Friday, 26 June 2015

So you want to be a copywriter?

It’s D&AD New Blood next week – something very close to my (blackened) heart. So in the spirit of nurturing all the fine young fillies out there, I thought I’d do a little bit horse whispering to gee up any aspiring copywriters unfortunate enough to read this blog. Sorry.

1. It’s a none horse race 
Nobody under 25 wants to be a copywriter anymore. This is good news and bad news. The good news is that New Blood (and the industry as a whole) is dominated by visual arts students. So if you’re peddling words you’ll stand out like a juggler at a funeral. The bad news is that you’ll have to be 100 times more engaging than the fluorescent typefaces and experimental motion graphics that pass for advertising concepts these days. So saddle up and get ready to sell hard…

2. Be the horse, jockey and trainer all in one
The best writing projects its own world. Reading it (or even hearing it) should take you out of yourself and into another place. Forget about tones of voice and think about creating characters - ones that inhabit unusual situations, or better still, alternate realities. Make them your own and they can only ever be yours. Suddenly the none-horse race has a single contender. In other words, carve a niche and do what no one else does in a way that only you can. Then whip it! If you’re unhappy with how something turned out, tell people. There are all kinds of obstacles a writer has to face and the race rarely goes smoothly. Just because the client loved it doesn’t mean you have to. I always used to put work I was unhappy with in my portfolio because it meant I could talk about how I’d compromised. After all, it aint just the winning, it's the taking part.   

3. Erm, when your extended horse metaphor starts to wear thin John, say something about The Lone Ranger
Writing is a solitary endeavor, and the sooner you accept this the better. If you happen to be in a team that’s because at least one of you is a sociopath and is currently using the other. But in time you will almost certainly split up. You’ll probably want different things, or get lured away by a boardroom position in Beijing, or maybe even die in a plane crash, so get used to working by your self right now. In the meantime, understand the limits of your joint creative tension and what you both bring to the party. Agencies are a lot more fluid than they used to be which means can’t afford to live in a bubble. You both have to make time to do your own thing. Yes, solo albums tend to be shit, but they do make the band’s next record all the more interesting. This should also preclude you from calling yourself “DanTom” like you’re a fucking Push-Me-Pull-Me.

4. Horses for courses
There are as many kinds of writers as there are kinds of writing. So you’re going to have to work out which one you are and which ones you’re good at. This may sound obvious, but it’s also spectacularly difficult at the moment. Here’s why.

Most agencies (or at least the ones you want to work in) are fevered, inter-disciplinary cluster-fucks. They camp out at the “crossroads of branding and social”, and tell “brand stories” (presumably around a digital campfire). Because the industry moves so fast, and clients become more and more demanding agencies can’t accurately explain what they do to anyone over the age of 30, let alone have clearly defined roles for writers. So be prepared to enter a world of paranoia and fear. Most days will feel like being inside the mind of Philip K. Dick after 4 nights without any sleep. One minute you’ll be writing a radio ad, the next you’ll be proofreading a letter from the chief exec (this did actually happen to me). If this sounds scary then you should quietly go and finish that novel in a coffee shop. But if, like me, you find this sadistically thrilling, then welcome to the party. The truth is there’s never been a more exciting time to be a copywriter – to learn, to develop and try your hand at anything and everything; forms, styles, voices, the lot. Likewise, the industry needs writers more than ever. Not just to cut through the increasing noise, but to make sense of the all the chaos. Embrace it and ride it like you own it.         

 5. Take off your blinkers and ride like the wind
A good writer is also a good reader. So read widely and voraciously. Those of you who do will know that it was William Faulkner who said, “In writing you must kill your darlings.” So please, let’s start by killing David Ogilvy. He may be long dead but his twee and genial ghost still haunts the industry like a mischievous fart. No one, save for SEO, has done more to limit the scope and remit of what copy can do and how it should be used. This isn’t to say Ogilvy was wrong. It’s simply that over time his (blandly aphoristic) wisdom has been co-opted by clients, to the extent his thinking is now regarded as stricture. Likewise, Dave Trott, the legendary art director-turned writer-turned-predatory raconteur. Unless your idea of writing is having a shot of scotch between every line-break, you’ll learn nothing from Dave other than how to make a very obvious point sound like a cold Boxing Day walk back from the pub with your granddad. But ironic character assassinations aside, you really need to make your own rules. Conventional wisdom is just that. Conventional. Learn these rules, break them and make your own. Be mad, bad and reckless. The only way to surprise an audience is to surprise your self. Think the unthinkable and say the unsayable. Remember, you are a writer and you can go wherever your imagination takes you, so enjoy the ride.

Giddy up!   

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