I realised recently that January 2017 marks my 30th anniversary as a copywriter in recruitment marketing.
It all started when I answered an advert for a proofreader in the Guardian. The ad had been set by the Guardian itself – and these were the days when Private Eye gave it the name ‘the Grauniad’ because of all the mistakes in its pages.
The ad I replied to was a good example of this. It contained several errors – and it was advertising for a proofreading job.
Naturally, I thought it was a test, so I rewrote the ad. And got the job.
That’s how I found myself walking up a narrow staircase just off St Martin’s Lane in London’s West End one day in January 1987.
I started working for VLM Advertising – the in-house agency for a leading IT recruitment consultancy, Computer People. And I soon discovered that I’d be proofreading the copy that the recruitment consultants wrote themselves. Which basically meant rewriting it completely.
To be fair, most of the consultants hated writing their own adverts. So, when they discovered there was someone in the agency who could write copy for them, my role quickly changed to copywriter.
And I haven’t looked back since
30 years later, I’m a director of my own company, Welch Words Ltd, and providing copywriting services to a variety of agencies and clients.
Of course, things have changed a great deal in the intervening years. But I think there are three universal truths that haven’t changed at all.
Everyone thinks they can write
I’ve always worked with art directors and designers as a team to come up with initial concepts. Sometimes I’ll suggest imagery and other times they’ll suggest headlines. Then, when we’re happy with the ideas, I’ll go off and write the copy and they’ll put the designs together. But the finished product is always a team effort.
Yet, throughout my career, the art director/designer has invariably been referred to as ‘the creative’. I’m usually just called ‘the writer’.
Because, obviously, writing isn’t creative. We’re all taught how to do it at school (although when I was at school we were taught and encouraged to do creative writing – something today’s national curriculum seems to ignore). Most of us write every day, even if it’s only an email to a colleague.
So, there’s no special skill to it, is there? Everyone can do it.
Except, of course, everyone can’t…
Technology is no replacement for creativity
The biggest change in the industry has been brought on by the rise of the internet and social media.
Back in the day, I spent 90% of my day developing concepts and writing copy for press adverts. The other 10% involved writing brochures, radio ads and other offline materials.
Today, every brief includes online media – often exclusively. But in the race to go online and use social media, many organisations lose sight of the need for a creative message.
It’s all very well being able to target every single project manager aged 30-45 in central Scotland. But if all your message says is: ‘We’re looking for project managers’, how does it differentiate you from anyone else with access to the same algorithms and target audience?
You still need a creative idea that will encourage your audience to start the conversation.
Tone of voice matters
Until you point it out to them, many people don’t realise the importance of tone of voice – or that it even exists.
It takes a few good examples to make them realise its relevance. Why Virgin Media speaks with a totally different voice to Deloitte.
Or why the Ministry of Justice can’t adopt the same tone as Innocent drinks.
Most brand guidelines that I see nowadays still have little or no reference to tone of voice. They’ll have endless pages on where the logo should sit on different media. The colours you can and can’t use. Or how close any text should come to the logo. But nothing on how to communicate with a single, recognisable voice.
So, in truth, they’re not really brand guidelines. They’re just visual references.
Of course, this is where the copywriter comes into his or her own. Being able to identify and write in a relevant voice for a client where no guidelines exist has become a big part of my role. And, in the process, I help to define their tone of voice and develop guidelines that instil some kind of consistency. What’s more, I adopt these different voices as I move from one job to another and make them all sound authentic.
This isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s something I’ve always done in my writing.
It’s just that, back in the 80s, when we wrote formal copy for a government department or more conversationally for a retailer, we didn’t call it creating a tone of voice.
It was known as common sense.
I’m sure there are other universal truths in advertising that were relevant 30 years ago and still are today. Let me know any you can think of in the Comments section.