Amsterdam copywriter Iain Nevill has navigated a creative seam from Africa to Glasgow to the US and back to Europe. He’s one of those itinerants who belongs everywhere and nowhere. Unlike his creative work, which belongs firmly on the top shelf.
I remember watching those awesome TV ads in the 90s (Volvo, Levi’s, Stella, Guinness of course) that were often more exciting than the actual shows.
I started wondering who made these things? Once I realised it could be me, it was just unpaid internship after unpaid internship until I met the right people who were kind enough to give me a chance.
I believe you’ve lived all over the planet – Botswana, Zambia, Glasgow, New York, LA, Barcelona and Amsterdam? We need an explanation.
Yeah… when anyone asks “Where’s your accent from?” I have to take a deep breath and give my life story.
So, *inhales*, I was born in Botswana, but then moved to Zambia soon after. I grew up there until secondary school when we moved to Glasgow (my mum’s from Glasgow). That’s where I went to uni, got my first job, and then basically started sending my CV out to everyone and anyone.
An agency in Barcelona liked it and I moved out there for a couple of years. Then it was back to Glasgow where I started a magazine, which helped me land a gig in New York. After about six years on the east coast, I met an amazing girl on the west coast and moved out to LA for a few years, before we finally returned to Europe, more precisely Amsterdam.
So what nationality do you see yourself as?
Very good question. I carry a British passport if that helps, but no, I don’t really have a strong allegiance to any country.
How does creative work differ in those places?
Oof, that’s a tough one. There’s definitely a shift in cultural comedy and I think that just inherently bleeds into the work. US comedy feels more SNL skit, while the UK’s more song and dance, weird and wonderful, and Europe… I’m still figuring out! 🙂 But there are so many great creatives from all over now, I kind of feel like it’s blending.
Where did you like best?
I probably felt most at home (and most inspired) in New York. If I had to design a city from scratch, it’d end up like that. But Amsterdam definitely punches above its weight.
What do you like most about life in Amsterdam? Keep it clean…
It’s such an amazing mix of the old and traditional with the contemporary and the progressive. You’re walking down cobbled streets, next to canals and houseboats on your way to a new interactive AI light museum. That seems to permeate the fabric of the whole city.
You’ve been lucky enough to win a bunch of top awards. Which one means most to you?
Hmm, tricky… I mean, I think getting to experience Cannes in all its rosé-soaked opulence was definitely up there. But the other day, after reading a bunch of lines in a meeting, a client turned and said that it felt like they were talking directly to her. And to be honest, that kind of reaction might just mean the most – connecting with someone on a one-to-one level is awesome.
Which work are you most proud of in general?
That’s probably my magazine. Only because it was such a huge effort to get off the ground, and to keep it going for the time we did. It was both amazingly liberating to be able to feature and print anything I wanted, and also seriously terrifying having to generate the cash each month to pay the printers. So, yeah, that was definitely something I’ll never forget.
Tell me more about this magazine…
I was on my way back to Glasgow from some really crappy interviews in London and I just thought, you know, screw this, I know what I’m capable of and I know a lot of super talented people, so let’s do it.
The whole premise of Bourne was to provide a premium platform for creatives (new or established) to showcase their work. We wanted it to be free and distributed in bars and cafes so that people who would never think of walking into an art gallery or a poetry recital would be exposed to weird and wonderful content.
It was an amazing ride, but don’t let anyone tell you running a magazine is easy.
Any low notes in general? What did you learn?
There have definitely been times that sucked. Not the all-nighters or crazy pitches – those can be some of the best times if you’re with a great team and you believe in the creative. But on the flip side, if you don’t really believe in what you’re doing, or what’s been sold in, and it’s still eating up all the hours in the day, that’s when this job becomes a slog. It’s not always possible, but try not to settle for something you don’t care about.
What’s this about customising sneakers?
I guess this is a product of one of those low notes. For me, when I don’t feel able to express myself, I just have to find another way, and that’s how this came to pass. Being able to simply make something, create something, stitch something. Something real, and tactile, with no rules, and no judgement. That’s how I started customising sneakers… and, hey, who doesn’t like sneakers?
Where do you think copywriting is headed?
You know, I kind of think copywriting is stronger than ever. I mean, c’mon, Nike’s Dream Crazy more or less won every ad award based off a headline over Kaepernick’s face. And that’s awesome. Billboards and print ads have just been replaced with Insta or TikTok posts but they all follow the same principles: grab someone’s attention and make them care.
Any favourite books?
I have to admit I’m not actually a big reader. I know, sacrilege. You may as well discard everything I’ve said in this whole interview. But it’s true. I’m just not.
Me neither. It’s not as essential as they make out, trust me…
My fav book is probably just as polarising as my last statement – Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’. I love that tension between commercial and artistic – after all, I feel like that’s what we’re all wrestling with every day in this industry.
And favourite books about writing?
Again, nothing too revolutionary, I used to love D&AD’s The Copy Book (the big unwieldy thing with the scrolly writing on the cover). And I’d recommend any writer to give it a read. Or two. Or three.
If you could offer career advice to your 18-year-old self, what would you say?
Apart from buying up all the most common URLs you could think of, I’d probably explain the difference between an idea and an execution. That’s something that I still have to check myself on. Think big, think broad, and don’t just try to solve the problem with a one-off execution.
Any advice for clients?
It’s hard being a client. We creatives get to swan in with our weird and wonderful ideas and if they don’t work, well, we’re on to the next. Whereas the client has to deal with the bottom line. So, I get it, I really do.
But I think my advice is two-fold and completely contradictory. Remember to follow your heart and remember to follow your head. What I mean is, if you had a visceral reaction to an idea (laughter, excitement, boredom) then remember that and don’t start to overthink it.
But, on the flip side, just because you might love or hate something, remember your audience. If you’re not the target market, don’t let your personal opinion cloud your judgement. Yeah, it’s not easy being a client.
And anything to say to aspiring copywriters?
One thing an awesome copywriter told me is just to write out what you want to say in basic long form first, then try to craft it. Get the message right first. Don’t let cleverness get in the way.
And the only other thing I’d say is: enjoy it! You guys are in an era where everyone’s looking for content, memes, jokes, and you can send yours out to the world from anywhere. That’s awesome. That’s amazing. So find your voice and hopefully I’ll see you on my feed soon.