James Daniel is the Cardiff-based copywriter, author and marketing strategist who doesn’t do hype, jargon or fancy-pants words. But will the Welsh dragon get flamed for his views on branding?
In 2005, my CV looked like one of those cars with two halves welded together. I’d spent a decade in the corporate world, in sales and marketing roles – and, before that, eight years as a jobbing writer, penning articles and comedy skits.
It was two careers half-begun that didn’t fit together. Then it hit me: copywriting was the missing link. So one diploma and a stack of books later, I milked my contacts for work and…bingo.
How do you think your work from a previous life has informed what you do?
It’s all helped, but the most important thing was my two years selling cable TV. If you want to learn how to make a point quickly, go out on the knocker and get some doors slammed in your face!
Who’s a typical client?
I don’t do ‘trophy clients’ any more. I’ve worked with a few, in both the private and public sectors, and they’re great for kudos – but they can drive you crazy, because everything goes through layers of approval.
I’m much happier working with the £1M – £5M business that’s big enough to pay proper fees but small enough to act quickly. The best part being, you get to work directly with the owner, so there are no last-minute brainfarts from the top floor.
And what’s your preferred type of work?
My ideal product is technically complex, and needs to be explained clearly to the layman. So a hearing aid, mattress, pizza oven, flat roof…that sort of thing. I seem to have a knack for making the complex simple.
Media-wise, I get my biggest buzz writing sales letters and emails, or better still a whole funnel that finds the prospect and primes them for the sale. The only thing I never do is social media. It bores me – except the paid ads, which are sexy as hell.
You’re on record as being slightly cynical about the branding end of the copywriting spectrum. Would that be fair?
Well, kind of. I get the importance of brand copy, but it’s not my thing. I’m a problem>agitate>solve kind of luddite, so you wouldn’t hire me to write a strapline or a style guide – in the same way that someone who’s great at naming products might not have the temperament for a 20-page sales letter.
I guess that’s the tactful answer! But yes, I also have a more cynical take on this, at the tone-of-voice end. From my POV, there are agencies who nail this and add enormous value, but there are some out there charging money for old rope.
The ploy is, tell the client about Innocent and ‘wouldn’t it be great to be that distinctive?’ – then sell them a TOV guide that ends with generic advice like ‘ask questions’ and pseudo-quirky pap like ‘write in lower case’! In the end, the take-away is nothing more than ‘try to sound like Virgin or Google’.
I could bang on about this one for hours, but I’ll leave it there and wait for the hate mail…
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
In another life, I’d be a theatre manager. I worked in the West End for five years, front of house and backstage on a few different shows. The hours were lousy, but it was always rewarding, being part of something that’s such a big deal for every customer.
Who are your copywriting heroes?
Bill Glazer is way up there. His ‘Outrageous Advertising’ book reset my thinking completely. I’m also a big fan of Gary Halbert – although I hate the way people try to ape his in-yer-face style, regardless of audience. (It doesn’t work if you’re selling to librarians in Eastbourne!)
Any favourite copywriting books?
As above, Bill Glazer’s book, plus a couple of obvious classics: Dan Kennedy’s ‘Ultimate Sales Letter’ and John Caples’ ‘Tested Advertising Methods’.
Actually, can I plug my own book here? ‘Do You Talk Like That at Home?’ by James Daniel is awesome!
You’ve dabbled in children’s writing. Anything new in the pipeline?
Yes, quite a bit. I’ve just teamed up with a renowned illustrator, and we’ve got a bevvy of new titles in the offing. Mostly, they’re short picture books for under-fives, but there’ll be some full-length titles for older kids soon after.
If you could advise the newbie copywriter in you, what would you say?
Run a mile if someone says, “Yes, but we’ve always done it like this”… “I could write it myself but I’m too busy”… “It will only take you 20 minutes”… or the classic, “There could be lots of work, if you can lower your price”.
Any tips for clients when working with copywriters?
No scope creep, no U-turns, no “Pause-that-let’s-do-this-instead”. Just let the copywriter do the job you’re paying for!