“I found your website online and I really like your work. I’m thinking about getting into copywriting, too. Can you tell me what I need to do to be successful?”
This question, in one form or another, has appeared in my inbox many times throughout my career. Every time I receive one like it, I’m always left flattered — and a little bit frightened. “If I give them all my secrets, they’ll run me out of a job!”
Unfortunately, I’m a big believer in karma, so I always try to go above and beyond to give a little insight to those who reach out. But it ends up being really time consuming, so I decided to put together a list of things I think makes a copywriter successful.
Do I employ all of these traits myself? Not always — but I strive to. And I will never be the first one to tell you that I’m a great copywriter. There are many, many people out there who make me instantly jealous of their raw talents. All I know is that I’ve been extremely fortunate to have built a career — going on 14 years now — around what I love to do. I’m one of the lucky ones who get to say I’ve never worked a day in my life. Well, except for that hot summer when I worked in the plastics factory. That just plain sucked.
With that said, here are my thoughts on what it takes to be a successful copywriter:
Forget about being a “copywriter.”
I hate the “copywriter” title. I’ve fought my whole career trying to get people to understand that I do more than just write copy. Get used to hearing, “Oh, you’re just the word guy/girl.” As a copywriter, you’re a creative visionary first and foremost — who just happens to have the skill of bringing an idea to life through perfectly crafted sentences or headlines. But you need to bring more to the table than that. You need to be strategic. You need to be visual. You need to have original thoughts on how to bring an idea to light to solve a business problem. Sometimes, that doesn’t even require words. If all you want to do is write words, be a novelist.
“No one reads copy.”
Be prepared to hear that until you retire, too. My response is always, “No one reads shitty copy.” Be engaging. Give people a reason to read. Hook them with emotion. Surprise them. Try something different. And always remember, don’t be afraid to edit. Because it’s true, no one reads copy. But they love great copy.
Don’t argue with your designer every time he or she wants to delete words to make it work with his or her layout. If your lines just aren’t going to work, rewrite. You have more great headlines in you. Or, if your original line really is perfect, be convincing.
You have a gift. Use it. The first idea is rarely the best idea. Keep crafting until you have the perfect headline or sentence. It’s amazing what comes out the more you try new ways to say things. It’s not uncommon where I’ll find myself spending two hours just to write — what I think is — the perfect paragraph.
Glance at Archive and Communication Arts, but don’t spend all day there. Very few businesses settle for visual metaphors. You’ll eventually need to learn how to truly write.
There’s an award-winning idea in every assignment.
Here’s the deal. Awards aren’t important. But striving for awards is. By that I mean you should always look at every assignment as an opportunity to do something great. The smallest jobs tend to have the biggest potential. It’s all in how you want to approach them. You’re never too good to work on something.
So let’s say you end up winning awards. Your name is getting known. Suddenly, you feel like you’re some hotshot Hollywood star. You’re not. Some of the most talented people in the industry are the nicest, most humble people you’ll ever meet. Stay humble. Stay hungry. And most importantly, don’t be a dick.
Speaking of, lose the dick jokes.
I’ve interviewed way too many ad students — typically male — who come in with portfolios loaded with crude, inappropriate headlines or concepts. We get it. You’re edgy. You’re in advertising and can say what you want. You’re also unoriginal. And not getting the job. Anyone can be sophomoric. Surprise your interviewer with smart concepts and sharp copy.
Stay a student.
Never stop learning. Curiosity is essential to your career. Be observant to your surroundings. Ask questions. Dig. Admire. Read. Practice.
Be a people person.
A lot of us “creatives” are introverted. Work hard to get out of your shell, if it doesn’t come naturally to you. It’s too easy to stare at your screen all day, typing away. Make a conscious effort daily to get away from your cube and collaborate.
We’re too connected. Lift your head up and look around. The world is inspiring. Look at street signs. Make things with your hands. Create your own textures. Take photos. Get out. Go get coffee with your partner. But by God, tell your project manager and manager so they’re not looking for you all day.
The client is not an idiot.
It’s really easy to blame or criticize the client for not understanding your ideas. You have to remember, they’re trying to run their business. They know it best. If they make you go back to the drawing board, go back. If you’re truly that great of a talent, you’ll come up with even better ideas this time. Impress them, and yourself.
Stop, collaborate and listen.
Throw ideas off of each other. Let them come up with copy idea. You, visuals. This partnership means way more than creating a great ad. But a great ad might actually be created this way.
For Type B personalities, this doesn’t come easy. I’m extremely guilty of this at times, too. Work hard at being on the ball. Stay on task. Meet your deadlines. You’re still a professional, after all.
Learn to love failure.
It’s cliché. You hear it all the time, but it’s true. Scientists love failures. They call them experiments. You should too. After all, you haven’t failed, you’ve learned what not to do next time. Not every one of your ideas is a winner. And that’s great.
Don’t burn bridges.
I cannot stress this enough. You’ll soon find out that you’re in an extremely small industry. Everyone knows everyone. Get labeled difficult, and you’re pretty much done. You don’t have to get along with everyone. But you can do your part to not fuel the fire.
Avoid office gossip.
