Inside the Agency: Copywriting

by Katie Hayward
May 19, 2015

As a first-year copywriter, one of the hardest skills for me to master was the balancing act between being creative and being true to a brand. A few years later I still have a vigilant creative director and a dedicated team of account specialists that help keep me on track every now and then.

The truth is, copywriting isn’t for everyone, especially not every writer. It takes a lot of discipline to muster a creative concept tailored to an established brand. In a sense, copywriting goes against the very definition of the word creative in that while you are indeed imagining original ideas, you’re doing it inside a very well defined box.

That box contains a slew of brand standards, budget considerations and campaign parameters, and it often puts restrictions on how original your concept can really be. Glamorous shows like the infamous Mad Men (which let’s be honest, are the only reason most people know what a copywriter is) often fail to truly shed light on these restrictions. To be given a box filled with two colors, $10 and one line of thought and create something amazing doesn’t just take a creative person — it takes a focused person with the willpower to set aside personal creative ambition in the best interest of a client.

In my personal struggle to balance creative gratification and professional copywriting, here are a few things I’ve come to realize.

Creative vs. Impulsive

There’s a difference.

When I started out in advertising I thought, “I need to shock and awe. I need to make a profound impact.” And for me, that rarely registered as being intellectually or emotionally inspirational, but rather always seemed to involve sharks, explosions, Mars and hilarious statements. Granted, had my creative director and team of account specialists allowed me to bring some of those concepts to life, I’m not saying they wouldn’t have gained attention, but it would have been the wrong attention. And, considering I primarily work in agriculture and not for SNL, it would have been completely wrong for my clients.

I had to accept one cold, hard truth: there is a big difference between a copywriter and any other kind of writer, and it’s not the ability to think up crazy cool concepts. It’s the ability to take concepting a step further in determining what is appropriate, what makes sense, what shocks and awes in a beautiful, enduring way for a very specific purpose — a brand.

Admittedly, this still isn’t easy for me because my brain will never stop asking “what if we showed a shark chasing a tractor through a corn field of explosions,” but I’m thankful for a creative and account team I trust to help guide my ideas down a path that leads to quality work. I cannot stress enough how important this dynamic is for an advertising agency in producing quality work.

Creative vs. Budget

Making something out of nothing.

I mentioned this above, but the budget struggle runs much deeper than not being able to make epic ideas come true. Sometimes, it comes down to making much of anything at all come true.

As a copywriter, I’d love to say that I leave the worrying about money up to the account team, but that’s not always true. Sure, if the account specialists say the sky is the limit, the budget is the last thing on my mind and, honestly, concepting almost never starts with money — it wouldn’t be good for the creative juices. Being able to balance big ideas and small budgets is a fine art — what can I make from nothing today?

Creative vs. Measurement

What I want to do isn’t always what works.

Technology has changed advertising and, with it, the profession of copywriting. It used to be (so I hear) that good creative equated to more sales and that was that — no other way of measuring it. Today, a media department tells me if what I’m writing is getting attention within hours of me writing it, and I’ve learned to love that.

I’ve witnessed seasoned copywriters in my industry fail to connect with their media department, fail to take advantage of digital analytics. Don’t get me wrong, having a media director tell you your 50-word ad is being ignored is devastating, especially, I’m sure, for a writer who has been doing this for decades. It never gets any less embarrassing for me.

Facing the music and learning to dance to it is another hard lesson learned as a copywriter, one that has only been accelerated by instant information. I accepted early on that what I want to write isn’t always what works, and what works isn’t always what I want to write. It’s times like those where a true ability to get creative comes in handy.