Features

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5 Minutes with... Sarah McCartney - Copywriter and Perfumer

Published

by John Fountain.

 

Head writer at Lush from 1996 to 2010, Sarah is now Head of Ideas at the writing agency Afia. As an author she has penned 'The Fake Factor', 'Online Marketing in 7 Days (for people who can't avoid it any longer)', and '100 Great Branding Ideas'. She has also worked as a Paris tour guide, a sax player, a planner in ad agencies, an event manager for The Guardian, a lecturer at London Metropolitan University, and she's trained hundreds of people to be better writers. She has a master's degree in marketing and corporate strategy and A-levels in physics, maths and further maths. She is a qualified Iyengar yoga teacher and acclaimed independent perfumer.


That's a damned impressive list you have there. Of all your achievements, which one has given you the most pleasure?

In true yogic fashion, I ought to say that the ones that are giving me most pleasure are the ones that I'm doing now. But honestly? Playing the baritone sax in a big band on stage at the Newcastle City Hall. Packed out with old people in hats, who loved every moment of it. If there's anything I regret, it’s not pushing harder to be a musician when my school shoved me into doing maths. But right now when I wake up in the morning, I want to get to the perfume lab and make scents.

So how did the copywriting come about - was that an ambition or did you stumble into it?

Less of a stumble, more of an inevitable slide I started to do a bit of writing while I was at the Guardian, writing house ads for education events, holiday offers and T-shirts. I did a short piece for Education Guardian about going back to university after 15 years, then 1000 words for Weekend Guardian on passing your motorbike test. While I was doing the MA, I wrote a paper on how new technology might affect retail - this was 1996 when there were only three online shops, all in San Francisco - and I based it on Lush, the only retailers I knew personally. My paper helped Lush to get the funding they needed to expand from four shops to 25. After that, Mark Constantine, boss of Lush invited me to write the Lush Times as a reward.

What about today - is the job as fulfilling as you thought it would be?

What can I say? Some days it is. Some days I do great work (I think) and then the client says, "We've changed the concept now, so we won't be using it." Even when I get paid for it that's just a huge waste of my life and I hate waste. But I do like sitting quietly and putting down a couple of good phrases.

The days when I train people, that always feels great, if knackering. I love it when they'll realise they no longer have to be boring when they're writing for business. Out come the red pens, swathes of dull text get crossed out and smiles spread over their faces. Training ought to be entertaining, I think. They laugh, they remember. And I like speaking at conferences. Basically I like telling people what to do, and I love it when they listen.

Looking back at your work on Lush, one of the things I admire the most is that your copy sets out to entertain. Did it the powers that be take some persuading to go with this rather zany approach?

The powers let me do whatever I wanted, once they'd worked out that it sold loads of products. Also, they were making products to entertain people so the writing style fitted nicely. One Christmas Lush Times got a 32% response rate (that was before the Internet was invented, like). But I'd always make sure that I got the facts right, because Lush make marvellous products with lovely ingredients and they work. So I'd write entertaining copy that sold stuff; it was never there just to be funny. The people who copied Lush's style (many, including some huge brands) forgot that, and wrote funny copy that tired a bit too hard, missing out the important reasons to buy the products. 

Personally I'm rather fond of copy that doesn't take itself too seriously. Too often a copywriters default setting is 'middle of the road' Do you usually set out to bring some personality to your writing?

Given the choice I like to make people laugh whatever I'm doing. That's not always appropriate, but I do try to avoid being dull. If it's interesting people will read it. I hope. It does depend who I'm writing for, of course. I'm a mimic. I can copy people's voices and I can copy their writing styles. I think all decent copywriters can adapt to fittheir client's brands and I don't get precious about having to put my own stamp on something. Unless it actually has my name on it; then I can be a right diva. In short, no. I don't set out to put my personality in there. If someone's paying you to write for them, you should try to sound like them, not yourself. If they've invited you in because they want your style, that's different.



Tell us about your workspace. What sort of things do you have around you?

Oh blimey, I have absolutely everything anyone could possibly need, all within grabbing distance. I am the opposite of minimal. Many people look at it in horror and ask how I can possibly work there. Some run screaming from the room. Most can't even get past the obstacle course between the door and the desk. I've loads of stationery, for just in case. I get it from all over, but particularly Japan. In one room I've got all my writing kit. Fountain pens, notebooks, reference books, markers, postcards. There's even a computer. Downstairs I've got a yoga studio; where other people would have their living room I have bare floor with yoga mats, bolsters, blocks, bricks, belts and blankets. Then I've got the perfumery, around 350 aromachemicals and natural materials and a fridge full of vintage perfume that's bigger than the kitchen fridge for food. I like the idea of minimal, but there's always something more interesting to do than tidy.

Every job has its challenges but what would you say has been your most testing writing brief so far?

Testing, that's a good word. How would I define testing? 60,000 words in two months for the Christmas Lush Times was always strenuous but also good fun because I enjoyed writing about the products, knowing that the customers were looking forward to reading it. Last year it was a little book of short stories about the Lee Jeans company; I did some research and found out that the reason he'd moved to Kansas to set up his business was not the reason the company usually quoted. We got around. Recently it was tin copy for top quality Chinese tea that's going to be sold for about $50 an ounce in the US. It had to be lovely, persuasive and subtle and very very short. The opposite of Lush.



With Christmas just around the corner, how about we talk perfumes? I hear you have developed one or two that are regarded very highly.

How kind. Yes.I like to tell stories in scents as well as words. My perfumes have been praised by Josephine Fairley, editor of The Beauty Bible, and five of them are going into Les Senteurs, London's coolest scent shop. Urura's Tokyo Cafe, The Lion Cupboard and Evil Max have their own small fan clubs. I'm an indie perfumer; Imake perfumes on a small scale, around a litre a go. I sell them at 4160Tuesdays.com, since you ask.

I've just set up a crowdfunding project: 10 Scents' Worth. It's to raise the dosh to make ten new perfumes.

I've also been working with London University's philosophy department on perception and memory. I like to make scents that remind people of something that makes then happy. Sunshine and Pancakes is the scent of a summer day at a British beach. Most of them have stories behind them; I rarely make something just to smell nice, but fortunately they often do.

My next commission is for Odette Toilette's marvellous perfume and poetry project, Penning Perfumes. I have to make it to the bottom of the dark ocean depths where water pressure and decomposing sea creatures form a dense inhospitable home for real, very ugly mermaids. I don't think I'll be selling much of that one.
 

John Fountain is a writer and blogger.
Twitter: @fountainjohn

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