“Er…it’s actually fruit infusion for me.”
I’d just asked fellow copywriter, André Spiteri, if he prefers putting the milk in before the tea bag or after the water.
I live a pretty controversial life myself by putting the milk in first…
And in Earl Grey no less, an already-too-weak-tea in most people’s eyes.
This Spiteri chap blows my blasphemy out of the water.
“Yeah,” he goes on, “I’m not a tea drinker really.”
Aghast, I wait.
“But when I make tea for others it’s tea bag, hot water about three quarters of the way, squeeze the tea bag well, remove teabag, milk, stir.”
At least he makes tea for other people.
The interview can continue.
I’m glad because André is a smart guy, a great writer and he has a wonderful, well-kept beard.
Tea-controversy over…we move on to more serious issues. I’ve been looking at new houses myself recently and I know André has just bought one, so we drop in on me asking him how it’s going:
ANDRÉ: House buying is good. I had an offer accepted. So now I’m in this phase where I’m questioning my choices and getting sentimental about my current flat.
GLENN: I know the feeling. I think you’ve just got to be as relaxed about it as possible and try to ignore everyone who tells you it’s this insanely huge deal and stress. That said: working freelance is a real pain when it comes to getting a mortgage. Did you have any problems?
ANDRÉ: Agreed. Many people think it’s this huge deal, but I’ve had a mortgage before and it’s no different than paying rent, except that the house is your own property. I look forward to drilling loads of holes without worrying about my security deposit.
But I’ll miss my flat. I love it.
Yes I had problems because I do business as an LLC. You’d think banks – of all companies – would understand structuring a business tax-efficiently. But most of them were completely inflexible about their requirements and no manner of explaining would do it.
Anyway, eventually I found a bank that would work with me, but I’ve learned there aren’t too many options if you don’t play the game. Thinking of writing a blog post about this actually.
GLENN: I wish I’d had that blog post before I went talking to mortgage lenders. You’re up in Scotland aren’t you?
ANDRÉ: Yeah, I’m in Edinburgh.
GLENN: Lovely place. Though I only remember visiting once and spending most of my time drinking whiskey, trying to navigate a steep hill. I’ve been in touch with a lot of copywriters around there – @LouiseShanahan in particular has been really kind and helpful. There sounds to be a good copy ‘scene’ there?
ANDRÉ: Did you run after a bus? You haven’t experienced the real Edinburgh until you’ve had to do that.
GLENN: I didn’t. But that gives me the perfect excuse to visit again.
ANDRÉ: Yeah it’s a great place. When I first moved from London it was an adjustment because it’s less busy. But now I love it. Great scenery. Much more affordable. And it’s also a great quality of life.
There’s a fantastic copy scene here too. I’m given to understand that many of the big agencies are in Glasgow, but I’ve met loads of Edinburgh-based copywriters. We’ve made friends and even meet for drinks once in a while.
GLENN: That’s great. I’m excited to get up there with the talks around my book. But for those who don’t know your work, let’s dig-in a little. We got into this game in pretty similar ways, I think. We both had a background in finance?
ANDRÉ: Really? Didn’t know you were in finance too.
GLENN: Yeah, I was an auditor. Trained as an accountant. As a kid I wanted to be a bank manager, which is weird. But it’s a story for another time. What was your job?
ANDRÉ: Wow. Didn’t peg you for an accountant. I was a lawyer.
GLENN: I don’t think anyone would peg me as an accountant. It’s probably why I’m no longer an accountant. But you were a lawyer? Now that’s pretty major. Did you have a moment you knew it was over?
ANDRÉ: Looking back, I don’t think there was a moment when I knew my career was over. To be honest, I think it was DOA.
I remember driving to work on the first day at my first proper job out of University and thinking “This is it. The first day of the rest of my life.”
That moment right there should have told me everything I needed to know about how it would work out.
GLENN: It’s interesting when these shifts happen. Let’s not get too philosophical, but it seems wrong you can be pushed in one direction by education and ‘the careers advisor’ but it can be so wrong. At the same time, no one ever told me I could write or had this skill or that copywriting was even an option. Was I sold short somehow?
