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Opinions - "Could you just ...?" What does a copywriter actually do these days?

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by Mgnus Shaw

 

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My first gig as an advertising copywriter was in 1994, at an agency on Fleet Street. I was writing the radio scripts and the run-of-the-mill press ads nobody else really fancied.The range of clients was impressively wide - from Virgin Atlantic to The Army - but the actual tasks were quite predictable. Every brief would either be for a print ad or a wireless ad, with the ratio favouring print. I loved it. Spending my days writing, then collecting the voucher copies of magazines and papers to see my work published, or flipping around the dial to hear my scripts as they were broadcast. And being paid for it. Very satisfying.


In the intervening eighteen years, the job has changed immeasurably. It's still called "copywriting" and still involves moving words from my head to a screen via a keyboard, but I can't recall the last time I wrote a straightforward, one-off press ad. Or a simple radio script, for that matter. The copywriter's remit has evolved and morphed into something quite different.

Obviously, the internet has had a lot to do with this. It was almost a year before that Fleet Street agency had an email address (not an email address for me, just one for the whole business) and I had long since left by the time it had a website. But suddenly, everyone was wired. Account Directors were urging creatives to push campaigns online, to think "digitally," and copywriters had to figure out how advertising messages worked in a setting where HTML was replacing ink. Those briefs for quarter page press ads were now briefs for banners, buttons and emails. I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration to claim it was copywriters who did the groundwork on this. Nobody handed us a "Writing For The Web" instruction manual. We took our understanding of written communications and shaped those principles for a whole new medium. I wouldn't say we were making it up as we went along, but it was something close to it. Let's call it "trial and error."

By the turn of the millennium, it was a foregone conclusion that any campaign would feature an online presence - indeed, sometimes the entire piece would be digital - so the copywriter had become a rather different beast from the traditional ad writer. Then we all embarked on the dark science of search engine optimisation. Copy now had a secondary purpose. Not only were we asked convey meaning and purpose to a human audience, our work's attractiveness to the Googlebot was a major consideration, requiring copywriters to weave bundles of keywords and phrases into our text. For the first time, technology (as well as the client, the account handler and the Art Director) was influencing written content.

This communication revolution continues to have a massive impact on the craft of copy. Today, I am as likely to be asked to write for an iPhone app as I am to build a suite of headlines for a poster campaign. Actually, even more so.

Blogs, e-books, microsites - they've all brought new demands and needs to the copywriter's door. But this is no special pleading. The re-shaping of the media has challenged everyone in the creative industry. Designers, publishers, artists and illustrators have all found the need to adapt rapidly and continually to remain relevant, able and employable. This is a good thing. Some professions are unchanging - carpentry, cleaning, taxi driving - all pretty much the same as they were ten years ago. As creatives we are fortunate to be at the forefront of a business which is shifting and refining at an incredible speed. If nothing else, it keeps us motivated and excited.

So what is the jobbing copywriter actually doing for a living these days? Well, this certainly varies from writer to writer, but it could include writing and running a Twitter feed; updating and editing website content; managing Facebook pages; blogging for clients; scripting YouTube clips; deploying SEO and developing digital brands. In the last couple of years, I've been asked to do all these tasks. At times it has been a steep learning curve, on other occasions it has been fascinating to see how something as ancient as the written word fits so naturally into cutting edge technology.

For all this complexity and new thinking, I am still a copywriter. My clients still need me to write well, understand a proposition and use skill and experience to sell it. However, if someone had told me how radically the job would change when I was writing those ads back in 1994, I'm not sure I would have believed them.



Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.

Visit Magnus Shaw's website
www.creativepool.co.uk/magnusshaw

"ADVICE" a collection of Magnus Shaw's columns is now available as a Kindle book.

 

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