I’m one of those weird kind of copywriters. I don’t really read.
Well I do read a bit of non-fiction; but nothing specific, just what I happen to fancy when I’m in a bookstore or while browsing Amazon. When it comes to fiction though, I’m hopeless. The last novel I finished was probably a John Grisham in my teens.
Even watching my sister go through almost a dozen books a month when growing up didn’t rub-off on me. I’d rather sit on the rooftop of the house I grew up in listening to Tupac’s Me Against the World while admiring the surrounding greenery.
Ahhh… the simpler times.
Despite my lack of reading, I ended up in the writing business. Most copywriters are or ought to be avid readers, and I’m pretty sure it helps them to become better wordsmiths. But me, I’m different, I tend to read the world that’s in front of me as opposed to blocking my view with a book.
There are beautiful stories playing out right in front of our eyes, no matter how inconspicuous.
I constantly take in the sights, sounds, atmosphere, ambiance and nuances of my surroundings, which in its own way has helped me become a better copywriter over the years.
How you ask? Some examples, if you will:
People watching > Analyzing consumer behavior
Watching TV > Errr… competitive analysis of other ads, provided I’ve not recorded the show
Noticing a gecko on the ceiling > Aspire to greater heights / there’s always (gecko) shit to clean up
Watching the sun go down > Holy crap, there’s a deadline tomorrow!
Hearing birds chirping > Holy crap, the deadline is today!
Well, I’m just… different.
We’re well into the New Year. And everywhere I turn, the air of uncertainty smacks me in the face. I’m pretty used to uncertainties; freelance copywriting is full of unknowns, surprises and WTF-moments.
These days, the uncertainties are external. The impending GST, falling Ringgit and steadily ascending inflation have concocted an aura of economic doom and gloom here in Malaysia.
The signs ignored, voices hushed and belts further tightened.
The situation seems out of our control, with our captain-less ship at the mercy of global economic winds and undercurrents of mismanagement. We need to fend for ourselves; work harder, spend less and save more. Yes, I’m venting a little here.
But they say necessity is the mother of invention. In marketing communications, a flourishing economy and big budgets does not automatically translate to great work.
I know, because I’ve worked on campaigns for big brands with big budgets; only to see the work often become needlessly complex and hopelessly off the mark. And when budgets are cut, it is used to rationalise ineffectiveness and less-than-desired results.
These days however, I work mostly for start-ups, entrepreneurial businesses and SMEs. They usually don’t have a marketing budget or even a marketing department. But what they do have is the willingness to try new things, allow creative incubation and exhaust all strategic avenues.
The money is then spent to expound and execute a good idea, and not to bombard the media with a scratched-up campaign hoping for a miracle.
Perhaps the economic doom and gloom presents an opportunity to revamp our preconceptions of marketing. In today’s marketing there are no set formulas, cure-alls or guaranteed results, brands need to spark conversations, have a social persona and navigate the wilderness of technology.
Budgets may be trimmed, but we’ve got to roll with the punches.
Less is more, more or less, yes?
I got a call recently confirming a fact I discovered some time ago, something I knew about around the time I set off as a freelance copywriter.
The call I received was from one of the creative talent agencies. Yes, I was being headhunted, even though I have no idea how they have my details in their database.
Anyway, to have a talent agency contact someone who’s not been actively looking for a job for the last 4 years or so means either one of two things:
- They have absolutely no idea who they are calling, which from a talent agency specializing in advertising talents is in my book an epic fail
- The ad industry is really, really desperate for copywriters and have instructed their recruiters to go all out in search of candidates
To confirm the situation, I prodded the person on the other end of the call. “How’s the market for copywriters these days?” I asked. She replied, and I quote “agencies are looking left, right and centre for copywriters”.
The reply made me feel I had prophetic powers. I knew it, I knew it all along!
Yes, the lack of copywriters in Malaysia, especially good ones, has been one of the contributing factors in my relative success a freelancer for the last 3 years or so.
It is a trend that I noticed even when I was employed, gentle winds of change that has now culminated in an imperfect storm. Imperfect for agencies, perfect for me… I’m actually in demand.
So let’s celebrate, yes? No.
I believe the Malaysian ad industry truly had this situation coming. In fact, a lot of people in the higher-ups knew about the scarcity of good writers, but just didn’t do anything about it.
Here’s some advise ala gratis to all agencies out there. Hey, I’m a 16-year veteran who has written for everything from TVCs to T&Cs, so listen up:
- Don’t treat our work as fillers to art. We are not just caption writers spoiling nice images with those ugly words. Yes, nice images attract attention, but solid and sometimes lengthy copy retains interest and helps convert.
- We may make it look easy, but it isn’t. While the demands of advertising have evolved, we copywriters still work with the basics; our thoughts and a keyboard. There are no apps, software or tools for us. Give us time, and respect.
- Don’t let us fly solo all the time. While there could be an art director and two designers in a team, copywriters are often left to fend for themselves. Dedicate more hands for copy development, two copy heads are better than one… right?
I feel copywriting has always been second fiddle to art direction, at least in the Malaysian context. Much emphasis is given to art; with art directors and designers enjoying better career prospects compared to copywriters.
Then there’s no wonder why the influx of copywriters have stagnated over recent years. Not many people can handle the merciless, under-appreciated and often underpaid nature of the profession.
But no disrespect to the art-based players in the industry. I’ve worked with many exceptional ones and truly believe they are creative wizards given the constraints, deadlines and demands of a fast-evolving ad scene.
I just wish – now that the year is drawing to a close – the decisions makers pay more attention to the development of great copywriting talents.
A rather cerebral New Year wish, but for the good of the game, I hope it becomes a reality.
Cheers to all the copywriters out there – employed or otherwise – you do it because it is your calling.
Happy New Year!