ANDRÉ: I think it’s more complicated than that.
Yes, education is part of it. I don’t know how it works here in the UK. But in Malta – where I’m originally from – you have to choose your specialist subjects when you’re 13.
GLENN: Yeah, it’s pretty much the same here.
ANDRÉ: So, aged 13, you’re already thinking about what you’re going to be doing for a career, which is ridiculous because that’s just too young to be making important life decisions.
ANDRÉ: At the same time, there are other factors at play too. I did law for a very simple reason: I didn’t think I had other options. I was great at languages but complete crap at maths and sciences. With languages, I thought my options were either teaching, which was out of the question (I don’t have the patience), journalism (which doesn’t interest me), politics (ugh!) or law. I felt like I was forced into it.
I didn’t know what copywriting was at the time, let alone that it was a viable career choice.
GLENN: I guess there could be a greater awareness of copywriting as a career option. That said, at least we’ve both able to use some elements of our pre-copy careers. Let’s talk about your specialist subject. For the uninitiated, fill us in a little on what ‘fintech’ actually means.
ANDRÉ: Fintech is financial technology. So software or other technology that makes finance easier. I think when most people think of fintech, they think about these companies that do finance but aren’t banks (I refuse to call them start-ups, because many of them are huge now.) But the way I see it, any technology that makes finance easier is fintech. ATMs are fintech. Credit cards are fintech. You get the idea.
GLENN: Sure. And it’s interesting you say that it’s not just start-ups now. I was down in London when things were kicking off in that space, but fintech seems to have taken over completely now. Especially around Old Street, and now more in Southwark too. How’d you get into it all?
ANDRÉ: I got into it in spite of myself, really. When I switched careers I wanted nothing to do with finance. I was looking for a clean break. But then I landed a big fintech client. I found the work relatively easy because of my background. And I enjoyed it, which came as a surprise. So instead of working against it, I decided to embrace it. And here we are. Just as I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
GLENN: Nothing wrong with doubling down on your strengths. It’s interesting it was a big client that led to that specialisation. Even though you didn’t necessarily choose it, do you think it’s good to have a niche?
ANDRÉ: Well, for me, having a niche has worked great marketing-wise. It’s helped me stand out. But I don’t think you necessarily need a niche to do well as a freelancer.
I think what you need is something to differentiate yourself. Something you become known for. This could be a niche, but it can also be something else. A particular writing style, say. Even if you have a niche, it doesn’t mean that’s all you’re going to do.
I do lots of non-fintech work: food, travel… I even did an erotic calendar recently. And, honestly, I’d go insane if fintech was all I ever did.
GLENN: It’s good to have different side bits. I guess I’m the same. I have key areas I work in, but then writing for local businesses as well means I end up with a real random ‘to do’ list. But I like that. What’s the weirdest piece of copy you’ve ever had to write?
ANDRÉ: The copy for an erotic advent calendar is currently leading the way. This is still in the works so I can’t reveal too much. But basically, it’s got sex toys instead of chocolate behind the windows. So I spent a week writing product descriptions for anal plugs, vibrators, whips, straps, virility cream and the like. It was…a once-in-a-lifetime experience, let’s put it that way.
How about you?
GLENN: That is weird. And brilliant at the same time. I guess someone has to write this stuff. For me, there’s a few things that come to mind. But I think the time we wrote a long-copy piece selling strands of Elvis’s hair is probably up there. I remember me and one of my junior writers discussing the headline in complete seriousness, forgetting how preposterous the product was. To be fair, the value of authenticated strands of Elvis’s hair has gone up since.
ANDRÉ: That is probably the last example I would have expected you to give.
GLENN: It makes for a good anecdote. And hey: like I say, someone has to write this stuff! Anyway, I remember reading a great piece you wrote about working in a content slave yard. Tell me about that.
ANDRÉ: Ha. I wouldn’t quite call it a slave yard. You can get out. But as I said in my article , I made several mistaken assumptions when I joined. Nonetheless, I went into it with my eyes open, in the sense that I knew it wouldn’t be sustainable in the long-term.
