How to become a: copywriter
Design Week: What’s your educational background?
Sam Pollen: Unusually for a writer, I’m from a science background. I went to a state school, and studied all sciences at A-level, then did a natural sciences degree at Cambridge University, focusing on zoology and psychology. When I was a kid, I really wanted to work in animal behaviour or at a zoo.
DW: What’s your career journey been so far?
SP: After graduating, I didn’t want to do something academic, and I was very into photography at the time, so I interned at a photography studio for a year. I enjoyed doing something creative but found that it was a really challenging discipline as it’s hard to progress — I was working with people who were very good, but who were in their 40s and still assistants.
So, I left and took a year-long paid scholarship at advertising agency Ogilvy, in their health department. The scholarship meant I tried out lots of different roles, like account management, planning and a bit of creative work. After experiencing ad world, I realised that the bit I enjoyed the most was writing.
I then worked at Conran and Partners, Terence Conran’s interior design studio, doing a mixed role of marketing and copywriting — I often convinced them to let me write design briefs!
When I was 25, I applied for a copywriting job at writing agency Reed Words, where I’ve now been for five years, working under creative director, Mike Reed. I’ve worked my way up from writer, to senior writer, to head of digital writing, which is a leadership and creative direction role.
DW: What first got you interested in copywriting?
SP: I’ve always been a creative person, but I slowly discovered that writing was what I was best at and allowed me to create things I was happy with. There wasn’t really a lightbulb moment. I didn’t realise copywriting was a job when I was at university — if you study English, you automatically think of publishing, academia, maybe journalism. There’s a big access problem; brand writing isn’t very visible, particularly if you haven’t done a communications degree.
DW: What does a typical working day look like for you?
SP: It varies a bit, depending on whether I’m working at Reed Words’ studio, or on site with a client. I spend roughly two thirds of my time at the studio, and a third with clients.
There’s nine people on the team in total, including six writers and three non-writers, who are the founding director, client director and the office personal assistant (PA).
Typically, our hours are 9.30am to 5.30pm, and we’re pretty good at sticking to that. Four days out of five, I’m out of the office by 6pm. I think people work better in creative jobs for a fixed amount of time, when they’re alert, awake and interested. We don’t stay late, churning out a load of stuff until 11pm.
I spend the first half hour of the day catching up on emails and sorting out things that have happened over night; we have clients in the US, so we often wake up to crises to fix. We then have a studio stand-up meeting at 10am for half an hour, to figure out everybody’s workload and issues — who has deadlines and who is currently “blocked”, meaning they are waiting for feedback from a client before they can continue with a project, so can work on something else in the meantime.
The rest of the day depends on the projects I’m working on. It’ll be a mixture of writing for client projects, internal copy for our own leadership team, and press and marketing copy. As a creative lead, I also sit down with junior writers, look at what they’ve done and offer guidance and feedback.
DW: What are your main day-to-day tasks?
SP: As head of digital copywriting, I have a leadership role. I creatively direct other people’s projects, and lead on my own. These projects vary from renaming products and copyrighting things, to writing brochures and copy for websites, to compiling a whole set of brand voice guidelines and doing training for clients.
I tend to focus on digital products, so writing copy for user interfaces. My job is to strike the balance between creating something that works simply and elegantly for a user, but also communicates what the brand is and its voice – it’s about accessibility coupled with tone. I collaborate with developers and designers on this, looking at things like user menus, headlines and buttons.
At Reed Words, our bread-and-butter is brand voice work. In the same way as designers would, we speak with clients to figure out what their brand personality is, what they are hoping to achieve, and who their audience is. Sometimes we work through design studios, and sometimes we work directly with clients.
I develop routes to solve their problem, share them internally, then we critique them as a studio. I then present ideas back to the client, often in the form of writing samples. I will share these with them over email too, as they often want time to read them. I then gather their feedback and develop the work further.
There’s a discovery process to the job – I do a lot of research. I often scour online forums and review sites to pull out language used around a topic, as well as analysing other brands in the sector.
