I made a Christmas card for the pandemic era. Design by Music.
LinkedIn loves a good anniversary. So it’s keen to point out that I’ve been freelancing for 10 glorious years. I wanted to spare you the platitudes of how time has flown, but can feel the words forcing themselves out of my mouth, “10 years. My god! I can’t believe it!”
Anyway, to mark this momentous occasion, I thought I’d share with you 10 vaguely useful things that I’ve learned since leaving the cosy world of a permanent job and striking out on my own as a copywriter for hire in UK ad and design agencies.
Over time I’m hoping to experiment with all sorts of different approaches, so it won’t all be about sliders. Look out for updates on my twitter feed @JOETHECOLEMAN
Are different, memorable ads still sneaking out of your agency’s door? Then put a stop to it with these 10 foolproof techniques. From brief writing to post-campaign assessment, they’ll help you keep your work bland, generic and forgettable.
1. Avoid making your proposition single-minded.
Good ads come from distinctive single-minded propositions. So make your proposition broad and vague instead. Get this right and you can nip creativity in the bud, avoiding the awkwardness of having to kill off good ideas later down the line.
HANDY HINT – Use the construction “The smarter way to… [insert product function here]” in your proposition. This makes it sound like it’s single-minded, but actually means more or less nothing. It’s a really effective way to make sure creative thinking stays generic.
e.g. “Heinz Baked Beans. The smarter way to eat lunch.” “Waterstones.com The smarter way to buy books.” “Toyota Auris. The smarter way to drive.”
This year, I was asked to be on the Writing For Design jury at the D&AD awards, which was pretty damn cool. So I jumped on the train down to London and spent a fascinating day with 5 clever, passionate writers from all sorts of different backgrounds. The day gave me a few insights into the judging process and I thought I’d share a few bits of advice on the sort of work you need to be doing if you want to pick up an award.
Winning a pencil actually boils down to one simple thing: Making the judges shout “BASTARDS!”
Your ultimate aim is to make judges so insanely jealous that their only logical and rational reaction is to punch a nearby wall and swear at the top of their voices. You need to be doing work they wish they’d done. You need to be doing something so clever, simple and “just right” that they can’t believe no one has come up with it before.
It’s also relatively straightforward to describe the sort of work that’s going to achieve that, because it falls into 3 broad categories:
Copywriter. It’s a problematic word. You’d think people who write for a living would have come up with something better by now. But we haven’t. Probably because we’re too bloody busy.
“Copywriter” is problematic because it covers a multitude of different roles, from people who manage companies’ social media accounts to classic ad agency types who sit with an art director and come up with campaigns.
So we’re not all what you think we are. Especially those of us who work in creative teams in agencies. Here’s why:
1.It’s not all about words.
Advertising is primarily a visual form of communication. There, I said it. But it’s also a place where images almost always work with words. So a copywriter’s job isn’t just about words. And it isn’t just about images. It’s about how the two work together.
If a copywriter starts writing headlines without considering how they work as part of a visual communication, they’re only doing half their job. It would be like a comic book writer writing all the word balloons, without thinking about what’s going on in the pictures.
So the word “copywriter” is misleading. Words are only half of what we do.
The problem with “copywriter”, as discussed on one of my business cards.
2. We’re not necessarily good with grammar.
Copywriting isn’t about following the rules of grammar. I don’t even know most of the rules of grammar. I sit and read what I’ve written and if it sounds like someone talking, then it works.
I write sentences with no subject. Like this one. I usually write for a reading age of about ten. And I start sentences with ‘And’ all the time. As for fancy punctuation, I’m with Kurt Vonnegut on that one: “Do not use semicolons. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
Grammatically speaking it should be “differently”. Which sounds crap.
3.Most of us aren’t trained professionals.
Have a look in the dictionary and it will tell you a profession is, “A paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.” But anyone can declare that they’re a copywriter, whether they’ve had any training or not.
Do I have a diploma proving I’m a copywriter? Nope. Have I done any formal training? Not really. Do I have some letters after my name proving I’m a copywriter? dO I Fu Ck.
So being a copywriter is a bit like being an artist – the difficult bit isn’t “being” one, it’s learning your trade, developing your skills and convincing other people that you’re good at it.
My portfolio proves I’m a copywriter, not my qualifications.
4.It’s anything but solitary.
There’s a traditional image of writers as anti-social hermits who sit bashing away on typewriters in cold rooms. Think Jack Torrance in The Shining. But working in an ad agency is nothing like that at all.
Thoroughly enjoyed writing this mock bank letter for one of Manchester’s finest advertising photographers, Paul Moffat. The disclaimer at the bottom was particularly fun!
Photographers send Creative Directors mailers all the time and these mailers always include examples of their work. So, we decided to help Paul Moffat stand out. Instead, we sent a bank-style letter, complete with a plastic credit card. It teased Paul’s online image bank, “The Bank of Moff”, and offered a special APR (Amazing Photographic Rate) on the agency’s next shoot. Design and concept by Matt Maurer at Mr M Ideas Studio. This got shortlisted in Item of Self-Promotion at the Drum Design Awards.
And don’t forget to read the disclaimer!
I’ve been a spurs supporter since the 1981 FA cup final (the one where Ricky Villa danced through the Manchester City defence to score one of the great Wembley goals). So it was a big tick on the bucket list of lifetime achievements to get to write something for Tottenham Hotspur FC – especially as they’re returning to the new White Hart Lane for a massive season in their history. One Hotspur Members Renewal Pack 2018/19 designed by February.
How copywriters live or die by the designers they work with.
In 2017, this website won a D&AD award in ‘Writing for Design’. But that category name was a bit misleading. What people liked about the site wasn’t so much the copy, as the idea. And that came out of a 50/50 collaborative process with the design agency Music in Manchester.
As such, it’s a really good example of how writers work with designers and a great example of how working with great people is the difference between doing good work and work you’re really proud of.
From scribble to finished design.
Here are 5 ways designers made all the difference:
1. To get the ball rolling, I showed Music two approaches that I thought were dead funny. Cue blank looks. “Could we do something else?” they said.
2. When I went in to see Music again, they hadn’t any specific approach in mind, but said “We really like the idea of the site just being words.”
3. The sliding tone of voice idea emerged after we’d discussed loads of different ways to make “just words” interesting. I think my original idea was to have an intro para that you could click on to read in lots of different styles. This then mutated into a sliding bar. It was one of several playful approaches that would be stacked on top of each other as part of a scrolling website. Then came the dreaded words, “We’ve shown the designs to our Exec Creative Director and he had a few thoughts.”
Helped The Common Room with this neat Happy New Year card they sent to their clients.