Stephen Marsh is the Kent copywriter behind What For Creative Ltd. He’s the most no-nonsense, straight-talking, clear-writing, stripped-down bod in the business. So listen up.
Terrible accident. I was doing the ‘I’m going to write fiction’ thing and needed some money, so figured I’d turn to one of the marketplace websites and see if I could get paid to write. It was supposed to free up time to write my own stuff. And now look.
What would you have done in another life?
Other than being a writer of a different breed, I was very much a theatre kid. There was a point around the start of secondary school that feels very much like a branching path in retrospect — go all-in on theatre or knock it on the head.
I do think that’s where my interest in and love for writing was forged, though. So it all comes around eventually.
How do you come up with ideas?
I’m pretty practical about it — if it’s headlines, there’s no substitute for Googling idioms containing a certain word or just browsing a thesaurus for a bit.
More generally, I’m big on the idea that the answers are already there. My best ideas tend to come when I’m on the phone with an end customer or just asking difficult questions about a brand and what they do.
Just recently, I’ve been on a project where we really don’t know what the customers want. I was the first person to suggest giving them a call.
But ideas are ten a penny. Pulling them off is the bit I think I’m good at.
Who’s your ideal client?
It’d be a lie if I didn’t say the money played a big part, but those in-depth, complete-review kind of projects are the most interesting and lucrative at the same time.
A start-up or more established firm that wants to rethink their messaging and tone of voice, then keep me busy with loads of collateral — that’s the ideal for me.
Any notable successes?
A recent one — I’m very proud of the work I did last year for a supplements firm. And I’ll share a brief story.
I received an enquiry from someone purporting to be the leading supplements firm. I winced immediately — some dodgy dealer shifting tablets on the internet? Not for me.
It was only when my designer colleague prompted me to Google their name that I came to realise what I was dealing with: Vitabiotics, by far the market leader and a BBC Dragon as a CEO.
I was delighted to be involved with the project. That’s partly because I got to do fundamental stuff like tone of voice for a brand on that scale. But it’s also because of the result — I feel like the 2020 Vitabiotics is fresher, more interesting and more engaging than it was this time last year. And, for them, that leap was a brave one.
And any bum notes? You’re among friends here.
There’s definitely been work that just fell on its arse, but I’d rather that than just try a safe option. You get the client team nodding, but customers couldn’t care less.
That’s always been my downfall. Writing for the end customer, not the client. It’s the right thing to do, but it doesn’t always pay my bills. Sorry, carry on…
I’d say my biggest mistakes as a copywriter are the times I’ve not trusted my gut. That ranges from non-paying clients to relationships that didn’t make business sense anymore. I’ve always known long before I acted on it, and that’s held me back at times.
What copywriting literature can you recommend?
As a baseline, I’d say avoid anything that claims to be a golden rule or a quick fix. I remember Andy Maslen’s books being useful when I was starting out, I also read Copy.Righter by Ian Atkinson, and dip into The Choice Factory by Richard Shotton regularly.
Hackneyed and lazy response, though: the best copywriting literature is the combination of other copywriting and stuff that’s completely irrelevant.
What was the last book you read?
Been a while since I held paper, but I listened to Louis Theroux’s autobiography. No real copywriting link, but I do also ask seemingly naive questions on a daily basis.
What did you have for breakfast today?
An Alpen bar at about 11am. It was completely mundane in the way you’d expect an Alpen bar to be.
Any tips for newbie copywriters?
From what I can tell, the biggest tip is to go with Dockwray Accounting — I know Katherine at Haydn Grey mentioned Gill in her interview, and it does seem like her client list is a who’s-who of freelance copywriters.
But no. I’ve given tips before and I’m cutting back. Everyone on social media is ready to dish out a one-size-fits-all catchphrase. And I know from people who’ve contacted me that it makes them feel bad for not complying.
So: charge what you like. Write for free if you’re bored and up for it. Niche or don’t niche. You’re a grown-up, so you make the call. Do whatever makes sense for your business right now, and do feel free to change your mind tomorrow.
And any tips for clients?
This could become a long list. But my golden rule is to remember that a decent copywriter has been through more rebrands, more tone-of-voice exercises, more websites and more ads than you’re ever likely to in your career.
You know your business, you know your aims, and you knew where to find the right copywriter. So make sure to give that copywriter space to make you look good.