Ever since I can remember, I loved writing. Even some of my elementary school report cards noted how “Jennifer prefers to express herself through written versus verbal communication.” (I used to take that as a compliment, when I’m quite sure they were expressing concern about me.)
Since then, I’ve written copy for print and TV ads, billboards, websites, brochures, and (obviously) blogs. But I’m not sure I’ve ever identified myself as a copywriter. That’s why, when FreshGigs.ca asked me to write an “expose” on the job of a copywriter, I felt compelled to reach out to my pals who actually donned the title.
I asked them all the same questions, and they shared their candid (and sometimes smarmy) answers with me. Here’s the cast of copywriters:
- Kenny Kamerman (KK)
Freelance Copywriter, here, there, everywhere in Toronto City
- Mary-Jo Dionne (MJ)
Self-employed Writer, Editor, Strategist, Tofu-eating animal-rescuer, a cozy cabin in the woods at the base of North Vancouver’s Mount Seymour
- Jan Evanski (JE)
Creative Director, Corus Radio Vancouver
- Geoffrey Vreeken (GV)
Copywriter, DDB, Vancouver
- Manu Chopra (MC)
Former Senior Writer for Dare Digital, Vancouver
JW: Alright, let’s get this started. First question, what do you tell people you do?
(KK) >> I’m an ideas guy. I write ads.
(MJ) >> My career is three-pronged. I write ad campaigns, write and edit magazine editorial, and do whatever I can to promote animal issues on the side. (Go check out http://fleasplease.com/)
(JE) >> I’m a creative writer who manages a team of creative writers.
(GV) >> I’m a writer. In advertising. Like, I write ads. Oh you hate TV ads? Well, I write websites and radio ads and billboards and stuff, too. What? No, I really like it. Ha…yeah…(ugh) it’s not really like Madmen.
(MC) >> I write ads.
Don’t be afraid to write the way you speak. Copywriting is not prose. It is a form of conversation designed to convince the listener to take some kind of action.
JW: Do your parents understand what you do?
(GV) >> Vaguely.
(KK) >> After 13 years they still think I write jingles.
(MJ) >> My mom has an entire room where she’s built a sizeable shrine of all my work over the last 15 years. I’m not sure it’s healthy actually. I may need to talk to her about scaling that back a bit.
JW: What would you say is the single most important trait to have as a copywriter and why?
(MJ) >> The ability to adopt the voice of a brand. In any given day, you will need to speak like a veggie burger, a city’s tourism board, a grocery store, or a dog needing to be adopted. Don’t pigeonhole yourself as “the beer guy” or the “long-copy kid”.
(JE) >> Strong communication skills. You need to fully understand your client’s needs and expectations before creating a compelling message to the masses. You also need to work well with your internal clients – fellow writers, sales people, producers, voice talent etc.
(MC) >> Curiosity. No information is useless, because to write about shit, you need to know even more shit.
JW: Did you go to school to become a copywriter? If yes, was it imperative?
(KK) >> Yes, Humber has an excellent copywriting program. Great for getting your big break to work for free. Eventually if you work for free enough, someone will hire (and pay) you.
(MJ) >> I sure did. For me, it changed everything. I took advantage of every opportunity the program gave me (Humber College; Post-grad certificate in media copywriting). It pushed me to get a strong portfolio together (which is everything). And overall, it gave me a timeline. It was like, okay, school is done, now let’s get this party started. And it did. Right away.
(JE) >> Yes. I studied Marketing and Sales wanting to break into the advertising industry and landed a job in radio where I was given the opportunity to grow my writing and management skills.
(GV) >> Nope. My first agency was too cheap to hire a writer. They thought I fit the bill as the intern, and I kind of fumbled forward from there. Also, if you always end up being the drunkest guy at industry minglers, people will just assume you’re a writer.
(MC) >> Also no. I joined my first agency as a Servicing guy because they weren’t hiring junior writers. I took what I could and wormed, er, worked my way into the Copy department.
JW: Did you have a different job before becoming a copywriter? What was it, and how did it benefit you in your current role?
(GV) >> I was a bartender. Connect the dots.
(KK) >> I’ve had many jobs growing up from dishwasher, grocery clerk, and bricklayer. Everything you do in life counts to things you can write about.
