Dan Germain

What can we say about Innocent Drink’s much-praised writing that hasn’t been said before? Hopefully something or you might as well skip to the next interview. The fact is their quirky text has put copywriting on the map for many people. In fact their success has caused copywriters some problems, as these days every other client, regardless of their business, wants to sound like Innocent. To find out more I headed for unlovely Shepherds Bush to speak to Dan Germain, head of creative at Innocent. He met me in reception minus shoes and socks, presumably all the better to experience the tingle of Astroturf between his toes – you didn’t imagine Innocent went for anything as conventional as carpet, did you? After a few stiff smoothies we got to work.

What do you call yourself?

I’m head of creative at Innocent Drinks. I’ve worked here since it started in 1999. In that time I’ve helped take Innocent from something people knew nothing about to something that more people know about, and a lot of that’s hopefully been to do with stuff we’ve written. I have other creative duties to do with design, but writing is the thing I’m proudest of and I think I’m best at.

How much writing do you do these days?

Less than I used to. I have a team that includes a dedicated writer called Ceri, so a lot of what I do is rewriting, editing and coaching. I tend to still write bigger stuff like adverts. Plus at the moment we’re writing a book on Innocent and I’m doing that. Every week I probably spend a few hours rather than a few days creating nice new words for labels, but then it’s the time around the writing that’s productive.

How did you get into the business?

I went to university with the three chaps who founded innocent. I was employee number four. I wasn’t writing copy then, more driving vans and delivering smoothies. Gradually I started to write the blurb on the side of the bottles, so I stumbled into it. Before Innocent I was bumming around Asia as an English teacher. I’ve always liked writing and thought I was good at it but I didn’t know how to make a career out of it. In fact I didn’t know how to make a career out of anything. I wanted to save the planet, make films and meet beautiful women, and I didn’t know how to do any of those things. I still don’t. So I think ending up here and earning my corn as a professional writer was a happy accident.

Innocent is famous for its tone of voice. Did that voice arrive fully formed?

Some people think it was a careful marketing decision – it wasn’t, it was pretty much unplanned. It grew out of the way we spoke to each other. If it made us laugh then I knew something was halfway to being right. “Does it make my friends laugh?” was as technical as our market research got.

What was the first thing you wrote at Innocent?

It was a label. I came in about a month after the launch and Richard had already written the first eight labels, so I had a go at the next batch. I think it was one about mangoes – I’d learned something about the particular mangoes we were using, so I did something clichéd about being exotic. We can dig it out if you like but I’m sure we’d be underwhelmed.

How did it feel to see that early writing on the shelf?

Brilliant. I remember one piece I did about my granddad – of whom I’m very fond – for the back of a Tetrapak. I don’t think he’d eaten a piece of fruit in his life and we got him drinking smoothies by stealth, so suddenly at the age of 70 he was enjoying fruit. I wrote something about him seeing off the Germans, travelling the world and now getting into fruit. My grandparents stood in the chiller area of their local shop for hours pointing it out to anyone who passed.

Is there a copywriter personality type?

I can only speak about Innocent, but I think you need to be a bit of a journalist within our business. There’s lots of good stuff happening but it might be buried in a file or a brain somewhere. We have guys travelling the world buying five years’ worth of mangoes from India and the like. They’ve all got great tales to tell but the last thing they want to do when they get back is come over and tell me all about it. So you have to be proactive and put yourself about a bit.

What is brilliant copywriting?

Brilliant copywriting doesn’t demand any explanation. It’s short and sweet and hits the spot first time. Just recently we had a competition to find some words to go on the bottom of our bottles. The best was ‘Trapped in bottle factory. Send help.’ Now that’s brilliant.

Is there anything fundamentally different about copywriting compared to other forms of writing?

Writing here takes a mix of different skills. You’ve got to go and find the story, so you’re a journalist. You’ve got to make it come alive in people’s minds, so you’re a poet. So to answer your question, I’m not sure there is. You’re still using basic writing skills, but perhaps in a different combination.

Do you ever hanker after doing something – how can I put it – weightier?

Well I’m not a frustrated novelist as some copywriters undoubtedly are. I’ve met plenty of copywriters and there are always a few budding novelists amongst them. I’ve got friends who’ve written novels, and friends who’ve tried and failed, but I’m less interested in fiction as I get older, I’m more into science and nature.

Do you read much?

I do, and I’m married to a woman who reads a lot, so she shames me into reading more. I have two young kids so I don’t have as much time as I once did. Reading is a luxury now, so I have to know it’s going to be good before I start. I mainly read books about the world that will hopefully turn out to be grist to the mill. I’m into space and the cosmos. I have a brilliant Oxford A-Z of food. There are a million things in there I can use in my day job.

