So you want to be a copywriter in Advertising?

13.10.2010

I get asked this at least a dozen times a week: “How did you get a job in advertising?”

To which I respond, “Do you want the short story or the long story?”

This is quite a long post, so for digital natives or if you have the attention span of a goldfish, read the italicized text.

There are many ways to get into advertising. Everyone in the industry has his or her unique story. And it’s good listening to (or reading) those stories, if only to get a little inspired.

Study is not necessarily the passport one requires to get into Advertising — but it helps. So too does life experience and personal ability.

I remember as a 23-year old sitting with a creative director of a multinational agency. He started our conversation with a blaze of questions. “Have you purchased a house? Have you experienced true love? Bought your dream car? Have you had your heart crushed? Do you know the feeling of loss, or huge debt, despair even? Do you know what makes you and other people tick?”

I told him I had a couple of those experiences under my belt, to which he replied, “A couple? Well what use are you to me? Go and experience life then come see me!” I then asked him if he’d like to experience the latest brand of beer from the local liquor store. He hired me on the spot for a short-term contract. He either figured I had some sales skills and/or possibly research skills to uncover the fact he was particularly fond of beer. That or I was a cheeky bastard who deserved a shot! I got those beers and we celebrated. I’m pretty sure this approach wouldn’t work today, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

Before Advertising I had lived quite a lot. I started working life in a bank (customer service, teller, treasury, audit, investigations), which seemed like a good idea at the time. But it did help me to understand people – and their needs and desires. That and mostly, customers are always right. I also learnt that in a large organization you are a small but important cog, which has the ability to impact somebody’s opinion of the company you represent. Screw that up and you’re not just messing with your own livelihood. So respect your employer and their needs like you do your elders. It's the least you can do in exchange for your pay cheque.

Then in stark contrast, I became a pistol carrying private investigator in Sydney. (Don't ask me how.) I was shot at twice, completed a truckload of undercover assignments, got my nickname Magnum, and at one stage I (unwittingly) found myself on the wrong side of popular with the head of a certain crime family. It wasn't me and I still know nothing!

But what I really wanted to be was a copywriter.

So I got books by and about Bill Bernbach (the “B” in “DDB”), as well as other copywriting books. I devoured everything I could about copywriting.

Incidentally, some good books on the subject I have read are:

The Craft of Copywriting, by Alastair Crompton (ISBN: 0-09-168031-X). Second edition 1987 (but still relevant and an excellent book).

The secrets of successful Copywriting, by Patrick Quinn (ISBN: 0-434-91613-7).

Hey Whipple, Squeeze this: A guide to creating great ads, by Luke Sullivan. (ISBN: 0-471-28139-5).

I then created a portfolio of work by taking ads out of magazines and newspapers and tried to come up with better ideas, and approaches. Armed with about 15 campaigns I door knocked all the way down St. Kilda Road, Melbourne, where all the top ad agencies lived. One after another I was knocked back. Too young. Too inexperienced. You suck mate. (Actual feedback.) This was during an advertising boom, so I was really disappointed. But I wasn't going to give up.

I had to get in via the back door, with a cunning plan. I would join a publisher as an agency sales rep and sell advertising space in these magazines to Media Managers and Directors in big ad agencies. This would give me an understanding of them and their world. I would get known for my outstanding personality and can-do attitude and then get headhunted (such was my confidence). Then I would be on the inside as a media assistant or media buyer and work my way up... whilst spending every opportunity I possibly could in the creative department.

And that’s exactly what happened.

I was fired from my first Sydney agency for hanging out with the creative staff whenever I could. That was a tough pill to swallow as I loved that agency.

For the next two years I worked for a film production company in Sydney as a writer/producer. We worked mainly on music videos and TV commercials. I even directed a few ads for out-of-town agencies. Film production was really cool then (large budgets and equally impressive expense accounts). But most of the staff and management were into various types of recreational chemicals and I didn’t want to fry my brain, so in 1991, armed with some international experience, I returned home to Auckland and joined a top-two agency as a media planner/buyer. Yeah it was safer and got me back into the agency fold.

I hung out with creatives there too and even created a few ad campaigns (under the radar at first) that were used. One campaign is still going today! But once again, my obviously not so cunning plan was exposed! The national media director called me into his office and said, “Will, we only hire senior creative staff at this agency. Anyway, media is god here (which I think made him Jesus), and if you are not into that experience you are not here. Good day sir.”

Bastard. It was a week before the agency Christmas party. But it was the best thing he could have done for me as I was drowning a horrible death as a bad media buyer! So, getting into creative via media was not going to happen. That approach gave me an excellent grasp of the industry and some great experiences, but I needed another way.

I was then told about the Axis Advertising Ideas School. I needed to get accepted into that course to jumpstart a creative career. The open brief was advertised in the main national daily and regional newspapers. 12 students would be accepted.

The task was to name and write a campaign about a new fertiliser -- manure produced by animals at the Zoo. Nice!

So I found somewhere to live in central Wellington and sent in my application. I was accepted! Waahooo! I studied hard and learnt heaps from different agency creative directors. It was intense and shorter than the course is now (run by Media Design School in Auckland), but we were exposed to great agencies and their philosophies and methodologies.

After the course I worked for Saatchi & Saatchi and Saatchi & Saatchi Direct working on some great brands. I then ended up freelancing for other agencies before taking on full-time roles. It was my second full-time agency where I first became a creative director. That was fun.

Many experiences and agencies later, I founded Adland, where I am today. We’re a hybrid agency – online, digital and print. Our team is all over the globe as we hire top brains irrespective of their location. The benefit of this is we have a 24-hour operation. Clients like that. So do I.

If you want to excel in advertising, learn a lot about life. Your life experiences become material that you can draw on to make better connections with people. Connect with people in ways that matter and you will have a lasting and meaningful relationship with them. Every advertiser wants that.

If you don’t complete an advertising course your path may be harder, but it's not an impossible one to navigate. But what these courses do is pop you up on agency creative director radars.

Media Design School took over Axis about 10 years ago I think. Their main ad agency course is called “Ad School: Creative Advertising”. It's still very popular and I've hired graduates from this course over the years. http://www.mediadesign.school.nz/courses/creative-advertising/

You’ll learn about art direction and will touch on the other disciplines, but you can seriously focus on copywriting. Learning other skills is a great thing in advertising. But concept is king/queen. It’s all about ideas and then expressing those in captivating ways.

AUT competes with Ad School and have a good course run by Paul White: Advertising Creativity, which is part of their Bachelor of Communication Studies. Check them out here: http://www.aut.ac.nz/study-at-aut/study-areas/communications/qualifications/u...

I've also had the pleasure of dealing with Roger Hawkins who runs advertising papers at Unitec: http://www.unitec.ac.nz.

If you decide not to do a course you will need a really good ideas-based, creative portfolio, with some long copy examples.

No matter how much the industry changes and reinvents itself, storytelling is a big part of advertising. Engage someone with your story and you have a chance of entering not only their mind, but their heart and wallet/purse too ;).

Finally, never give up. Keep pursuing your dreams. Be persistent, determined and focused, and you will have a better chance of succeeding, especially if you are good at what you do.

Good luck.


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