How did you get your start as a copywriter and what inspired you to pursue it as a career?
Money and stimulation. I was working for American Express as a speechwriter. Despite my three-piece suit I couldn’t raise a family on what I earned. Desperate, I entered a copywriting contest in the New York Post and won a job writing direct mail for Ogilvy & Mather. It paid a better salary, and its lessons in psychology, imagination and the freedom to experiment with ideas and language continues to pay off to this day.
How much has the role changed since you joined the industry? Do you think the craft has suffered because of these changes?
It’s ironic. I joined the ranks of copywriters when advertising used interruption as a way to get your attention. The logic was, If you interrupt a print reader or a TV viewer with your advertisement, you reward them for their time with a bit of entertainment. That’s why so many ads would surprise you, shock you, make you chuckle or give you something to think about. In those days, succinctness and felicity of language were prized; a creative “concept” was the order of the day; and copywriters were industry stars.
Today interruption’s faded. Digital media has given the customer the tools to determine how they’ll spend their time – to read or view anything they’re interested in, even if it’s an advertisement. You’d think more copywriters would say, “Yeah, especially if it’s an advertisement!” and twist their brains to serve up thrilling, impossible-to-ignore vehicles for their brand messages. So where are these? I’ve looked for them and not found that many examples where a human insight intersects with technology to deliver a breathtaking brand experience.
And today’s star copywriters: Where are they? Who are they? The best work is still stuff that could have been done in the 90s. With some exceptions it seems like the need to move people, to find that emotional beauty, is absent from the work. Then again, this is still a new moment in our business, and we may taking the time to find our feet. Recall how many decades it took for TV advertising to get its act together. I’m impatiently hopeful.
What set of skills do you believe it takes for a copywriter to thrive in the current advertising landscape?
I didn’t mean to savage our industry in that last answer, but I am disappointed in so much of the creative I see these days. The skills that will save us are the same ones that go into making a great copywriter. You need to be one part art director – showing is as important as telling – just as a great art director needs to be one part copywriter. You need to be able to express your thoughts in words, but not just any words. Words that are passionate and imaginative because they’re in the service of a bold idea. A great copywriter is a conceptualizer first. And the ability to develop several more bold ideas after you’ve come up with your first one – that’s what separates the great from the someday great.
Where do you seek inspiration that helps you in your craft?
I’m still learning the craft. But when I was starting out I studied the creative annuals. They were an infallible guide to great work. Today there’s Vimeo and YouTube and other services to study contemporary commercials, videos, film, TV. It’s all there for you. I also read a lot of fiction, history and biography. I talk to people. I listen to music. I experience art. I travel. I look around. Creative thinking is a random process and you never know where inspiration will come from. Just stay open and keep feeding your mind and your heart.
What’s the most challenging aspect of the job? What helps keep the work interesting for you?
Not one will admit to this, but many clients are opposed to original ideas. They applaud them once they see them succeed for someone else in the marketplace, but they’re more comfortable with an idea that doesn’t challenge them as much. For me the challenge is to psych out this client, to anticipate what worries them and to deliver an idea that answers every possible objection and is still breakthrough. This challenge keeps the work interesting, as does the opportunity to solve problems in categories I’ve never worked in.
Is there a part of the role that you feel is often misunderstood?
Aside from the annoying word “copywriter,” which sounds like outdated newspaper-ese from “The Front Page”, the hardest part of the copywriter’s job is persuading a customer to try your client’s product or service. And it’s the part that most copywriters run from in favor of getting eyes, clicks, views, impressions. Call it what you will, quick hits are not the same as providing a persuasive argument for why your customer should take a chance on your client. It’s about changing someone’s mind, not just getting them to look up. A copywriter is a strategic thinker and there are building blocks to making a persuasive argument. There’s the need to make people engage, feel, understand, and care, and all this has to be balanced and measured. There’s a difference between someone who writes copy and being a real copywriter.
What advice would you give to young copywriters who’ve just entered the business?
Be of good cheer. Don’t let the negatives get you down. It’s not all victory parties for your work. There will be occasions when you’ll have to get up off the floor and start fresh. Learn to do that with grace. This is still a better job than almost anything else you can do. And most people can’t do it.