Well, this isn’t going to be easy …
I’ve been working as a copywriter for 40 years now and still haven’t quite figured out how to properly describe what copywriters do.
Or, maybe I’m just traumatized by how people used to react when I told them I was a copywriter.
Scroll way back to the late 1970s in London, England.
I was a middle-class young man, fresh out of a privileged education.
My teachers and parents shared high hopes for me.
A lawyer, perhaps. Or a university professor.
You want to be a writer? Oh dear. Then maybe a respected novelist, or a journalist for The Times newspaper …
A copywriter? Seriously? Is that even a “proper job?”
I’d be at a party thrown by my parents and a friend of theirs might ask me, “And what are you doing these days?”
I’d tell them I was working as a copywriter at an advertising agency, and they’d look at me like I just told them I had a contagious skin disease, or was dealing drugs.
Then they’d shuffle over to my parents and express condolences for their loss.
Yes, I’m exaggerating. But only by a little.
Another option was to say, “I write sales materials,” or “I write the words for advertising.”
The second option was a potential landmine, because they’d then reply something like, “Oh, how interesting. Anything I might have seen?”
In other words, they wanted to know if I was the writer behind some huge ad campaign they’d seen on prime-time TV.
I never have written a huge ad campaign for TV.
Hence the landmine.
Even an audience of professionals can struggle to really “get it”
When I wasn’t navigating the disappointment of close friends and family, I would find myself explaining my work to colleagues.
Now I was on more comfortable ground. A little less judgmental.
And if I ever needed to feel I was in the company of people who truly understood what I did for a living, and its value, I’d reach out to direct marketers.
Direct marketers know their work lives or dies according to the copy … the words.
In this crowd, I could feel admired even. Or — gasp — respected.
But if you think the same would be true among everyone who works in marketing, you’d be wrong.
In the online world, I’ve often been in meetings where people get all excited about the design and coding behind a website. But no mention of the words.
All too often the attitude is, “No worries, we can add the words later.”
As if the words were decoration. An afterthought.
Naively, after all of these years, I still expect marketers to understand that the words are no less valuable than the design or coding.
In my fantasy world, I expect business owners to reach out to me and say, “Nick, we need you! Without your words, we have nothing!”
But it should.
A close friend finally taught me what I did as a copywriter
Truth be told, about five years into my career as a copywriter, I began to lose faith.
It felt like every time I told someone I was a copywriter, I got a negative reaction. Or neutral at best. Like my work had no value.
And that got to me. I felt overwhelmed by the negativity. I guess I began to believe it was all true.
One evening I was drowning my sorrows with a friend, who was also a client.
I said something like this:
“So … when I get to the Pearly Gates, and Saint Peter asks me what I did with my life … what am I going to say? I wrote a ton of junk mail? I was a stellar BS merchant?”
Graham, my friend, reminded me of the first job I did for him.
He was launching a new business and struggling to reach his key prospects.
I found a list for him and wrote a sales letter.
That letter transformed his business. His sales went through the roof. He had to double his workforce within a month.
“That’s what you do,” he said. “You build businesses.”
Honestly, truly … my life changed at that moment.
Graham and a few beers helped me see my work in a whole new way.
It’s because of that conversation that I still love the craft of copywriting today, all these years later.
I no longer explain what I do — I describe the value I create
Now, when people ask me what I do, I don’t tell them I’m a copywriter.
I tell them I help build businesses.
I help entrepreneurs bring their dreams to life.
I help create new jobs and save old ones.
I help bring new products and services into the world.
How does that sound as a job description? Pretty cool, right?
Maybe you’ve never experienced the kind of negativity I felt during those early years of my career.
But even if you didn’t, I bet you can give yourself an extra boost by focusing less on the job title and more on the value you bring to your clients.
Good copywriters are creators.