The celebs keep on coming, as we interview freelance copywriter Jonathan Wilcock. He’s been copywriter, art director, photographer and creative director. Probably cleaner, too.
Firstly, let me say that this game isn’t half as crazy as it used to be. It’s been months since I’ve driven a Rolls Royce into a hotel pool.
That aside, this was my wibbly-wobbly way into what I do now…
I loved drawing and writing as a kid. I’d make up my own cartoon strips and write awful poetry. I made greetings cards, painted eggs and knitted scarves for my Action Man. I was also a pretty decent drummer, so something artsy-fartsy was probably always on the cards.
Before leaving school, an uncle said I should get into graphic design. I had no idea what he meant, but it must have been the hand of destiny tugging at my flares – all dressed up in an uncle costume.
So off I toddled to an open day at Derby Lonsdale College of Art, a purpose-built Victorian art school with a glass roof. A bunch of long-hairs were smoking roll-ups in a corner and rock music was blasting out on a skanky, paint-spattered tape player. I knew straight away I wanted to be a graphic designer.
I did a couple of years in Derby (my home town), learning about colour theory, typesetting and photography. After that, I yomped off to Cornwall to do a Higher Diploma in Graphics. One of the tutors there picked up on my love of words (Tony Evershed) and encouraged me to major in copywriting in my last year.
Tony had some decent contacts in London agencies, so I used his little black book to arrange some meetings in my last couple of terms.
I did a placement at McCann and one at Saatchi.
On my first day at McCann, I turned up wearing a suit and tie. I had hair halfway down my back, so I must have looked like a hippy at a wedding.
They teamed me up with another student and I ended up crashing at his scary high-rise flat in East Acton. We worked on Stork Margarine and drank lots of free coffee from a machine in the corridor. Felt like I’d already made it. Free coffee. Get in!
At Saatchi’s, I teamed up with one of my housemates from Cornwall College. We worked on Fox’s Glacier Mints, Fairy Liquid and Quality Street. We were in the low-creative-profile bit that made all the money.
Round the corner, brilliant creatives like James Lowther were pulling in D&AD pencils on British Airways and Castlemaine XXXX.
After trudging around Covent Garden and Soho with a book full of pun-riddled scamps, I was offered a job at Butler Dennis and Garland. The Creative Director, Peter White, insisted I went back to college to finish the course, while he held the job open for me.
So, in 1984, I started as a Junior Art Director on the salary of £6,500 and all the free beer I could drink (now I really had made it). For the first year, I didn’t have a copywriter partner, so I got to do both roles, which, with hindsight, was a brilliant stroke of good fortune.
Was the transition to copywriting easy?
I left college aspiring to be a writer, but my first job title was ‘Art Director’. However, out of necessity, I wrote all the words for the first year. So the lines have always been a little blurred for me.
I’ve been really lucky, being allowed to wear both hats – the flouncy one with the peacock feather and the beanie with a propeller on top.
At one point, I did an eight-year stint freelancing, where I basically pitched myself as a one-man team. I came up with the ideas, chose the photographer, art-directed the shoot, wrote the words and sang the theme tune.
As the years have babbled by, I’ve leaned more and more towards the ideas and wordy bit. I still think in pictures as well as words, but at heart I’m a copywriter.
You worked as a CD for a while then went back to focus on the writing. What was behind that?
I worked as joint Creative Director on the P&O Ferries UK and Europe account. Being a CD had never been something I’d naturally gravitated towards. It all seemed a bit too grown-up.
I’d been freelancing for years in London and my one provincial client made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. While in this role, I got close to the Creative Services Director and when things started going down the pan, we hatched a plan to set up our own agency.
We ran the agency for 13 years, with the 2008 recession slap bang in the middle. I learned loads and we picked up some great clients, but the pressure slowly ground me down.
I craved the simplicity of just being a humble copywriter again and my business partner wanted out. So I bought her shares, then six months later found another agency that was willing to buy the agency’s goodwill and keep all of the remaining staff on – including me.
Three months later, I was hawking myself as a freelance copywriter again. That was January 2017 and I’ve never looked back.
Was Remedy Creative your own agency? You seem to have had just about every creative role going.
It was a 50/50 partnership. We started off as just the two of us and grew to eight full-time staff. When you run a small agency, you get the chance to rummage around in all sorts of creative drawers – illustration, design, art direction, copywriting, songwriting…
Besides that, I would write and facilitate brand workshops, run focus groups, manage email campaigns and do a lot more client facing than I’d been exposed to before. Some of it terrifying, some of it tedious, but I’ve found that much of what I learned then is incredibly useful now.
