She’s a canny Geordie lass. So canny, in fact, that Libby Marks is booked up until Autumn. That’s despite not launching her biz until just before lockdown. With nary a government grant in sight and a laid-off hubby, she’s proudly ploughed her own furrow through the brutal world of freelance content and copy.
How did you get into this crazy game?
I think I was destined for this from an early age. I just didn’t know it was actually a thing.
So I was always drawn to written communication and publishing. It just took me until my mid-twenties to understand that copywriting was an actual job and something I’d be good at.
I’m really lucky to have realised there’s something I was meant to do – something that perfectly combined my skills and interests in a way that could support me and my family.
So you’re booked up until Autumn, right? What’s your secret?
Yes, I’ve got a couple of big projects booked in right now and they’re taking up all my time. One is a large web rewrite for a university and the other is with a Dutch software vendor, meeting their content needs whilst they recruit for a new full-time member of staff.
I tend to look for longer-term opportunities like this because freelance life is so unpredictable. With one-off and ad hoc jobs, you’re always chasing work down and at risk of the feast-or-famine rollercoaster. If you can secure some retainer clients or a big project, it gives you a little more security. Which is obviously desirable when you have little humans that rely on you for food and clothes and Xbox games!
But things can change fast in this business. Just because I’m booked up now, doesn’t mean I feel 100% secure. Funding can get pulled, business priorities can change. So if you see me looking for more work over the summer, you’ll know why!
What’s the knack to winning on LinkedIn?
I think I might have posted about this on LinkedIn, actually. For me, it’s all about the As!
You need to be authentically you. As a freelancer, you are your USP, so you can’t afford to just be like everyone else. Be your best self and get it out there, warts and all. It’ll attract people who align with your values and world view, and that makes working together so much easier.
I also think you need to be active and accessible. So actually showing up is the first step. Be there regularly and get involved. But be open to people too. Don’t just go in and get what you need. Give your time and expertise generously to others. It’s an investment in relationships that pays off, in my experience.
You need to be authoritative too – showing you know your stuff by sharing insights, commenting with thoughtful info on other people’s posts etc. I’m not into the big brash Billy-Bullshit approach of making out like you’re God’s gift to marketing. But quietly and consistently establishing your expertise is a good move, I think.
Oh and try not to get hung up on the metrics. You could drive yourself mad worrying about engagement and likes. Just put stuff out there and you’ll see returns. It takes time but it’s worth it. I’ve had lots of inbound leads just by being me on LinkedIn. And made some great friends too.
What made you launch Write-on-Tyne?
Work-life balance really. I’d spent most of my 30s struggling to come to terms with secondary infertility. Then hit 40 and…boom…baby! After that mini miracle, sitting in an office 9-5 didn’t seem like my top priority. And so, a year after hatching a tiny human, I launched my other baby into the world: Write on Tyne.
Obviously, Covid really put a spanner in the works, but I kept going. And I was delighted to be named the Content Marketing Association’s ‘Best Freelancer’ in their International Content Marketing Awards at the end of 2020.
Without my previous jobs, I definitely wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now. I see a lot of people trying to get started in this profession with little or no work experience and it makes me worry for them, because my practice is absolutely based on my employment experience.
I worked in publishing, publications, marketing and communications for 15 or so years before going freelance. I benefited from learning-by-doing in those roles, plus formal and informal training such as my CIM qualification.
It gave me the foundations that my freelance life is built on. I think knowledge of marketing is a prerequisite for our line of work. It’s the difference between writing and copywriting. It’s the special sauce that delivers results for clients.
What would you have done in another life?
I always wanted to be a dentist. But when I found out you had to excel in science and possibly dissect human tissue at university, I fast changed my mind!
I love finding jobs for people and I write CVs and donate my fees to charity, so maybe I should have worked in recruitment. Or as a dermatologist… I do love a bit of Dr Pimple Popper on TV!
What do you love most about the freelance life?
I just love everything. I’m absolutely evangelical about it. Growing up, I never knew you didn’t have to have a ‘proper’ job, the 9-5. So I went to work like I thought you had to. And whilst I really wouldn’t be here without that experience, it wasn’t right for me.
I don’t work well in that environment. I need to be master of my own ship, choose my own hours, choose who I spend my days with. Being forced into a rigid structure didn’t suit me and my mental health suffered as a result.
Now, I get to pick interesting things to work on, nice people to work with, and set hours that suit my body clock. It’s changed my life completely. I’m so happy now I’m freelance. I’m a new woman.
What’s the difference between copywriting and content writing?
This is a controversial one! I’m firmly in the camp that says copywriting and content writing are two different things – albeit closely related. But a lot of fellow freelancers say they’re interchangeable. And others attach a higher value to copywriting, which I don’t feel is fair.
For me, copywriting is the specific art of commercial persuasion. It’s about using words and written techniques to sell things. Nothing wrong with that at all. It makes the world go round.
