Confession time. I’ve converted my back bedroom into a shrine for his work. My wife thinks it’s not at all normal to have a scale model of another human in Play-Doh on my bedside table. Ladies and gents, it’s Mike Reed of London’s Reed Words.
I’m not sure how crazy copywriting is! But I came to it the way almost every copywriter I know did: by accident. I’ve always been a writer – English was the only thing I really excelled in at school. And after university I came to London and got a job in Dillons bookshop (RIP) on Gower Street.
It seemed a fitting toe-hold for a vaguely literary type, even though they exiled me to the medical department. But after a couple of years or so, I was climbing the walls. (Almost literally, as we were in the basement and it flooded periodically.)
I applied for dozens of jobs – anything that seemed remotely plausible. Eventually I saw an ad in the Guardian with the headline, ‘Write me off this pag’ – with the type bleeding off the edge at that point.
It caught my eye, and I discovered it was for a company called Barkers, who made recruitment advertising. The copy was funny, and seemed to suggest this mysterious firm would pay me to write things.
I applied – along with, I later discovered, about 1,500 other people. And after an application process that MI5 would probably regard as unduly onerous, I got one of the two jobs they ended up offering. (The other one went to Andy Rigden, still one of my closest friends. He’s a freelance copywriter these days – you should interview him too.)
Will do. Can you explain your early career? It seems peppered with roles with dates that jump on top of each other. I’m thinking Barkers, Media System, Park, Other…
Any notable successes from those early days?
Yes, things happened quite fast, looking back.
I had a great time at Barkers. The creative team was like a little family, and full of talents I could learn from. It was led by the mighty Margo Lewis, who was a critical influence – smart, funny, generous and demanding in exactly the right way.
Not only did Margo cross out everything I wrote and show me how to do it better, she also told me I was much too quiet, and had to make more noise if I wanted to get anywhere. (I did a poster campaign introducing myself to the agency, and stuck it up everywhere.)
She was also one of the people who taught me how to drink properly. Barkers lunches were pretty legendary.
It was a brilliant copywriter’s bootcamp – I was usually squeezing several pages of job description and HR waffle into a tiny little box in the classifieds, along with a vaguely creative headline. (My first published job ad was for Our Price, which shows how long ago it was. The headline said, ‘A big noise in IT’. Ground-breaking work.)
Even so, the recruitment-ad industry at that time was a frustrating place for creatives. A lot of the decision-makers – including almost every client – were from HR backgrounds, not marketing. (Barkers was even owned by an executive search firm.) To be blunt: they just didn’t get it.
If you had any creative chops at all – and, lucky for me, my Barkers colleagues had plenty – it was a pretty dispiriting environment.
You tended to go from getting excited over scamp concepts, to gradually more disconsolate as the ideas got watered down, until somehow the client ended up running a stock shot of a chess piece with the line, ‘Your next move’. You still see ads like that in the jobs pages.
The industry was tiny, really – a little archipelago of agencies far from the mainland of ‘real’ ad agencies. Recruitment creatives salved their bruised egos by hopping between rival agencies and boosting their salaries.
For me, that meant leaving Barkers for Media System – a tiny outpost of the Publicis empire in Battersea. I was the only copywriter in a team of five or six people. We had a lot of fun, but it was the same industry, with the same frustrations.
Then I was offered a job at an agency called Park – which was run by a former Barkers MD. (See what I mean?) But almost immediately, another of my former Barkers colleagues suggested we start our own agency.
We only had recruitment work in our portfolios, he said, which meant we’d only ever get more of the same. Our only way out was to do our own thing. So we did. With about 40 months’ experience, I became ‘Creative Director’ of the newly-formed Other* (with an asterisk).
Other was a fully-fledged agency, right? How did that work out?
Yes, eventually. We were two copywriters, and we got started by working as freelancers. But we gradually started winning our own clients, and then hired designers, art directors and account people. We did a bit of everything: TV ads for Newsweek and Crisis, corporate identities, charity fundraising DM, internal comms…
Our first hire was one of your former interviewees, Nick Asbury. One day I found myself in a freelance gig at a recruitment agency, working across a room from this other freelancer who was clearly very smart, and very funny.
I remember feeling sure we’d get on, and I deliberately made a joke I was convinced only he would laugh at. I was right. (Can’t remember the joke!) I knew we had to hire him if we could, and thankfully we did. I’m proud to say we’re still close friends.
Why did you move on from Other?
I’d love to answer that, but I signed a piece of paper saying I never would. Let’s move on…
Is that when your freelance-copywriting career took off?
Well, that was when it started, certainly. I think my it properly ‘took off’ when I created a set of postcards that each carried a ‘free introductory word’.
I dug up some strange, almost forgotten words like Fanfaronade and Bathukolpian, and sent them to the design agencies I most wanted to work with. (By then, I’d discovered the world of graphic design, and was very taken with it.)
It got me into places like Hat-trick and The Partners, and I started getting some properly nice jobs to do.
And since 2014 (right?), Reed Words has been a copywriting agency with, like, real employees? What prompted that move?
Yes, that’s right. Well, I’d been freelancing for about 11 years, which had worked well.
I’d got married and had two children, and was at home throughout the boys’ early lives. I mean, mostly in the basement or garden office, frantically banging out copy to make sure I could pay the mortgage and feed everyone. But I saw a lot of the boys in those early years, which was great.
