Dan Adams is an award-winning freelance copywriter who has worked with some huge names including Virgin Media, British Gas and PayPal.
I caught up with him recently to pick his brains on all things copy and found out that as well as being a fellow fan of Ogilvy, he also likes to mix things up with a bit of rap.
Here’s what he had to say:
AllGoodCopy: Who’s your biggest copywriting influence in the industry?
Dan Adams: It’s a predictable answer, but probably Ogilvy. I think he shaped what creatives now know as ‘the big idea’ i.e. the single concept that sells the product. Plus he showed that advertising didn’t have to be dull.
AGC: Don’t feel so bad, he is a massive influence for most people. Indeed, imagine the ghost of David Ogilvy visits you at night and grants you copywriting superpowers. The only catch is you have to choose five words that you always HAVE to use in your copy. What would they be?
DA: “You, your, yourself…” Err… I suppose the point I’m failing to make is your copy should always focus on your reader. Everything you write must be relevant to them.
ACG: You make a very good point. Copy can so easily be improved by redirecting the message toward the reader. You’ve still got two words left though: aside from focusing on the reader, what other words do you find you often rely on?
DA: I think “quicker” and “easier” are two words that sell a lot of products. Sure, saving money is important, too, but I think we’re all on the lookout for things that make our busy lives a little less complicated.
AGC: You’re right. Simple sells. Now, as Ogilvy is a big influence, I can kind of guess the answer to my next question: what’s your favourite book on copywriting?
DA: Ha. Yes. He does figure, so I’ll give you two: Ogilvy On Advertising AND Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. Obviously, the first is a great introduction to the industry (for copywriters, designers and art directors too). Even though it was written 20 years ago, it’s all still relevant today. The second challenges you to take new approaches to creating ideas and writing copy.
AGC: You know, I haven’t actually read the Whipple book, but many writers have told me it’s good. I’ll check it out. It’s certainly got a quirky name. On that note, what’s your biggest writing ‘quirk’?
DA: Not sure if it’s a ‘quirk’ but I like to get most ideas down on a notepad first. The finished version will always end up on a computer, but the initial ideas, headlines and page structure all start their lives on paper.
AGC: It’s a good practice. I do think you approach things slightly differently when you’re scratching your ideas out on the page. I don’t do it as often as I should. What’s your actual writing routine?
DA: Even as a freelancer, I like keeping a routine. I start early(ish) so I can enjoy my evenings away from a computer. Work then play; not the other way around.
AGC: Do you write every day?
DA: Not if I can help it. Copywriting is a fun job, but we all need time to switch off. I prefer to spend my weekends seeing family and friends, cycling and playing football.
AGC: So how did you get into this copywriting gig in the first place?
DA: A lot of luck. I was training to be a journalist but wasn’t enjoying it. I wanted to write creatively, but wasn’t sure on a career path. Then a mate of mine suggested I meet the Head of Copy at his agency. After I showed him a few examples of my work (blogs, articles, etc.) and proved I could think conceptually, he offered me my first copywriting job.
AGC: I hope you bought that mate a few drinks: he saved your life! It’s funny you say about wanting to avoid journalism in favour of creativity. I’m the same. But so few people who want to write realise copywriting exists – they just assume they have to become journos.
DA: Yeah, I’ve often wondered why there aren’t as many recognised copywriting qualifications for copywriters as there are for, say, graphic designers. Copywriting has been around for years after all.
AGC: True. It’s part of my retirement plan to take copy into college! It’s such a big, sprawling opportunity for a lot of people. Indeed, what copy medium do you prefer writing for – online, DM campaigns, television, etc?
DA: I love variety. But since I’ve been freelancing, nearly all my work tends to be digital. That’s fine with me because digital can be just as creative as press advertising, DM, etc.
AGC: Do you think there are any major differences between writing copy for online or off?
DA: Absolutely. I think Jakob Nielsen called internet users “lazy, ruthless and selfish.” So with that in mind, less is more. Because people don’t have the time nor the desire to read endless text on a computer screen in a way that they might read, for example, a book, a brochure, or an advert on the Tube.
AGC: You’d be surprised by the length of some copy I’ve had online that’s worked – but I do agree with your point: the distracting nature of the internet has really forced copywriters to up their game when it comes to keeping people engaged.
DA: And there’s a strong chance that your copy is the distraction. People might start reading your copy when they should be filing a report, heading off to a meeting or picking up their kids from school. If what you say isn’t compelling, why should they make the time for you?
AGC: Exactly. With that in mind, when it comes to targeting emotions with copy, do you think there are certain emotions that are more effective?
DA: Well, humour is always effective. Just look at how many brands try to make their marketing go viral by creating funny videos or pictures for YouTube, Facebook, etc. Of course there’s a time and a place for humour, but when it works, everybody will be talking about your brand.
AGC: You’re right: when humour is done well it really flies. The Usain Bolt stuff with Virgin Media is a good example right now. It’s hard to pull off, though. What’s the one piece of copy – be it an ad, poster or sales letter – that you wish you’d have written?
DA: Can I choose a strapline? If so, probably “Just do it.” It’s perfect because it sums up the Nike brand so well and shapes so many of their communications.
AGC: Ha. That reminds me of a chap at a workshop I was at in France recently. He was trying to remember that phrase and ended up telling people to “Just do something.” It made it sound desperate, but weirdly appropriate for the talk he was giving. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made, which since influenced the way you write?
DA: I think I’m more open to criticism now. When I started out, I had to bite my tongue when I saw some client amends. But you have to remind yourself you’re writing to solve their problem – not bolster your portfolio.
AGC: That’s a good way of looking at it. Earlier we spoke a lot about Ogilvy being a big influence from within the industry. What about outside influences?
AGC: I’m completely with you there. My girlfriend loves that stuff and I’ve realised in listening to it more and more that some of the better rappers have a brilliant grasp of language. And as you mention him, I think it’s a good excuse to include this:
AGC: Book-wise, what’s your favourite novel?
DA: Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I loved it as a kid but I think it transcends generations. Seeing this group of school kids turn into savages because there are no authority figures around is fascinating.
AGC: A great book. Finally, then, something I always like to 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?
DA: Just have faith in yourself and your ability. If you have an idea – no matter how stupid – tell people about it. You might just have found a really original way to answer your brief.
AGC: Excellent advice, Dan. Thanks.
You can find out more about Dan Adams by visiting his website at www.danadamscopy.com