Every 2-12 months, I get an email from an acquaintance or friend-of-friend’s sibling, enquiring about the day-to-day of being a copywriter (or, more broadly, an advertising creative).
I’m not an industry genius or veteran. But, they don’t know that, so I pretend. Who else are they gonna email? Don Draper? Most geniuses are either really busy or really dead.
Plus, the inner-workings of ad agencies (particularly creative departments) are fairly inscrutable from the outside.
So, here are some unqualified answers.
What do you actually do though?
You sit at a white desk, with a Macbook, in an open-planned environment. Across from you is your creative partner. They could be anyone (though, by law of statistics, they will be a bearded male in their late-20s).
The majority of your time will be spent here, trying to come up with ideas that find something interesting to say about toilet paper or insurance or beer or frozen garlic bread.
Traditionally, you work in pairs: one person is a copywriter, the other is an art director (this is mostly still common practice).
At the start of the process, both of you have the same job — come up with lots and lots of ideas.
These ideas are usually expressed in a couple of sentences, with maybe a crude drawing or a reference picture.
Later on, when it comes to bringing the ideas to life, one person is generally better at using words (copywriter) and the other with visuals (art director). This balance between these skills is reasonably fluid, depending on the individuals. Some can do both well. Some can do neither.
The everyday process.
- Day to day, the job is reasonably varied. You’ll work on 1-10+ things at a time, at various stages of the cycle. The process is generally like this:
- You get a brief.
- You go off and have heaps of ideas, refine them into broad ‘territories’ or ‘insights.’
- You present them to your creative director (your boss). If they like them, you refine them/flesh them out with words and pictures. If they don’t, you cancel your evening plans and try again.
- The ideas are presented to the client.
- THEN (often after a period of back and forth), the client will ‘approve’ an idea, and you’ll start making ads*.
*It is almost never this simple.
One cool thing about this job is that, once you sell an idea, you get to work with talented people to turn your ideas into real, produced things.
For example, if you’re making a TV ad/piece of film you’ll work with your agency’s producers to find the best director.
You’ll then work with director (and production team) to cast, shoot, edit, record music and sound, colour grade and dispatch an ad — which, hopefully by the time it’s done, still has your idea in it.
Shoots can be stressful, but they are the best bit about the job. You get to feel important and craft something from start to finish.
- Bonus 1: If a shoot starts early in the morning, you get bacon and egg rolls.
- Bonus 2: Post-production houses usually have free mineral water and expensive hand soap.
- Bonus 3: If you write heaps of European landscapes into your script, they’ll fly you to the French Riviera New Zealand (maybe).
It’s 2012, though… It isn’t as simple as just ‘make a TV ad.’
If you’re really killing it — here’s the kind of stuff you could be doing.
- A massive integrated advertising and PR campaign.
- An Emmy-winning, viral phenomenon that everyone will remember forever and ever.
- A whole new product.
- Or just a pretty cool way to sell suits.
Disclaimer: To do the cool stuff, you’ll spend a bunch of time making regular old ads. Your job is to make them as funny/interesting and original as they possibly can be.
For context, here’s a few of the things you’ll come by along the way.
- Digital banners.
- Print ads in a newspapers and magazines.
- Adshel billboards.
- Tweets or Facebook posts.
- Ads that run on the back of buses.
- A wobbly thing on a supermarket shelf.
- In-store displays.
- Those annoying videos that run before a YouTube video starts.
- Direct mail flyers.
- ATM screens.
- Brand guidelines.
- Radio ads.
- Pretty much anything with a logo on it.
How much will I get paid?
I don’t know. It depends on a million different things.
At the start, not heaps. But if you surround yourself by fun, talented people, shut up for a few years and use the Conan approach — you should start seeing progress.
The better the ideas in your portfolio get, the more money people will pay you (winning awards helps too, but that’s a conversation for another day).
On the whole, it’s an almost shamefully good deal for mucking around with a pen and paper… Especially if you consider how badly people like nurses and teachers are paid.
In summary: I’ve never met an ad creative who couldn’t afford a novelty t-shirt and a schooner of Pure Blonde.
Do you recommend it?
Yep. It depends what you do now — but it’s DEFINITELY better than proofreading financial plans OR being the graveyard-shift receptionist at a hotel owned by the Masonic Club.
On the whole, agencies are full of smart, fun, hard working people. They’re also generally accepting and appreciative of eccentricity and unironed clothing (or whatever else is wrong with you).
You’re paid to be creative, so stuff like spreadsheets, administration and number crunching is all done by other people.
Also: most places have free soft drink and cheese slices, and you usually get beer on Fridays.
That said, it’s still a job. Expectations are high, so hours can be long and stressful. Some of the stuff you work on is ridiculously fun, some of it’s kinda hard work.
Overall, I like it. Wearing jeans and solving non-life-threatening problems is a privilege.
How do I get a job?
I don’t know. But, assuming you’re starting from scratch, this might work:
1. Go to AWARD School.
AWARD School is still the industry standard for people who want to work in creative departments. It runs for 16 weeks, and focuses on learning how to have lots of ideas. That’s the hardest bit about the job — everything else you can learn later.
It’s super-competitive to get in, but if you do (and can afford the $2,000 fee), it’s an intense, rewarding experience.
Pro-tip: If you know someone who works in a creative department already, buy them a case of beer and get them to do your AWARD School application for you. Don’t feel bad: they’ll feel like a legend, and you’ll probably get in.
2. Write/draw/design/make some things and put them on the internet.
Not necessarily ads — just stuff. A blog, a personal project, whatever. It doesn’t matter what it is — just do something and finish it.
If nothing else, you’ll get used to putting ideas into the world, and won’t be so scared when you have to do it in front of someone important.
Creative directors like creativity more than they like ads: just show them something funny or interesting.
Some personal projects that I like — just to show what I’m talking about:
- Everything Georgia Perry does.
- Art director Tessa Chong’s The Sketchorialist.
- Lawrence Creative’s Andy Braithwaite cooks something new every Tuesday.
- Everything Matt Banham does
- The podcast You Look Nice Today
- Copywriter Zach Golden turned his love of swearing and cooking into this
- Art director Derek Anderson’s DUBGIF | The Casual
3. Familiarise yourself with “what’s good” in the industry.
It’s not healthy to spend too much spare time staring at ads, but here’s a few places worth checking.
- Copywriter Adrian Flores asks working creatives to send him three ads they like.
- Creativity Online.
- Campaign Brief and Mumbrella are the local industry standards (just don’t indulge the comments too much).
What if I’m a girl?
Good! There are too many dudes.
James Ross-Edwards has been a copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi and WhybinTBWA Group. He’s currently working on his writing, a series on pubs (and perennial Nextness-favourite) The Moderation Hotel, and freelancing for agencies including our own Lawrence Creative. If you have a bone to pick with his thoughts about copywriting, here’s his twitter: @frank_sartor!