Confession of a copywriter

September 8, 2013

2807290411_919045023dI have an admission to make.  Unlike so many other copywriters, designers and people in marketing, I’m not passionate about what I do.

Shock horror!  You mean you don’t care?

No, nothing could be further from the truth.  I just care about the stuff that matters.

Feel good factors

I find it satisfying when I manage to solve a particularly tricky creative problem.  I get a real sense of achievement out of successfully crafting an elegant brand story for a home page.  Opening a magazine and seeing one my ads always gives me a kick.  It’s a great feeling when a client is especially happy with something I’ve done for them.

Show me the money

I’m also very pleased when I get paid.  Because, you know what…I’m doing it largely for the money.  I’m not in the fortunate position, like some of my neighbours, to have retired in my mid-50s on a final salary pension.  I also find that little things, like a house, furniture, a car, food and drink, clothes, electrical appliances, somewhat hard to give up – and they don’t come cheap.  If this occupation didn’t pay then I’d have to do something else.

It’s work Jim, but not as some people know it

I’m very grateful, even on a bad day, that I don’t have to commute for hours for the pleasure of working in a cubicle, in a big office, reporting to an idiot and being force-fed the company’s values and mission.  I’ve done some crap jobs, like telesales, house removals, working on a market stall, feeding walnuts into a hopper (all day) at a food packaging company, and copywriting is a positive delight by comparison.  I feel incredibly lucky to be able to earn a reasonable living, working from home, doing something that’s mentally stimulating.

But passionate?  No.

Excuse me while I emote

This, it would seem, puts me in a minority.  Yesterday on LinkedIn I saw a post inviting members of that particular group to visit a design company’s new website and give feedback.  The “About” page was headed “We’re passionate about making digital work brilliantly for our clients.” And is followed by “We’re a team who live and breathe what we do for a living.”  Blimey, get a life!

They are not alone.  Here’s a short list of others whose web pages and profiles express the same degree of intense evangelical zeal (I’ve not named names for obvious reasons.  Namely that I’m a coward!):

  • “We are a creative team of experienced web professionals, passionate about developing the right internet solutions for our clients.”  Bradford on Avon.
  • “She is a passionate advocate of quality in brand communication”.  Client Director at a leading copywriting agency
  • “Highly passionate about creativity”.  Brand and marketing expert in London.
  • “A passionately creative graphic designer”.   Freelancer in Bath.
  • “Jim’s passion is for innovation”.  Web design company founder, Bath.
  • “We are an amalgamation of designers, developers and optimisation specialists, each with a passion for all areas of web.”   Bath, again – passionate kind of place.
  • “Bristol creative website design and development agency with a passion for great design and user experience”.
  • “A marketing communications professional based in Bristol with a thirst for knowledge, a passion for copywriting…”
  •  “A passionate Creative, Graphic Artist and firebrand Designer…”  (the initial caps are theirs, not mine)
  • “A passionate and professional graphic design and website design company based in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, UK”.  Creative passion in Burnham-on-Sea…have you ever been there?!.
  • “We are so passionate about inspiring and helping others, both through business and in our community.”  Marketing and brand consultancy.

You get the general idea – I could fill an almost infinite number of pages with the list of designers, writers and marketers who are blissed out about their occupation.  And that’s not including all those of my colleagues with a heartfelt “love of words”.

What’s all this about then?

In the book “Willing Slaves: how the overwork culture is ruling our lives” Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting documents the ways in which work in the UK is becoming more demanding.

She explores the fact that we work the longest hours in Europe.  Then she identifies the trend of “work intensification” – the way workers are being pressured to achieve more in less time, and so are coerced into putting in greater effort.  Then she focuses on a wholly new phenomenon that’s emerging: “emotional labour”.

Emotional labour?  Yes.  The growth of the service economy means it’s no longer enough to physically do your job – you have to put your heart and soul into it too.  Companies are now striving to differentiate themselves from competitors by offering better service – one that provides customers with a more satisfying emotional experience.  And that means workers have to get really good at reaching out to customers, establishing emotional empathy with them, and building relationships.  If you work for a big organisation you must become an enthusiastic ambassador who lives the brand values.  And if you run your own small consultancy, or are a freelancer, you are the brand.  You better be wearing your heart on your sleeve when you show up for work!