By 2013, though, I was pretty tired of sitting in a room on my own. I was also really nervous about starting another company, as I’d got badly burned last time. But I was turning away lovely projects because I just didn’t have the capacity. Which is a ‘nice problem to have’, as they say, but really frustrating.
So my then-wife, Wendy, and I decided to take the plunge and start an agency. But only writing this time. Do one thing well, and all that. Wendy (now my ex-wife but still my business partner) had been in agency management previously, and she took on the Commercial Director role (thank god).
My first act was to screw up. I interviewed a few people, and ended up hiring the person I felt I ought to hire, rather than the one my gut told me to. It didn’t work out – by mutual agreement and amicably, thankfully.
So I went back to Sam Pollen, whom I should have hired in the first place, and of course he was perfect. He’s now our Deputy Creative Director.
Do you think the idea of being an agency is more attractive to clients? Or does it just attract a particular type of client?
There’s no simple answer to that, really. Obviously, we have more capacity than a freelancer, which is often appealing to larger clients with big, complex projects. But there’s more to it than that.
As a team, we support and inspire each other, creating a combined offer that’s much more than the sum of its parts. We can invest in things like training and development, so we’re always improving. We have dedicated project management, so clients get a terrific service on that side, too. Plus the whole thing is just more fun with people to talk to and collaborate with.
For our agency partners, being a team means we can pretty much guarantee capacity, which no freelancer can do. It saves a lot of ringing around individuals – all of whom tend to be booked up, if they’re any good. And again, having more than one set of eyes on a project definitely helps enrich and enhance the final product.
It seems to be working out well, anyway. Anything you’re particularly proud of? I loved your zoo stuff… and, er, everything else.
Oh thanks! Chester Zoo was actually a freelance project I did with Music in Manchester, before Reed Words was an agency. It was a joy.
I was incredibly proud to write the launch messaging for the new World Trade Center in New York – a job I was offered just before Sam joined. It was fun watching his face as I told him that was our first project as a new agency.
More recently, I’ve loved our work for Penhaligon’s, the fancy fragrance people. It won a Silver at the Brand Impact Awards recently. Part of the joy of having a team is that great work happens independently of me. Seeing young writers in our team produce such great stuff under our banner is a real pleasure.
I’m also really proud of the ‘Life-changing software’ ad campaign we’ve created for Bluebeam – a construction software company in the US that we’ve been working with for about three years now. (I must also credit our long-standing partners at SomeOne, who we worked with on that campaign.)
And I was thrilled with our lockdown webinar series – again, an idea that came from the team, not from me.
You’ve won many awards. Which means the most and why?
Nice of you to mention it! D&AD was always the one to win when I was starting out, so it has a sort of totemic importance. Winning a Cannes Lion was a big moment too.
But I hope it doesn’t sound too sanctimonious to say my proudest awards-related moment was being President of the D&AD Writing for Design jury that gave the Black Pencil to the team behind GOV.UK – the Government Digital Service.
It was the first ever Black Pencil in that category – but it nearly didn’t get anything at all. The writing did its job so well, it was sort of invisible: Orwell’s ‘pane of glass’.
Most of the jury just didn’t see it at first. But it was a titanic achievement – not just in scale, but in complexity. And it was profoundly valuable: making critical information clear and usable for the widest-possible audience. It’s still the greatest copywriting achievement I know of.
Fighting for that, and seeing it go on to win the top prize, made me very proud.
How do you see Reed Words developing?
We’re doing serious work on that right now. After the shitstorm of 2020, we really want to ‘build back better’ as Joe Biden would say. So I can’t really answer, because I don’t quite know yet. But there are big, exciting plans forming.
You have a personal site with some nice drawing and photography. Did you ever want to be an art director?
Thanks! I’m a dabbler, but I don’t have the discipline to do the job properly. It’s fun and rewarding doing my own visual stuff. I love drawing. But when it comes to layouts and so on, I don’t have the perfectionism I have about writing.
My desire to get the writing spot-on is deep-rooted – quite possibly pathological. I’m not the same with art direction, I’d be too tempted to say, ‘Oh, it’s fine’. Basically because I know I don’t have the skill or knowledge to do it properly.
You were writing a novel at one point, if memory serves. Where are you with that?
Oh, God. ‘The Novel’. I’ve been writing it for 20 years or more – such a copywriter cliché. I’ve finally admitted that what I have to sort out is the structure, and have covered my bedroom wall with Post-its. I’m not letting myself start another draft (I do have a first one) until I know the shape of it. Ask me in another 20 years.
Any copywriting books you’d recommend?
I’m terrible at reading copywriting books. I’m usually too busy copywriting, to be honest. But John Simmons’ We, Me, Them and It was important early on. I also enjoyed Sam Leith’s book on rhetoric, You Talkin’ to Me?
Anything you’re reading for fun at the moment?
I’ve just finished the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn, after seeing the Cumberbatch adaptation. The show is terrific – the novels are just phenomenal.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Stop letting other people tell you what you should be, and believe in yourself.
And any advice for newbie copywriters?
Trust your talent, and believe in your value. If you’re any good at this, then you’re better at it than almost anyone else. So charge more than you think you should. Also, listen carefully: it’s the writer’s second-most important skill.
And remember every sentence is practice – not just copy, but every sentence you write. Make them all count.
Finally, what do you do for breakfast?
A while ago, I drastically cut back on carbs, so I get to have eggs and bacon almost every morning. And I’ve lost a stone. Best diet ever. (I do miss toast though.)