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The Hinterlands of Copywriting – why we should all spend time with a peculiar brief

By Andrew Boulton

April 12, 2016 | 4 min read

Talk to any gathering of eager, inky-fingered young copywriters and, in terms of their ambition at least, you’ll find a decidedly familiar pattern. Pretty much all of them are enticed by the same part of the job – the big ad.

It’s difficult to blame them – few careers are able to pitch themselves as eloquently or romantically to young minds as one whose most compelling recruiter is a fictional scoundrel called Donald.

Even without the glossy allure (some would say special effects) of dramatised TV advertising, it’s understandable that prospective new copywriters would be captivated by the idea of creating ‘the great ad’. Even in an age of multi, omni, mega-channel homogeny, some parts of the job remain, quite simply, cooler.

But what a bare and sterile career it must be to leap straight into the big stuff with no real taste for the hinterlands of our profession.

Copywriting, you may well have noticed, exists beyond the gleaming plains of Nike and Coca Cola. Lawnmower repairers, window cleaners, people who bake cakes that hyper-realistically resemble the heads of your loved ones – all of these people require copywriting (irrespective of whether they ever actually engage a copywriter).

And what all the polish and preposterous handsomeness of the myth never reveals is just what can be gained from scrambling around amongst copywriting’s grubbier and more peculiar briefs. They also don’t mention what strange fun it can be too.

Ask an experienced copywriter for their most entertaining story from the profession and very, very few of them will pick out a glamorous, but ultimately pedestrian brief. They will instead take great delight in recounting the outlandish jobs they’ve been asked to lob some alphabet at.

The reason being is that, in this underbelly of copy, normal rules don’t always apply. It’s a creaky old fun fair where the rollercoaster safety belts stay fastened more through fortune than intent. There’s a certain wildness that you won’t necessarily find in the bigger, more sanitised campaigns – often because it’s an environment with fewer people to please, fewer prejudices to navigate and fewer anxieties to appease. It can be, although not always, the place where a copywriter is more likely to hear the golden words – ‘ok, let’s try it’. Or, on even more remarkable occasions, ‘ok, you’re the expert’.

Tackling an odd brief is a rare opportunity as a copywriter to produce an odd response. And, as we all inevitably find, the opportunities for oddness diminish the shinier the client’s office and the bigger their big table.

I’d go so far as to say it should be compulsory for novice copywriters to actively seek out the most bizarre brief they can find. Whether it’s a brochure for a company who makes cat saddles or a flier for the UK’s only manufacturer of toothpaste bazookas, I’m not sure you can ever really crack the big jobs until you’ve seen precisely how different life can be on the other side.

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