very amusing blog. (You can also find him on Facebook.) He’s based in Stockport, Manchester, England, and did his time at advertising behemoths like McCann Erickson and Publicis before going out on his own. And, now he’s doing his time here, giving advice to me and my readers. Thanks, Andy!
What’s your writing focus or specialty?
I don't really have a specialty these days, Leigh. I've been a copywriter for over 20 years now and I've covered just about every discipline in that time. If I focus on anything, it's having fun with the job. It keeps me happy and my clients seem to like having someone to work with who can have a few laughs while getting the work done. If there's one thing I'm known for it's probably writing in a conversational style and finding the right “tone of voice” for a piece.
Writers often take winding career paths. What led you here?After leaving school I did a degree course in Graphic Design and Visual Communication. As I reached the end of that, I realised that what I really enjoyed was coming up with ideas, headlines and concepts, rather than perfect design. At the same time a Creative team from a London Ad agency visited the University to see our work and one of them suggested I started taking copywriting seriously. From that point on I basically knocked on doors and phoned every creative director I could get the number for. After a couple of months I was lucky enough to get to see a copywriter called Lynn Crooks at McCann Erickson, she didn't have a job for me but sent me away with a “copy test”, a set of fictitious briefs for non-existent clients. Stuff like “create a press campaign to sell tap water to compete with Perrier”, “Write a radio ad publicising the mime artist Marcel Marceau live at The Talk of The Town”, that kind of thing.
I spent another few months just creating my own campaigns and trying to get them seen at agencies. Eventually I got a couple of paid jobs from a small local agency and the third time they asked me to write something for them, I said I'd only do it if they gave me a full-time job. Fortunately they said yes. I'd been there about a year when Lynn from McCann's called me (I'd continued to harass her, naturally), and told me that they were now interviewing for writers. Went for the interview, got the job. After two years at McCann Erickson I felt that I was getting a little trapped so moved on and continued moving for a few years. About 15 years ago, tired of ad agency politics and wanting a bit more freedom, I decided to go freelance.
Tell us a little about your creative process.The creative process for me is just looking at a brief and trying to get into the mindset of whomever the work will be talking to. Once I've got that, I'm happy.
What do you do when you’re stuck? Any tricks for getting unstuck?I put some music on, wander around the house, smoke a cigarette (sorry) and try to get back into it. Sometimes I'll write “joke copy”. Basically throwing every ad cliche I can think of at the job and having fun with it. Once I've cleared my head, I try again.
Any side projects? If so, how do you make time for them?For the past couple of years I've been playing with an idea for a series of children's books, (I know, I know, everyone's got a kids' book in them). There's always time to write, it's motivation that's the tricky bit. When you've been sitting at the pc writing about bollard renovation or producing a welcome letter for a mail order catalogue, it can be a bit hard to start writing again in your “own time”. With the books, I find myself coming up with pieces of dialogue or little scenarios when I'm watching TV or listening to music. I'll write them down, come back to them later and try to give them some kind of structure. The important thing to remember is that I'm doing it for me, (and my daughter), and that I do actually enjoy writing.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve been given?The best lesson in writing I've ever had came from Lynn Crooks of McCann's. I'd been a “professional copywriter” for about a year by this point and felt that I was pretty hot stuff. I'd written a piece that utilised all my best tricks and cleverest thoughts and showed it to Lynn. This was of course in the days before we all had PCs so it was a neatly typed A4 page. Lynn took it, read it then crossed out almost every alternate line.
All the tricky bits had gone and what remained was brief, punchy and effective. Half the words, twice as good.
What’s one thing you know now that you’d wish you’d known at the beginning of your career?That self belief is hugely important. Not to the exclusion of learning from others of course but not to let every piece of criticism sting or affect your confidence or your style. I spent some of my early years in advertising believing that everyone who'd been in the business longer than me would always be somehow more “right” than me.
No matter how long you've been writing, if you believe in an idea, fight for it. Keep your ears open to criticism as there's every chance you're wrong. Equally though, there's every chance that you're right.
Oh, and never throw an idea away. Keep them all “on file”, what doesn't work on a particular day for a particular job may be perfect in another time and place.