Remember my name. Why aren't there more famous copywriters?


by Magnus Shaw.

Almost 2013 and the general appetite for celebrity displays no signs of abating. Not only do we have a voracious interest in those who are famous, but we're carrying an insatiable hunger to be well-known ourselves. Forget world-changing scientific discoveries, great wisdom or peerless leadership - the real mark of status and endeavour is to be seen milling about outside movie premiers and taking up semi-permanent residence on the Daybreak sofa.

Which makes me wonder why anybody would be a copywriter.

Most individuals whose work appears in the public arena, and is seen by millions of readers and viewers, rapidly achieve a lofty profile. From novelists to soap actors, singers to DJs - exposure to a widespread audience is usually a direct route to fame's wobbly pedestal. But not for the hard-working copywriter.

There's an obvious explanation. No matter how many ads, websites, scripts or straplines you write, nobody will ever credit you with a byline. What's more, regardless of the humour or enjoyment your audience derives from your writing, they will tend to assume it came into being by magic - or worse, will think it was whipped up by a designer. So, no name no fame.

But even taking this into account, the copywriter's art is still under recognised. After all, barring the odd plaque, very few architects have their name emblazoned across their buildings but plenty of them enjoy renown. Richard Rogers, Frank Lloyd Wright, Antonio Gaudi - you see. Likewise, there are many famous designers. Philippe Starck, Terence Conran, Trevor Bayliss - you see. But go hunting for hordes of lionised copywriters and you'll have your work cut out.

In fact, just in case I was being paranoid, that's exactly what I did. A Google search for famous copywriters produced very few lists, but there were one or two. Two details stood out. Firstly, the genuinely well-known figures were always the same - David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett and Trevor Beattie. Ogilvy and Burnett were pioneers and, no longer with us, can't really be viewed as celebrities, more historical figures. Which leaves Trev, who is possibly the only famous copywriter in the UK today.

Naturally, there were other names on the lists (they'd have been jolly short otherwise), including Salman Rushdie, Terry Gilliam, Joseph Heller and Fay Weldon - copywriters all. However, and here's the second detail of note, they became famous for work other than copywriting. Had Rushdie not taken to penning novels, would his 'Naughty But Nice' line for cream cakes have brought him similar acclaim? Almost certainly not. Interestingly, many biographies of Salman state that he was once a 'humble advertising copywriter', suggesting he somehow broke out of a grubby profession to produce work worthy of his fame.

And I think this goes a long way in explaining the lack of famous copywriters. There's an assumption that copywriting is hack work, somewhat mercenary and a bit throwaway. The skill and indeed the writer, are easily ignored because it's 'only advertising'. As every copywriter will tell you, there's a common misconception that anybody can write advertising copy. Almost everyone can write, so it's assumed almost everyone can copywrite. Unfortunately, the famous tend to acquire their kudos because they do things others cannot. Models are perceived as being unusually, physically attractive; sports men and women perform feats transparently beyond the norm; comedians are visibly more funny than their fans. But the copywriter is both invisible and deemed to be doing something quite easy.

I'm not suggesting we deserve to be famous, or even particularly want to be. Nevertheless, it is intriguing that a job which involves so much public attention, is highly creative and produces many memorable phrases and messages, rarely produces household names.

At least I get to put my name on this.

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.


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