John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
(619) 465-6100
More career advice: what’s it like to be an advertising copywriter?

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Because I’m a working freelance advertising copywriter with a fairly well-ranked website, I often get email from people asking me if I like being a copywriter. They want to know if the reality of a career in copywriting is as rewarding as it seems. Some people want advice on launching their own business as a freelance advertising copywriter.

Elsewhere on this website are articles I’ve written about advertising, branding, copywriting, suggested reading, and even how to become an advertising copywriter and how to take your copywriting portfolio to the next level. So, this article is strictly about advertising copywriting as a career. I’ll also discuss freelancing as a career option. Keep in mind that this is one copywriter’s experience. And, if I seem to come down heavily in favor of a career in copywriting, it’s because, after three decades in the business, I still love my job.

First, yes, writing advertising is fun. If you are passionate about writing, then I believe advertising copywriting is the ultimate writing. Every word counts and the end result must produce measurable action. The key point to understand here, is that writing an ad is fun not because it’s easy, but because writing a good one is very hard.

Unfortunately, it is easy to get cynical about writing ads. Commercial intent is not merely present, it’s intrinsic to the art. The more cynical you get, the less able you are to connect emotionally with the craft and the people in the target audience. Making that person-to-person connection is the most-important part of being a good advertising copywriter. If you find your heart getting hard, it’s time to take a break.

Advertising copywriting is a career in which you can be creative, and work with creative people. Advertising agencies attract creative people because the industry appreciates and rewards creativity. But, the creativity is focused, and typically follows a written work plan or creative brief. Therein lies the challenge: copywriting is a career in which you must be creative, on demand.

Those demands are heavy enough and complicated enough that advertising is no place for oversized or fragile egos. Client requirements range from the sensible to the utterly insane. Deadlines are real and fixed and arrive on schedule with no regard to your personal life or the state of your muse. If you have the flu, and the client rejected all the previously presented work because he wanted to see something “fresher but less clever,” and the deadline for materials is next week, and a radio in the next office is blaring music you hate – guess what. You either deliver a creative product on time, or find another line of work. How well you deliver in a tough situation is the difference between being a professional copywriter and being a mere gifted amateur. Of course, sometimes there’s nothing like pressure to get the creative juices flowing.

When you’re an advertising copywriter you learn a lot of stuff, most of it highly important during a project and relatively useless afterwards. If you enjoy learning things, if you can integrate and simplify information, then every project will be exciting. That means, though, that there isn’t much opportunity to coast on experience as you get older. While experience helps, what you’ll rely on most as an advertising copywriter is being a quick study.

I hear about the “glamour” of creating advertising, usually from people who either (a) don’t know much about it, or (b) are selling a course on advertising copywriting. Advertising copywriting is not glamorous work, although its product is very much in the public eye. What a copywriter writes may become famous, but very few copywriters themselves achieve fame. This is as it should be. If it’s goodies you’re after, I have to tell you that the copywriter falls pretty far down the list of Ad Agency People Who Get Great Perks. The hot place for goodies used to be the media department, but that’s almost gone. Art directors can occasionally score a nifty photo prop or a nice vendor party. The copywriter, usually not. Sorry. Those men and women bantering wittily over four-star expense-account lunches – they’re usually in account services (if they’re in advertising at all), and working very hard at a job you and I wouldn’t want to do. The business of creating advertising (or, “advertising creative” as it has become known) might carry a certain cachet. But the work of creating it, selling it, producing it – that’s just plain old hard work. So, if you don’t love the work for itself, you’ll be disappointed.

A few words about on-the-job freedom. As long as you deliver good work on time, most ad agencies tolerate a large degree of latitude in what you wear, when you work, and even how you act in the office. At the same time, advertising is a business, and most ad agencies, like their clients, have a 9 to 5 workday. As a copywriter, your actual work may be done at any time, but you’ll need to be available during most of the normal business day. If anything, the hours you work will be longer. Everyone in the creative department is quite familiar with the after-hours janitorial crew, and vice versa. They see a lot of each other.

