Anyone who’s watched the hit TV show Mad Men will be familiar with the role of the copywriter. For the unitiated (what are you doing?) here’s a quick description from Copyblogger: Copywriting is the art and science of strategically delivering words (whether written or spoken) that get people to take some form of action.
Yes, that’s everything from the eye-catching slogans emblazoned over a billboard advert to the long form product descriptions you see on the t’interweb. All those words have been painstakingly constructed with much more thought than you might imagine. And behind it all is the copywriter.
We caught up with Gary Lewis who after many years not knowing what do with his life found his calling as a freelance copywriter.
Can you tell us a little about your background? Have you always been a freelance copywriter?
No. BC (before copywriting), I spent a great deal of time absolutely not knowing what I wanted to do. There was something nagging at me that I couldn’t quite place. After university (American Studies!) I ‘wanted to work in film’. Yep it was that vague. A lot of energy went in, with no return.
I worked for a long time in a customer service and a training position for a now fondly remembered analogue holiday advertising company. Great times, fantastic people, but something missing. Then came redundancy, then teaching … then … copywriting.
How did you know you wanted to be a copywriter?
I’ve always loved words. Using them and abusing them is intrinsic to my personality. Creative swearing. Eruditely elucidating. Telling it how it is. Over-telling it for the sake of a good anecdote.
But I didn’t always know what a copywriter was, or that as a job, it existed. I know that I’ve always voraciously read anything that’s not nailed down. I know that, as a child of the 80’s, I inadvertently soaked up all those glorious advertising campaigns, music and films. I’m an analogue/digital hybrid with one foot in the past and another, fully pointing to the future.
Was there a lightbulb moment?
My brother was a graphic designer and had set up his own studio, working with some great clients; some of whom invariably needed copy. I ‘gave it a go’ in my spare time and the feedback was invigoratingly good. By the time I was leaving my education role, I’d already decided that’s what I wanted to be: A copywriter.
So you got a bit of taste for it whilst working as a teacher. What led you to do it full-time?
I knew my job as a private aide at an international school was coming to an end, and to be that age and still clueless was worrying. Like, how to pay the bills worrying. I became a freelance copywriter because for a very long time, my family told me that I should write. WRITE ANYTHING! YOU’RE GREAT. As if I was ever going to believe them? I eventually woke up.
But I did wonder how on earth was I ever going to use this love of language to commercial gain?
How do you turn your love of language to commercial gain? What steps did you take once you’d decided on copywriting as a career?
Once I’d decided, it was a hell of a lot of research to undertake. The old-fashioned way, reading books was a treat, making notes. Bouncing around the sprawling net trying to formulate a strategy was more difficult. Initially though, I would suggest allying yourself with others who are already fully fledged creatives. Ask questions, pick their brains, and listen intently.
First and most obvious step, is to goddamn write! Write anything at any time. I wrote unpaid reviews for some blog sites (free gig tickets, occasional meals, etc.). I asked everybody I knew with their own business if I could help (got some work on a travel brochure). I researched and made a list of all local marketing, advertising, and design, digital and creative agencies. Volunteered my services to local charities. I called, mailed, knocked on doors.
Only recently, somebody I met 3 years ago has pushed some work my way. The right now is very important (bills, bills, bills) but playing the long game will reap dividends if you are memorable and skilled.
Was there a ‘lucky break’ moment along the way?
There’s luck, serendipity, hard work and a lot of nerves once you’ve made the decision to become a freelance copywriter.
Here was my chain of luck: picked up a flyer in a local café for a local, informal creative networking event. Lost flyer. Flyer turns up a year later (around time of career change). Had cards printed (BRAND yourself! Find a designer to work with and get those cards printed, ready to be dished out). Went to networking event, Chatted to local agency owners. They needed a copywriter. “Fancy writing a sample piece?”
A year and change later, I’d worked with them on a national rebrand, written across the board and learnt a hell of a lot from just working with them.
You could say lucky but it sounds like you got yourself out there. Were there times when you felt like it might not happen?
I got lucky, but have also had a very bleak period, where nothing came in (save, save, save if you can). All those leads went from warm to ice cold. Calls and emails unanswered, but being a freelancer, you’re at the mercy of external forces you can only control so much. Slowly build a client list, be prepared for hard times, and let those around you, support you. A new venture is always tricky but you can’t be completely on your own.
I’d joined a legion of recruitment agencies, and again, it was hard work to be optimistic when nothing came in, but being a freelance copywriter needs persistence and routine. I called my go-to agency twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays are best), haranguing and harassing them to the point where something came up and I leapt on it. It was doing something I’d had a little bit of exposure to with a generous daily commute attached. Am still on a great contract, have good ties with the agency, have proven myself and again, learnt a lot.
In terms of writing for a living, is it enough just to be a good writer? Are there other tips you’d offer?
Here’s the first nugget. Lots of people can write well, but it’s your personality and everything you’ve ever done that will serve you well. Your reference points and outlook are what will shape how you write, present yourself and what you bring to the writing table.
You do genuinely need to be a curious person. No, not slightly strange looking, but be that person who makes notes, jots down random ideas, talks to people just because it’s stimulating, and experiences as much as humanly possible.
Loving words and writing is not enough. You need to be switched on and consciously/subconsciously learning about yourself and the world at all times. And of course, you need to have to at least an initial understanding of the business world you’re entering. Different platforms, above and below the line, SEO, styles of copywriting. There’s a lot to embrace, more than simply writing.
Any words of caution?
If you get a great freelance contract, fantastic, but your writing should never switch off. Your ideas should never dry up. Keep looking for work where you can find it. Practice for fun. Practice for work. Life as an freelance copywriter can be nerve-shredding, amazing, and there’s no better feeling than positive feedback, or seeing your words in print. But don’t forget, you’re the boss. You slack off? You can’t fire yourself. But you can have a strong word with the inner you though. Continual reflection is key.
It sounds like you’ve discovered your calling in life…
It will make you happy, stressed and if you’re like me, you may even question “Why didn’t I do this earlier?” Once you’ve chosen to be a copywriter, freelance or not, there’s no going back as your life will be enriched forever, and you’ll keep learning, learning, learning. It’s actually quite addictive too. I flex my creative muscle everyday at One Minute Briefs on Twitter – now there’s a community that will welcome you with open arms. Bon chance mes amis. The world will always need us, even if they don’t all know it. It’s our job to persuade them.