30 years as a creative – three universal truths I’ve learned

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.


And yet.

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.


A word to conjure with

Oxford Dictionaries have named their word of the year.

And it’s ‘post-truth’.

Like previous words of the year, it reflects our changing society.

Winners in the past have included ‘selfie’, ‘simples’ and ‘bovvered’.

But while these past winners seem to be more social and upbeat, ‘post-truth’ is different.

And when you look at the other words on the shortlist, it tells us a bit more about how the world looks in 2016.

There was ‘adulting’ (behaving like a responsible adult), ‘chatbot’ (a computer designed to communicate like a human) and ‘hygge’ (a Danish concept of cosiness and wellbeing).

All in line with previous years.

But others on the shortlist included ‘alt-right’ (extreme conservative views), ‘Brexiteer’ (I shouldn’t need to explain) and ‘woke’ (being alert to injustice, particularly racism).

There was even ‘coulrophobia’ – an extreme or irrational fear of clowns.

So, what do these choices tell us about today’s world?

For many, the rise of the alt-right in the US, the Brexit vote in the UK and even the need to become more alert to racism show the world is a more dangerous place.

And as for a fear of clowns, the spate of clown attacks around the world just heightens that sense of danger.

But, for me, ‘post-truth’ is the most dangerous concept of all.

The dictionaries define it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In short, the truth matters less than it did.

If you feel something is true (or false), then it doesn’t matter whether it is or not.

Even if all the evidence is stacked against you.

Which could have major implications.

In fact, it could make things a lot easier for copywriters like me.

In the past we had to justify any claims we made in adverts or marketing materials.

Even when we were appealing to the audience’s emotions.

Now, as long as the audience believes what we tell them, can we say anything?

Some might think so.

And they might start to test the theory.

So, you might ask, what harm would it do if occasionally we let our emotions get in the way of the truth?

After all, there have been plenty of examples of advertisers who did just that, by appealing to what consumers wanted to believe.

And, yes, when you’re talking about yoghurt or breakfast cereals it might seem trivial.

But what about pharmaceuticals?

Or politics?

Because when politicians routinely resort to blatant lies and appeal to emotions over facts, then it becomes increasingly dangerous.

And that’s not just ‘post-truth’.

It may well be post-everything.

This is 21st century England

Mad Mods and A Camera

The Mods. They represent the best of 1960s England – great music, great style, a great look. And those scooters to die for. But how many people in today’s England realise that the Mods are still around?

That’s what Mad Mods and A Camera is all about. Recording the image of the Mods as they are today. Bringing it bang up to date, by showing how the style, panache and look hasn’t changed. And even if some of the original Mods are obviously a bit older now, it highlights how a new generation are equally gripped by the whole Mod ethos.


Mad Mods and A Camera is the brainchild of Duncan James, an art director at a London advertising agency, a photographer and a fan of the Mod culture. For a year he’s been riding out with today’s Mods, going to their events and getting to know the people who are keeping the Mod flame alive in the 21st century.

And the newly launched website, madmodsandacamera.com is a showcase for a selection of stunning black and white images from the first five months (with plenty more to come, he assures me).

The opening Alfred Alsenstaedt quote on the landing page – “It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.” – tells you what to expect. These aren’t posed photos just scratching the surface of today’s Mod movement. These are perfectly captured images that get up close and personal with the people, their scooters, their style and their passion for all things Mod.


Lovingly crafted portraits of immaculately turned out scooters. Captured moments of Mods hanging out together, chatting and drinking coffee. On the road shots. They’re all here, creating an exceptional record of five months in the life of today’s Mods.


Each section records a different event. And the site’s clean, simple design is the ideal setting for Duncan’s photos. Why? Because it makes his images – and their subjects – the stars.

And that’s how it should be. It’s a unique record of a culture that many people in this country probably don’t even know still exists. Duncan’s natural shots, taken in the moment, highlight the pride today’s Mods have in a movement that’s been around for over 50 years – and how younger generations are emerging to take it forward.


So, if you thought Quadrophenia was the last of the Mods, think again. Get over to madmodsandacamera.com and treat yourself to some unique shots of a culture that’s still very much alive in 21st century England.

Believe. And repeat.

“Crooked Hillary.”

What does that make you think?

It’s a phrase that Donald Trump uses at every opportunity to describe his presidential election opponent.

Without any hard evidence to back it up.

He throws vague accusations and innuendos around about Hillary Clinton’s political past.

Such as using a private email server (something she has been called ‘careless’ over by the FBI, but for which she hasn’t faced any charges).

And he keeps calling her ‘crooked’.

Of course, his supporters lap it up.

Because they want to believe she’s a crook.

But what about the undecided voters?

Surely they’ll see through his tactics.

After all, the facts speak for themselves.

Except, of course, they don’t.

In advertising, however, the facts have to speak for themselves.

You want to say something about an organisation or a product?

Then, as a copywriter, you’d better check your facts.

Again and again.

Because your words will come under intense scrutiny.

In the past, advertising standards weren’t so stringent.

And there are many slogans that would now be completely unjustifiable.

“A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play” even though it’s full of sugar and fat.

“Mackeson looks good, tastes good and does you good” for a milk stout beer.

Yes, a beer that was believed to be good for you. And at one time, was actually RECOMMENDED for pregnant women.


Those cigarettes really soothed your throat. Apparently.

You get the idea.

Then people realised that making these unjustified claims was bad for advertisers, their clients and their customers.

So they brought in regulations that meant you don’t see advertisers making such outrageous claims any more.

Unless they’re so outrageous as to be ridiculous.


