What do you do?
Writing to me – advertising writing – is its own little animal. And one of the things that make it unique I think is you get to use – if you do it correctly – both the left and the right hemispheres of your brain. Your left hemisphere comes in at the very beginning of the process. Formulating a marketing strategy is a very left brain thing where you’re trying to find out ‘Who are we talking to?’, ‘What are the characteristics and benefits of the product?’, ‘What are the features of the product?’, and ‘How do we best approach a person who is interested in the product?’. I personally really love that side of it. In fact, if I were to choose, I would choose that over the pure writing side. It really starts out with that – with a bigger marketing picture. And then, once you define exactly what the marketing strategy is, It’s kinda like you’ve created fences around a large field. These fences are the marketing perimeters. You can run around anywhere in that field you just can’t jump over the fence. That’s the big picture. Once you have that you can start formulating advertising concepts – which I think is the heart and the soul and the value in a copywriter – it’s in the concepts. People sometimes say “What is a concept?” There’s a lot of different definitions of it but to me it’s the combination of the headline and the visual in a way that neither of them make sense alone but when you put them together they make sense. So, for instance, the headline might be a public service announcement for the dangers of nuclear energy. The headline could be “Boo!” and if the visual is of a nuclear power plant then it’s a concept. If I afraid of ghosts then why should I be afraid of nuclear energy? A really good concept is a tricky thing; but that’s one definition. It’s also a definition of creativity. Putting two disparate thoughts together that don’t necessarily make sense and turning it into something surprising, different, and compelling.
Describe How You Go About Writing with Advertising In Mind.
The first step is defining who you are talking to. It’s part of that bigger picture of marketing. In the process of doing that you start to understand two things. What you want to say to them and how you want to say it. So for instance, if your selling a high-end BMW you’re going to talk to that market in different way than someone buying BBQ. BBQ might be a more folksy, hometown kinda approach whereas with a high end BWM you want it to be lofty and talk in a way that is a bit more sophisticated.
How long does it take you to come up with good ideas?
You know that’s really a hit or miss thing. I’m pretty fast, but one of the reasons I think is back to that marketing. Once you have your fences set – in a funny way it’s harder cause it’s very restrictive – it’s easier cause you know your concepts are focused on what will work. It could be 15 minutes. It could be three hours. You really don’t particularly know how long it’s going to take.
When you’re writing do you ever know by looking at a headline or a piece that it’s ‘the one’?
Yeah. On a good day that happens. The trick is self editing. It’s knowing what’s right or wrong and divorcing your ego from making that judgment. It’s a really hard thing to do. But if you can do that then you’re free to be objective and much more free to recognize if something is the right thing. I would say one of the things that allows you to recognize if something is good or bad is the same thing that allows you to generate concepts quickly – not necessarily years of experience, but years of experience in living life. When you boil it down, creativity is putting two different thoughts together in a unique way that is uncommon and is therefore unexpected and therefore compelling. So the more information you have about the world equals the more thoughts you have to put together in different ways. Your absorbing facts and those go into a reservoir of facts that you can pull on.
Do you market yourself to agencies or do you have constant steady people you work with.
Both! I was brought to Nashville by an ad agency with a marketing emphasis. I liked it a lot but for whatever reasons they had a high turnover rate. I started keeping tack of it on the phone list. I’d cross off the names of people who left for whatever reason. It turned out at the end of the year I would tally up the number of people who would leave and it turned out that it was close to 40%. So the point is I knew all these people from working there over five years. It was one of the largest firms in Tenn at the time with 100 employees or so which meant an extra 40 people a year I’d meet.
I also do self promotion pieces as well. I’ve found that agencies tend to dislike hiring a freelancer because of the external cost involved. If they bill it internally its just part of salaries where as when it’s external expense it cost a lot more. They try desperately not to hire a freelancer. And the times that they need one is a pretty immediate problem. So you send out a self promotional piece every two months or so just to keep your name in front of them so when they have that crisis you’re top of mind.
Why did you become a writer?
For one – the fact that I was worthless with mathematics. So, that ruled out a lot of professions. And two – in college I declared my major as an architect. One reason is because my dad was an architect and another reason I thought it would be cool to be creative. What I didn’t realize was that there is a ton of physics involved in architecture. A ton of hard math. So I was forced with a decision of what to do cause I was a sophomore at the time and had to declare another major. So I took a year off and during that year I got introduced to advertising. I didn’t know anyone in that field it just seemed like a creative thing you could make some money at. I always liked writing. I thought it was fun in high school. So I just finally found a place where I could apply it.
Now with 30 years of perspective, what advice would you have for someone interested in a similar profession?
Better be a passion cause it’s hard to make a living.
I would say that my advice would be find true copywriting training. It’s might be a vocational school for advertising. You might be a writer. You might be a really good writer. But you might not be a good advertising writer. To find the right mentor in a vocational school or with an individual person is critical. If you read advertisement, in my opinion, not many of the writers are professional. It’s really bizarre. They don’t write effectively. They are writing at 50% effectiveness.
What makes a good advertising writer.
Really good advertising writing has a texture or a rhythm. You know good advertising writing when you want to keep reading it. Generally people don’t like to read or want to read for knowledge. Especially advertising copy. So you know good advertising writing when you want to keep reading it.