I shared the lift up to Ogilvy’s Docklands HQ with a young photographer clutching a portfolio the size of Rutland. We got chatting, and he admitted he couldn’t help overhearing who I was meeting. “You’ll get a good interview”, he said… “Will’s the nicest man in advertising”, and so it proved. After a brief chat, Will – who is indeed a distant relation of the Rev W G Awdry of “Thomas the Tank Engine” fame – made me a cuppa and led me to his office (that’s how important he is). After the obligatory shuffling of chairs and switching on of tape recorders we got down to business.
Perhaps you could start by telling me what exactly you do.
I’m the joint Creative Director at Ogilvy in London. I’ve spent most of my working life in advertising, initially as an account exec but for the last 23 years as a copywriter and creative director at a number of agencies. These days I’d have to call myself a creative director rather than a copywriter because most of the writing I do these days is emails. I’m still a copywriter in the sense that I’m involved with selling, mainly selling ideas to my own people, and more often than not they’re the most sceptical audience of all.
Do you miss hands-on writing?
Yes, but there are pros and cons to both positions. Advertising copywriting places a real premium on the idea, so these days I’m coaching people whose copywriting has to build those ideas in the mind of the audience. Plus there’s no point having a dog and barking yourself – not that my writers are dogs, I’m certainly the cur here. You need to establish very clear rules when you’re guiding and managing creative people. They need to know you won’t step onto their patch, so if I half write something, either in conversation or in front of their eyes, it’s important they can then take ownership of it. That generosity of spirit is essential and works both ways.
You mentioned you started out as a suit. What made you change from an account position to copywriter?
If you work in any creative company the people who have the most fun are the creatives. Back then mine was a world of calculator management. Rightly or wrongly I felt I had a talent for communicating using the written word so watching other people do it made me incredibly impatient to do it myself. So following a sacking from my accounts job I put together a speculative portfolio, started showing it to people and BBH took me on.
Was there anyone there who took you under their wing?
Barbara Nokes was Head of Copy at BBH and every single thing you wrote had to go in front of headmistress. She would literally go though it with red pen. In that situation it was better to be an empty vessel and just allow yourself to absorb everything around you. I also voraciously read everything and anything to do with creative advertising and commercial communications. For about two years of my life I could tell you who won Best Art Director in Ulan Bator in1957 for “Best advert for household appliance made out of yak milk”. I became deeply dull.
Was seeing your first ads in print a thrill?
Yes it was an extraordinary feeling. It’s a thrill that diminishes a little as time goes on, I must say. There’s still a faint echo of that today but what’s really going to make you famous isn’t your name in lights, it’s getting other people’s names in lights.
In what sense?
If you look at the work of David Abbott, a hugely celebrated copywriter, he had a clear house style. But what you remembered in his work for Sainsbury’s or Volvo or The Economist is the distinct language he created for each. If you really wanted to see your name up there you’d better write novels or journalism or screenplays.
So it’s about making the brand the star
Exactly. If you make the brand the star you’re doing well at your job, and one piece of advice I give to my students is “I don’t want to see one piece of your writing because that’s you talking to me. I want to see at least 10 products/brands/services or organisations talking to me to demonstrate you can become different voices.”
So apart from versatility, what other characteristics do you think copywriters need?
Broadly speaking you need to be able to balance transmit and receive. The information gathering process is essential for a copywriter. You notice when you talk to copywriters they listen. So if you think there are two types of people in this business, drains and radiators, then copywriters need to be both. They need to suck the ideas out of a room, process them and them radiate their answers.
Is there anything noticeably different about copywriting compared to other forms of commercial writing?
You can almost guarantee your first draft won’t run, so you’ll almost certainly be asked to revisit your spontaneity. It’s all very well writing from the hip and all that but I’ve never met anyone who could do that and create a workable first draft. You need to develop a reasoned argument that also has to be interesting and entertaining and hides the finger wagging. I’ve never met anyone who can do that first time.
How do you actually start writing?
There comes a point where all the cups are washed, the desk is tidy, all my pencils are sharp and there’s nothing I can do to delay the moment any longer. It’s about panic and a naked fear of having seen to having failed. Once I’ve got something down on paper I’ll leave it alone. After minutes, hours or days I’ll reread it and think, “Hmm, that’s OK but that needs to go and the order needs to change and I need more here” and so on. Almost certainly the bit you’re most in love with – that choice turn of phrase you’re so proud of – has to go.
Any tips or tricks you’d care to share?
