Copyranter: What is a copywriter, anyway?

Mark Duffy has written the Copyranter blog for 11 years and is a freelancing copywriter with 25-plus years of experience. His hockey wrist shot is better than yours.

Before “Mad Men,” the word seriously confused people. “So, are you a writer-writer?” “So you write all the words and the artist does all the pictures?” “So, you work in law?” “So, you sell insurance?” “Oh, you’re not a real writer.”

Still, many people just don’t get what we do. Sometimes I say, “Really, I’m what’s called a ‘creative’” — which clears up nothing and opens up another even bigger barrel of worms. “Oh, so you think you’re an ‘artist,’ tricking us into buying shit we don’t need, right?” “Yes,” I say. And then attempt to change the subject to the local sports teams.

Except now, there are several more types of ad copywriters, who, for the most part, can’t do traditional copywriting (called “the creative process” — more cans of worms).

There are “content” copywriters (something that traditional copywriters have been doing for years, without the stupid title), “digital” copywriters (it only means they work at digital agencies or work on “online” ads — so it’s essentially a meaningless word), in-house “client” copywriters (pfff), and “native” ad copywriters, many who are journalists or ex-journalists who think they’re better at writing persuasive copy (LOL, Ivy Boy) than us OG CWs.

There are several of these on the internet. This is the most accurate one.

OK, give me your questions, civilian.

What do copywriters do on a daily basis?
I can only answer for the real (traditional) copywriters, but this is a typical Monday: We miss the 10 a.m. status meeting with creative slipping-out-of-the-office maneuvering.

Lunch is the most important first order of every day. And even if we’re eating at our desk, that doesn’t mean we’re working yet — so leave us alone, junior polo shirt client butt kisser. Yeah, that’s right, go run to the creative director and tell on us, you gutless baby.

Somewhere around 2:30 p.m., we’ll start working on a brief or get together with the art director and make them work on the brief first by insisting that they give us 10 visuals related to the brief’s messaging. Meanwhile, over the next few hours, we’ll write a few purposely terrible and purposely lazy headlines, and then leave for the day via the Irish goodbye.

Wow, you’re a bunch assholes. So then why are copywriters considered so important to the agency?
Because our Big Ideas keep the toilets flushing. We are word hummingbirds, able to deftly turn and twist language to fit perfectly into small spaces. Need a concept explained in 10 words? We’ll do it in six. Ivy Boy will give you 36. We make bank brochures sing. We write headlines that make people click links. We make brands sound a thousand times smarter than they are. Get it?

OK, sorry to question your existence. Is freelance copywriting lucrative?
Yes, if you’re very good and under 40. If you’re older, well, get good at begging and diplomacy. In-house studios and even branching-out PR firms are looking for help from experienced creatives. Just be prepared to be sent the vaguest briefs (or no brief) you’ve ever read and be ready to “tweak” video scripts that look like they were created by the worst ad school students taking their first “stab” at video. But you gotta hold your fire, and swallow a lot of shit.

A freelance copywriter in situ. Photo by freelance copywriter’s wife.

What advice do you have for recent ad school copywriter grads?
Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, HA. That’s my advice. (Sigh) OK, you wanna do creative work, right? Your best shot at doing that is still at the traditional agencies. Think up a creative way to get your portfolio in front of a CD’s eyes. Buy a billboard, pretend you’re delivery person (these have already been done).

Once you have the job, keep your head down, and work late more often than not. That’s all I got. Good luck, the business is a swamp of shit right now.

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