What connects TV presenter Fiona Bruce, Hollywood actor Orlando Bloom and novelist W. Somerset Maugham?
Give up? Well, they’re all from Canterbury.
As too is Stephen Marsh… a freelance copywriter and generally good egg.
He’s written copy for a vast variety of clients all around the world, including a private detective, which is undeniably cool, right?
I caught up with him to discuss writing routines, dealing with emotions and E.L. Doctorow.
Here’s what he had to say:
AllGoodCopy: I’ve been thinking about writing routines recently and how much of an effect they have on the copy you produce. What’s yours?
Stephen Marsh: I get the structure in place before I do anything else, even if I’m only writing a headline. You’ll see me writing Word documents that include “Heading About Cost-Saving” followed by “Text text text”, as a way of getting the flow right. They can take hours, but then it’s just me and the Macbook Air until it’s done. That part’s fast.
AGC: Ah, that’s interesting. I’m a big fan of structuring things first too. When teaching copy I encourage people to plan out their writing as much as possible. People might argue it’s a bit restrictive, but I’ve found it allows you to focus your creativity.
SM: Even if it just gives your creativity a clear direction for a while. Then you can ignore it and go off the path, if you want. And they’re fast – sometimes I’ll come up with a load of those plans, print them, and deliberate over which is the right shape.
AGC: What’s the strangest thing you do when working on a project?
SM: Aside from the way I prepare for writing with nonsense structural text, I tend to invest quite heavily in brands I work for. When I’m working on one, I think about them constantly. So I’ve got a thick file that’s full of headlines, ad concepts, and ideas that no client has ever asked me for. Which isn’t overly useful.
AGC: It’s the client’s loss. I think what you’re doing there is spot on. For me, one of the most overlooked qualities of good copy is authenticity, which is incredibly hard to replicate unless you really do believe in the product you’re selling.
SM: Exactly. Ogilvy used everything he sold. He believed it was an important part of writing any copy.
AGC: I’d encourage any copywriter to follow your lead – do the research and live the product and you will see better results. My friend John Forde is a master at it: he spends weeks researching and note-taking before he even thinks about copy. How do you use your research to inform your writing?
SM: I wouldn’t have a job without research. I wrote a blog post once that included a short list of things I don’t know about. Cars. Mountain climbing. Potbellied pigs. But my job is to research these subjects until I don’t just know about them – I actually care about them. Without that, I’m not sure I could sell them.
AGC: You mentioned Ogilvy… is he a big influence?
SM: Is it too hackneyed to say Ogilvy is your biggest influence? Probably, but it’s true. He was someone who didn’t get too carried away with the art of it and the creativity. He knew the slog that copywriting could be, and still loved it. Same here.
AGC: So how did you get into copywriting in the first place?
I had rent to pay, and a daughter that needed shoes. I’m joking. She needed socks first. I’d always written, so thought I’d try copy part-time. It quickly became my full-time job and you’ll be pleased to know my daughter now has suitable shoes and socks for both of her growing feet. So does her new sister.
AGC: That’s good to hear. If you can get a gig working for Clarks, they’ll both be sorted for life. In seriousness, writing to look after your kids has a real emotional hook to it; when it comes to targeting emotions with copy, do you think there are certain emotions that are more effective?
SM: Positive ones. Some of my security clients have asked for copy that more directly invokes a sense of fear, but it never delivers. Instead, you make people feel the protected, safe feeling that security brings.
AGC: I know what you mean, but I’ve often found negative emotions seem to win out in the end. Obviously it depends on context and the product itself, but it does seem a lot of writers focus on people’s fears and anxieties – the things that keep them awake at night.
SM: You’re right – it depends on the context, and I think you can do both. But I’ve seen campaigns where they drive the fear so much they don’t have time to mention the flipside. Fear and anxiety help to create the desire, but I think you need the positive emotion to make the sale.
AGC: Good point. How about words… if you had to pick five words that you had to use in every piece of copy, what would they be?
SM: You, Because, Better, Help, and If.
AGC: A solid selection. I think most people would be able to create some decent copy with those. Talking of good copy, what’s the one piece of copy – be it an ad, poster or sales letter – that you wish you’d have written?
SM: I’m not going to sound like a very interesting or unusual copywriter when I say Apple’s “Here’s to the crazy ones.” It’s just perfect in every conceivable way, and totally what I enjoy doing.
AGC: On that note, what copy medium do you prefer writing for – online, DM campaigns, television, etc?
SM: I’m not sure I could pick. They’re all interesting in different ways. But – if you’re going to force me – I’d say direct mail and email. That’s because it’s often a self-contained task: write one great piece of copy that sells something.
AGC: Yeah, I like DM for that very reason – it’s pretty black and white. Do you think there are any major differences between writing copy for online or off?
SM: I think it’s harder to get attention online, because attention spans are shorter than ever. That said, if you make sure you’re unusual and creative with web copy, you can really stand out against the background of boring sound-alike sites.
AGC: It goes back to what you were saying about investing time in the product to the point where you can find that something in it that sets it apart. The mistake people make is when they rush things so they end up sounding generic. What would you say’s the biggest mistake you’ve made, which since influenced the way you write?
SM: In terms of copywriting? Probably the early days, when I thought good copy was that generic sales voice, the type you hear on PPI ads. It wasn’t good. It was boring. Now, the most important thing in the world is just to be interesting.
AGC: “Be interesting” is a good phrase to remember when it comes to copywriting. I’d like to get back to your influences; we touched on Ogilvy, who else has had the biggest effect on your writing?
SM: I’m a big TV fan, and into storytelling generally, so I’d say ex-Eastenders writer Tony Jordan. Whenever you hear him speak, there’s no pretence. He’s just a guy who writes. It’s a stance I try to adopt.
AGC: Nice, that’s the first time we’ve had someone like that mentioned. Book-wise, what are your favourites on the subject?
AGC: It’s a good one. But I recommend people try to get a free PDF copy from the web as it’s over a grand now on Amazon. What about outside of copy… what’s your favourite novel?
SM: The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow. A good reminder that it’s not just what you say – it’s the way you say it.
AGC: That’s the chap who wrote Ragtime, right? That’s interesting, I was on a trip recently with another copywriter who was reading that. It seems Doctorow is a popular author for copywriters.
SM: That’s him. Ragtime’s great, too. He tells stories in such unusual, attention-grabbing ways. I guess that’s why copywriters like him.
AGC: OK. Last question and one I always ask: you’re the last guy speaking at a copy seminar and everyone has heard everything by now… what’s the one piece of advice you’d offer?
SM: Don’t forget to listen to your instinct. Sometimes that incredibly long headline that experts laugh at will work. For better or worse, nobody in this business knows more than you about the copy you’re writing this moment.
AGC: You’re right and it’s an inspiring point to finish on. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Stephen.
To find out more about Stephen Marsh visit his website at www.stephenmarshcopywriter.co.uk