Tinker, tailor, soldier, copywriter

by Tom Albrighton 17 February 2011 Copywriting

People do some funny things before they turn to copywriting. Here’s what a few copywriters revealed on Twitter recently:

  • Ben Afia (@benafia) was once an auto electrician and a delivery man for dentists’ equipment.
  • Maddie York (@MadsYork) operated the ham slicer in a delicatessen and worked in a West End theatre box office.
  • Titania James (@titaniajames) was a rag and bone man (lady?), typesetter and lamplighter (!).
  • Peter Baruffati (@peterbaruffati) initially claimed to have been a pimp, before admitting to a career in banking and a spell as a shelf-filler in a Moscow supermarket. Ever the wag, he added that ‘I was also a human cannonball but I got fired.’
  • John Band (@johnb78) worked as a ‘sticky paint salesman’ (which, in the absence of a hyphen, we must assume means that he sold sticky paint, rather than getting sticky in the course of his work as a paint salesman).
  • You write tastier copy when you've sampled a slice of life

  • Andy Nattan (@Mr603) inspected damaged post for the Royal Mail Customer Services Department. ‘Best one was just after the anthrax scare,’ he says. ‘Building was evacuated due to a powder leaking out of a parcel. Herbal medicine.’
  • Leif Kendall (@leifkendall) has been an accounts technician, a logistics coordinator, a purchasing assistant, ‘tree surgeon’s chief fire starter’ and a cleaner.
  • Paul Mallaghan (@scribblemill) has been a waiter, factory box shifter, ‘irresponsible office bod’, charity mugger and has also done ‘various jobs based around the series Robot Wars’.
  • Sarah Turner (@turnerink) sold encyclopedias door to door in Brisbane. ‘I hated it, but learnt a lot,’ she says.
  • Alasdair Murray (@alconcalcia) has been a civil servant and a labourer.
  • Sally Ormond (@sallyormond) worked in banking and as a charity fundraiser – an interest she sustains by working as a volunteer for Make a Wish.
  • Ben Locker (@benlocker) has been a road sweeper, a sheep’s fleece baler, a petrol station attendant, a forester, a care assistant and a ‘professional idiot’ (any openings for an apprentice?).
  • Jill Tomlinson (@shelovestowrite) was an usherette at The Palace Theatre in Manchester, but says her best non-advertising job was working as a volunteer for Saneline, the mental health charity: ‘alarming, exhausting, very rewarding’.
  • Larner Caleb (@LarnerC) has held jobs including include market stall seller, cartographer, Royal Navy engineer, pizza deliverer and ‘constantly electrocuted service engineer’.

What I learned

I can’t speak for them, but I bet all that experience gives those copywriters a unique perspective on their copywriting work.

I can speak for myself, though, and here’s my take on what my own vocational travels have given me:

  • I was the voice of Norfolk County Council’s childcare helpline, which taught me about dealing with real customers with real problems, some of them quite angry. It gave me phone confidence too.
  • I worked as a waiter in Pizzaland (now defunct), which taught me about the value of good service and the difference between a bin for rubbish and one used for storing frozen garlic bread. (I emptied my dustpan into the garlic-bread bin by mistake, and, for my sins, kept quiet about it once I realised.)
  • I was a data entry clerk before being dismissed for working too slowly, which taught me about concentration and the mind-numbing tedium of the days before OCR was invented.
  • I was a milkman (well, milkboy really, since I was in sixth form), which taught me that walking to work at 5am is a lot easier when you’ve got some Feargal Sharkey, Duran and World Party on your Walkman. (Ask your parents.)
  • I typeset display ads at the Birmingham Post and Mail, where I saw first-hand what UK newspapers were like before the unions were broken (rolled-up sleeves, incessant smoking, heated arguments at 1am, ridiculously narrow job specs). I was sorely tempted to abandon my degree and stay in this job – probably just as well I didn’t, since the Mail later set up its own employment agency, fired all its staff and took them on again as temps for half their salary.
  • Before becoming a copywriter, I worked in publishing. I wrote almost nothing (authors did that for us), but I learnt a huge amount about accuracy, print and prepress technology, how to handle graphic designers (be nice) and mounting SyQuest drives (start early and allow several hours).

Beyond the ivory tower

Sometimes, I feel insecure about not being a ‘real’ copywriter. You’ll search my cv in vain for household consumer brands, national campaigns or big London agencies. And I’ll never be that kind of writer now – it’s simply too late in the day.

So I’ll never put together the creative that becomes the crowning glory of a majestic brand strategy, or is used in every aspect of a multi-million-pound through-the-line campaign.

In fact, although it’s still called ‘copywriting’, what I do is completely different from that kind of work.

When I take a brief, it’s rarely from a creative director, an account handler or a campaign planner. It’s from a business owner – someone who not only owns their brand, but built it themselves, from nothing. There’s no great difficulty about determining the brand’s tone of voice – it’s right there in front of me.

When I research my copy, I don’t browse data compiled by MORI or the findings of a focus group. I phone up their customers or even meet them face to face, asking them about the product or service and listening to what they say. Often, the things they tell me go straight into my copy.

At the coal face

For this sort of copywriting, it pays to have experience at the coal face of business. At one level, business owners like to deal with someone who runs a business themselves. That’s why a freelance copywriter immediately scores over one of their own employees, or indeed an employee of their PR or creative agency.

But other experience counts too. If you’ve dealt with customers, sold stuff or just witnessed the way a real business works, you’ve got something that a lifelong media professional just can’t offer, for all their marketing expertise or laser-targeted creativity: empathy, based in real first-hand knowledge of real work. And, for a certain type of client, that’s gold.

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