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.

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.

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.

6 tips to make the most of your social media presence for recruitment

Last week I joined forces with Neil Parkinson to deliver a workshop on making the most of your online presence to the Recruitment Society in London.

Neil’s strength is in helping organisations to bring their data to life – helping them to analyse and interpret the data from their online presence to inform their future strategy. And the workshop combined his expertise with my experience of developing online content. So we covered the whole process of creating original content for careers websites and social media strategies, measuring its effectiveness and then refreshing it in light of the analysis.

The main part of the workshop covered content for social media. Why? Because I think this is the area that a lot of organisations still have a problem with. And particularly when it comes to recruitment.

For example, I’ve been in meetings with a lot of HR professionals and recruiters in recent years and one of the things they’ve all asked for is a Facebook page. But a lot of them don’t realise the amount of time and commitment it takes to set up and manage something like that. Or what kind of content is going to enable them to engage with their target audience.

So, here are just a few of the tips that I gave on recruitment content for social media.

1. Set a definite strategy

As I mentioned, a lot of companies think they have to have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed. But a lot of them don’t pause to think why they want one or what they want it to achieve.

If you think about it, though, you wouldn’t even consider launching a major advertising campaign without deciding on your strategic objectives and setting KPIs. So, why would you ignore these for a social media campaign?

By setting these, you also have something to measure success against. So, when you start to measure the effectiveness of your Facebook page or Twitter feed, you can see where you’re winning and you change the areas where you’re not.

2. Do your research

Again, this is something that comes naturally with any other marketing campaign, but seems to go out of the window when it comes to social media for recruitment.

Social media isn’t a single entity. Instead, there are a large number of different social media platforms, appealing to different audiences. And they stretch well beyond the Facebooks, Twitters and LinkedIns of the world. So, like any other media, it’s up to you to find out which ones will deliver the right audience for you.

3. Not all social media are the same

When it comes to the content you’re going to put on your different social media platforms, you need to understand the different audiences you’re talking to.

I’ve seen a number of organisations just replicate posts on each of their social platforms. But, as we’ve seen, different social media appeal to different audiences. So, for example, posting the same information on Twitter and LinkedIn would be the equivalent of putting the same advert in The Sun and the Sunday Times. And, while sometimes that might just work, the majority of the time it won’t.

4. Make sure you’ve got enough resources

Many organisations dipping their toes into the social media pond for the first time underestimate the amount of time and resource they need to devote to it.

But managing a Facebook page, a Twitter feed or a LinkedIn account is a time-consuming business. And if you’re managing all three, plus a few more, it can be a full-time job.

People expect you to keep them informed, educated and entertained regularly each day. To do that, you need someone who can devote enough time to managing content, who understands the objectives of your social media strategy and who can tailor content for different platforms and different audiences.

Oh, and of course, you need someone who can regularly police your feeds to make sure nobody posts anything illegal or offensive.

5. Create meaningful and valuable content

The organisations that are the most successful on social media are those who understand which content will appeal to their audiences.

And in recruitment, the worst thing you can do is to simply post a series of job opportunities on your social media platforms. Why? Because people want engagement that’s also relevant – whether that’s through an informative white paper posted on LinkedIn or a cat video on Facebook.

So, you need to inform, educate and entertain in equal measure through relevant content. And don’t restrict yourself to work-related topics, or spend all your time talking about your organisation. By inviting people to ask or answer questions, give their opinions and post links to their blogs or videos, you’ll find it easier to engage them. That in turn will make them more inclined to apply for any jobs when you do post them.

6. Don’t over emphasise your brand

Generally, people using social media want to know they’re engaging with a person, rather than an organisation or a brand. So, when you’re writing your posts, you need to focus less on your employer brand and more on your audience.

In most cases, you’ll be using social media to take people through to more branded content on your careers website. Because of this, I believe that on certain social media platforms, you can afford to be more conversational, friendly and personally engaging than many brands might normally allow you to be. But again, you have to decide if that approach is right for the platform and your media.

So, there you have it – a quick summary of the main points I put forward on social media content for recruitment. And the great thing about having Neil there was that he was able to  show how he could measure the effectiveness of these tips. And together, we were able to show how we’d be able to continuously improve our clients’ social media presence through effective measurement and great content.