The pay is okay. I don’t know of anyone who got rich being an advertising copywriter, at least not without starting an ad agency and learning to deal with a whole other set of problems. However, you do get well-compensated for the product of your imagination – something not a lot of people can do. It’s a good living. The higher you go in ad agency management, the higher your income, but the less actual advertising copywriting you’ll get to do.

A bit about going freelance. The good news: everything that’s great about advertising copywriting as a career goes double for working freelance. The bad news: everything that’s tough about advertising copywriting as a career goes double for working freelance.

The fun factor increases because your clients are your own, and you can guide them to creative solutions that you like. However, the fun factor decreases - or changes, anyway - because you have to do work related to running your business. Also, freelance assignments are often lower profile projects than you’ll get at a top ad agency. That doesn’t make them any less fun to do, but it does make them less fun to talk about at parties.

As to your workday, within the constraints of deadlines, how you spend your time as a freelance copywriter is up to you. You are free to follow your worst impulses. If you’re a procrastinator, this is a recipe for disaster on a regular basis. If you’re a workaholic, you may need to set limits on work time in order to have a healthy relationship with a significant other.

As a freelance advertising copywriter, you’ll have to learn the advertising business. That seems like a lame statement, but most ad agency copywriters have no appreciation for, say, the traffic department. I know I didn’t. It’s not until you’re in business for yourself that you realize the sensibility of tracking your time and tasks, broken out by client and project, if only to keep your deadlines from colliding. Suddenly, you find yourself making timesheets for yourself. The same is true of media, research, production, accounting, account services; all those departments that you take for granted in the safety of an ad agency. If you don’t know how to get clients, then you need more industry experience before you venture forth as a freelancer.

Money can be an issue. Not because of the amount of income, necessarily, but because of the way it ebbs and flows. That can be scary. My best suggestion to you (and one I dearly hope you ignore, because it’s my secret), is to market yourself when you’re busy, so that by the time new work comes in you’ve cleared your desk of current projects. If you wait until business is slow to market yourself, new jobs will hit you just as your other work picks up. Your work cycle amplitude will build on itself until you experience the “feast or famine” workflow that many freelancers complain about. It doesn’t have to be like that. A postcard, an ad, a quick note to an old contact – made right in the midst of your most-hectic time – will pay off when things start to get quiet.

So, should you become an advertising copywriter? I can’t answer that. But, maybe after reading this, you can.

If you are settling for copywriting as a way to pay the bills while you work on the Great American Screenplay, you may find that the frustrations outweigh the benefits. Your peace of mind (and your screenplay) might be better served by a job that takes less mental and emotional energy. On the other hand, you may find in copywriting a whole new love affair in writing. I think advertising copywriting as a career means too many hours, and too much involvement, over too many years, to do if it doesn’t excite you. When I look back on three decades in the business, there have been days and even weeks that were sheer Hell on wheels. But, even so, I’ve enjoyed every minute.

More advertising and marketing advice.

Advertising strategy and other lies
An advertising copywriter’s bookshelf: recommended books
Brands and branding: a white paper
Do you make these mistakes in advertising?
Free (yes, free) advertising copywriting resources
Four ad copy traps that ensnare even experienced copywriters
How to become an advertising copywriter
How to take your copywriting portfolio to the next level
How to write a brochure: advice from an advertising copywriter
How to write better ads
Long John Silver on writing ads
Napoleon’s advice to entrepreneurs, Part I: starting the enterprise
Napoleon’s advice to entrepreneurs, Part II: the entrepreneurial character
Napoleon’s advice to entrepreneurs, Part III: growing the enterprise
The ART of repurposing marketing copy (Or, why you shouldn’t use brochure copy as web content)
The economy (and what to do about it)
When you should consider hiring a freelance copywriter
Advertising copywriting mentorship
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