36. Ian Swan, Independent Copywriter

An independent copywriter, Ian Swan has +4 years experience working with advertising agencies in the creation of advertising campaigns to communicate in the most attractive and interesting way possible in the shortest amount of time possible.

How does your job fit into the advertising process? It all starts with the brief. Sometimes creative advertising agencies come to me with their finished product and ask me to add text, and sometimes I work along side the creative advertising team in the creation of the advertising campaign, which is my preferred way of working.

It’s really about coming up with the brief and then going with it, or just working within the constraints you have. There are many different ways of saying or portraying something, but not all of those ways will be in the best interest of the brand’s overall strategy.

How did you get into copywriting? By pure accident, really. A friend of mine contacted me to do her website in English. After reading her content I felt that some of the things she wanted to say, and how she wanted to present her website were a bit cheezy, so I suggested giving new names to things and saying it differently. That’s basic copywriting: saying things in the most attractive and catching way possible to create the maximum amount of interest in the shortest amount of time possible. That’s what copywriting’s all about.

When I moved to Paris from Barcelona, I didn’t know anybody, so I had to do a lot of networking until a few jobs started coming in. I met a guy at a small business networking group in Paris where everybody presents themselves over morning coffee and then exhanges business cards at the end. So I stood up in front of everybody and explained that I’m an independent copywriter. Nothing happened immediately, but then a year later I get a call from a guy who needed a copywriter and remembered me, so he contacted me and it turned into a project.

What’s a piece you’ve worked on? I’ve done copywriting in several sectors now. I did one big project in the scientific sector about accoustic contamination in the ocean and its effect on marine mammals. It’s actually a devastating document and some of the most in-depth research ever done on the subject. It’s basically about how humans are making too much noise both above and below ground, and it’s really bad for the whales.

More recently I worked on a global campaign for Gillette in the form of a hand-out booklet targeting young fathers explaining why they should shave instead of keeping their stubble. I found this job through friends of friends. I knew somebody working at Gillette who told me that their copywriter was really busy, and so offered me the project. So I went in for an interview and got the job. From then on I’ve pretty much gotten my projects through word of mouth.

What’s some good copywriting you like? “Just do it.” Nike‘s classic slogan, for example, was actually taken from a scene in Return of the Jedi when Luke was trying to raise the fightership from the swamp. Luke turns to Yoda and says “I can’t. It’s too heavy.” Yoda simply responds “Just do.” One of the marketing boys from Nike happened to be watching the movie, heard the line, and was inspired. Because “Just do it.” was in public domain and not copyrighted or anything, anybody could say it. But yet those three little words combined to create a powerful message, a message that Nike was able to build a powerful brand image around.

What do you enjoy most about copywriting? I enjoy playing with the words and coming up with ideas.

Recently I saw a campaign for an electric car, and the slogan the brand went with was something like “Drive the car of tomorrow, today.” Which is so cheezy! That’s been used a million times already. Right off the top of my head I came up with a pure copywriting example, “Plug in for Life.”

For me, you know when it’s perfect because you know exactly what it’s about, but it works on so many different levels. “Plug in for Life” was right bang on the nail because it’s an electric car so it’s plugging in for biological life as well as for the rest of your life because your moving from a petrol to an electric car, and your sticking with the brand for life.

It’s really nice when you come up with these quick ideas and clever ways to construct sentences like they do in the Mad Men series.

Lastly, the money’s good and nothing satisfies the ego like creative accomplishment, but it’s not something I’d like to see myself doing for the rest of my life either.

What do you dislike about copywriting? Consider an article title you could reasonably encounter online nowadays: ”10 Life-Changing Cat Videos.” The author’s copywriting objective of creating the maximum amount of interest in the shortest amount of time possible, and obviously the author added ‘Life-Changing” as a hook to get more clicks. Readers will most likely click the article out of sheer curiosity while understanding that cat videos won’t be lifechanging.

However I view that as more of a paracitical approach to copywriting, taking away from the things which truly are life-changing. The manipulative title may be successful in the short-term, but if the rest of the article is no good, then the short-term success could be to the detriment of the author’s, and by extension the website’s, long-term credibility.

What techniques do you use when copywriting? I put my faith in that magical unknowable place called creativity. I also have a lot of experience writing novels so I recognize while I’m writing novels the inspiration just seems to appear and I operate on that level.

It also depends on the project. For example if I’m doing something like a financial website, I’ll read the competitions websites to get an idea of the terminology and language their using, and then adapt it in that way. But from a purely creational point of view, I don’t have any real process or a set toolbelt of techniques as such.  It’s simply waiting to hear the brief and then letting the mind go wild thinking of ideas.

