Do copywriters need a new name?

by Tom Albrighton 13 May 2010 Copywriting, SEO

In this post, copywriter Martin Williams discusses the use of the word ‘copywriter’, and whether it is coming under pressure from content mills such as Copify. He argues, passionately, that authentic, carefully developed content is the only possible basis for an effective social media campaign, which in turn drives search too. So do we need a new word to describe what ‘real’ copywriters do, as opposed to content mills?

This post presents my responses to Martin’s post (and will make more sense if you read his post first).

What’s in a name?

What really got everyone’s goat about Copify was their hijacking of the term ‘copywriting’, for instance in their tagline ‘changing the way people think about copywriting’. If they’d set up as ‘content generation services’, or whatever, far fewer copywriters would have been bothered. Equating 2p-a-word content creation with the careful, considered approach of an experienced marketing, publishing or digital professional is ludicrous, and Copify were duly called out on it.

Red rose

What's in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet

For my money, ‘copywriter’ still denotes the high end of the market – right up to highly experienced creatives who can charge hundreds for a single advert or slogan. There are many different types of writer under the umbrella of ‘copywriting’, but the sense of a consultancy/service rather than a by-the-yard word factory is pretty well understood – with the possible exception of ‘SEO copywriting’, which does have some connotations of cranking out the copy I think. (But that’s not to say that all SEO copywriters are content-crankers, Andrew!)

Come for the writing, stay for the thinking

It’s this consultancy/service aspect that distinguishes a ‘proper’ copywriter from a content creator. Or to put it another way, clients pay for the thinking, not just the writing. Working with a copywriter who takes the time to engage with you, your values and your character as a business is what makes the difference between getting content and being content. And it’s dispiriting to trade under a name that implies you simply churn out the words without paying much mind to the purpose of the exercise.

J’accuse!

However, when I look at my own website, or those of other copywriters, it always strikes me that we do tend to sell ourselves short in this regard. There’s a general emphasis on ‘words’, ‘writing’, ‘content’ and so on, although the incidence of pen imagery seems to be on the decline. This rather prosaic positioning is sometimes leavened with some promise to drive sales or build brands.

We tend to push the craft of copywriting rather than its business benefits. And when we do try to force our way into the boardroom, it isn’t always convincing – perhaps because we don’t quite believe we should be in there ourselves (but that’s another story).

Let me reiterate, I include myself in this criticism. My own tagline, ‘We’ll choose your words carefully’, is typical. Why should a client care about that? What does it do for them?

Where’s the value?

If I were advising a client who was a copywriter, I’d probably exhort them to emphasise the value being added rather than the service being delivered. As with tool manufacturers who are in the business of selling holes rather than drills, it’s the ultimate benefits that sell a service, not the nuts and bolts of its delivery. Positioning as a seller of words weakens the offer and invites like-for-like comparison with low-cost providers.

Could we therefore rebrand as ‘content consultants’ or similar, just as designers might describe themselves as, say, ‘creative directors’ or ‘senior creatives’? My feeling is we could, but there might not be such a benefit to it.

First, ironically, we’d lose out on people searching the web for ‘copywriter’. Online, you can’t get away from the need to use the language your client uses, and people start from a perception that they need content, so they search for the word most closely associated with their need. (Many firms developing their websites don’t even get that far, so we should be grateful.)

Secondly, we’d lose the very important emphasis on language as the tool for marketing communication, and the positioning of ourselves as the people who can take the client all the way from concept or value proposition through to words on a page. In my experience, being the person who ‘gets’ a company and can express its values in writing is a pretty good position to be in. I wouldn’t want a title that made me sound like an expensive luxury.

So, in summary, while it’s probably worth talking about the high-end stuff we can do, I think we need to keep our feet on the ground.

What the future holds

I personally think that the market will sort itself out. ‘Content’ and ‘copy’, for want of better words, will diverge more and more as clients become more literate, and there will actually be less need to differentiate, not more.

Those who just want content will get it. Those who want something better, and try to get it from a Copify, will change their approach. Those who think they just need something written will soon realise, from working with a professional, that they’re not just delegating an admin-level task that they could just as easily handle in-house. And those who appreciate the value of a true copywriter won’t be going anywhere.

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  • Tom,
    Interesting post and some good points raised.

    I agree with you that there is a need to differentiate between the different roles undertaken by those who collective term themselves ‘copywriters.’ But surely this exists in the form of terms such as ‘web copywriter’, ‘seo copywriter’ and the more traditional ‘ad copywriter’?

    I would suggest that the problem lies in the fact that most people don’t know what a copywriter is or what exactly they do. Any copywriter who has been asked about their trade in polite conversation, only to be met with a blank look and some muttered response about trademarks will surely testify to this.

    The salient fact, however, is this. There are several different types of copywriter and there are several different types of client. There are the lucky copywriters who spend their days dreaming up slogans and strap lines for advertising campaigns and there are the long copy specialists who churn out a high volume of content to satisfy the commercial aspirations of their clients.

    There are the clients who will outline stringent brand guidelines, scrutinising every comma and full stop. Then there are those who are far more interested in those three golden initials, ROI.

