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.


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.

What’s all the fuss about social recruiting?

I’ve seen a number of blogs and news articles about the rise in the use of social recruiting recently. And, in particular, there’s been a lot of debate over whether recruiters should focus on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter as their main social recruitment platform.
As someone who’s worked in recruitment communications for 26 years and seen the marketing mix change from adverts in local papers and the trade press to careers websites, job boards and now social media, I have to say that one thing has always been clear: if recruiters rely on just one marketing channel, they’ll end up selecting from a limited shortlist.
So, the argument over whether recruiters should be looking at Facebook or Twitter over LinkedIn is, to me, missing the point. Recruiters need to use a mix of marketing channels in order to find the very best people. And that means using all three, but with more focus on the one (or more) they think is where their audience is most likely to be.
In my experience, recently, many recruiters have approached their ad agencies with one request more than any other: “We want a Facebook page.” Why? It tends to be a kneejerk reaction to the news that social recruiting is the next big thing, with no thought for whether Facebook is the right platform for either their recruitment brand, or their target audience. (With recent reports, I’m sure more agencies will soon be getting requests for LinkedIn profiles instead.)
I think the problem is that social media is so new that it scares many recruiters, because it involves a totally different approach and, in many cases, new skills. But if they focused less on the ‘social’ aspect and more on the ‘media’ side, I think they’d see that it’s not so different.
In using social media for recruitment, organisations still need to analyse the audience reach of each platform. They still need develop messaging that’s going to attract the right candidates. And they still need to manage the candidate journey effectively so even those people they don’t eventually recruit leave with a positive view of their organisation.
In fact, they still need to follow most of the same processes that they’ve used for many years. Plus ça 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.

What counts – age or ability?

A fellow writer, Alasdair Murray, recently wrote about his experience of redundancy in the recession that hit the UK in the early 1990s (you can read the full blog here). It seems like things were very different in those days.

I recently went through the redundancy process, too. And, at the age of 51, my main concern was where on earth I was going to get another job. Thankfully, things have turned out pretty well. In fact, I’d have to agree with Alasdair that it’s not only made me stronger, but it’s actually improved my life. And I think part of that’s down to a big change in attitudes since he faced a similar situation 20 or so years ago.

People on the outside looking in assume that advertising’s a young person’s game. And, yes, if I’m honest, when I was working at my last agency, at the age of 51 I was one of the oldest people there. And definitely the oldest in the creative team. But thankfully, I’ve always found that if you’re full of good ideas that are right for your target audience, people don’t care how old you are. They’ll always judge you on the quality of your work.

But until recently, this attitude to age wasn’t universal. There were many industries, particularly those that were more physically demanding, that only wanted fresh young things. If you lost your job at 50+ you were virtually on the scrapheap.

Phil 2


So, what changed? Well, with the age discrimination legislation introduced by the last Labour government, I think employers in general are more inclined nowadays to judge you on your ability, rather than your age. And if they don’t, they could be taken to court, as this recent story about John McCririck shows. As someone who specialised in employment communications, I’ve had a number of discussions about this with clients over the years. And many responded to the legislation by focusing on people’s competencies during the recruitment process.

Now, as it happens, I didn’t go out and get a job with another agency. Instead, I set myself up as a freelance copywriter. But I still have to deal with the same concerns as if I was looking for a permanent role. In fact, although I’m regularly employed and am building a good list of clients, almost every day is about searching for the next job. And, although I seem to have a decent reputation, that means selling myself to people I’ve never worked with before and wondering if they’ll see my ability or my age first.

Fortunately, I think attitudes have definitely changed for the better. And, as I’m discovering, most people are prepared to put up with the grey hairs when they discover that I’ll do a damn good job.

The value of words

We’re becoming an increasingly visual world.

The music industry makes stars out of artists based on how they look, rather than what they sound like (Justin Bieber anyone?). And you often hear people say they love the video of a song, rather than the song itself (it’s one of the reasons YouTube’s been so successful).

Then there’s the communications industry. As a writer I’m always being told to cut the copy down. In adverts, to give the image more space. Online to avoid scrolling, or simply because people “don’t want to read loads of copy online.”

A global language

Technology – and particularly the internet – has accelerated the process. By making the world smaller, it’s connecting more and more people who don’t share the same language. So, naturally, the world of mass communication’s had to adapt. Its answer? To focus on images rather than words.

The results are films that rely more on visual techniques and huge special effects than a solid plot and memorable dialogue. Singers who become better known for wearing dresses made of meat than their actual music. And homogenous global advertising campaigns with a bland core message that can be translated into all available languages. Or not. (The current Esso campaign claims it “helps your engine’s fuel economy wherever you are driving towards” – makes me cringe every time.)

The word is social

Which is why I love social media. Because on most social media platforms, the focus is on the message again, rather than the image.

Yes, you can link images and videos to tweets or Facebook updates, but you need a strong message to entice the reader to open the link. And even on Pinterest, if there’s no witty description or interesting comment, it can feel like you’re just flicking through a random stranger’s photos.

Content, content, content

Content strategies, content plans and, well, just great content, are – or should be – at the heart of successful social marketing campaigns. And that’s where a good creative writer really comes into play. Take the business of writing effective tweets, for instance.

Only 140 characters to hone your thoughts, argue your point, express your opinion or just entertain and amuse – it’s harder than you think.

So hard, in fact, that it took me a while to write that last paragraph within 140 characters (it’s 139 characters, in case you were wondering). You don’t have a lot to play with. And that’s where good writing comes into its own.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. But in today’s competitive markets, if they’re the wrong words, it can be detrimental to a brand. So, with more organisations moving into the social sphere words are, you might say, on the tip of everyone’s tongues once again.