As the footer of this column will tell you, I’m a copywriter. And a blogger. I also dabble in journalism and podcasting. These are all quite enjoyable and satisfying things – at least from time-to-time – and I’m pretty lucky to do them for a living.
I know, because now and again somebody will contact me asking how he or she can get started in one or other of these fields. I’m usually happy to give what mediocre advice I can (most of my jobs I happened upon by accident, so I’m no expert), and so I always reply. But often, I am struck by the distance between the impression these correspondents have of creative and media work, and the reality.
I don’t blame them at all - and I’m certainly not mocking their ambitions. In many ways, it’s the industry’s fault.
Advertising agencies have a vested interest in appearing glamorous, stylish, arch and even (heaven forbid) crazy. It shows clients the depth of their creative thinking and the ‘energy’ they will inject into an account. And naturally, ad agencies can sometimes be stimulating, exciting and fun places to work. So can supermarkets. The point is, more often than not, an advertising business is an office-based environment with the same stresses, politics and frustrations as an insurance company. You’ll look long and hard for leggy models, of either gender, reclining on sofas, absent-mindedly drawing on a Marlboro Light. Celebrity actors supping lattes and cracking witticisms as they prepare for a voiceover are nowhere to be seen, and cabs do not wait expectantly outside the building, readying themselves to whisk copywriters to Barbados for another sun cream shoot. Which is a particular pity.
"The work can be hard to come by, the deadlines often unrealistic and the end result battered into submission by an uncaring ogre."
In fact, disappointingly, most days are spent with a keyboard and screen, trying with ever decreasing gusto to cook up something the client will buy without amending the entire concept into oblivion. And often failing. Then there are the unpaid late nights, the unreasonable criticism and the propensity for employers to hand round the P45s each time an account is lost. Nobody even drinks that much anymore.
Now writing is an interesting career selection. It’s very easy to get into. Just open your laptop and type something. Bingo! You’re a writer. Making a living from your efforts is a touch more tricky.
You may imagine a writer simply slams down whatever is on their mind, emails it off to some publication or other and trundles off for dinner. Unless you’re JK Rowling, this is not even close to a realistic picture. If you are to earn money from your writing, you will have to generate a product which is a) sufficiently liked by an editor and b) stands a chance of making money for a publication, albeit indirectly.
No matter how wonderful, enlightening and original you think your piece to be, there’s every chance it will come winging back with requests for deletions, rewrites, re-ordering and a new angle. Then you have a choice, take your ball away and never work for that editor again, or acquiesce and see your work appear in a format you never intended.
This is even truer for a novel, so it would be wrong to imagine published authors of novels (and indeed, non-fiction works) are swimming in a heated pool of unfettered imagination.
For even a reasonably accomplished scribe, the work can be hard to come by, the deadlines often unrealistic and the end result battered into submission by an uncaring ogre. Finally, there’s the wait for the modest payment.
I've also spent some time working in radio - and what of that? Surely playing records and talking between them is a well-paid cinch? And so it is, but that is not the job description of most radio presenters. If getting hired in advertising or writing is a trial, you’d be astonished at the challenge posed by the search for a gig on the wireless. How oafs like Moyles and donuts such as Zane Lowe found their way through is a paradox still baffling scientists to this day.
The suggested route, as voiced with such enormous glibness by careers advisors, is to start off ‘making the tea’. Funnily enough, the BBC and Global Media Group have never, to my certain knowledge, advertised a vacancy for an Executive Tea Maker, so that’s a red herring for starters. The fact is, if you have a good enough demo and send it to enough folk often enough, you may just get a break behind the microphone. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean all your prayers are answered and the Radio One breakfast show is yours for the taking. Holiday cover for Disco Dave on Wherethehell FM is considerably more likely. If you land a staff role, expect it to be overnights when no-one is listening and expect not to see your family again.
It almost goes without saying you will be required to play vast quantities of music you wouldn’t even play at ear-splitting volume to a South American dictator, holed up in his mansion. The station may well demand you read endless pre-written guff from cue cards and will threaten they have somebody better and cheaper waiting in the wings should you fumble the ball. This industry too, is renowned for poor rates of pay and almost non-existent job security.
All that said, please don’t misunderstand. It is hard for me to imagine how I would have had any career whatsoever if these sectors hadn’t allowed me to muck about in their hallowed halls. Despite the long hours doing jobs I didn’t really fancy for people I didn’t really like, I have spent some considerable time enjoying being creative, with some genuinely talented people and sometimes getting paid for it.
So would I recommend a career in the creative industries? Without hesitation, but with a rather large caveat: be very patient, do not approach hoping for fame and fortune, remain robust and resilient and always, always lower your expectations.
Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, consultant and blogger (see, I told you).