Nick is a writer for branding and design. His work has won two Yellow Pencils in D&AD Writing for Design and appeared in the annual four more times. Personal projects include Corpoetics, a collection of poems made by rearranging corporate copy, and Pentone, the written equivalent of Pantone colour-matching system. In 2006, he wrote Alas! Smith & Milton: How not to run a design company, cited as an example of a design book whose words are as interesting as its pictures. He has contributed to several more books and is also a practising poet and reviewer. Nick has written for Creative Review magazine and blog, as well as other industry blogs and publications. Before turning freelance in 2002, he worked at creative consultancy Other Creative, where his roles included Head of Writing and eventually Managing Director.
So what is it about writing copy that made you want to take it up as a career?
It was never a conscious choice. I did an English degree and stumbled around for a while, before half-heartedly taking a telesales job, selling ad space on a magazine called Local Government Chronicle. Anyone who knows me will know that telesales isn’t my natural calling, but it does teach you some basic principles of selling.
While I was there, they put word out that they needed to design an ad promoting the magazine. I came up with an idea and it got used. (The idea was a map of Britain split into its local authorities, with the line 447 Authorities’. Beside it was a picture of the magazine with the line One authority. I’m sure everyone remembers it.) It was then I realised being creative with words and ideas was a skill I could use.
Who have you learnt your trade from -did anybody take you under their wing?
It wasn’t so much a particular person, as two early jobs that made a difference. As I said, the first was telesales, which teaches you more than you realise. Selling benefits and not features, going for the close all the classic Glengarry Glen Ross stuff.
The second was recruitment advertising, which was my first proper copywriting job. It wasn’t that glamorous -writing the kind of copy-heavy job ads you see in the Sunday Times Appointments section. But there is a real craft to it -you learn to prioritise messages and write concisely in a confined space. We were also paired with art directors, so from day one I learned about writing as part of a bigger process -the visual and the verbal always working together.
What about today -is the job as fulfilling as you thought it would be?
I definitely enjoy it, and the more you progress in your career, the better the quality of work you attract. In the past couple of years, I’ve received briefs I would have killed for a decade ago. But I don’t think you can just rely on the work that comes in for fulfilment -you have to create your own opportunities.
I can tell that when you write that there’s a lot of inventive thinking going on. Do you find it limiting that you can’t always apply it -or do you find that there are plenty of opportunities out there?
With self-initiated projects, the only real limit is time. I have a queue of projects I want to do at some point â€“Â I know a lot of people are the same. With commissioned work, I find it works best when you’re working as close as possible to the real decision-maker. A CEO will generally respect your expertise and sign things off quickly, partly because they have 15 more important decisions to make that day.
Do you find a lot of the work you write ends up with client hoofmarks all over it and if so, what’s the best way to deal with that?
It’s part of the writer’s life. Last year, I got a hashtag going on Twitter called #clienttweaks, full of imagined amends to classic lines. Beans mean Heinz’, Marmite: you’ll love it’, Reassuringly good value’ -that kind of thing. It’s an exaggeration but sometimes only just.
Generally, I find you have to pick your battles -sometimes it’s best to let it pass, other times you have to fight your corner. You also have to entertain the possibility you might be wrong. Just recently, I had a job that went through several rounds of amends, some of which were quite rudely expressed. Your natural reaction is to feel a sense of injustice, but I eventually decided the client had a point -they often do.
Tell us about your time as Managing Director of Other Creative. How did that come about and was it an experience you enjoyed?
It was an interesting company -founded in 1995 by two writers, including Mike Reed, whom some readers will know. (I have to say whom’ as it’s Mike.) I joined a few months afterwards and the company grew from there.
At the time, a writing company was a rarity. Even more unusually, we also employed designers -I think we had five writers, three designers, a couple of account managers and a few freelancers.
I often hear writers complaining about not having enough creative control, but it’s usually because designers are the ones who set up the businesses and get the work in, so they earn the right to call the shots. It would be nice to see more full service agencies with writers in charge -there’s nothing stopping it happening.
I enjoyed most of the time there, but towards the end it became more about the increasingly messy politics of running a business, rather than doing the creative part.
I see you’re part of the D&AD Writing for Design jury again this year. Do you learn anything important from reading other writers’ efforts?
It definitely makes you more critical of your own work you see at first hand how the smallest weakness in a piece of work can throw the whole thing.
You also see there are some projects that are perfectly good, but just aren’t award-winners. I used to find this frustrating in the early days. You think: it answers the brief perfectly, it was a difficult client, and we did amazingly to make it as good as it was, so why doesn’t it win? But in a way, you’ve already had your reward for jobs like that -the reward being getting paid and commissioned to do more work. To win a creative award, it needs to do something extra.
I think it’s good to have awards -it provides a career goal, motivating you to push a project that bit further. But awards schemes are also inherently fickle and unfair, so you can drive yourself mad if you set too much stall by them. I’m looking forward to seeing the entries -it’s an important category and I think it should get more interesting every year.
John Fountain is a freelance copywriter.