Bunting cites an academic paper, “Emotions and Aesthetics for work and labour” by M. Noon and P.Blyton where the authors comment that “The truly remarkable thing about emotion work is its sheer ordinariness, the extent to which it has permeated most forms of work and to which it is deemed natural.”  Selling your soul, as well as your services, has become the norm.  But is it healthy?

Bunting notes that this has forced workers to become alienated from their own feelings.  She quotes from “The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feelings” by Arlie Russell Hochschild: “When the product – the thing to be engineered, mass produced…is a smile, a feeling, or a relationship, it comes to belong more to the organisation and less to the self.”

Unto thine own self be true

So, all these people who claim to be so passionate about their work – do they really feel that way? Or are they merely behaving in the way that’s now expected of them?  Meekly selling their souls so they can pay the bills at the end of the month?  And kidding themselves that this is what it takes to do a great job?

Methinks they doth protest too much

I think, far from being passionate, that they are screwed up.  They’ve got to a point where they are totally confused about what they are supposed to be doing.

The product, for a copywriter, designer, or marketing person, is not their feelings, served up on a plate.  It’s an ad, a web page, a poster, a blog post, a sales letter, a brochure, an exhibition stand, a case study, a video, that works.

When I’m working I’m actually pretty grumpy.  I don’t enjoy the process of solving problems.  It’s hard!  I’m obsessed, withdrawn, preoccupied and snappy.  That’s not because I don’t care about what I’m doing – quite the opposite.  It’s because I hate mediocrity – “average is the best of the worst, the worst of the best, and the cream of the crap”.

But when I’ve finished I cheer up.  Because I’ve usually produced something I’m proud of.

So I’ve got a question for all those practitioners who offer their feelings in the place of credentials – where’s the work? Spare me the professions of passion and show me the portfolio, the proof you can actually solve a real business problem.  That’s the thing so conspicuously missing from their websites – example of what they are proud to have produced.

This makes me suspect the reason they are so eager heave their hearts into their mouths at every opportunity is simple – it’s all they’ve got.

  1. Caroline Gourlay September 10, 2013 Reply

    Jim, I can't tell you how passionately I agree with you about this. Well fairly passionately, in a slightly non-committal way. I don't think everyone who claims to be 'passionate' is compensating for lack of talent. It's just become lazy meaningless shorthand, like Apprentice candidates who 'give 110%'.

    As as psychologist, you'd think I might like this call to the emotions, but I don't because it's inauthentic. My pet hate is brands who clumsily try to engage the emotions, like the stain removal product I bought recently which proudly proclaimed 'It works because we care about cleaning'. I want it to work because you understand the chemistry of stain removal.

    • Jim September 11, 2013 Reply

      Hi Caroline,
      Steady on with your enthusiasm...
      Seriously, you are right about fact that not everyone who is passionate is compensating for lack of talent, but that many who do use this shorthand are indeed just intellectually lazy, which is a good reason for not hiring them.
      "Care" word is another lazy cliche, and as you say, irritating.
      There are even those who "care passionately"!! Like banks, building societies and other financial institutions..all very authentic (?)
      Nice "talking" to you...

  2. Sam September 16, 2013 Reply

    Ha Ha - What a refreshingly good read Jim. I too have disliked the use of the fruit word for years but then it could also just be a generational things.

    I also find that I have to encourage myself to drive around, rather than through the packs of brightly coloured, yet grey haired, lycra clad cyclists who seem hell bent on "owning the road" around Somerset these days.

  3. Jim September 16, 2013 Reply

    Hi Sam,
    glad you liked it. Also, I know what you mean about the lycra clad cyclists intent on shoving their posteriors in your face and inviting you to dice with death by overtaking on narrow bendy roads. I think the infestation is especially bad round here because the land is so flat. The least they could do is wear jeans....



  4. Andy Fuller September 16, 2013 Reply

    Great blog! Honest.
    I have to 'fess up and say I did become lazy and had used the 'passionate' word. I've updated my details now...

