Chris Worth is the brilliant London copywriter who’s used his freelance platform to explore the wilder edges of life. Parachuting, SCUBA and Burning Man are just the start. If he doesn’t call his autobiography A Life Worth Living, he should.
I’m from a very, very small place, and wanted a larger life. So in my teens I started backpacking the world. This was before mobiles or email – a different experience from today’s ‘gap yah’ lot!
My main skill at the time was, er, speaking my native language. So I scored an English writing job in Asia – about the least glam gig imaginable, completing import documents for airfreight!
But writing one-sentence descriptions of packing lists 100 times a night was instructive, and I soon moved on to writing manuals for machinery, then trade ads for a magazine publisher, then a job with Ogilvy as a ‘proper’ copywriter.
I stayed with agencies for some years, working all over Asia and Europe. So that was my ‘in’: a love of travel, and a bit of luck.
How do you think it’s changed over the years?
Copywriting used to mean advertising. But nobody does proper advertising any more. I’m talking campaigns with a core concept and multiple executions: copy and art working together to create a beautiful whole that leaves the reader a little enriched.
In fact, nobody even does advertising, really – I was in New York last week and the only sector on billboards or TV seemed to be healthcare!
Last two years, though, I’ve had the impression it’s all coming home to roost. Clickthrough rates are terrible and expensive. ‘Programmatic’ encourages empty calls-to-action that don’t prompt interest or attention. 95% of readers simply don’t notice web ads, at all.
It’s been forgotten that, to interest a reader, you have to invest in that reader: give ‘em something they’ll find valuable, something that’s actually worth their time. I wrote over 200 campaigns as an agency copywriter; nowadays I basically refuse them if offered. My last five years have been almost entirely long-form content.
Couldn’t agree more about those click-through rates. Do you think copywriters are more or less in demand?
More, since the web’s enabled an explosion of words and clients spend more on content simply to have a footprint. BUT there’s a corollary: the average quality of copywriter has gone down. Lot of people playing at it, most with low skills or zero experience.
We live in a superabundant economy, and copywriting skills are among the most friction-free and easily saleable across borders – I have clients in France and the USA. It’s a great world to be a copywriter in. But you’ve got to put in the work to be good at it.
How do you see the future for freelance copywriters?
It’s already happening: a star-driven business like sports or entertainment. With a few people at the top, always busy and always in demand (I’m one of these; you’re another, with your long-held Google ranking).
A large middle bar, people who are scraping a living but not really succeeding. And a big chunk of wannabes at the bottom who maybe do the odd job on Loserr or Asswork for £5.
I’m not knocking those who work cheap or free, but I do question how many of them are worth more than that.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
There are two. That first day with blank sheets of A3 paper and a few Sharpies, sketching ideas and structures and orders of content. I still use scissors and glue quite often, simply because I like the viscerality of taping handwriting and doodles together and seeing what works.
The other one is right at the end of a job, when you’re tweaking those sentences and paragraphs knowing you can improve what’s already good.
What’s been your finest hour?
Publishing my ‘big book’ on freelancing, 100 Days, 100 Grand. It’s a day-by-day ‘workbook’ with actual tasks and checklists to follow: 100 days of them. The goal is that after those 100 days of work, your income – whatever you do for it – will be £100,000 a year. My main motivation was that nobody thought I’d ever finish it!
You offer a bit more than just the writing, don’t you? Care to tell us?
Some years back, work was getting flat, so I took a year off to go back to school!
After an MBA at the UK’s Warwick University, I started offering myself as a ‘data-driven copywriter’ – instead of writing up whatever facts I had, I’d conceive and execute small surveys or research projects, and use the findings to write copy that contained those insights.
I’ve always been a bit of a maths geek, and it let me create something fresh instead of rehashing the brief.
Once, listening to the Today programme, I heard a Government minister quoting statistics that’d clearly come from one of my pieces! Ooo-er.
You’ve worked all over the world. Where would you recommend?
Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Paris… I’ve loved them all, and wish I’d stayed longer in Paris – spent hours every night wandering the city!
My hidden gem, though, is Taiwan. My wife is ethnic Chinese and speaks numerous languages; she introduced me to the place. (As a former trade-ads writer, I’d thought of Taiwan as a huge industrial park.)
