His first job was at Saatchi and Saatchi. He’s a ‘Native English Copywriter’ in Germany. He’s unrelated to Ian. Or Karen. He’s desperate for a game of conkers. He’s Martin Gillan.
No. Nor am I related to the Scottish actress Karen Gillan. However, on the subject of Gillans, there is another copywriter in Hamburg called Martin Gillen, which is geographically and orthographically far too close for my liking. I may have to kill him. Or start an agency called Gillan and Gillen (I get top billing because a comes before e).
How did you get into this crazy game?
I was just your average 16-year-old advertising nerd. Every week, I read Campaign in my college library and recorded agency account wins in a notebook: DMB&B wins £3m Mars account. BMP swipes £2m Knorr account from GGT.
Apart from compiling a very long, utterly pointless list of acronyms and numbers, my route into the business was pretty straightforward. I studied graphic design at art college, then advertising at Bucks College, followed by the usual round of placements before landing my first job at Saatchi and Saatchi shortly after my 22nd birthday.
What would you have done if the doors had slid the other way?
In my alternative sliding-doors reality, I’m a local graphic designer with a studio above a key-cutting shop in a small Midlands market town. Every day for lunch I eat a floury bap with corned beef and English mustard. And to make myself more interesting, I tell people I’m related to Ian Gillan.
You live in Germany. How did that come about?
In 2005, I fell for a lovely girl with an impeccable cut-glass English accent. Turns out she was German.
What do you like/dislike about German life?
Germany is my home now. I’m a big fan. Mountains and skiing in the south, beaches and islands in the north, cool cities, real-life Disney castles the way other countries have Starbucks.
Dislikes? Right, so they don’t play conkers here. That means every autumn the pavements are covered with a carpet of potential 100ers, untouched, unloved and unstringed. Germany’s lack of appreciation for conkers breaks my heart.
What’s the market like for a native English writer out there?
When I left the UK, I was just a plain old copywriter but, after crossing the German border, my job title suddenly grew two extra words. So now I’m a Native English Copywriter.
Personally, I consider myself a copywriter who just happens to work in English. There is a market. I know of maybe a dozen or so native English copywriters out here. Brits, Americans, Irish, Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans.
There’s also a growing number of very good South American creatives. Nigerians. Scandinavians, too. I’m not nearly as exotic as I’d like to be.
How does agency work differ in Germany?
Advertising in the UK tends to be a bit London-centric, whereas in Germany most of the big cities have a sustainable ad scene. Network agencies are spread around the country. Big national or international accounts can be serviced out of Berlin, Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Stuttgart or Munich.
There are also some curious cultural differences. For some reason, in Germany, B&Q-style hardware stores and Dixons-style electronic stores do some of the most creative work.
What does a typical client look like?
Since moving to Germany in 2010, I’ve become professionally entwined with Siemens. I used to think they just made kettles and dishwashers, but I now know that’s not the case.
I’ve written Siemens campaigns for industrial measuring equipment, offshore maintenance ships, remote diagnostic centres in Denmark, medical equipment. I even wrote a speech for the CEO. I’m still waiting for the brief for kettles and dishwashers…
And a typical working day?
The agencies I work for are spread all across Germany, the UK and Ireland, so even before COVID I was WFH 90% of the time. Normally I drop my daughter at school and by 8am I’m in my local café with a strong coffee and my notepad or laptop open.
The first couple of hours are all about generating lots of ideas. First-thoughts, half-thoughts, the obvious stuff, beginnings of the things, rough outlines. Anything goes. Shaping, editing and crafting can come later. Back at my office, there might be calls or Zoom meetings.
If I’m busy, I might have up to two or three projects ticking along at the same time at different stages. Towards the end of the day, if there’s nothing pressing, I might do a bit of admin.
I love being a business, so paperclipping receipts and doing invoices gives me a surprising amount of satisfaction. If there’s not much going on, then it’s just LinkedIn and general self-loathing.
What’s the best bit of your job?
I’ve very carefully constructed my career around my favourite part of the job, which is writing and coming up with ideas. I’m at my happiest when I’m scribbling, doodling and typing. I’m very possibly addicted to the blank page.
And the worst?
I genuinely enjoy most parts of the job. In my younger days, I would pretty much do anything to avoid meetings. I’m a bit better now and actually enjoy meeting the occasional client. Just don’t ever invite me to a brainstorm.
Who’s been your best mentor?
Is it possible to be mentored by a building? 80 Charlotte Street, home of Saatchi and Saatchi, was my bricks-and-mortar mentor.
Walking into that building every day for four years, past the agency’s three-word manifesto ‘Nothing is impossible’ engraved in marble, had a profound and lasting effect on me. Kind of like Obelix falling in the cauldron of magic potion as a child. It still hasn’t worn off.
I’ve probably seen a lot of your work as I’m an avid collector of Lürzer’s Archive back copies. Which are you most proud of?
The Banks’s Beer advent calendar. The brief was for one Christmas poster and I answered it with a single text to the creative directors: Let’s find a disused building with 25 windows and turn it into a giant advent calendar.
The agency loved it, the client loved it, then it dawned on me that I now had to write 25 ads to fill all the windows.
It was selected for Lürzers and because they printed something like 17 of the ads, it rocketed me up the rankings, and for a few weeks I was number 1 copywriter in the world! Until someone somewhere realised that perhaps they should count it as one piece of work, and I slipped back into obscurity.
What’s your favourite medium? Bet you say radio.
Yes, Nigel, I am partial to a bit of radio. But I love it all. TV, posters, social posts, they’re all just boxes to be filled. I can get very excited about writing beer mats. Bus sides! Who doesn’t get a kick out of seeing their work on a Routemaster?
Where do you think copywriting is heading?
AI can undoubtedly do a passable job writing most of the copy we see day to day. But for those what-the-fuck creative leaps of imagination, you’ll always need the curious, questioning, contrary, slightly skewiff mind of a real human being who has experienced love, heartache, joy, shame and rejection.
What do you see yourself doing in future?
I’m a 48-year-old copywriter in an industry that fawns over youth, in a country that primarily works in a language that I can’t write, in the middle of a global pandemic.
My days are supposed to be numbered, but I beg to differ. I’ll just keep turning up, scrapping away with all the skills and tricks I’ve accumulated over 26 years in the trenches, doing the best work I can with a smile on my face. I actually think I’m a pretty attractive proposition.
Any copywriting books you’d recommend?
Every couple of years I reread A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. And I regularly dip into Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads? and A Book About The Classic Avis Advertising Campaign Of The 60s.
And any advice for newbie copywriters?
Try to turn every brief into something bigger. If you’re asked to write one small-space ad, come up with a campaign idea and present a series of small-space ads. If you’re writing on pack copy, maybe you can turn it into a radio spot? Now you’ve written one, can you write a campaign?
It sounds more impressive when you tell prospective clients and employers, “Here’s a campaign I wrote”. These days, everything is needed yesterday but, wherever possible, insist on having a night to sleep on your work before presenting it.
Coming back to your work in the morning with fresh eyes will help you make it 25% better. Roughly. And finally, whatever you do, don’t keep a record of agency account wins.