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.


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.

6 lessons from a year of freelancing

A year ago today I joined the freelance world. And, for a 51 year-old copywriter who’d spent the rest of his career working for other people, it was a massive, scary step.

Yes, I’d won quite a few awards and gained quite a healthy reputation in the recruitment communications industry over 25 years, but the truth is that it wasn’t something I’d always planned to do. In fact, if I hadn’t been made redundant, I wouldn’t have even considered it.

It’s been an eye-opening, exhilarating and, very occasionally, worrying 12 months. And a year down the line, I know that it was definitely the right decision. But it obviously isn’t right for everyone, so if you’re thinking about going freelance, here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

1. Finding work can be tough – but only if you let it be

That’s what everyone told me. And, to be honest, I believed them. I hadn’t had to go out and try to find work for myself for 25 years and the thought of it didn’t fill me with joy. But I suppose necessity is a great driver and I was determined to make my freelance career a success. I was also in the happy situation of having a great list of contacts – people I’d worked with over the years who had moved on into more senior – and more influential – roles.

So I spent my first week meeting people and showing them what I’d been doing since I’d last worked with them. And it worked – by the second week I had my first freelance job, and the phone has hardly stopped ringing since.

Which brings me onto my next lesson:

2. Use your network 

It’s no use being embarrassed about asking people you’ve worked with in the past for a job. After all, it’s not as if you’re asking for favours (or it shouldn’t be). If you’ve enjoyed working together in the past, it’s more than likely they’ll want to work with you again. But don’t assume that’s the case – you still need to show them a strong portfolio of work and get any subsequent contracts on merit.

This has worked incredibly well for me. I suppose it helps that I’ve been around so long and got such a wide network of ex-colleagues. But every piece of work I’ve done over the past year has either been directly for, or as a result of, a recommendation from someone I’ve worked with in the past.

3. Promote, promote, promote

The most difficult thing when you’re on a contract – well, for me at any rate – is thinking about the next one. But, of course, it’s no use coming to the end of one job and then thinking: “What am I going to do now?”

One of the first things I did after I set up my company, Welch Words, was to secure accounts in that name on Twitter and Facebook. I also changed my LinkedIn profile to make it clear that I was looking for work and my credentials.

Again, I used my network, asking anyone I’d worked with for a recommendation on LinkedIn. This, I think, is a powerful promotional tool. After all, I had 20 people, including colleagues and clients, prepared to say how good I was at the service I was offering. And certainly LinkedIn has been one of my most successful tools for getting new work. But Twitter and Facebook have also been useful – particularly for building a new network of contacts who now know me as Welch Words, rather than ‘Phil the writer’.

4. Get the finances right

One of the first pieces of advice I had when I went freelance was to get a good accountant. And certainly, that was useful when it came to deciding whether to set up a limited company or not. But, whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to take some responsibility for your finances.

This means it’s important on a day to day level to keep up-to-date records of the work you do and the amount you’ve quoted for it. But the most important thing is to invoice regularly. I do my invoices every weekend and invoice the clients I work for each week – even in the middle of a contract. Why? Because of the next lesson I’ve learned:

5. You never know when you’ll get paid

This is something that I thought would be standardised. When I started out as a naive, not-so-young freelancer, I thought that if I sent an invoice out, there would be a standard amount of time I’d have to wait before the money came in. But no, apparently not.

I even checked the legal position. And the government’s website makes it perfectly clear: 

“Unless you agree a payment date, the customer must pay you within 30 days of getting your invoice or the goods or service.”

Yet I’ve had some payments a week after I’ve sent the invoice and a few others over 60 days afterwards. Luckily I’ve had to chase very few invoices over the year. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that’ll continue.

But even though the finances are obviously important, I’ve also found that you shouldn’t let them take over completely. Because, if you’re a freelancer, you have to make it enjoyable. And for me that means making the most of the free time you have, rather than worrying about why you don’t have any work for a day or two.

6. Your time’s your own

This is one of the best things about being a freelancer for me. I’ve had some very busy times during the past 12 months, but there have been a few slower weeks. And, although I’ve used these to email potential clients and post messages on social networks to try and get more work, I’ve also tried to make the most of them. So, my wife and I have been out for long lunches, or even whole days. And I’ve had a couple of enjoyable holidays. It’s made the whole freelance experience far more pleasurable. 

Overall, the results of my first year as a freelancer have been very positive. I’ve learned a few lessons along the way. And I’m happy to say that I haven’t had a single week when I haven’t had any paid work – apart from those I took as a holiday. I’ve been involved in some extremely interesting and challenging projects and tackled work in sectors that I haven’t worked in before. I’ve made some new contacts. And I’ve ended up earning more than I would have done if I hadn’t been made redundant. 

So, Welch Words Ltd. is definitely looking forward positively to it’s second year of trading.

The problem with jargon

Jargon, buzzwords and meaningless expressions

Jargon, buzzwords and meaningless expressions (Photo credit: Gavin Llewellyn)

I saw an interesting infographic from Monster.com today, which showed that candidates are turned off by jargon in job ads. This came as no surprise to me. As someone who’s made a living out of writing recruitment communications of all kinds for 26 years, I’ve always tried to avoid using jargon.

Why? Well, according to the dictionary, jargon is defined as: “Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.”