I’ve lots of little tricks that are begged borrowed and stolen from other writers, and that’s the generosity of spirit I was talking about. The best advice I know comes from Churchill: begin strongly, have one theme, use simple language, leave a picture in the listeners mind, end dramatically.
That’s my whole book in 17 words. What about big influences on your writing?
Certainly Barbara Nokes who guided me in a Miss Jean Brody style during my early years. I’d also be mad not to acknowledge people like David Abbott and Tim Delaney. Beyond advertising I’d say Richard Ford – who was David Abbott’s favourite writer – and Graham Greene – who was Tim Delaney’s favourite writer. It’s his economy and the amount of mood he creates given the lack of adjectives that make Greene’s writing so extraordinary.
How do you stay fresh?
I’m always looking for new choice phrases, and like a magpie I nick stuff all the time. The writer that’s influencing me most right now is Marina Hyde in The Guardian. Her use of language is fantastic, it’s someone having fun with words. I think reading is important for your sanity and makes writing more fun. To keep your language fresh you need to keep migrating from the world of reader to writer and back again.
How do you feel about being a bit of a magpie? I think we all do it.
This touches on an oft-visited but seldom resolved subject – and that’s what’s yours and what you contributed. We all have the same narrow range of tools at our disposal – 26 letters – and you inevitably borrow and are influenced by others. It’s a question of use and how you recontextualise what you pick up. On that basis you can’t put a Berlin Wall around your thoughts, you have to be porous.
So is originality important? Or it authenticity more significant?
Originality is still possible, even in the most tired, overworked areas like car advertising. God knows how much time, effort, money and mental expenditure have gone into selling cars over the years, and yet I still see fresh thoughts and inventive new ways of coming at the old problem of flogging cars. So originality is never dead. Having said that, one person’s originality is another persons reworking of existing thought, that then come across as something emphatically authentic. That gives it a definitive quality and the appearance of originality.
Advertising is a highly visual medium. Is the traditional pairing of the copywriter and art director still relevant? Is advertising changing in favour of the visual?
Let me turn that around. You often hear how a picture is worth a thousand words, but lob one word into a room and it can inspire a thousand pictures – Christ, Diana, Jordan – those words all invoke a whole set of images. So I’d say language is a visual medium, because it takes words to describe what you see. Ogilvy thundered that advertising is 70% visual and there’s undoubtedly a form of trench warfare between the two sides. What really matters isn’t who’s more important but what you leave your audience with. My job is to rent space in people brains, and I’ll use whatever it takes to do that.
How do you know when you’re ready to write?
The first thing is, if you don’t know what question you’re trying to answer you shouldn’t start. So ask yourself, “What am I trying to do?” Once you’ve got that you can formulate your answer. And if you know where you need to get to it doesn’t matter where you start. Maybe you start on what ultimately becomes paragraph three, maybe somewhere else – it doesn’t matter. But you need to know what you want to achieve.
How do you organise longer pieces of writing?
I might do a flow diagram to work out what I need to establish before I can make my killer point. I might then end with a flourish that reiterates the introduction – the so-called well made ad. I do tend to start at the beginning and write through. The real test is how much can I take out before it falls apart, because that’s when you realise how much of your own personality you’ve put between the message and the reader. Personality is important of course but too much and it can become impenetrable.
Do you ever get stuck? And if so how do you break out?
It involves a third party. Find someone unconnected with what you’re having trouble with. Don’t explain the problem, but instead explain what you’re trying to do, the message you’re trying to put across. You’ll usually have to go back to square one to explain it, and in that conversation you’ll come at it from a different angle.
How do you know when something is working?
You get to a point when it’s almost impossible to change something because everything is important and everything matters. You go for a walk around the metaphorical block, come back, look at it and think, “I can’t really do any better than that”. In fact that probably means it’s overworked already. As you said before we started, first drafts tend to have an immediate energy that you’ve got to be careful not to lose.
As a creative director you’re involved with hiring and firing. Any advice for a copywriter trying to break into or progress in advertising?
Your portfolio is your calling card, so you need to show a diversity of voices and approaches. Start by approaching as many people as you can, then narrow your mentors to just two or three people as soon as possible. There are as many opinions as there are individuals and you risk being paralysed by contradictory advice if you’re not careful. Also, work on your technique because there’s only so far you can go on instinct. Being grounded in the metre of what you’re trying to get across will help. Copywriting is a craft skill that needs regular transfusions of originality from the real world.
See Roger’s Brilliant Copywriting (published by Prentice Hall in July 2009) for more interviews with leading business writers.