Notes to a Young Copywriter

3 min read

David Ogilvy’s castle.

Last Friday, I was out on a TV shoot for a client. During a lull, I had a conversation with Sam and Teddy, (not their real names) a couple of fellow copywriters–both accomplished pros.

“How many times,” I asked, “have you finished a project that your client is really happy about–and your first thought is, ‘Whew–I fooled them again’?”

“Every time,” said Teddy before I could finish my question.

Sam nodded. “I remember what David Ogilvy said. He said that every time he sat down to write copy, he was sure he was going to fail.”

Imagine that. One of the greatest copywriters of all time. A guy who retired to a castle in France. Sure he was going to fail, every time.

The feeling is mutual. More times than I can imagine–something along the lines of once (at least) a day, every day, for the last 33 years. I’m always pretty sure that, this time, the words will finally fail me. I’ll reveal myself to be a complete fraud who knows nothing about heart surgery / health insurance / electrical discharge machining / construction techniques / animal conservation / fill in the blank. I’ll never work in this town again.

Which is, of course, ridiculous. I’ve been working in this town for 33 years.

Performance anxiety is an occupational hazard for copywriters. Let’s face it: we’re not experts in the subjects we write about; yet, we’re usually supposed to convey just the opposite in the words we write. How can we possibly know as much as our clients about their businesses and their products? And if we don’t, how can we possibly entice people we’ve never met to find out more?

First: in most cases, we can never expect to ever know as much about our clients’ businesses as they do.

But we don’t have to. Because we do understand human nature. We know the people who will see our ads. We know how they feel. We know what we want them to do and how to convince them to do it.

“But,” you might ask, “what if I don’t know those people? I don’t really know any heart patients / insurance administrators / engineers / new home buyers / scientists / fill in the blank. How am I supposed to write for them?”

You just write. Because you do know these people. They’re people.

It’s one of the great mistakes young copywriters make, and it continues to haunt us throughout our careers. We think that certain audiences (doctors, bureaucrats, men in their 20s)  are so different from us that we just don’t know how to talk with them.

But we do. They’re just people. They may want different things, but they want. They’re still going to make emotional decisions and support them with facts, not vice-versa. We still have to engage them at their emotional core.

Which is what copywriters do. We find a way to present our clients and their products in ways that address basic human desires. To live longer / serve others / worry less / protect family / save the world / fill in the blank.

As a professional copywriter, you eventually remember this, intuitively if not consciously. You stop staring at your blank screen and trust your experience and intuition and start writing.

And damned if forty-nine times out of fifty everything doesn’t work out just fine. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been certain that this was the time I’d be called a charlatan. But it never happens.

And I think, “Dang. Fooled another one.”

When perhaps I should be thinking, “Dang. I’m a copywriter.” But I almost never think that.

Does it ever get less scary? Yes. Sort of. But that’s not the point. The point is, as a copywriter, your default switch is probably set at “I’m not sure I can write about this.”

I’m here to tell you that you can. As a great copywriter once wrote, “Just do it.” I think you’ll be surprised how often you’ll succeed.