Tuesday 26 May 2009

How to be a copywriter

How to become a copywriter.

  1. Start doing the job
  2. Keep doing the job

Let me explain.

When I was younger I didn’t want to be a copywriter. I wanted to be a stunt man. I’m not sure exactly what started it but I think I was partly inspired by TV’s “The Fall Guy” and partly by the opportunity of being paid to behave recklessly. No pun intended.

Anyway, it didn’t take me long to realise that you didn’t start in the stunt business as the driver of fast cars. You started as cowboy #3 thrown through a window… or as ‘second victim’ floating downstream. The driving thing wouldn’t happen for a long time – and that’s assuming your bones had healed enough for you to sit down properly.

So I became a telephone engineer. I could picture myself as “Fall Guy” Colt Seavers when I sped through the countryside in my yellow van. I looked like the star of “Danger UXB” when I spliced cables together. And I didn’t need to jump from helicopters.

Fast-forward twenty years and I now write about technology instead of installing it. It’s a job I’m very fond of. Except… a few months ago I was given a copy of “The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook”. You’ve probably seen one; it’s spawned a series of books that offer tips about everything from avoiding an unwanted romantic encounter (disguise yourself) to jumping from a moving train (look out for fence posts and try not to break anything when you land).

Suddenly I wanted to be a stunt man again. Or perhaps a secret agent. The book was entertaining. Amusing. Based in fact. Yet, to quote the authors, “Do not attempt to undertake any of the activities described in this book”. Because this kind of thing needs training, experience and – occasionally – a bit of luck, too.

Which brings me to my point. “Faking it” can work in the short-term but it’s no alternative to experience. You can’t start your dream job simply by picking up an e-book or listening to a series of MP3s. Sure, you need to read what other people have written and see what other people have done – but that’s just part of the process. Cowboy #3 was thrown through an awful lot of windows before he ever rode a horse with John Wayne. The vast majority of copywriters – heck, the vast majority of people working in any darned job whatsoever – start somewhere near the bottom of their chosen ladder. So don’t waste your money on “get smart quick” schemes. And get smart slowly.

Thursday 21 May 2009

The way of the car salesman

I’ve just been to look at a new car – well, not a new car*, a second-hand car – and I was particularly struck by 'the way of the car salesman'. Having searched online and found a car, I turned up at the car showroom… only to find a car that looked very similar to the one I’d seen on the web but costing £500 more. When I mentioned it to the car salesman, he said – without the bat of an eyelid – "we put those prices online to make the cars look more attractive".

"Hang on", I thought, "what about people walking past" – and then I realised that many people probably don’t just ‘walk past’ anymore but browse online first.

Even so, it seemed a strange assumption that someone would look online, find a dearer price at the showroom and wouldn’t think “this is a car salesman being deceptive before I’ve even started talking about purchase prices and part-exchange values”.

An odd technique… and what’s probably just as odd is that I didn’t dislike the salesman for admitting it!

* despite the temptation of the scrappage allowance; a word that's been in the dictionary since 1949

Get the briefing right

Seth Godin posted about working with creative people in his blog yesterday. He says there are two types of creative brief: the "clean sheet" and the strategic, defined (some would say "prescriptive") brief.

Although giving your designer, copywriter or architect a free rein can produce spectacular results, it also means - rather like dealing with the Mr Tourette cartoon character - that you're not in a position to complain about the finished product.

Giving someone a clear brief - "use these colours, fit to this space, other people have done this and we'd like something similar" - means you know what you're getting (and, more to the point, you know what you're not getting).

As a copywriter, I prefer the second option. It means more work for the client... but it guarantees results. As Seth Godin says:
The strategic mission takes more preparation, more discipline and more difficult meetings internally. It involves thinking hard without knowing it when you see it. It's also the act of a mature individual, earning his salary. The clean sheet of paper is amazing when it works, but involves so much waste, anxiety and pain that I have a hard time recommending it to most people.

[Video clip not safe for work. Or my mother]

Tuesday 5 May 2009

David Devant and his Spirit Wife

David Devant and his Spirit Wife played a gig on Saturday night as part of the Brighton Festival Fringe. After completing a 60-minute set at St. Andrew's Church, Waterloo Street, Hove - a great venue in every sense except, sadly, for the acoustics - they crossed the road and carried on performing at The Iron Duke pub (with a little help from the audience). I recorded a couple of minutes of video and some audio on my mobile phone.