The latest in my meander through the merry band of mavericks that make up the world of copywriting. Today, it’s the Queen of Copy herself. She’s written half the high street. I give you… Vikki Ross.
As a kid, I wrote stories. As a student, I wrote a magazine (I had dreams of it rivalling Time Out – it didn’t). As an unemployed adult, I wrote anything to prove to anyone I could write copy.
How and when did you discover you could make a living as a creative?
The year was 1997. The place was a tiny direct-marketing agency in North London. I was an office assistant. The creative director wrote reader offers and I asked if I could write one.
I wrote a full page in Caravanning and Camping magazine. It went live and as far as I was concerned, I’d made it: I’d written words for the world* to read.
*The very small world of British caravanning and camping enthusiasts
What would you have done in another life?
Back-up dancer. Specifically for Janet Jackson on her Velvet Rope world tour.
You’ve worked in-house at some top places like The Body Shop, Sky and Virgin Media. Which was best and why?
I couldn’t possibly say. Not because I don’t want to offend anyone, but because I love my job and I love that I get to write for some of the biggest brands around. So here’s a bit about the best bits at the brands you mention:
The Body Shop
I loved writing about beauty products, going on shoots and working in a big creative studio. I was there while it was still in Anita Roddick’s hands (I left the year L’Oreal took over). What a woman. What a hero.
After eight years at The Body Shop, I wanted to write for a completely different brand in a completely different industry. Virgin Media was an exciting change. They have a fun tone of voice and are one of the rare brands that carry it through everything they do. Yes, even legals.
Just as I was really getting into Virgin Media, I was approached for a new role at Sky: Head of Copy in the Brand team. 10 years later, I’m still doing that job as a consultant. And I love it.
I love that I write for Europe’s biggest entertainment brand. I love working with hundreds of people across the business, and meeting with hundreds of creatives in all of the partner agencies.
I also love watching TV and films, so seeing scripts and previews – and going to premieres – are huge perks.
They say you’ve written half the high street. Is that true?
What are your top copywriting bugbears?
Jargon and words the audience would never say. If the audience won’t say it, don’t say it.
It’s usually marketers who write jargon and unnatural words. They spend most of their day writing to colleagues, so they use all the weird words and phrases you’d never hear outside of a meeting room.
Those words and phrases then get into copy and look uncomfortable. The thing is, everyone thinks they can write. Everyone can write, but not everyone can write copy.
I’d love to see a big agency make a big copy lead hire – and make a big noise about it. That’d send a message to everyone everywhere that copy is a craft worth valuing and respecting.
What prompted you to set up #copywritersunite?
In my experience, copywriters aren’t always valued or respected. And they often work alone – no copywriter colleagues for company, or head of copy for support. So in 2012, I created the Twitter hashtag to connect copywriters, and to encourage us to motivate and celebrate each other.
Now people use the hashtag every day to share work, jobs and advice. Not just online but in person too. I’ve been hosting quarterly #copywritersunite nights in London for five years.
They’re so popular that non-copywriters come too – I call them Copy Lovers. Fellow copywriters around the world host their own nights – they’re all listed at @copynights on Twitter (of course, they’re all on hold right now).
Any brands you’d love to write for but haven’t?
Apple, Nike and Disney.
As a writer, how do you get under the skin of a brand?
I’m nosey. I ask loads of questions.
A brief isn’t enough to go on. I want to hang out with the client. The more we talk, the more they say – and the more I have to work with. If time and budget allow, I host workshops that look like cocktail parties – clients mingle and talk about their brand, while I run around eavesdropping and taking notes.
Can you tell us something about Copy Capital? You’ve had some top speakers.
I know, right?
Andy Maslen (one of the UK’s leading copywriters, now a crime fiction author) and I created Copy Cabana in Bournemouth. We did it because there were no events like it. We wanted a day to celebrate what we do, and to invite copywriters to get excited about their job.
Our speakers were industry leaders and legends – our ambition each year was to find the people behind the biggest brands, agencies and campaigns.
James Cross, Creative Director at BBC Creative. Miles Carter, Senior Copywriter on John Lewis Christmas ads at Adam and Eve DDB. The list goes on because the list is long – each year, 12 high-profile people took to the stage.
Two years later, we moved Copy Cabana to London and called it Copy Capital. Sadly, that was our last event. We did them because we strongly believed they should exist.
We didn’t do them to make money (ticket sales covered costs) but all the work we did took us away from writing and earning, so we had to give it all up. I’m still very upset about this.
I’d hoped the sell-out success (200 attendees each year) would appeal to an agency and they’d take it over. I still believe it should exist.
What does your training and mentoring look like? Does it take you anywhere glamorous?
My training is informal. I’m not a teacher and I hate standing up at the front of the class telling people what to do. I show attendees the fun stuff, and I ask them to write fun stuff too.
I’m so lucky to have travelled around the world for work. Most recently, I’ve done training at Adidas in Nuremberg, and spoken at Zee MELT in Mumbai, AIGA’s design conference in Las Vegas, and IMARK in Reykjavik.
Of all your awards, which make/s you most proud and why?
I’m proud of my work, not my awards.
It’s amazing to be recognised for my work, but it’s more amazing to see my work on TV and billboards.
You’ve been a judge on so many awards panels. Do you see the standard of copywriting going up or down?
The standard is steady. It hasn’t gone down, but it hasn’t gone up. We’re a long way away from seeing glorious long copy ads by award-winning legends like Tony Brignull.
Where do you think copywriting is heading in general? Is there any selling now or is it just one big conversation?
The future’s bright, right?
With everyone online more every day, more businesses are moving more of their services online. And all those sites and social posts need words so we copywriters should find plenty of work.
Of course, the words on those sites and social posts have a job to do. They need to encourage a sale (or a click, download or share) so copy can’t just be a conversation. But to be interesting and effective, copy should use words and phrases the audience uses in conversation.
Has copywriting been diluted by the rise of ‘content’?
Content includes words, so no.
Any tips for great writing?
Write. And read. The more you write, the better you get. And the more you read, the more you learn.
And what do you do for breakfast?
I eat it.