(Note the spelling of ‘wiings’. Although it didn’t stop them being successfully sued for not giving a customer wings.)

The thing is, a lot of people believed these advertising claims for years.

Not because they were patently true.

But because the claims were repeated, unchallenged, many times a day, every day.

And the more you repeat a claim, the more believable it becomes.

Of course, it couldn’t happen nowadays.

In advertising.

But in US politics?

Apparently, it can.

Which I think is what’s really crooked.

Really. Crooked.

Not my cup of tea


In the UK, we drink 165 million cups of it every single day.

That’s around two and half cups for every man, woman and child in the country.

So it’s fair to say that we like a cuppa.


But Starbucks have decided the tea category needs ‘rejuvenation’.

Which means getting more young people to drink it.

How? By introducing exciting new teas.

Such as ‘blackberry mojito green tea lemonade’ and ‘black iced tea lemonade’.

Which prompts the question: are these teas, mojitos or lemonades?

Because it’s not clear.

In fact, it seems to be very confused branding.

Yes, it seems to be trying to get people to drink tea.

By drinking something else that has just a hint of tea.

But, don’t worry.

Because they’re also bringing “craftsmanship and theatre to life in store”.

Through things like “shaken ice and tea latte art”.

So that’s all right then.

Because, even if you’re not keen on drinking tea. Or if the tea tastes like blackberry, lemonade or mojito – or dishwater – they’ll dazzle you with their showmanship.

Of course, their Teavana range will offer Earl Grey and English Breakfast tea, too.

Because, as they say, they’re “very respectful of tea traditions in places like the UK.”

The traditions that mean we drink 165 million cups of tea (not lemonade or mojitos) a year.

How enlightened of them.

I’ll think about that.

The next time I’m making myself a good, strong cup of tea.

Lies, damned lies and statistics


When it comes to shared parental leave, men just aren’t interested.

That’s what one piece of research seemed to suggest recently.

The UK government introduced shared parental leave in 2015.

And, a year on, a piece of research claimed that only 1% of men had taken it up.

But at the same time, they found that 63% of men who already have young children said they’d like to in the future.

‘Why are only 1 in 100 men taking up shared parental leave?’ asked the Daily Telegraph.

‘Tiny proportion of men are opting for shared parental leave’ said the Guardian.

Dadnetwork.com called the statistics ‘shocking’.

But all these headlines are quite misleading.

Because the research was based on asking a random group of men.

Good, you might think – you don’t want to just ask one specific section of the population.

Except, in this case, it might have helped.

Because this research was focusing on parental leave over the last year.

So it might have helped to just ask recent parents.

But the researchers were too conscientious for that.

So they asked a ‘random’ group of men if they’d taken up shared parental leave.

Not (and here’s the crucial point) a group of men who had been eligible for it.

So it’s 1% of ALL men who have taken up shared parental leave.

Because the majority of them haven’t become parents in the relevant time period.

Which means, as a man, I could have been in their research group.

Despite the fact that I’m 55 and my children are aged 24 and 20.

And, if asked, I’d have said no, I haven’t taken advantage of shared parental leave.

So I’d have been one of the 99%.

Not so “shocking”, really.

Just a misinterpretation of the data.

And that’s the problem with statistics.

They can be used to support any point.

Not that I’m suggesting the Telegraph, the Guardian and, dare I say it, Dadnetwork.com have an agenda.

Oh no.

Just that they saw what they wanted to see in the stats.

Be careful what you wish for

Today, Dave Trott published his latest blog.

This is my response:


I love what Dave Trott says.


I love the way he makes simple points… well, simply.

The way he finds just the right example to illustrate them.

And his piercing insight.

But then I read his blog today.

The point he made was sound.

That you can’t change things without changing them.

But the example he used was flawed.

Here’s why.

His example was the Football League back in the 1980s.

A league that was dying on its feet.

With crowds dwindling.

Old fashioned, dilapidated grounds.

And insisting that every game had to be played at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon.

All valid points, Dave.

So the Football League called in Mike Yershon.

He changed all that.

He told them to allow TV companies to show some matches live on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons.

Then they could sell the rights, start a bidding war and bring the money in.

And it worked, just like Dave says.

The live matches acted like advertisements for the game.

People started to return to the stadiums.

And the TV companies loved it.

The rights sold for £5 million in 1983.

But in 2015, Sky and BT paid £5 BILLION for the rights.

All because the League was persuaded to change.

That’s where Dave had made his point and finished.

Hurrah for the money Mike Yershon created.

Except unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Yes, the League was only changing to save football.

And, at first, that’s what it did.

But then the football clubs got greedy.

They didn’t think the League was doing enough for them.

So they broke away from the Football League in 1990.

And with huge amounts of TV money from Sky, they created the Premier League.

That move worked well for the clubs.

The TV coverage created a demand for tickets that far outweighed supply.

So they started to put prices up.

Because fans are always fans, aren’t they?

They’ll pay anything to watch their team.


Between 1990 and 2011 – the last year I could find data for – general UK inflation increased by 77%.

Premiership ticket prices during the same period went up between 400% and 1,000%.

In 1983, 22% of people watching live football were under 16.

By the 2006/7 season, that figure had gone down to 9%.

What the Football League started in good faith, the clubs have taken to an extreme.

Pricing a lot of genuine fans – the ones that stuck with them through the bad times – out of the game.

And pushing the League to the sidelines in the process.

So, the Football League lost out.

And so did the fans.

So, as they’ve learned, you need to be careful what you wish for.

Maybe it’s time for more change.