You’ve had some cracking clients. How do you drum up work?
A combination of hard work and blind luck.
When we started Remedy, we had no clients at all. So we hit the networking circuit and pushed hard to make connections. It’s amazing who knows who.
I’ve really grafted to get my freelance business working, but I hate suited and booted networking now. Too many 6am breakfasts, shuffling nervously around the room trying to conjure up stimulating small talk. I get fidgety just thinking about it.
So now I use all of the other tools at my fingertips. Email, phone, social media, my blog, a couple of freelance recruiters and a handful of freelance membership portals (shout out to @procopywriters).
I’m about 3.5 years into running as a fulltime freelancer and it’s only the last 18 months or so that the work is finding me more than I’m out stalking it. Thank you, thank you, thank you to clients who recommend me, and fellow copywriters who bung the occasional lead my way.
You’re a similar age to me and started in the 80s. How do things differ with copywriting now?
Two things have changed. Me and everything else.
It’s a completely different world. No comparison.
Here’s what I mean.
1984 – The afternoon in a library.
2020 – Half an hour on Google.
1984 – Two weeks to crack a campaign idea.
2020 – “We need it by lunchtime”.
On the positive side, there are so many more platforms for copy to sit on, and great copywriting is just as valid as it ever was.
If you’re open-minded, there are fantastic opportunities everywhere you look. I rarely get a look in on big ad campaign stuff these days, but I’m putting everything I’ve learned into a whole heap of exciting projects.
One area in particular that I’m getting asked to do more than ever before is brand positioning – defining what a brand stands for and how it communicates. Probably the closest I’ll ever get to being a professional sculptor.
Where do you think we’re headed? Will people still need copywriters in the age of AI?
No idea what’s around the corner. Let’s hope it’s not Blade Runner.
The age of AI? I’m not sure it will ever exist, other than in marketing headlines. We’re living in the space age, the machine age, the Internet age… at the same time, people are still people. We all need love. We all worry about the bills. We’re all looking for something beyond our screens.
Whatever new algorithms they dream up, no matter how many apps we carry around with us and no matter how attached we become to shiny things, there will still be a need for clever ideas and brilliantly crafted words.
If I’m wrong, I’m stuffed – and possibly all of humanity too.
What’s your finest hour?
I’m pretty sure my finest hour is yet to come. And the wonderful thing is, I have no idea what shape it will take.
And your dream assignment?
As we’re talking dreams, I may as well dream big.
The Indian Tourist Office commissions me to spend six years touring the most beautiful places and cultural hotspots of the sub-continent. I’m given unlimited access to local guides and experts, and a bottomless expense account.
The end game is a 50,000-word epic love poem to Mother India, which will be published as a limited edition, glossy hardback. Photography by Nadav Kander, design by Paul Belford.
At my full day rate, that should just about give me enough to retire on.
Maybe this could be my finest hour.
Anything you’d like to forget?
Not really. Even the most painful bits have been stepping-stones on the journey.
There are lots of things I’d rather not repeat though.
What would you do differently if you had your career over again?
I’d definitely spend less time in the pub. The first couple of years are a bit of a blur. It was a lot of fun at the time, but I don’t think it did my career any favours.
Any books you’d recommend?
This is the bit where I think I’m supposed to reel off a list of books by copywriting greats.
For someone who spends most days writing, I have to admit I’m not a big reader, especially not books about copywriting.
Having said that, the first book I read along those lines was The Craft of Copywriting by Alastair Crompton. I would have sworn the sub-title was ‘Clear Your Wall for an Award’, but a Google search begs to differ.
The D&AD Copy Book is brilliant. I really must get it off the shelf again.
The Advertising Concept Book by Pete Barry is also excellent.
I’m sure you’ll know Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, but I’d also recommend Usage and Abusage by Eric Partridge.
Any tips for newbie copywriters?
Be prepared to work hard and to negotiate huge peaks and troughs.
Don’t work for free. No one will respect you for it and you’ll begrudge it.
Be polite and helpful. Be the copywriter that people love working with.
Don’t be an arse on social media.
What do you do for breakfast?
Totally random. It could be anything from a cup of tea to a full veggie fry up. One day it’s porridge, the next it’s leftover curry. I’m a bit feral in the kitchen.