© 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.
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 Id spent more time selling cooksets and toaster ovens, Id 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.
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 associates degree and a bachelors is two years of
academic exposure to challenging ideas. If you are intellectually curious, theres
little difference in the real world. I have a BA. No one has ever
asked to see it.
How about a masters degree? I believe education, like travel, is never wasted. But, a masters 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.
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 youll 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 theres an additional resource in the creative department (you), they often can initiate small projects that they havent bothered bringing into the shop before.
At most advertising agencies, theres a weekly status meeting where all the
projects are reviewed, tasks assigned, and timelines checked. Its 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.
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 havent 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 dont turn your internship into a job, because youll 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 youre proud of them.
What if you didnt 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 copywriters 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 its 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 copywriters 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 copywriters 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 youve 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.
Its 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, itll stand out.
Now is also the time to eliminate everything that isnt 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 Im giving you. I took it, and recommend that you do the same.
Although you want your copywriting portfolio to be as polished as possible, youll
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 theyre
scribbled on napkins and stored in a shoebox. And all the fine-tuning in the
world wont 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.
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 wont 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 dont 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.
Dont accept a job at an ad agency if it isnt 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 isnt advertising (probably youll be paid better to boot). By the same token, dont accept a job as a writer if it isnt 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 dont know. Ive 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: whats 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.
Keep track of your career.
Advertising strategy and other lies
An advertising copywriters 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: whats it like being an advertising copywriter?
Napoleons advice to entrepreneurs, Part I: starting the enterprise
Napoleons advice to entrepreneurs, Part II: the entrepreneurial character
Napoleons 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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