Are copywriters born? I’m not so sure. I have a different theory. More often than not it is chance – a strange series of events lead us towards the discipline. It’s what happened to me and it’s what happened for freelance copywriter, Alastaire Allday.
For Alastaire it was the perfect outcome – having already worked on campaigns for the likes of Sony, Nescafé, and Oasis, he’s also already penned his first book ‘Think Like a Copywriter’.
I caught up with him to find out more about how he works, what influences him and if it’s reasonably possible to use the word ‘anathema’ in copy.
Here’s what he had to say:
AllGoodCopy: So, you’re the last guy speaking at copy seminar and everyone has heard everything by now… what’s the one piece of advice you’d offer?
Alistair Allday: Forget everything you’ve heard. No, seriously. You’ll learn a lot more by doing than by listening. Make your own mistakes. Learn from them.
AGC: I agree; very good advice. I guess you could argue learning to write copy is just trial and error. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made, which since influenced the way you write?
AA: I used to advise clients to emphasise price in their copy, but price doesn’t sell, quality does. It’s the copywriter’s job to prove the product’s value.
AGC: How did you get into copywriting in the first place?
AA: Good question. Short answer, I lucked into it. Long answer, I hung out with the wrong people – or to be more accurate, the wrong girl – and when her boyfriend found out a new career on the other side of the country seemed prudent.
AGC: Haha. Aside from wronged boyfriends, who’s your biggest copywriting influence?
AA: Ogilvy. He was a monstrous self-publicist. I know copywriters who are better than me who don’t get half as much work because they don’t put themselves out there. Advertise yourself.
AGC: Indeed, I was impressed when I came across your website. Am I right in thinking you’re an online man when it comes to copy?
AA: I’m a complete geek who’s more or less lived on the internet since the mid-90s so the web is second nature to me. IMHO the entire internet as we know it started on Livejournal in ’99. I should know, I was there.
AGC: Do you think there are any major differences between writing copy for online or off?
AA: Apart from the fact it’s much harder to blindside the reader (he can google your product in an instant), the fact that space is unlimited encourages people to write more words than are needed. Don’t.
AGC: What is your favourite book on copywriting?
AA: Robert Cialdini’s ‘Influence’ is probably the most important book you’ll ever read on the art of persuasion. You could start a cult after reading that book. It’s so good it should be illegal.
AGC: You’re right. It’s up there in the top three I think. Have you come across Eugene Schwartz’s ‘Breakthrough Advertising’?
AA: I’ve not read him, but I understand he makes the same point a lot of us are still trying to make – cut the hard sell and start serving what your customers want.
AGC: Yes, it’s a very practical read and worth it. As for people outside the industry, who has had the biggest effect on your writing?
AA: Probably my tutor at university. I used to write in this terrible, affected, florid style. He got me into writers like Hemingway and Carver – brilliant writers who understood that less is more.
AGC: Couldn’t agree more. I give trainee copywriters Hemingway along with Ogilvy and the like as I think the stripped-down style is key. Strangely, when old Papa tried his hand at copywriting he was crap!
AA: Back in the 70s Salman Rushdie wrote Aero’s “Irresistibubble” campaign. I haven’t tried my hand at fiction in years, but it’s good to know there’s a third career waiting should I fall afoul of any more irate boyfriends…
AGC: What’s your writing routine?
AA: I live my life backwards. I’m a night person, so I like to get up late, do my emails, go out for a leisurely lunch, then write in the afternoon. Often I forget myself and when I look up it’s one or two in the morning and I’m still at my desk.
AGC: And what’s your biggest writing ‘quirk’?
AA: I insist on using an old fashioned mechanical keyboard and a monochrome screen – colour distracts me. If possible I use a distraction free program such as Writeroom, if I’m editing I’ll use a program called DarkAdapted to get a similar effect.
AGC: That’s the first time I’ve heard that! Interesting. Do you ever handwrite copy?
AA: I keep a notepad on me at all times in case inspiration strikes, but I can type a lot faster than I write, which is important, as it enables me to get more ideas down on the page before I forget them.
AGC: If you had to pick five words that you always had to use in every piece of copy, what would they be?
AA: My favourite words are “elucidate”, “ecdysiast”, “anathema”, and “shotgun”. If I ever find a way of shoehorning them into some copy, I’ll let you know.
AGC: I seem to remember a long copy sales letter that had shotgun in the headline but can’t remember the context. Good luck with the other three!
AA: Cheers. I think I’ll need it!
AGC: When it comes to targeting emotions with copy, do you think there are certain emotions that are more effective?
AA: I can only quote Don Draper on this one: “Advertising is based on one thing, happiness… that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”
AGC: Ah, Mad Men – justifying my mild alcoholism as a key skill for creating copy. If you had to travel back in time, which era would you have liked to have written copy in?
AA: Another great question! I think I’d like to give the Roaring Twenties a shot, and not just because I’m a Boardwalk Empire fan. It felt like things were just getting started – digital felt like that for a while, though the industry has definitely matured.
AGC: As for tapping into someone’s happiness, what’s the best example you’ve seen?
AA: “Give every day a soundtrack” – Nokia have been using it since the first MP3 phones came out. It’s not about the product, it’s about what it does for you. Perfect.
AGC: I like that. What’s the one piece of copy – be it an ad, poster or sales letter – that you wish you’d have written?
AA: Saatchi and Saatchi’s “Labour isn’t working” poster for Thatcher’s 1979 election campaign. Three simple words that swung an election and changed history.
AGC: I think that copy will be remembered for a long time to come! Finally though, as I like to ask everyone… what’s your favorite novel?
AA: Venus in Furs by Leopold Sacher Masoch. A highly underrated novel of exquisite psychological torment. Perfect primer for a job in this industry.
You can find out more about Alastaire and download his book ‘Think Like a Copywriter’ at www.alldaycreative.co.uk