Getting things right

As a writer, I’ve always thought that one of my strengths was my attention to detail. I think it harks back to my first real job in this industry as a proofreader. And, when it comes to checking grammar, punctuation and creative expression, it’s something that just seems to come easily to me.

So it always amazes me when people flaunt their lack of attention to detail in public. It’s not that I’m astonished that anyone could make these kinds of mistakes. After all, I live in the real world and I’ve known plenty of people who find it difficult to spell, punctuate or understand grammatical rules. But what does surprise me is that people like this are given responsibility for writing public messages.

For example, this image was posted on Twitter recently:


Which I thought was just shocking.

If this was an isolated example, it wouldn’t be so bad. But just a few minutes on Google will lead you to thousands of similar examples. And while many are small businesses who rely on the ability of their sole proprietor, the guilty include a lot of big brands. Such as Lego:


Even the person who corrected this seems to have missed the apostrophe in kids’.

So it’s a real minefield. And because of this, major brands should take some time to negotiate it. Or at least employ someone who can lead them through it.

But, as the thousands of examples posted online show, they often don’t. I’m sure you’ve got your own favourite.

Now, I’m not trying to be a grammar Nazi. As I’ve already mentioned, I accept there are people who find this kind of thing tricky. And I’m happy to break no end of grammatical rules if it makes my copy more readable. Such as starting sentences with ‘And’.

But, in my eyes at least, these kinds of mistakes just devalue brands. And when they’re big brands, the cost could be substantial. So I think it’s about time they started paying more attention.

What do you think?

Youngsters today, eh?

I had an interesting conversation last night about the different attitudes that people coming into advertising have nowadays, compared to when I (and my companion) came into the industry.

It was prompted by this blog that I’d shared on Twitter and Facebook a couple of days earlier about the lost art of creativity among advertising students. One commenter made the point that the argument was an old one – more experienced admen (and women) have always thought the youngsters didn’t have the craft skills their generation had.

And, to a certain extent, I agree. But I think it’s amplified in the current new generation. Why? Well, I think there are three key reasons.

1. “I want to be a star.”

First, a general point. In today’s throwaway, instant gratification society, there’s a generation growing up with the expectation of being able to succeed without developing a skill or the necessary experience they need for that success. And because everything’s at their fingertips, it takes even more dedication than it ever has to knuckle down and develop those skills and that experience. If you can’t Google it, many of them don’t want to know. They just want to be ‘the name’ – and some of them seem to almost believe they have a right to it. It’s an X-Factor society full of deluded people who think all you need to succeed is a ‘personality’, ‘belief’ and a heart-rending back story.

I know many young people aren’t like this, but there are far more than there have ever been who are and I think it’s had an effect.

2. Real world perspective

You often hear people complain that politicians live in their own little bubble – they study politics at Uni, then work for an MP before being selected themselves. They’ve never had a ‘proper job’.

You could say the same for many of the new generation of creatives coming into the advertising industry. They study advertising, do work experience in an agency and, if they’re lucky, get offered a job. And it means they have little or no real experience of life outside advertising.

I know a number of people my age who fell into the industry after trying a number of other careers. I, for instance, was a waiter and barman, helped run a restaurant and worked as a radio sports journalist before finally becoming a copywriter. A lot of the new generation don’t have the kind of perspective that this experience brings.

3. Let’s be social

The third, and perhaps the most important reason is that online, and particularly social media, have completely changed the rules.

In one sense, this explosion of new platforms for creative ideas should make them even more creative. But I think it can actually restrict thinking because, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the medium becomes the message. Instead of focusing on producing a great idea, they start thinking about viral videos, gamification and making things experiential.

It’s putting the cart before the horse. And it means the crafting of ideas suffers.

Now, I’m a great admirer of a lot of the social campaigns you see today. But I often can’t help wondering if a concept couldn’t have been refined, a headline been considered more carefully, or a visual made more relevant. It seems the excitement of doing something on a new platform can get in the way of a simple, relevant, effective creative idea.

So, there you have it. Have I got a point, or is this just an old codger’s rant? I’d appreciate your comments.