the art of describing ‘things’ in a way that make other people want to have them. I describe my own copywriting as an “alchemy of good literacy, a slightly bonkers imagination and an acute understanding of human nature and its intense need to acquire more things.” Copywriting is manipulative, high pressure, go big or go home. It’s everything from 1950’s cigarette adverts — to the hysterically annoying Go Compare man you can’t seem to escape.
Essentially, we get paid to write down ideas. Concepts. Brand things. We give them names, play them like puppets, make sure they say the right stuff to the right people. We present complex things in their simplest form, give simple things semantic significance — and create interest where there is otherwise none. We write adverts that make you laugh, cry, or generally just annoy you so much that you can’t forget them even if you try (still looking at you, Go Compare).
Digital blurred the lines because it amplified exactly what copy was, or could mean. It was no longer something finite for print or broadcast — it was an unfillable void. The rise of digital and social caused clients to start ordering words, for the sake of words, in overwhelming quantities — and agencies had no idea what to do, except throw their copywriters at it and hope they didn’t sink.
The problem is, there is a stark difference between writing the concept for an entire brand campaign and writing down ‘Top 10 Tips for SEO Marketing’ clickbait articles… yet often, they are written by the same person, and herein lies the debate. Are you a copywriter, or a content writer?
Realistically, if you can’t do the latter — you shouldn’t be doing the former… but as most writers will know, you’re usually better at one than you are the other. Or — you’re unusually good at both, but you absolutely loathe one and love the other. Either way, there’s imbalance.
Fortunately, content specific agencies are on the rise, as well as social specific agencies and arguably, as an industry, we are getting better at making the distinction. Content specialists and social executives are on the increase, and copywriters are slowly going back to what they do best; making you want things. That said…
I was a Guinea Pig. I see it both ways. Sometimes. Sort of.
I witness a lot of traditional admen slagging off social media. Even if they’re not outright slating it, they sneer at it. Truth be told — I see your points but, as far as I can tell, social is taking it’s final form. Which is just another medium for traditional advertising, executed (slightly) differently.
The best copywriting, and the best social media, and the best “content” will, above all else — come from a great idea. The big idea that manipulates behaviour. We can argue til we’re blue in the face about engagement rates and clicks and promise-filled-story-doing lies, but when it comes down to it — we know as much about a social post as we know about a billboard. They both head out into the world with an equal chance to change what a person does that day (and they both have the same chance to do sweet F.A).
Luckily, my early dabbles in entrepreneurship led me to train myself in two very important copy skills:
- Making my point in 140 characters or less.
- Grabbing attention.
I had an awful lot to learn when I took the job — with an unquantifiable amount of learning still left to do. When I look back, however, I can see that being a ‘social guinea pig’ actually gave me an upper hand on all the junior copy executives out there, training to do my exact job. Learning is doing, I suppose — and if you want to learn really fast? Do it in front of a live audience… who can complain. Often. And repeatedly.
Despite my social rearing, my heart is in copywriting — which seems to surprise many. Copywriters and social/content executives often remind me of the Gallagher brothers. They look similar but act differently, sound similar but say opposing things, work for the same purpose via two completely different methods — and often — fucking hate each other.
Me? Well, I’m weird, because I’m both Liam and Noel at the exact same time — and I’m sure that’s the case for several advertising copywriters that are my age. Being a ‘millenial’ (*dramatic gasp*) seems to make others assume I’m not interested in anything that doesn’t involve the words: content, storydoing (wtf?), clickable, content, engaging, influencer or (the ultimate social bingo) — ‘shareable’.
Quite the opposite, actually. Yes, I’m open to all of those things if, and this is a big ‘if’ — they have stemmed from a great idea. I’d rather write the concept for an ad campaign than a tweet, and mercy— I’d rather write the entire bloody website from beginning to end than “write some blog content for the website”/“about what?”/“anything”.
So, I have to hand it to social, really (despite all its annoying, hipster problems) for teaching me how to write copy before I even knew what it was. As the industry marches forward with increasingly blurry lines? I’m glad — and probably lucky — I can do both.