Neil Barraclough is the journalist who crossed over to the dark side. He runs Manchester-based Nota Bene Copywriting, focusing on tech, sport and FMCG/retail. “I took an embarrassingly long time to sort out my life.”
A misplaced ambition to be a journalist and a ten-year process of figuring out how on Earth to switch.
I’d thrown myself into journalism from being a spotty teenager at school. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was writing for every UK national paper. But the industry was completely knackered and you could see the end was coming.
Along the way I’d picked up some copywriting on the side. Then I was laid off by my biggest journalism client and I knew I was done. I’d had enough.
I joined a marketing agency and things went from there. It was daunting because I was leaving a 15-year career – with all the contacts that came with it – for something where I was starting from scratch. Thankfully, it’s worked out well so far.
How does your journalism career help you today?
I’m not afraid to ask stupid questions. I bang on about the curse of knowledge for a reason: clients are often too close to their business to realise others don’t intricately know everything they do. If something isn’t clear to me, the prospect might struggle too.
Story, structure and pacing are also key in newspapers. And deadlines. When you’ve had a Fleet Street sub-editor screaming down the phone because your laptop’s died and your missing copy is the last thing on the page before the paper goes to print, agency deadlines are a walk in the park.
You once dabbled with life on PAYE. How did that work out?
I held off for as long as possible, but at 32 I finally got my first ‘proper’ job, payslip and all. I learned plenty but knew early on – probably after the first six weeks or so – that I was on a path back to self-employment. I resigned and left a year to the day after starting.
To be fair, though, I then had a hugely enjoyable part-time job for three years while I got Nota Bene off the ground, so I’m not completely allergic to PAYE.
You’re quite active on LinkedIn. Is that how you find your clients?
I’m quietly active: a lot of it is private conversations rather than public posts. But yes, it’s a goldmine if used right. As with any freelance copywriter, lots of work comes from existing contacts and word of mouth.
But I’ve just done the maths while writing this: over the last 18 months or so, 72% of my new clients can be traced back to LinkedIn.
You’re based near Manchester. Do you get many local clients?
I’ve worked with a fabulous client in Manchester for a few years, but that’s about it – largely, I think, because my marketing is online. I’ve more clients in Amsterdam, for example, than the whole of the UK. Most are in mainland Europe, with a few others spread across North America and the Middle East.
What’s your dream job?
A few months on site crafting copy for the European Travel Commission or the Spanish tourism board. I’d be doing everything I could to turn it into a few years. Llámame, por favor. ¡Llámame!
And your ultimate nightmare?
I was once approached to tender for a very large public-sector report. The fee was great but the work had every flashing red light you could imagine.
There was no clearly defined brief, what felt like an interminable number of people involved in the most painful sign-off process you could devise, very little in the way of source material, and chasing almost 100 people for interviews to help shape the research.
I politely declined to bid. Who knows? Maybe I got it wrong and misread the signals, but I feel for whoever won it.
What’s been your finest hour?
Getting appointed the International Paralympic Committee’s head of editorial for Rio 2016 led to a decent three weeks in the Brazilian sun.
But it’s the day-to-day stuff that gives most satisfaction: bringing a bit of life and clarity to an internet security firm’s overhauled website, for example, or writing email campaigns for a sports manufacturer. The variety that comes with having a pool of different clients is a big attraction.
How are you spending your lockdown time?
Like the rest of us, I’m just trying to stay sane. We’ve a three-year-old girl running around. We’ve got into a routine where my wife works in the morning while I do the childcare. Then we swap at lunch.
My wife and I are both absolutely convinced this would have been the most productive few months of our lives sans kids. As it is, we’ll take each day as a win.
By the evening, there’s just time for a bit of Netflix (we’re bingeing on Latin American stuff at the moment) or YouTube before crashing in front of the Kindle. Then the alarm clock goes and it starts all over again. Sound familiar?
Any books you’d recommend, copywriting or otherwise?
The Copy Book is always on my desk. Persuasive Copywriting by Andy Maslen and a couple of old Drayton Bird books are also well-thumbed.
I’m also just starting A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I’ve heard good things, so fingers crossed.
Any tips for newbie copywriters?
Be inquisitive and try your hand at anything.
Care, but understand that feedback on your copy isn’t feedback on you.
And learn how to talk about money, quick. If you go freelance, it’ll make or break your business.
And any tips for dealing with clients?
Make life as easy as possible. Smile. Learn about their industry, show enthusiasm and develop a genuine interest in their world. Then become part of the team and remember they’re under no obligation to work with you – so don’t give them even the smallest reason to look elsewhere.
Unless they start taking the proverbial, in which case sack them before they sack you.