John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
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How to become an advertising copywriter

© John Kuraoka

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There is precious little current career advice out there for aspiring advertising copywriters. Here are my recommendations, based on what worked for me. You may scoff at some of them; then again, you may be more gifted than I. This advice is aimed at the average aspiring copywriter, who wishes to enjoy a better-than-average career.

Start now.
Get a job in sales, preferably one that puts you face-to-face with customers. My first job, while I was in high school, was being holiday sales help in the housewares department of a May Company store. David Ogilvy sold stoves door-to-door. Maybe if I’d spent more time selling cooksets and toaster ovens, I’d own a castle in France too. Instead, when the holidays and my temporary employment ended, I found a part-time job at a print shop, where I learned to appreciate what could be done with a sheet of paper. I wrote copy for flyers and brochures. The shop also sold office supplies, so I tried my hand at creating point-of-purchase displays. This low-level real-world experience is no substitute for classroom learning, but the reverse is equally true. Simultaneously learning the theoretical and the practical at an early stage will put you miles ahead very quickly.
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Get a degree.
A college degree is sort of expected in the advertising industry. You may think that talent alone will get you through, and it might. Nonetheless, you’ll want to take advantage of the resources available on college campuses, like the library, internships, and classes in art, politics, and chemistry. Get good at learning new things quickly, because that’s an important part of the job. A working knowledge of basic statistics will help you make sense of marketing research. Knowing classic literature and the rules of formal composition will help you defend the ad copy you write. All the creative people I know – especially advertising copywriters – are voracious and wide-ranging collectors of bits of knowledge. Who knows in what combination those bits might emerge as a freshly minted concept? Also, while on campus, it’s a good idea to participate in relevant extra-curricular activities such as your advertising club (both college and local) and AAF-sponsored events.

Certain majors seem to open doors in the creative department. These include advertising, marketing, communications, English, journalism, psychology, liberal arts, and media studies. If your college doesn’t offer a major in advertising, then I’ve always thought – with no first- or even second-hand experience to back it up – that majoring in English and minoring in Business might present a useful foundation of knowledge for a job as an advertising copywriter.

The difference between an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s is two years of academic exposure to challenging ideas. If you are intellectually curious, there’s little difference in the real world. I have a BA. No one has ever asked to see it.

How about a master’s degree? I believe education, like travel, is never wasted. But, a master’s is not necessary for copywriting, and the two years it would require would be better spent getting your career started. Depending on the path your career takes, what you learn in an MBA program might be useful.

For my own recommended reading list for aspiring advertising copywriters, click here.
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About advertising internships.
Get your advertising internship in the creative department. Most internships are in other departments, where it’s easier to evaluate your work objectively. Also, most creative directors don’t have the time or inclination to properly mentor young talent. Mentoring is developed to a much higher level in other fields, to their gain and advertising’s loss. Hold out for a copywriting internship. If you take an internship in the media department, for instance, then for the next few years, you will always have more experience in media than in copywriting. It will go from being a foot in the door to being a career in no time flat. You may have to be aggressive and create your own internship. Don’t let the internship coordinator limit your options. Call the agencies whose work you admire, and wrangle an interview with the creative director.

Once you’re in a copywriting internship, try very hard to turn it into a job offer, even if it means torpedoing your GPA. After your first post-graduate job, nobody looks at your academic transcript. Everybody looks at your book.

As a creative department intern, you may be left largely to your own devices. Go up and ask the creative director for a copywriting assignment. You may be teamed with an intern art director, but you’ll get more out of the experience if you can occasionally partner with one of the senior creative people.

If truly abandoned, wander the halls and introduce yourself. Key people to know - in addition to the creative director - are the creative department secretary, production department manager, senior production people, and staff copywriters and art directors. Also, introduce yourself to the account services people. If they know that there’s an additional resource in the creative department (you), they often can initiate small projects that they haven’t bothered bringing into the shop before.

At most advertising agencies, there’s a weekly status meeting where all the projects are reviewed, tasks assigned, and timelines checked. It’s usually Monday morning. Whenever that meeting is, you should clear your work/school schedule so you can attend with the intent of getting an assignment or two.
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How to build your copywriting portfolio.
Building your portfolio, or book, is a career-long process. You’ll never stop adding and subtracting portfolio pieces based on who you’re pitching. As your career as an advertising copywriter progresses, you’ll amass a large collection of portfolio-worthy work from which to select your presentation. Right now, though, you need only show enough good work to get a job as an entry-level advertising copywriter.