I tend to operate on the pure aestetics of the page. There are words that jump out at you, and others that don’t. There are sexy and beautiful words, and I can spend a long time hesitating over one word. If I’m not happy or if I get stuck on a word, I skip over it and keep going and then come back to it when I have the idea when I’ve a better grasp of the rest of the text. I like the idea of being natural, not political, so I tend to stay away from rhetoric and political communication structures.

How important is font in choosing how you write? Font fundamentally determines the words you write and the perspective in which you write the words. Personally, when I write I use either the default Calibri or Gungsu, which is the classic typewriter font.

How do you get yourself into the mood of copywriting? My mind is constantly brainstorming throughout the day, so by the time I’ve opened up Microsoft Word I already know where I’m going with my idea and I’m able to just sit down and write. I do most of my thinking in the metro. Strangely enough I find the metro to be an inspiring place, and I think it’s because I’m open to the energy of the people using it. A lot of people hate the metro because it’s dirty and sleezy and underground, but I get a buzz out of all the amazing different people gathered together.

During the day my ideas are always working in the background and that’s the amazing thing about the human mind. We know so little about it and the way it works. I make it a point to constantly feed my mind and the ideas constantly emerge.

Copywriting under deadline can be frustrating, and I’ve found I work best when I know in advance when I will dedicate time to do copywriting.

When do you find you’re the most productive? I enjoy writing late at night because I like the idea of writing while the rest of the world sleeps – sometimes until 3-4 in the morning. Each time of the day comes with it’s own individual feelings. And there are different types of writing. Creative writing might be late at night and editing in the morning.

What’s a misconception people have about copywriting? In copywriting you must understand the difference between translations and adaptations. It’s one thing to translate a document, it’s another thing to adapt it. When you’re adapting a document you’re actually keeping the meaning but you’re changing all the language in it so that it sounds as fetching as it was when it was first written, or even better.

Secondly, while it’s true that anybody can have their own website and online resume in 30 minutes or less, public misconceptions tend to be that anybody can do copywriting.

Lastly, the value attached to copywriting is less than what it should be. I once offered a friend a deeply-discounted rate to write copy for his website, and he still complained that it was much too high.

One B2B client I worked with was a world-leader in their field, selling products that cost millions of dollars, and they’ll spend an absolute fortune on advertising campaigns and website creation. But then all of the sudden they get really tight about the English version of their documents, reluctant to pay somebody a lilttle bit extra to write it properly. But why spend all that money on a good website if you’re not going to put good material on it?

So in effect you have these foreign companies competing against American and British competitors spend a fortune creating impeccably designed brochures written in shoddy English being sent all around the world to potential clients.

Whats one of your favorite advertising campaigns? Just the other day I saw a poster at the bus stop. From afar you’d think it an advertisement for a modern art exhibit, but when you get closer you realize it’s a campaign about violence against women.

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I want to be a copywriter, any advice? Like with any career, the first jobs are the most important. They are what give you a background, develop your reputation, and form your network.

If you’re an English-speaking copywriter in a foreign country, you’re in a great position because English is becoming more and more an advertising necessity, so you’re never short on work if you want it. But as I mentioned before, if you’re going to take this route, make sure your clients understand the difference between a translator and a copywriter.

For each text copy you write, understand who your audience is. Having done that, as you write your copy, challenge your readers. If the content is too easy, they won’t think about it afterwards. If it’s too difficult, they’ll give up on it.

Don’t undercharge. Have an idea of what you’re worth and don’t be afraid to charge it. You’ll be tempted to undercharge because you want to get the job, but that gives you a lower opinion of yourself.

Lastly, love what you do. Don’t expect instant results. Just keep putting yourself out there. Make contacts and buid a network. Use whatever you have at your disposal. I’m at the point now where I can spend less time marketing and more time creating quality projects. But this is thanks to years of putting networking first and building a contact directory.

Where do you go to for inspiration? Competitors websites. I read what other copywriters and authors have written about my particular topic. I read a lot; that’s where I get a lot of my language and inspiration.

The internet is a overwhelming infinite of information, but most people tend to be creatures of habit: going to the same newspapers and the same sources to keep an eye on things and to stay up-to-date.

I have a small advertising budget, any advice? Maximize your potential online. To do that hire someone to get your keywords out there  in front.

Also, aim for creating an emotional attachment in your writing. For example, the best horror movies, like the Exorcist, are the ones that scare you even after you’ve gotten home and are laying in bed.