I tend to work on paper, brainstorming and writing down my initial thoughts – I find that this way, I don’t edit myself and write in a more unfiltered way. Designers often do the same by hand-sketching first.
The length of projects is broad – some last half a day, and some go on for five years! Generally, the split is 70% of time spent on projects that take a few weeks or a month, 15% on longer-term projects and 15% on very short projects.
DW: How creatively challenging is the job?
SP: There are projects that are more creatively satisfying, and those that are less so. The challenge with writing is closing the gap between what a company wants to say for themselves and what a customer wants to hear.
Brands often want to over-complicate things; I play the role of devil’s advocate, asking them what things mean to a user, and why people should care about it. There’s an old-fashioned idea that copywriting is about making things sound flowery but it’s often about making something sound simple.
DW: How closely do copywriters and graphic designers work?
SP: It’s typical for us to work with designers and creative directors, particularly on digital projects. We often work with a partner design studio, thinking about the problem in different ways, then bouncing ideas off each other. We do the same when we need to work with illustrators or photographers.
Historically, writers were brought in at the last minute to write a few paragraphs of copy. Our work is increasingly less like that. Usually, a design studio will bring us in soon after meeting a client, then we’ll collaborate on the development of the new identity. There’s a mutual appreciation of each other’s work because we’re thinking about the same goal but through different skillsets.
DW: What strengths do you need to be a copywriter?
SP: It’s a given but you need to be a good writer — you need to be able to write in a lovely way or make things punchy and clear. Nine times out of 10, it’s about simplifying things. You also need to be empathetic and be able to see things from someone else’s point of view. You need to have the ability to take yourself out of your own experiences and knowledge and ask what something means to someone else. Design requires this core skill too.
DW: What are the best parts of your job?
SP: I really love working at a studio alongside other people day-to-day; a lot of writers work as freelancers and often from their basement or the end of their garden, and don’t get the benefits of learning from other people or critiquing things as a team. I’m also lucky that I do a great mix of work, from arts clients like the Tate, the Barbican and the National Theatre, to technology brands, to publishers working on a Sesame Street book!
DW: What are the worst parts of your job?
SP: Working in words can be tricky in a way that design isn’t, because everyone uses words and writes. Only a few people at a studio will deal with visual design, but everyone will have an opinion on your writing.
There’s also often a degree of creative compromise with any project that has a brief. Other people often disagree with you, or don’t get what you’re trying to do. Being able to take feedback and move things on is part of the learning process but sometimes it really sucks, because you want it to be a certain way. The work I do at Reed Words is inevitably less “my baby”, as it’s more compromised.
But on the plus side, my nice working hours allow me to be creative in my spare time – I’m also an author and have my first book coming out this year, which is a fiction novel about a boy with anorexia aimed at young adults.
DW: If you were interviewing for a junior copywriter, what would you look for?
SP: Writing aptitude is the first thing but that’s often misinterpreted as needing a big portfolio of impressive client work. That’s not true – if someone is a good writer from journalism or marketing, I’m very receptive to that too.
I absolutely consider graphic designers, too. They have a core skill of communicating things and showing empathy with other people. People with a design background often do the exact type of thinking we do day-to-day. When recruiting, I tend to look broadly.
Pragmatic realism and maturity are useful things; people need to accept there will be creative compromise. We tend to think of creative jobs in a dreamy way but it’s an important skill to be confronted with a problem or rejection, and then find a way to deal with it.
DW: What advice can you offer people considering a job in copywriting?
SP: I really enjoy my job but it’s not very visible, and often people don’t know about it. For that reason, we don’t only hire people who have had experience doing exactly what we do. Pursuing and exploring creative opportunities of any kind is a good starting point. Other pursuits are impressive and interesting to us, whether that’s student journalism, writing books or anything else.
A lot of people fall into copywriting from other jobs – the patterns are so different that I would say not to worry about doing a job to start with that isn’t exactly what you’re interested in, because they’re stepping stones — I did a science degree! As a society, we’re quite accepting now of portfolio careers and enabling people to figure out what they want to do so there’s not one correct route.