Despite the term “book,” your most-important communication channel will be the web. You must set up a website, separate from any personal web presence you may have. (And, if you haven’t already, now is the time to get rid of all those wild party photos on your Facebook page, and adjust the settings on all your social media accounts for maximum privacy.) Set up a separate social media presence for your professional life; Facebook and LinkedIn seem to be the choices du jour for businesspeople. These are all places to display your portfolio, but they should all lead back to your main business website.

Get copies of the ads you create while a copywriting intern. This is especially important if you don’t turn your internship into a job, because you’ll need those completed samples of agency-quality work to post online and show potential employers. Follow up with the art director or production person to get the files or prints. You may also want color copies of comps if you’re proud of them.

What if you didn’t get an internship as an advertising copywriter? Well, you could develop speculative (“spec”) ads on your own. You could start today with the two sample creative briefs included in my advertising copywriter mentorship section. Or, even smarter, target actual companies and post your work online – the worst that can happen, is you get a snippy letter from an attorney demanding that you take down the spec ad. Several large brands, including Apple and Frito-Lay, have produced and run customer-created TV commercials. Some advertisers and ad agencies run contests, so keep an eye out for those (you might want to set up a Google News alert for “advertising contest”). Others simply scour YouTube for fresh TV ideas.

Simple, strong ideas will be the easiest to self-produce convincingly. Don’t worry too much about your ad concepts being “stolen” – the reality is, ad agency creative teams churn out thousands of ideas every day and the likelihood of you being the only person in the industry to have thought up a concept is infinitesimal. If you want to turn a winning spot into more than a one-off project or a few kudos, though, think big. Develop ways to extend the concept into other media, and be prepared to talk up those ideas should the opportunity arise because the YouTube spot is just the bait for what you’re really after: a conversation with an interested creative director.

Also, there are portfolio development schools, classes, courses, and workshops available in most major cities. Check your local colleges and advertising clubs for information. With any of them, what you get depends mostly on the effort and energy you invest. The most-basic of them will at least offer you the opportunity to develop a portfolio that shows your capabilities. The best of them will also give you worthwhile industry contacts and feedback from well-established advertising copywriters, art directors, and creative directors.

Produced radio spots are presented on a copywriter’s reel, which is a compilation of finished spots. Like the term “book,”, the term “reel” is a hold-over from the old days, when radio spots were presented on ¼” audiotape at 15 IPS (inches per second). These days, most copywriters and ad agencies use CDs, and it’s wise to have your reel in both audio and MP3 formats. Radio spots that did not get produced are usually presented in script form. Make sure your production notes at the beginning of your script give enough information that the reader will be able to “see” the characters and setting.

Produced TV commercials also are presented on a copywriter’s reel. The term “reel” in this case refers to a film reel. Many TV commercials are still produced on film, then transferred to another format for broadcast. A copywriter’s TV reel used to be presented on broadcast-standard ¾” videotape, but these days most copywriters and ad agencies use DVDs. I recommend that you also have your work available in a couple other digital media player formats (.mpg, .mov, and .ram seem to be the most popular these days). YouTube links are also acceptable. You may include TV commercial storyboards in your copywriting portfolio; for web presentation the easiest format is to have a PDF of the entire storyboard.

You can show fully functional websites on CD. However, high-quality print-outs of screen captures will suffice for your copywriting portfolio if your copy is readable. Otherwise, you can simply provide a list of websites you’ve written (make sure, though, that the current websites still contain your copy).

Social media campaigns can be shown as PDF screen grabs. Be sure to capture them while the campaign is running hot and heavy, and keep them reasonably updated. While the effort is underway, a live link is acceptable and even preferable.

Toss out any student work that you feel unsure about. Enlist the help of an understanding art director to polish the pieces you feel good about.

It’s a good idea to show campaign concepts: how one selling concept or marketing position would be executed across multiple ads or media. Most junior copywriting portfolios are filled with clever little one-off ads. If your portfolio contains some bigger ideas, it’ll stand out.

Now is also the time to eliminate everything that isn’t advertising copywriting. That story you got published? Out. Those newsletters you put together? Out. That award-winning logo you designed for a paying client? Out. If it makes you feel any better, I had all these things in my student portfolio. Mark Doyle, my first creative director, gave me the same advice I’m giving you. I took it, and recommend that you do the same.