The problem, as I see it, is that writers who don’t know any better or think they can’t do better end up being exploited. And I think the system eventually drags you down.
The low pay, tight deadlines, unreasonable edit requests or comments — it all adds up and makes you think you can’t do better. Or that this is how all clients are. Which is absolutely not true. Good clients want you to succeed, because if you succeed they succeed too.
GLENN: That’s interesting about the feedback element. When I think of all the different types of feedback I’ve had over the years on my writing, you realise that positive words lead to better work. But it’s so easy to focus on the negative. Do you have any systems or processes you use to solicit feedback from clients?
ANDRÉ: I don’t necessarily think feedback has to be worded in a positive way. I just think the problem is more that sometimes the purpose of feedback is misunderstood. “This isn’t on brand” or “Legal will have a problem with this” are fair comments. “Don’t start sentences with ‘but’, it’s not good copy” or “I don’t like this word” feel subjective and make you instinctively defensive.
GLENN: It’s also fine to start a sentence with ‘but’.
ANDRÉ: Ultimately, even the best copywriters get harsh feedback, so it’s a question of understanding that this isn’t a reflection of how skilled you are. Of course, that’s not always easy, so I think it’s important to get some distance before you do amends.
I’ll read feedback almost immediately (needy copywriter alert), but I won’t jump into it straight away if that’s possible. That way I can take the emotion out of it and evaluate everything more objectively.
GLENN: Good advice. These days I try to give it at least a day – on major projects, at least – before evaluating, or else you end up spending more time screaming at your computer for no reason. That said, it’s a lot easier with some clients than others. When it comes to finding good clients to work with, what’s your advice to fellow copywriters?
ANDRÉ: Don’t be afraid to aim high. Pitch because you really want to work with someone, not just because you think there’s a chance you’ll sign them. In my experience, the worst-case scenario is that they’ll ignore you. And the best-case scenario is that you’ll get a meeting. It’s very rare that someone will reply with a put-down. So you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
GLENN: That’s good advice. Particularly working with people because you want to. The sooner you can carve away any clients that cause you to feel negative in someway, the happier you’ll be.
ANDRÉ: Very true.
GLENN: André, we’ve covered a lot of interesting ground and the powers that be tell us attention spans are forever waning, so let’s finish with a truly important question…
What would Ogilvy do?
ANDRÉ: He’d write us a memo telling us to stop dawdling.
And thus we ended the interview only to find this note discarded on the side of my desk:
July 25, 2018
When partaking in an interview it is paramount both interviewer and interviewee are fully aware when the conversation is over and the reader following the interview will have lost interest.This moment can usually be identified by:
1) The asking of generic questions that should be edited out.
2) The giving of generic answers because the questions are poor.
3) Talking about the weather or plans for the weekend.
4) Repeatedly agreeing about mundane things of no relevance.
5) Crafting a fake memo from David Ogilvy in an attempt to be clever.
Hmm. If this seemingly authentic note is anything to go by, I reckon we got out just before time there. Phew. I hope you enjoyed the interview and if so, please do share it around the all-powerful Internet using the various means you prefer. It really is nice to share things.
It’s also nice to thank people. And I would very much like to thank André for taking the time to answer my questions and sharing his experiences. If you’d like to find out even more about André – like how does he keep his beard looking so fresh or why he doesn’t drink normal tea – you can visit his website at MaverickWords.com or you can follow him on the noisey blue bird platform at @Andre_Spiteri.
And if you enjoy these interviews… well, you really should pre-order a copy of my forthcoming book The Art of the Click, which features extended and exclusive interviews with three of my mentors and master copywriters: Mark Ford, John Forde and James Woodburn. Oh, and there’s loads of writing by me in it too, sharing all manner of insight and ideas about copywriting. You might enjoy it. Go on.
P.S. In case you’re insane, I can reveal that the above Ogilvy ‘memo’ is not real and was not written by David Ogilvy…
It was actually written by John Caples. So there.