Brand and tone of voice specialist Vikki Ross didn’t take your average route into copywriting but has carved out a successful career by going off script.
“I’m from the school of Work Your Arse Off,” she says. “I did okay in my GCSEs, failed my A-Levels (apparently it helps to actually turn up to class) and went straight out to work. No uni, so no degree. No ad school, so no idea.”
Starting as a receptionist for a PR firm, she soon moved to a direct marketing agency where she held the same role. But while answering phones and office admin paid the bills for a time, her passion for words was too strong to deny.
“When I understood what they [the direct marketing agency] did, I asked the creative director if I could write a reader offer,” she adds. “He gave me a go and it performed well so I continued writing them in the national press for major film studios for two years. I was now a copywriter.”
She left that job to go travelling and didn’t have a book or website when she returned which made it hard to get another writing gig. Forced to start over, Ross then became a PA, this time for a brand – cosmetics company The Body Shop – which came with new creative opportunities.
“If a real person wouldn’t say a word or phrase, then I shouldn’t write it."
“After a couple of months of messing up the product director’s diary and keeping designer handbags she didn’t want, I told her I wanted to write,” recalls Ross. “She gave me a go and liked the web copy I wrote so she moved me into marketing and eventually I persuaded the creative director to take a chance on me. He put me in the studio where I learnt how to craft, concept, pitch and present, with some shoots (hello, free haircuts) and travel (hello, free holidays) thrown in. Bingo.”
It’s clear that self-belief, persistence and hard work have been key factors in getting Ross to where she is now. She's worked for brands including Habitat, Mercedes, Paperchase, Sky, Sainsbury’s, Virgin and Westfield to name a few.
Current projects are for Sky and NOW TV, and Durex through Havas. She’s still travelling, but these days trips tend to involve teaching brands how to talk. “They ask me to,” adds Ross. “I don’t just rock up uninvited. Most recently, I’ve been to adidas in Nuremberg and spoken at [Indian marketing event] Zee Melt in Mumbai.”
Recent research has shown that less students are placing importance on university degrees today, especially those in the arts and design. But being self-taught with a humble educational background doesn’t seem to have damaged Ross’ ability to get on and excel in the creative world. So what's the secret to her success?
“Copywriting is a conversation,” she muses. “If a real person wouldn’t say a word or phrase, then I shouldn’t write it. My top tips are ‘Get Real’ (use everyday language), ‘Get Personal’ (use the first person) and ‘Get Active’ (use the active voice). My process is panic, breathe, write, panic, breathe, write, freak out, go for a walk, nail it. Phew.”
"I’ve heard one too many stories over the last week of creative directors pushing creatives to breaking point."
As for how technology has affected the way she works, Ross offers a refreshing response: “It’s made me say “no” more than I think is healthy. I only know how to work a Word document. I can’t write in Google Docs or join Slack things. No.” One platform she does use regularly though is Twitter. Having created the #copywritersunite hashtag, she’s built a committed following and regularly airs her views on issues affecting the industry.
"There’s all the really, really important stuff that really, really needs to change really, really bloody quickly – things like paying people fairly (or if you’re a freelancer, getting paid at all is nice), making sure all minorities are represented in the team and in the work, and being able to provide better care for people’s mental and physical health. Come on, it’s not difficult,” says Ross, referring to everything that's wrong with advertising.
“But if I have to say one thing, then I guess it’ll be the one thing that’s on my mind right now and that’s this: not everyone deserves to be treated like shit. I’ve heard one too many stories over the last week of creative directors pushing creatives to breaking point. Fuck that. I know this isn’t new news, but I work with so many nice people that it takes me by surprise when I’m reminded of what utter dickheads are still around. That behaviour needs to change, but it’ll only change if someone speaks up and not everyone thinks they can. They can, and they should.”
And for those still looking to crack the creative industries, according to Ross a strong voice is essential. “Tell anyone who will listen what you want. Don’t be a dick about it. Be respectful, do your research, be interested and interesting,” she urges. “Contact people you know will be into what you do and tell them what’s in it for them. Saying that, we have all the resources and platforms we could possibly need to make things happen for ourselves so (and you may have heard these three words before) just do it.”
See a selection of Ross' work below. View the full campaigns and connect with her here.
Paperchase Brand Book
Paperchase window poster
Sky F1 2019 launch campaign
Sky Cinema Summer 2019 Advertorial