Any there golden rules for writing at Innocent?

It’s got to be interesting. That’s all I do, tell people about interesting stuff. More specifically, here’s something I stole about starting to write: you have your first idea – great, but don’t use it. 90% of people will have thought of that so it’ll be boring. Have another idea – great, don’t use that either. 8% of people will have thought of that. Go for the third idea – that’s what hardly anyone will have got to, that’s the one people will say, “ah, what an interesting approach”. There’s also an uber rule at Innocent to write naturally. Ceri and I write differently using different vocabularies but it has to be natural – it has to sound like a real person speaking.

Do you have any writing guidelines here?

Well, we have brand guidelines. Mainly they’re about design but there’s one page on writing and it’s mainly about being polite. Say hello, write to the person you’re speaking to, get their attention quickly and leave them with something to think about at the end.

Who’s been the biggest influence on your writing?

I’d have to say Richard here at Innocent. He’s my friend and the company’s founder and he’s got really clear ideas about copy. He used to work in advertising and learned plenty doing that. Also a guy called Ed Morris who worked at an agency called Lowe, and Rich Flintham at Fallon. All these naturally creative types I meet show me where to seek inspiration and find ideas. The book that’s had the most influence on me is Catch 22 – it’s laugh out loud funny. It’s the same with Kurt Vonnegut. Both mock the stupidity of man in a light-hearted yet ultimately dark way.

What about your writing routines and rituals? For example, what hours do you work?

I write at the beginning or the end of the day. I get up early, go for a quick run and get to my desk by 7. Then I can write well until the office gets busy at 9. In the evening after the kids have gone to bed I can do a bit more. I prefer to work in bursts of about an hour. Music is a distraction for me – ideally I need quiet. For the office I have noise-cancelling headphones and lots of non-distracting music without lyrics. I’m also a deadline fiend – I need the deadline to be about 3 minutes away before I start, although curiously if it gets too close I go weirdly catatonic.

Any writing that you really love or indeed hate?

I don’t massively enjoy writing shelf barkers or anything that veers towards the more commercial. It’s got to be done, mind, and some of the best things I’ve ever written ended up in unglamorous places like the edge of a shelf in Morrisons and sold far more smoothies than some of the wanky ad or digital stuff I’ve done.

How do you plan and prepare?

We have a wiki here where everyone who learns anything about anything dumps their knowledge. So if I’m writing about blueberries the first thing I do is check the wiki to see ‘Oh, Simon’s been in America recently checking the blueberry harvest’. Then I’ll go and have a cuppa with Simon and ask him all sorts of stuff. It turns out he stayed at this weird hotel called the Blueberry Lodge which was shaped like a giant blueberry. That’s the sort of thing I’m looking for. There’s no point telling people ‘we only use the finest blueberries’. They either know that or they don’t care. Or both.

How long to write a label?

We get a big bunch of briefs and four weeks later we hand over our stuff, usually a batch of 30 at a time. I can write one in about 15 minutes, and then come back to it a few days later for a bit of spit and polish. I’ll usually sit down for an hour and do 3 or 4 and give them to Ceri who’ll check them and sort them into piles of good and bad, along with the stuff she’s written.

Do you ever get stuck, and if so how do you break out?

One thing I do is start from a random word or sentence. So if I’ve got a brief to write about health and cranberries I might start with a line like ‘the thing about squirrels is…’. Then you know that however you get back to health and cranberries will either be interesting and funny or completely shit. So it’s good to have a few opening lines like that to play with and wake you up.

With only 90 or so words to work with presumably you’re a ferocious editor…

I am, but let me tell you a story about the dangers of letting others into the editing process. The other day I described something as being ‘upside your head’ and the designers I showed it to couldn’t understand it because they’re from a different generation to me. They didn’t know it came from a song by The Gap Band. So I played them the tune and showed them the video on YouTube. And I put my foot down and told them it’s staying in, even if some of our readers might be momentarily confused. It’s about not patronising the reader. I can’t begin to say how important it is to respect their intelligence. People are so well versed in the dark and dumb arts of marketing there’s no point trying to outsmart the punter.

And finally, any words of wisdom for aspiring copywriters?

Write lots of stuff. Keep writing. Write snappy lines and short stories. Stick your words on a blog. Try writing a bit of everything. But most importantly, just write. It’s amazing the number of people who applied for the job of copywriter at Innocent about a year ago who couldn’t show me any stuff of note. That’s a real no no.

Be interested in the world around you; write about the things that interest you and steal ideas from anywhere – the best CVs that I see are like the start of a good conversation, rather than a list of achievements and medals won for being clever.

See Roger’s Brilliant Copywriting (published by Prentice Hall in July 2009) for more interviews with leading business writers.

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