Although you want your copywriting portfolio to be as polished as possible, you’ll typically be presenting to the creative director or a senior creative. He or she has plenty of practice understanding roughs, scrawls, scripts, and pantomimes. Trust me on this one: brilliant ad concepts will be recognized, even if they’re scribbled on napkins and stored in a shoebox. And all the fine-tuning in the world won’t make a mediocre ad concept look more appealing to a creative director. So, polish your ideas first.
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Your first job in advertising.
With luck, you’ll roll directly from your advertising internship into your first job. Otherwise, it’s up to you to make calls, send résumés and samples, and talk to creative directors. Most creative directors do their own hiring, so sending a résumé to the human resources department is a doubtful strategy. An equally doubtful strategy, is sending a cover letter or résumé that takes the form of a script, an ad, a movie poster, a storyboard, or a cut-out figure of yourself that turns into a mobile or a desk toy. Things are confusing enough in most ad agency creative departments without having to wonder what the heck a cover letter is asking for. Show your creativity in the samples of your work - and you should send three or four samples of your best work.

What if three or four samples are your entire book? Send them all. At the interview, be prepared to discuss the marketing problems the samples were created to solve, and how the ad concepts would extend into other media. As a prospective entry-level copywriter, you won’t be expected to have a big book. You will be expected to be able to articulate ideas.

Give priority to landing a job at an ad agency as opposed to an in-house corporate creative department - the variety of clients will build a stronger book. The local Ad Club directory is a good place to start searching, but don’t limit yourself to a local agency if your life is relatively unencumbered. Adweek is a pretty good resource for job listings in the U.S. Ad people move around a lot, so if you use a directory, call to confirm that the listed creative director is the current creative director.

Don’t accept a job at an ad agency if it isn’t copywriting. Ad agency titles are tough labels to shake, and cross-departmental movements are rare. If financial realities compel you to take a job as a receptionist or office assistant, take it in a field that isn’t advertising (probably you’ll be paid better to boot). By the same token, don’t accept a job as a writer if it isn’t advertising copywriting. Oh, take it if you must, but keep in mind that experience writing press releases or technical data sheets seldom impresses a creative director.

Every few weeks, I get an email from someone who took that job in media or account services, or on the client side as a marketing person. They want to know how to go from being an account executive, product manager, marketing director, or whatever, to being a copywriter. Unfortunately, I don’t know. I’ve never personally known anyone who successfully went from any other marketing/advertising job, to copywriting. Once your career gets going in another direction, it may be easier to start your own ad agency than to get a job as a copywriter. For more about life as an advertising copywriter, see my article More career advice: what’s it like being an advertising copywriter?

This first job will define your career. If you want to be an advertising copywriter, start as an advertising copywriter.
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The freelance trap.
While you search for your first job, you may have the opportunity to freelance your copywriting services to local businesses. This is a terrific way to build your book and gain experience; it is also a dangerous trap for starting copywriters. Here’s how the trap works. You get small accounts. You plan to leverage those small accounts into bigger accounts. Say, Abe’s Flowers (with one shop) into Ben’s Flowers (with three shops and an on-line store). Soon, you find that Ben’s Flowers is being courted by two ad agencies and a veteran freelance copywriter, all of whom worked on Proflowers or FTD. See how that works? It’s easy to leverage down. It’s hard to leverage up.

Two years later, Abe’s Flowers and its ilk are keeping you too busy to look for an agency job. Meanwhile, your fellow alumnus, who went to work for a small ad agency straight out of college, is now at a larger agency writing ads for Mazda, or General Electric, or Doritos.

By all means, take the Abe’s Flowers account - and any other freelance assignment that comes your way. Do your level best with it. But, keep looking for a staff copywriting job at an advertising agency. At an ad agency, you’ll get to work on accounts with names people know. More important, you’ll learn the ins and outs of the advertising business. The client experience and agency disciplines will stand you in good stead if and when you do start out on your own.
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Keep track of your career.
It’s easy to get so busy working that you neglect your career. Review your work at least once a year. Evaluate what you’ve learned. Where your strengths are. And where you need to keep pushing yourself. Then, look for opportunities that will give you what you need. Maybe you need to ask for more broadcast assignments. Or, maybe you need to look for a job at an ad agency that has more broadcast work. In any case, keep polishing your book. For my opinions on that endless task, see How to take your copywriting portfolio to the next level.

After two or three years, you’ll have some print and some broadcast experience. You’ll have created a few ad campaigns. You’ll have worked on accounts in several industries. You’ll have met clients, both to gather information and to present your work. You’ll have collected a few advertising awards, and you’ll have enjoyed the thrill of overhearing complete strangers talking about one of your ads. Oh, and congratulations. You’ll be an advertising copywriter.
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More advertising & 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 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
More career advice: what’s it like being an advertising copywriter?
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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