So You Want to Be a Copywriter?

May 16th, 2018

Recently, an aspiring copywriter asked for some advice on his portfolio. This is what I told him:

Here’s a little feedback, with one caveat: ask five different creative directors for an opinion, and you’ll get five different answers. So take mine with a grain of salt.* Preferably, kosher salt; the rough, coarse kind.

I applaud your desire to be an advertising copywriter. You don’t mention a lifetime of creative writing, or a passionate love of words, etc., which is usually a red flag for me. In my experience, writers with a capital “W” usually make crappy copywriters. If you’ve got a novel or screenplay in process in your desk drawer, do everyone a favor and go work on that. You’re probably too much in love with their own words to focus on crafting a compelling sales story for a client. Because first and foremost, advertising copywriting is a business (with a high level of craft, but still a business.)

That being said, you have a ways to go. The samples you shared fall in the category of announcements rather than ads. Your writing tells me the facts but stops there. It doesn’t create an image, a desire, a story. There is nothing compelling or memorable. How can you know the difference? An announcement tells me that eyeglasses are on sale; great copywriting makes me want to wear eyeglasses (even if I don’t need them).

Emotion is key.

Whether it’s pulling at heartstrings, shocking me out of complacency, laughter, or a warm smile, triggering an emotional response creates a bond with the audience. So seek out the emotional truth in your target, find a way to connect it with your product, and hold on to it dearly. Don’t let the killjoy Joe Fridays of the world strip your work of its fervent soul.

Don’t give everything away.

This is where this business of copywriting truly becomes a craft. Telling me everything may communicate the facts but doesn’t engage. The reader can passively let the words wash over them. Great advertising copywriting forces the audience to connect the final dot – the “Aha, I get it” moment. Now they’ve actually thought about the ad.

Think of how a spark plug works. If the two electrodes are touching, a circuit is completed and electricity flows – but there’s no spark. That’s an announcement. If the gap between the two electrodes is too great, electricity can’t make the jump – there’s no spark. (Like when your concept is too weird.) But if the gap is just right, a spark leaps across, igniting an explosion – that’s the moment when your audience engages with your ad, driving memorability.

Generate more ideas.

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. Ridiculous ideas. Boring ideas. Write them down. Then walk away and let your brain percolate. After you’ve arrived at a solution that you think can work, that’s the time the great ideas come, because the pressure is off. Listen to Simone Giertz on the value of making useless things.

Once you start to write in earnest, use less pedestrian words. (But don’t overload your copy with obtuse, obscure words just to show how smart you are. Use them like a potent seasoning, and sprinkle them sparingly for impact.) Most anyone can string together sentences. A copywriter tells a story, elegantly, engagingly, memorably, with the brand or the user as star.

Become a student of your craft.

You want to be simultaneously inspired and intimidated? Go listen to some of the past Radio Mercury Award Winners. Scroll down and find my all-time personal favorite radio spot, the 1997 Grand Prize Winner Ortho AntStop. What I like about radio for copywriting is that it is pure writing — no fancy art direction or digital trickery to hide behind. There’s an old copywriter saying: “Life is easy. Radio is hard.”

Go listen to most any song by John Prine, one of the single best songwriters of this or any generation. He can tell an entire story in one sentence; for example, describing the loneliness of a fat girl named Lydia: “She felt just like Sunday on Saturday afternoon.” Listen to Bob Newhart comedy albums and you’ll discover that what you don’t say is as important as what you do say.

Read “The Book of Gossage” about Howard Luck Gossage. “Hey Whipple Squeeze This” by Luke Sullivan. Pore over Communications Arts and One Show annuals, not to steal ideas, but to see how others have solved problems, then reverse engineer the process and apply it your own projects. Follow Sally Hogshead’s advice: write 800 headlines, then throw them away and start over. You will have beaten all of the trite, forgettable crap out of your brain and can truly approach things with a fresh perspective.

Don’t stop working on your portfolio.

Look around. Is there a neighborhood business that you can think of to create ads for? (They don’t have to be real. This can be speculative.) Then look further – don’t take the easy stuff like beer, condoms and gyms – instead, seek out a B2B client in an obscure industry. If you can write a compelling ad for industrial drill lubricants, you can make great work for anyone. (This is not a random example – a best of show winner in an ad show a few years back was for exactly that.) Right now, the only thing holding you back is your effort. Put in the time. If it was easy, there wouldn’t be so much crap advertising out there.

Now, go make great work. I look forward to seeing your next round.

*Why should you listen to me? As creative director, I’ve had pretty good luck identifying, nurturing and growing young creative talent who went on to become creative directors in their own right at ad agencies across the country.


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