In other words, jargon is deliberately confusing. So why would you choose to use it in a context that requires clarity? Particularly when you can’t even be sure whether the jargon you’re using is something other people in your industry would recognise, or if it’s specific to your organisation.

A lot of my recruitment communications experience has come in business sectors that thrive on jargon – IT, investment banking, accounting, But this doesn’t mean other sectors are immune from it. Local authorities, government departments and the NHS all have jargon of their own that can alienate someone who isn’t in the know. And that’s the problem with jargon – it alienates people, which is the last thing you want from a recruitment ad.

Having said that, there are certain occasions when it can actually be useful. If you need to recruit someone with specific skills and you don’t want to waste your time reading through applications from people who don’t have the right industry expertise, then jargon can be a useful filter. But only if you know for certain that the right people will understand it.

I’ve taken briefs from clients who litter their conversation with jargon – acronyms are a particular favourite in certain business sectors. And the rule I’ve always stuck to is that if I have to ask what a particular piece of jargon means, then the majority of the audience will need to do the same. Which means it shouldn’t be in your marketing.

So that’s why I wasn’t surprised by the news that candidates were turned off by jargon – I’ve always regarded it as common sense not to use jargon. But it’s nice to have the stats to back up what I’ve been telling clients for years.

4 tips on researching what you write

In my 25 years of writing copy for a variety of organisations, I’ve always been known for the thoroughness of my research. Because I firmly believe that understanding my clients as well as I can gives me valuable insights. And that makes my copy more real, more persuasive and ultimately, more successful.

Of course, I’ve relied a lot on my imagination and creativity, too. But it’s thorough research that’s given me the scope to be creative by giving me more information and more stories to play with. So much so that a number of clients have commented that I seemed to know more about their organisations than they did. One global company even sent their new recruits to me so I could teach them about every aspect of their business. Why? Well, as their lead copywriter, I was one of the few people who dealt with – and, more importantly, understood – all the different business areas and what they did.

So, what methods do I use to give me this in-depth knowledge? A lot of them involve common sense. But follow these four basic tips, and I don’t think you’ll go far wrong:

1. Look at the website

This might seem obvious, but corporate websites are still the best source of information on most companies. As well as getting a good grasp of what they do and how they do it, you can find out a lot about how well the organisation’s doing. But you need to go deep. Many sites will allow you to download the latest annual reports. These will give you an unbiased view of the state of the company. And links to press releases are a good way to see what’s important to the company right now, too.

2. Follow them on social media

Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are great sources of information, but you have to look at them with a critical eye. Obviously the official feeds will give you the corporate view. But try to monitor relevant hashtags and any customer service feeds – these will give a better view of how highly (or otherwise) the organisation’s regarded.

3. What do employees say about the company?

On the careers pages of the website, you’ll usually find profiles of employees from different areas of the business. Take a look at the people the company’s chosen to represent them. How diverse a group is it? What have they got to say about their roles? This’ll give you the official view.

Then go to a site like glassdoor.com – in the review section you’ll be able to find out what former employees have to say about the company. Just keep in mind that these kinds of sites tend to attract people with a grievance, so comments can sometimes lean towards the negative. With both the corporate and unofficial view, you’ll get a balanced picture of what the company’s about.

4. Keep your eyes open

It always amazes me when people working on corporate accounts aren’t aware of what’s going on with those businesses. Maybe it’s my background in journalism, but I keep tabs on the national and global news – I listen to the Today programme each morning and take a look at a number of news websites, making a note of any stories that might affect my clients. And not just stories about them directly, but also stories about their sectors or key markets. For example, one of my clients was a major bank in Africa. I passed on details of projects in Africa that I thought would interest them, which they greatly appreciated.

No matter which of these tips you follow, it’s important not to take the information you discover at face value. Always look at things with a critical eye and question what you discover. And always try to verify your findings using different sources.

Follow these simple rules and you’ll soon find your clients appreciating the additional knowledge and insight you bring to your working relationships.

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.

You can’t create viral

Image representing YouTube as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Two things prompted this blog. The first was the news that the Gangnam Style video had overtaken Justin Bieber as the most viewed post on YouTube. The second was when I took a brief that included the dreaded phrase “they want something viral.”

The news about Gangnam Style pleased me a little bit. After all, I’m one of the first to celebrate when the Bieber gets taken down a peg or two – anyone who displays this level of stupidity deserves everything they get in my book.

But the triumph of Gangnam Style also showed why the brief I took was asking the impossible. If, six months ago, you’d asked anybody what would come out on top in a battle between a video by the biggest teen heartthrob on the planet or one by an obscure South Korean rapper, I’m pretty sure I know what the answer would have been. And, personally I still can’t see why Psy’s annoying tune has become so popular. But obviously 805 million viewers see it differently.

And that’s the point about virality. It’s all down to personal taste. Which is why nobody can predict it. Yes, you can study the form – what’s become popular and what hasn’t. You can make something you think is bound to go viral. And you can market it as much as you want. But there’s no secret formula you can follow.

For example, some of the most popular YouTube videos have been completely spontaneous (Fenton anyone?). But there are millions of other spontaneous videos on YouTube that languish with just a few views. And there’s no rhyme or reason to it.

So, clients – please don’t ask your creative team to come up with something ‘viral’. Because ultimately, you’ll all be on a hiding to nothing.