Content, for me, is about relationship building, informing, entertaining. It’s a valuable tool for marketers but it isn’t overtly out to sell anything. It’s about helping people find the right products and services for them.
Both are highly skilled professions that require a lot more expertise than people realise – knowledge of marketing, psychology, SEO – they just come at different stages of a relationship with a customer.
I think of it like football. Content writers are the midfielders, delivering the ball up towards the goal. Copywriters are the strikers who drive it home.
Which would you say you do?
I always used to consider myself a copywriter. But that was before I learnt the distinctions between the two fields. I think I’m more of a content writer.
I use the term copywriter because it’s what my clients would call me. But I like writing content that advises and guides, rather than sells directly.
But, because of my wide experience of marketing and commercial writing, I write across both: websites, articles, publications, newsletters, social media… I do the lot.
You designed your own website – very nicely, too. Have you had formal training?
Thank you very much. Yes, in my younger days. I worked in marketing for a publisher and they sent me on night classes to learn InDesign so I could produce their catalogues and POS materials.
It’s something I’ve always been interested in – demonstrated by my early attempts at making books and magazines. I really appreciate good design but I’ve never had the awesome imagination it takes to actually work as a designer.
I’m good enough with InDesign and web packages to offer layout services to clients though – booklets, catalogues etc – but not the high-concept creative stuff, alas.
You’re based in Newcastle. Are most of your clients in the North East?
Not at all. That’s the joy of this line of work. You can collaborate with people from all over the world. The majority of my clients are in the UK but I’ve got some in the US, the Netherlands, Spain… Distance is no object when you’ve got Zoom and a strong grasp of international time zones.
I am a very proud Geordie though and it was important for me to reflect that in my business name. From my lounge window, I can see the Tyne and the seven bridges that span her, and that makes me smile every day.
Who would be your dream client?
I’d love to work with Soap and Glory, the toiletries brand. Their product names are all puns, which I love, and they have really fun, creative copy on their bottles.
I work with some quite serious brands – universities, software vendors, financial institutions – and I love it. But I do miss the chance to use linguist gymnastics and go a bit wild.
Any work you’re most proud of?
Hands down the work I did for Newcastle University. I used to work in the publications team, then marketing team, and got to write materials that helped young people choose the right place to spend their student years. It was such an important job and an honour to do it.
I still meet people now who studied at the uni as a result of reading a prospectus I’d written and the events colleagues put on. To think they moved away from home, fell in love with my home town, got married and had little Geordie babies thanks, in part, to something I worked on. It makes me want to pop with pride!
Is there a campaign out there you’d have given your left arm to have written?
I’d like to write something that people remember. I can still remember certain ads from childhood – like the Golden Churn advert – and I’d love something I’ve written to achieve that kind of longevity and memorability.
How has lockdown been for you?
It’s been amazing. I hate saying this because it’s been devastating for others. But in the context of people losing the loved ones and lives, I have to look on the positive side and think of myself as someone very lucky.
My hubby lost his job, which left me as the main breadwinner for our family of four. That was tough. And I’d only just started my business a few months before the first lockdown. So that wasn’t ideal either.
But my experience meant I was able to quickly build up a client list and I’ve been able to keep us afloat.
With a ten-year-old rapidly approaching the age where she’ll not want to spend much time with me, and a two-year-old who wants lots of mummy-time, it has actually been a real blessing. I’ve loved the time we’ve had together. Albeit for the most terrible reasons.
Any copywriting books you can recommend?
I always recommend a book called The Freelance Content Marketing Writer by Jennifer Goforth Gregory to any newbie starting out. There’s a really active and supportive Facebook group that goes with it too.
It’s all about the business of becoming a freelance writer. It doesn’t promise any ‘get-rich-quick’ nonsense. It just provides solid ‘this is what you need to do’ advice and tactics.
How do you see the future of copywriting and content writing?
I’m quite nervous about the future actually. Nothing stands still and technology is changing how most industries operate. I see AI being touted as the next big thing in content creation and it does worry me. At the minute, the technology isn’t there and the output is, well, crap. But it will get better.
I think there’ll always be a place for human writers though. I think AI will regurgitate existing content rather than actually thinking up new angles and creating original work. That will always be needed. The question is how we, as writers, can position ourselves to excel in that landscape.
What will you be doing in ten years’ time?
Hopefully, some version of what I’m doing now. As a female in my 40s, I’m horribly aware of the ageism and sexism that can hold back experienced women in their work. So I’m hoping to still be seen as relevant and successful in my field.
Ideally, I’d like to be working from somewhere sunny and Spanish-speaking. My dream is to move to Mallorca or somewhere similar. Writing in mornings, swim in the sea in the afternoon, swig Merlot in the evenings. I can dream!
And what do you do for breakfast?
I’ve got a new breakfast routine. I’ve been seeing a nutritionist to help with my life-long struggle with yo-yo dieting and weight gain. So I’ve given up my usual crumpets and I’m sticking to Grape Nuts now. They look and taste like cat litter really, but they’re very good for you.