It’s little visited by tourists, yet it’s intoxicating – blending traditional Chinese (Confucian) culture with recent Japanese and Korean influences, in an exotic tropical island stuffed with vibrant business, friendly people, great food, and the best diving I’ve found anywhere.
Ah yes, diving. You’ve got some interesting hobbies. Want to tell us more?
Adventure travel and extreme sports have always been part of my life. I’m a qualified freefall parachutist with over 100 jumps. But these days I prefer SCUBA.
The world beneath the ocean surface is so utterly alien, so completely fascinating – and it changes every five metres you go down. Actually, I’m off tomorrow for some subaqua fun in the Andaman Sea! [Ed: this was written pre-COVID-19]
I’m also a qualified kettlebells and calisthenics coach, although my only student is myself. I’m also interested in grip strength, and can close the 2.0 CoC grip trainer (the one where it gets serious, taking 88kg to squeeze shut).
Do you know that for every 5kg tighter you can grip, your chance of death goes down by 15%? I joke I’m five times less likely to drop dead than the average man my age. Not quite immortality, but I’m playing the percentages…
In tune with being a technology copywriter, I have a passion for science and mathematics – my current obsession is the octonions, the 8-dimensional number system (one of only four ‘division algebras’, i.e. number systems you can actually add up in!)
It’s not pure maths: there’s increasing evidence that the octonions, by taking your viewpoint up a few dimensions, tie together functional but ‘messy’ physics like the Standard Model, Quantum Theory, and relativity.
It’s a theme of physics that when you look at something from a higher dimension, it looks simpler. Maxwell’s Equations? In our world, horrible, twisted, and ugly. But written down in four or more dimensions? Beauty starts to emerge.
It’s my belief the octonions – which, when you include the other div algs, make up a 64-dimensional space called the Dixon algebra – offer a complete description of space and time… everything that ever was, will be, or could be. We don’t know everything yet, but we might have it surrounded.
This might all sound a bit diverse. But all my interests stem from the same basic belief: that the proper goal of life is happiness, and the route to that is making your health and intellect as strong as possible, then applying them to productive work that you enjoy. (I formalised these thoughts as a little book, How to do Life.)
Forget ‘management’ or ‘leadership’ as goals to strive for, unless those are in your natural skillset. I’m a blue-collar guy, doing honest work for people I like, and I don’t desire anything more than that.
Tell us about your books
I sell my ‘big book’, 100 Days, 100 Grand, as both a single textbook and a 12-part box set. It’s 1200 A4 pages, in full colour with over 100 custom-created illustrations, and I spent around £20,000 on professional typography and design. A true labour of love.
When I had the initial idea – the customised self-marketing programme at the heart of the book – I thought it’d take about three months to write up. Instead, it took three years!
I’ve had some wonderful stories from readers. One, a waiter, stopped waiting on tables and instead now trains waitpeople for two pizza chains.
Another is a retired guy who loves watches, and repairs old timepieces for people in his city, keeping his mind busy. One reader also became my proofreader, correcting typos as he went! (It contains a lot of Excel formulas and functions.)
But writing it really defined clearly who I am and what I believe. I’m a lifelong Objectivist – the philosophy of Russian-American intellectual Ayn Rand, which celebrates life and individual worth – and I realised after writing it that 100 Days, 100 Grand fitted completely into the Objectivist perspective.
Life is a Hollywood movie, full of potential and adventure, and you’re the action hero!
I also write a series of tiny books titled How to. How to do Freelancing, How to do Life, How to do Healthcare, with more out this year. In the Ingrams (book distributor) catalogue, I’m the author of both the shortest (How to do Freelancing) and the longest (100 Days, 100 Grand) books in print!
What does the future hold for you?
I work mostly for large technology clients, including Google, and want more of these – they’re harder to win and retain, but that’s the point: they’re doing the hottest technology. Aside from that: more travel, more adventures, and more fun stuff (I hope!)
I’ve just started selling 100 Days, 100 Grand as a pack with various posters and goodies, direct to buyers – this boosts the profit margin, and gives me a personal connection to each reader.
So maybe I’ll end up a bookseller without a shop! Actually, I’ve always fancied myself as a bookshop owner – what could be better than talking to people about books all day? Of course, it’d have to have a secret, like being a front for the HQ of a superhero team or something.