How do you go from student to copywriter?

I quite often get emails or calls from people at college asking how you become a freelance copywriter. Here is the advice I gave to one student.

I think there are probably three steps to becoming a successful copywriter and formal qualifications really have little or nothing to do with it.

The first is having the desire. You need to love the idea of creating ads and commercials and take an interest in them. Good advertising is about passion, it’s not just a business. So every time you see an ad that appeals to you, analyse it. Also look out for bad ads, or the ads you just wouldn’t normally give a second glance. Why are they invisible? If you ever become a copywriter, remember that ads aren’t seen unless you make them impossible to ignore.

The second step is getting a job as a trainee copywriter in the best and most creative agency you can. Nearly all of these are in London, but most of the large provincial cities have one or two agencies worth considering. Good experience is everything and lays the bedrock for your whole career. It varies for everybody, but it took me six years working as a copywriter before I felt I really understood the job. There’s far more to it than at first appears. Writing body copy shouldn’t be a problem if you’re reasonably literate and commercially minded – the real trick is coming up with concepts. This is where words and pictures join together to sell the product or service. As a copywriter in a proper agency, you’ll work alongside an art director and throw ideas around until you come up with the concept. So really a copywriter needs to be as good at thinking visually as they are verbally. The best practice for understanding how concepts work is to create posters where you’re limited to just a few words and a single image.

The final step, which I think is probably easier for your generation than mine, is to realise that the only true purpose of advertising is to sell. This seems obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget when you’re involved in coming up with a great ad. Of course, there are simple and complex ways in which ad campaigns sell, and they may be looking for immediate response or long term brand loyalty. You need to know which is which. For example, if the client has just reduced his product price by 50% you don’t want to get in the way of that. There’s no better headline than 50% off (unless its 60% off). On the other hand, if you’re trying to instil an attitude towards a particular brand, you need to get right into the personal values and motivations of people and then connect to them with the right words and pictures. This is difficult and extremely exciting.

I worked in good advertising agencies for about twelve years before becoming freelance. That way you get to learn a lot about marketing from dealing with planning people, research agencies, switched-on clients and account directors. It means that when you’re working on your own you have a fair amount of marketing knowledge to fall back on. You will also have built up a portfolio of work which can be used to promote yourself.

Succeeding as a freelance copywriter is not easy. You need contacts in the business to start you off, but you then need to quickly expand (or sustain) business through self promotion. This can be done through mailshots and follow up phone calls, advertising in the trade press, and gaining a presence on the internet. Overall, it’s probably a big help to be a personable, outgoing type (I’m not), but above all you need to project professionalism and to always genuinely care about a client’s project. And always deliver the work when you promise.