Confessions of a Copywriter: The 6 Roles of a Great Communicator


I have a confession. I don’t know how to explain what I do for a living.

My title: copywriter.

But my friends, family, and acquaintances not in the industry believe that I monitor legal patents. Copyrighting.

Inevitably, I trip over words to explain what I do in a succinct manner (which may not bode well for my image as a great communicator).

Saying, “I write, you know, the words on advertisements,” doesn’t do my occupation justice.

So, I’d like to solve this once and for all. What does a copywriter do, you say? Here's an explanation.

COPYWRITER (noun) [kop-ee-rahy-ter]

Must be Cirque du Soleil acrobat with the ability to juggle toe fungus and laundry detergent over hot burning flames. 

Our agency has a diverse roster of clients, and my words are the fingerprints on almost all of them -- from one of the largest CPG brands in the world to a small but mighty organization that wants to change the world. Print ads. Mission statements. Rallying cries. Naming conventions for heart rate monitors. Saturday Night Live-style scripts for sales training presentations. Motivational videos set to cheesy 1980s movies scenes. No time of day is the same. Toe fungus in the morning, hairdryers in the afternoon, roasted nuts at night.

Keeping all of it straight requires Chan-like flexibility and Bond-like resourcefulness. If you’re observant, you see (or find) threads woven among the most opposite of clients. Working on a research study for a back condition that affects teenage boys sparks target market research from a tween-loving ice cream client. It’s a lot. But ...

Must be dangerous anthropologist with ambition of an identity thief.

On a good day, we are Jane Goodall (only with a rapt, fervent interest in cashew consumers instead of chimpanzees). Our best work comes when we know our audience inside and out. We study our target market as if we’re writing an 80-page thesis rather than a five-word headline. Where do they work? When do they go to bed? What is their favorite childhood memory? Were they the last to get picked in gym class? Or the first?

Did you know that moms of tweens get just as much of a kick out of baby seal memes as their kids do? Or that gluten-free shoppers have been shown to do the majority of their shopping at Wal-Mart? We know it all. And if we don’t know, we’ll do our darndest to put two and two together and figure it out. Because when we understand our audience, we know what they want and how they want it.

Must love lists and be OCD. (One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.)

Do you love overthinking and obsessing? I mean like love it-love it. Like you enjoy nothing more than staring at a sentence, a phrase, a word, until it ceases to lose meaning. Take “fresh.” Fresh as a daisy. Fresh off the boat. Fresh meat. Fresh to death. Get fresh. Be fresh. Eat fresh. Discover fresh. Run, slow motion, in a fresh field towards the word FRESH covered in fresh daisies.

While our second biggest fear is hearing “Ugh” or “Huh?” or “Didn’t Pepsi do that like seven years ago?”, our biggest fear is having the client find the words that we totally could have come up with if we had thought just a little longer and harder. Although our assignment may be as “simple” as a tagline to sell toe fungus, we will spend hours, sometimes days, generating pages of options (toe the line with your fungus, this is my toe jam, give toe fungus a shot in the foot ... ) until we find just the right words that will blow the client’s socks off. (See what I did there?)

Must have the cojones of Nik Wallenda with the wit of Will Ferrell.

You know that guy in your English class who the teacher always picked on because he never gave his opinion? He would hate copywriting. As the world of advertising goes, you cannot be afraid to get up in front of the class, bare your soul, and present your ideas to the audience. What if the chips are from outer space and their only purpose on planet earth is to fatten up the human race and eat them for dinner? The very reason they are so ridiculously delicious? So that they are absolutely irresistible!

No matter how ridiculous, half-baked or far-fetched ideas may seem, you never know when you’re going to come across a kernel of a good one. It just might be the one that makes it to the finish line and blows the client’s socks off. (OK, it didn’t work that time)

Must be the grammar police … until you have to be Jesse James.

Know your grammar. All the cutesy copy, pithy puns, and alliteration isn’t aren't going to get you anywhere if you misspell or mispunctuate. And though your agency would like to think that a copywriter has better grammar than your college English professor, the truth is, we don’t. 1) The English language is constantly evolving, and they are literally changing the rules every day (“meh,” “sext,” “adorbs,” “catfish”). 2) Many copywriters (not all) are creatives first, copywriters second. Because of this, double-checking, triple-proofing, and APA-, MLA-, Chicago Style-consulting is a regular part of our jobs so we at least seem as if we know best. Finally, screw all of that if being wrong works. Cue Apple’s “Think Different.”

Must come to work ready to sell … and sell out (at times).

At home, we are aspiring novelists, screenwriters, food bloggers, Etsy rising stars, etc.. At work, we peddle toothpaste, tampons, and tobacco. Yes, at times it can be hard to swallow words like “Save Big!” and “Discover Something Delicious!” But the way I see it, we still get a heck of a lot closer than most do to a job that allows us to make a living using our creative talents. And if we do it right, the work can change the way people think just as much as the next great Malcolm Gladwell book (Think Small. Volkswagen). Or be just as entertaining as the next great comedy (What day is it?? Geico). And every once in a while, you get a client to well up with the sound of your words. Or a product that gives deathly allergic children a safe diet option. Or a chance to write a published article that allows you total creative freedom to use ridiculous metaphors and pour your heart out. And if you think about it that way, it’s actually a pretty rewarding job.


Don't forget to share this post!