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Interview: Andrew Boulton on the weird, wonderful world of copywriting
June 11, 2021
The next article for our Great British Creativity campaign features Andrew Boulton, copywriting and creative advertising senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln by day, freelance copywriter by night. For about 12 years, Andrew has been writing copy for brands and charities such as the National Trust, Alton Towers, Boots, Stella Artois, and Thomas Cook.
Read our interview below to find out about everything from the launch of his new book, Copywriting Is – which has become the #1 bestseller on Amazon for advertising books – to the two pillars of fantastic copy and how we can help young talent in the creative industry.
In your own words, what is a copywriter and what do they do?
Copywriters use words to make people do stuff. There's obviously different disciplines, skillsets, and approaches, but fundamentally, it's the job of persuasion, getting people to think or act in a certain way. And you can still do that beautifully, using craft and creativity. In the early years of your career, you need to get your head around that you’re not just writing for yourself. If you've only ever written for pleasure, it's a hard mindset to get into.
Aside from actual writing, what else do copywriters do?
First and foremost, concepting, and that goes hand in hand with experimentation. I don't think you can be a good copywriter if you have a fixed idea of how things should be done, what’s good and what’s bad, what’s your style and what’s outside of your comfort zone. You have to be willing to force yourself way beyond those limits to try new styles and formats and express an idea in 100 different ways. That's the flexibility in the limitlessness of the language.
How did you get into copywriting?
I was living in Australia and I accidentally got a couple of writing jobs. One was writing football reports for a newspaper and the other was writing adverts for the Australian Yellow Pages. It was this introduction to you can actually get paid to write, and that was a complete eyeopener. So I came back to the UK and did some research to find out what jobs there were. Like for a lot of young creatives, no one tells you about copywriting, so you don't know it exists.
Do you think this is changing and more universities are exposing young talent to copywriting?
I'll be really honest, probably not. There's only a handful of courses in the country that do Creative Advertising. I don't know any copywriter who found their way into the industry by design. Everyone has their own story of bumbling into it. Hoping the best talent will find us by accident is such an unsustainable way to keep the industry going.
Do you think there's anything we can do to help young talent?
A lot of the responsibility sits with us as copywriters. Tell as many people as you can about it and tell people outside of our world.
I wrote an article about introducing copywriting to English teachers, so they can provide a pipeline for the next generation of copywriters. A few people messaged me saying, this is really interesting, I'm a teacher, what do I tell my students? So, I put together an introduction to copywriting guide and said I'll share it with any teacher who wants it, and I ended up sending about 200, which was way more than I expected.
It's a tiny drop in the ocean in terms of what we need to do to truly spread the word. But if every writer is taking on a little bit of that responsibility themselves, hopefully copywriting will become much more mainstream and talked about.
Is there anything young talent can do for themselves?
What I've learned is the most successful people, the ones you imagine would be distant and busy, are generous with their time and sharing what they’ve learned. When young creatives contact someone and say, can you tell me more, can you give me some advice, eight times out of 10, someone is going to come back to them not only with something useful, but with a genuine want to help. My advice is if there's a creative you admire and want to learn from, just reach out.
Robyn Frost, senior creative at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, and Zoe Scaman, founder of strategic agency Bodacious, have put together this incredible list of creative mentors, which is indicative of that generosity and willingness.
The tricky bit is having the confidence to do it. I’ve been through that launching Copywriting Is and sending messages to creatives I admire. But once you get an appreciation that it’s such a generous and genuine place, it starts to feel more comfortable. The worst thing that's going to happen is a busy person might not reply, and there's no harm in that.
Who are some creatives you reached out to?
Vikki Ross (copy chief) has been an incredible support, like she is with every copywriter. She's very much the linchpin of our world. Ryan Wallman (creative director and head of copy for Wellmark) has been a huge help.
Gyles Lingwood, who set up the Creative Advertising course I now teach, has done an enormous amount to help me shape the book and turn it into something that people will hopefully want to read. Lots of brilliant creative freelancers have lent their voice to this. Dave Harland wrote about the book in his popular newsletter, The Word.
The list goes on and on. I'm going to leave off a huge number of names, unfortunately, but pretty much every time I've messaged someone, they’ve got back to me with a lovely, generous, and helpful response. It's very uplifting to know that you're in an industry that’s about lifting each other up.
Congratulations on the book launch. What can people take away from Copywriting Is?
It’s not a guide to copywriting, there are books out there that already do that really well, like Read Me by Gyles Lingwood and Roger Horberry and the Mark Shaw book on copywriting. It's an explanation of what it's like to be and think like a copywriter and face the strange challenges, doubts, and experiences alongside this.
Vikki Ross very kindly wrote a really lovely thing about it, saying it's like a love letter to copywriting. Annoyingly, she's explained it far better than I've been able to, but that's how I describe it. It's very much my love letter to this weird, fun, different companion that I've had professionally for the last 12 years, and that I'll always have with me my whole life.
How did Copywriting Is come together?
I’m very lucky. I've been writing for The Drum for a lot of years, and they've always been incredibly generous and supportive. They let me write what I want about copywriting. So, I had a core base of material, but I needed to put it into some kind of structure.
I’m very lucky to have found Gasp publisher Giles Edwards in particular. On a whim, we were chatting about something completely different. I was saying how much I like a book he published called Delusions of Brandeur, and jokingly said, I've written a book, would you like to publish it?
He read it and got back to me and said, we love it, we want to do it. And he's made it happen. Every step of the way, he’s pushed it forward, and I never would have been able to do that on my own. He's also done an amazing job with the design of it.
What inspired you to write it?
I've always wanted to write a book. I started and realised it’s really hard work, but I forced myself to do it, because I felt like I wouldn’t have achieved what I really wanted to if I didn't do it, or at least see if I could.
Do you have any advice for someone looking to write a book on copywriting?
I think you've got to at least write four or five chapters and be brutally honest with yourself if you're going to stick with it. If you don't love doing it or feel like it’s going somewhere, you can easily burn through a lot of time on a book that you lose interest in.
Begin that process and figure out what’s your unique voice in this world. There will always be a market for copywriting books, because there will always be so many different angles, perspectives, and views on how to do it well.
As a full-time teacher who takes on a handful of freelance clients and has written a book, what’s your advice to someone balancing multiple projects?
You have to say no to stuff (I struggle with it, I’ll say yes to most things). It’s not about what you can do. You could fit 15 things into a week. You'd have a horrible week, but you could fit them in. It’s about what do you want to do.
I’m privileged to handpick the copy projects I want to work on. I can choose the ones where I'm really interested in the work or, more often these days, where I love the people. I've learned the most fun you have as a copywriter is when you're working for people you like.
If you'd like to hear more from Andrew Boulton on the craft of copywriting, its past, present, and future, please head to the DMA website to read the full interview.