    It’s a shame that once again you have singled us out for criticism. Remember, Copify is not the only ‘content mill’ out there. It’s interesting that you mention value, as you have frequently failed to justify your costs (whatever they may be) in comparison to the dark satanic mills…

  • Another very thoughtful post and Tom and a good read to boot.
    There’s a certain irony in the craft of a copywriter that their careers can be summed up in such an unassuming name.
    I suspect that the mediocre writers are yet to come up with a suitable replacement while the more talented exponents have already ‘made a name’ for themselves in other ways.
    For them, changing the tag ‘copywriter’ might be regarded as mere badge engineering.

  • Eddie Haydock

    I was a copywriter before there was a Web, before there was SEO, before there was anything except ads that contained copy. First come, first served.

  • In Holland they describe me as a ‘business journalist’ and that is pretty much what I do. I go into companies to research a topic and then translate it into good business English. This is not the same thing as bashing out copy for 2p a word – it takes insight, experience, skill and so on.

    I think perhaps part of the challenge is changing customers’ perceptions of writing. Because they can all do it, they think it’s easy. They also think that the job is just typing words (it is at Copify, I guess). The reality is actually writing words is about 10-20% of the job. It’s a bit like paying lawyers by the word or accountants by the digit.
    .-= Matthew Stibbe´s last blog ..If the Onion wrote the history of programming languages… =-.

  • Good post Tom. You’re right about us needing to talk more about the high-end stuff. I don’t care if clients go and pay peanuts for rubbish, as long as they have a choice between that and the full service. And to do that, we need to be better at telling them what we do (I’m actually working on a project that tries to do just that).

    Incidentally, copywriters had a bit of a debate on my blog about what to call themselves. Hope you don’t think the link gratuitous, but there are some great suggestions in the comments (though I still maintain ‘wordsmith’ is a horrible word): http://benlocker.co.uk/is-copywriter-the-best-way-to-describe-a-livelihood/
    .-= Ben Locker´s last blog ..The best copywriting: so simple people won’t pay for it? =-.

  • Great post.

    I’ve written recently about variable prices and asking the question “how much is it fair to charge a client” — based on the assumption that some clients would consider me a bargain at £300 a day while SMEs on a limited budget struggle to stretch to £150.

    At 4p a word, 1000 words = £40 = not enough for a “professional” to consider dirtying his mitts with it. Properly researched, that’s a full day’s BTL work. At least.

    I’m in a dilemma about my pricing structure at the minute because I know my bigger clients are getting me cheap, but I don’t want to risk alienating the small business market.

    Do you think that “copy mills” will eventually take over the low-budget end of the client spectrum, leaving us professionals to concentrate on the big fish who pay well?

    Or is there a place for providing good copy for people on a limited budget?
    .-= Alastaire Allday´s last blog ..Social media fails to make an impact on British politics =-.

  • Thanks to everyone for their comments.

    @Matthew – the lawyer analogy is very appropriate. A lawyer might look through an agreement and tell you it’s OK, thus earning £500. They haven’t actually ‘done’ anything. But they’ve delivered major value.

    @Ben – thanks for pointing me towards that discussion, I hadn’t seen it. I don’t like ‘wordsmith’ either, although it might be a good name for a copywriter who really was named Smith.

    @Alastaire – I saw your post about prices. I personally think variable pricing is inevitable, since clients’ views on price are so variable and your day to day situation changes too. Many other businesses operate this way. For example, when I worked in publishing we would often invite a favoured printer to match an inferior competitor’s price in order to win a job. If he was quiet that week, he would do it. If he was busy, he might call the bluff and decline. The only price is the one you agree.

    One way to recast the price discussion is to charge by the job, not the day, so that a press release costs £x and a web page cost £y. That might make it easier to charge the same prices across the board, if that’s what you want to achieve.

    Rather than having variable prices, you could describe the lower rates as occasional or discretionary discounts. That preserves the ‘one rate for all’ principle while still giving you room to move. Semantic really, but it does at least leave open the possibility to restore the rate to the ‘true’ level later on (if the client will accept it).

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  • Great post. It makes me chuckle sometimes that for someone who’s supposed to be so good with words, when someone asks me what I do for a living I can come out with so many responses – copywriter, editor, content producer, consultant, web editor etc. Difficult isn’t it?

    I think the best one came from a client who just put me down on his site as ‘wordy girl’. Can’t really use it on my business cards but it’s a great description!
    .-= Sue Keogh´s last blog ..Welcome =-.

  • Just came from a business lunch where we discussed the need for a new term instead of copywriter – I think your strongest point definitely regards what the term copywriter emphasizes in terms of selling words rather than making goals happen. What would be a good replacement? What would give clients the idea of delivering results? Of actionable change? That is what I am thinking about.
    .-= Shannalee´s last blog ..simple summer panzanella =-.

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  • Hi Tom, as always a very interesting perspective. I particularly liked the part about client’s paying for the thinking and not just the words. I think you are spot on. It may look easy to churn out a few hundred words, after all that’s just a few paragraphs! But hidden underneath is an exceptional amount of thought to ensure the paragraphs contain the right words, say the right things and take the reader on the right journey. It’s a shame some content creating sites reinforce the idea that words are cheap.