This is something I think about literally daily. And I’m actually using “literally” in the literal sense here. This point was something I learned from Luke Sullivan’s book, “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!” when I was a student. It’s so easy to get caught up in office gossip — but no good comes from it. The idea is to build a strong team, not put down those on your team. So just avoid it. Walk away. And don’t you ever dare start it.
Stay connected to community ad events. There are a lot of local chapters like Ad Fed throughout the nation. Get to know who’s out there in your industry. Attend presentations. Or give your own.
Stay on top of trends.
Being a copywriter is more than just writing well. It’s about being a constant student of culture. Take time to know what’s hot in electronic devices, social media, fashion, pop culture, what have you. There are people in the world doing great things. Let them be your teacher. When you know what’s going on in the world, it will make a huge impact on you and your work.
Learn to present.
One of these days, you’ll find yourself in front of a client, or even better, the CEO of a company. You’ll have to present your thinking behind your creations. Do not read the words in your presentation deck. You’re a professional. Speak directly to the most important people in the room with confidence. You know why you came up with the idea. Explain why it’s great. Prepare your material. Ask yourself the questions they’re prepared to ask you. And please, dress appropriately.
Ace the interview.
Yes, we work in advertising. Remember, you’re being judged on you, not just your book. I’d hire a mediocre copywriter with an amazing personality over an amazing copywriter with an arrogant personality any day. And remember to dress appropriately. And yes, we work in advertising. And while a suit might be overkill, showing up in jeans and a Slayer t-shirt is never a good idea.
Go to the press check.
Again, you’re not just a “copywriter.” You’re responsible for your creations. Go to the press checks. Learn what it takes to make something better. Your job doesn’t end on a copy document. Learn what good color looks like. Learn to speak the language.
Proof your work.
Seriously scour over it. Don’t expect the copy editor to find everything. And don’t expect the designer to catch his or her design errors. If something isn’t right with the words or design, mark it up. This is your job. Don’t let anything go out that isn’t perfect. The beauty is always in the details.
Stick to timelines.
Often, as a copywriter, you might be the first one to touch the job before your designer. Don’t leave him or her hanging. If you miss your due date, it only takes away from the time he or she can put into it. Be better than that. Do your work on time so he or she can as well.
Ask for help.
Early in your career, you’ll want to do everything that comes your way. You’ll think it’s a sign of weakness if you can’t take something on. It’s not. If you’re buried, ask for help, an extension, or pass on your work. It’s much better to get others involved than to have the work suffer — or timelines missed.
Learn to take criticism.
Your creative director or peers actually have great things to say. Don’t get offended if they don’t understand or ask you to revise your idea. That’s part of the process. It’s not just expected, it should be encouraged. It’s how ideas get better. Don’t be the one who thinks his or her ideas are always the best. You’ll just come off looking arrogant.
Don’t work for a paycheck.
The moment you start working for a paycheck, switch careers. You’ve lost what’s truly great about this industry. If you always love what you do, the money will come in. And if it doesn’t? It doesn’t matter because you’re doing what you love.
Don’t be a drunken buffoon.
Clients. Creatives. Company credit cards. It’s the making of one hellava happy hour to remember — or quickly forget. Remember this is a professional relationship, not a college kegger. You represent more than your agency. You represent your own pride.
Students, have passion outside the classroom.
You can be taught how to write. You cannot be taught passion. Anyone can have a book filled with great ads. But if I have to choose between two people, I’m going to choose the person who went out and did more than student ads. Show your potential employer you do this for the love, not the grade.
Expand your network.
Utilize the social network. Get your work out on all the free platforms — Behance, Cargo, whatever. Stay active on LinkedIn. Keep your nose clean on Facebook and Twitter. We live in a world where you can no longer hide your dirty laundry. So don’t air it out for all to see. Represent yourself in the best light, always.
Own your career.
Don’t wait for things to get handed to you. Go out and get it. Make things happen. Come up with your own idea — even if a job hasn’t been requested. Don’t sit around. You should never be bored. Create.
No one gives you permission to write well.
Early in my career, I kept getting frustrated as to why someone else was allowed to write cool things — but I never was. Then it dawned on me. No one was giving him permission to do it, he was just doing it. Once I understood that, I started to write in a way that I’d like to read — while always making sure it was on brand, of course. From there, I was able to develop more than a voice. I developed confidence in my own abilities. So if you want to write great stuff like someone else, go for it. No one is going to tell you to.
A friend of mine is a doctor. One morning at 7am, her hospital pager started going off — causing her to bolt out of the room. About an hour later she came back calm as could be. I asked, “What was that all about?” She said, “Some guy was coding.” My obvious next question, “What’s coding?” “Oh, some guy was flatlining, so I had to bring him back to life.” That exact moment put my career into perspective instantly. She saved someone’s life before 8am. I might have to write a headline by noon. So the moral of this story? Copywriting is meant to be fun and stress free. Make the most of it. And don’t wear pagers.
But you don’t have to take my word for it.
These are just my thoughts. They’re formed from what I’ve experienced, learned and practiced over the years. Are you a copywriter or creative director reading this? Email me and let me know what you think makes a great copywriter.