(MC) >> Sales. I couldn’t sell anything. Which helped in a weird sort of way because it taught me early on that selling stuff is tough.
JW: What’s your favorite part of being a copywriter?
(KK) >> Flexibility. Freedom. It’s always new. You’re always using your brain. It keeps it interesting.
(MJ) >> I love working on multiple clients at the same time. It keeps my life very fresh. I also love that, as someone who always knew she was a “writer”, I get paid to use a natural skillset. And I think above all, cheesy as it may sound; I love the people this career attracts. The friendships that come out of agencies are pretty great.
(JE) >> No two days are alike. Each day brings a new challenge.
(GV) >> That rare moment when you overhear a stranger chatting (positively) about your work.
(MC) >> The joy of getting a good idea – and the even greater joy of seeing that good idea shape itself into an ad that sees the light of day.
The fact that absolutely EVERYONE who can spell their name, fancies themselves to be a writer. Well, if that were true, our jobs wouldn’t exist, would they?
JW: What do you like the least about your job?
(KK) >> The modern day slavery of some shops. Nobody should have to work past 8:00 PM on any given day. Give people a life. Let them go home and come back the next day with a full tank.
(MJ) >> Poor planning that leads to last-minute briefing and rushed creative makes me CRAZY! Or, worse than that, poor planning that leads to NO brief and rushed creative makes me positively certifiable.
(JE) >> Poor communication –leads to misunderstandings, unsatisfied clients and errors.
(GV) >> Any sentence beginning with, “I’m no writer, but …”
(MC) >> Agreed. The fact that absolutely EVERYONE who can spell their name, fancies themselves to be a writer. Well, if that were true, our jobs wouldn’t exist, would they?
JW: If you could give one piece of advice to anyone contemplating a career as a copywriter, what would it be?
(MJ) >> I once had a Creative Director tell me to develop thick skin, that this is a cutthroat field. My experience has been the opposite. People don’t want to make you look bad, it’s a team-industry. So learn from everyone (even the weenies, and there will be weenies), keep your tool kit robust, and get your ego out of the way.
(JE) >> Don’t be afraid to write the way you speak. Copywriting is not prose. It is a form of conversation designed to convince the listener to take some kind of action.
(GV) >> Relax. Write anything to start. Write a lot. Also get me a scotch.
(MC) >> Take your work seriously, there’s a lot of money riding on the stuff you write. But never take yourself too seriously, even if you win a couple of awards. You write ads, you don’t walk on water.
JW: Where do you see yourself taking your career in the next five years?
(KK) >> Same thing, different agencies.
(MJ) >> I have zero idea. And it’s not because I’m directionless, it’s because I tend to say “yes!” to most opportunities. I love ad copy, I love magazine editorial, I love comedy writing, I do a lot of on-air stuff too to promote animal issues. All told, I’m a communications junkie. And that can lead to a whole lot of different amazing places.
(JE) >> Doing what I do right now…but even better.
JW: If you weren’t a copywriter, you would be a…
(KK) >> West coast hippie.
(MJ) >> Talk show host, with my blind-deaf-15-year-old-dog Cowboy sitting on my lap.
(JE) >> Lawyer. I like to persuade with words.
(GV) >> Owner of a shitty bar
(MC) >> Screenwriter.
JW: What, in your opinion would be the low, middle, and high income one could earn as a copywriter?
(MJ) >> When I started in 1998, the starting salary was $26,000. As an intermediate it was around $55,000. By the time I was a senior writer, my colleagues were in the $100,000+ range (if they were Associate Creative Directors or VPs, etc), and of course, once you are a Creative Director, it’s lots more. And as a freelance writer today, I’ve seen rates as low as $90/hour and as high as $150/hour, depending on the client, the project, the budget, etc.
(JE) >> 35 – 50k in a major market with opportunity for freelance income.
(GV) >> Low: $30,000, medium: $60,000 and high: $120,000.
JW: Anything else you care to share for those kicking the tires of a copywriting career?
(KK) >> Go for a test drive. You might just like it.
JW: Content creator. Freelancer. Agency. Client-side. As you can see, the experiences, insights, and suggestions shared today are just as unique as each writer. The job is what you make it – and there are so many different directions you can go. It’s just a matter of taking the first step.