    • Jim September 16, 2013 Reply

      Hi Andy,
      Good to hear from you - I enjoy reading your newsletter and blog posts. Sorry to read that you've had to edit your details!
      Hope all is well, and regards to Secil....

  5. Peter Bowerman September 16, 2013 Reply

    Great stuff, Jim,

    Was wondering when someone was going to call all these "passionate" folk on their B.S. Listening to the radio in my car some months back, I heard a guy who ran a company who fixed/dried out basements say, "We're passionate about basements!" Really? Well. You either don't have enough going on in your life, or you're seriously FOS...

    And yes, I'm in the camp that believes, NOT, that I'm the rare practitioner who isn't "passionate" about writing marketing brochures, case studies, etc., but rather, that most people's claims of passion are self-delusion to help them get through another week (and/or because, as you point out, it's the latest Kool-Aid we're expected to drink...).

    Yes, I very much enjoy having the final puzzle piece fit into place on a piece of copy or a tag line - very satisfying. Not not passion-inducing.

    What's so interesting about the whole passion thing is how relatively new it is. It's only been in the last 20 years or so that this jargon has entered the cultural discussion. It's a fixture of affluent societies, where a good chunk of the population has moved past just making ends meet, so what's next? To be pants-wettingly happy about what we do for a living. Yet, fact is, for most people, work will NEVER be something that lights them up from within. And that's okay.

    The problem comes in when you think it SHOULD, and when you believe that all these people around you claiming to passionate about their work actually are (when most aren't; see above), and you're not.

    For years, I've been a crusader (and yes, a truly passionate crusader) about a related aspect of this discussion - what I call the "Passion Trap." I talk about this in The Well-Fed Writer, where I make it clear that, while the copywriting field is a pretty cool way to make a living, it's not about passion:

    “Finding Your Passion”? NOT what I’m talking about here. That’s an overrated trap that keeps people stuck in jobs they hate, waiting for THE Thing that’ll make them blissful and rapturous. For 95% of people out there, finding something they "pretty much like to do most of the time" would be a 100% improvement. Shoot for that, and from there, fine-tune toward the ideal. Am I passionate about writing marketing brochures? Please. Do I enjoy it? Yes. What I am passionate about is living my life my way.

    Thanks for a great post!


    • Jim September 17, 2013 Reply

      Hi Pete,
      Many thanks for your additional input. I especially like what you say about the pernicious effects of waiting around in the wrong job hoping that one day you'll discover the occupation that will make you blissfully happy. I like what Henry Ford said: "Make a decision and then make it right".

      Also, thanks for writing "The Well-Fed Writer" (not "The Pants-Wettingly Happy Writer"!). I regularly return to it when I lose the plot.

      Interested to hear that the "P" word irritates people in the US. We tend to think of "you guys" as more passionate than us (it's hard to get less passionate than the Brits, although that's changing).

      Your last line sums it up for me too. And copywriting is just a means to that end.

      All the best,


  6. Caroline J September 16, 2013 Reply

    Ha ha! Caroline Gourley beat me to it!

    So, I'm going to say that I can't tell you how rapturous I am that someone has written about this. To be honest it's so overused that I just don't believe people who stand up and say: 'Hello, my name is Jim and I'm passionate about showing people how to dig holes'. Sheesh.

    And whilst we're on the subject, how about doing a post on that other over-used adjective: Awesome.

    Thank God for your common sense!
    PS. Jim - it would be great if you could put a little gizmo on your site that lets us know when /if you respond. There's a plugin called Subscribe to Comments -

    • Caroline J September 17, 2013 Reply

      PS. Just to say that lots of people are liking this post on our Facebook page - no surprises there..

    • Jim September 17, 2013 Reply

      Hi Caroline,
      Lovely to hear from you, and thanks for promoting the post on your Facebook page. That's awesome (!). Actually, response from you doing that is awe...well, jolly good .

      I'll do that plug in thinngie now - thanks for letting me know.


      • Jim September 17, 2013 Reply

        NB, some people did not like this post (!). ie they unsubscribed from my mailing list. I checked their websites and nearly all of them described themselves as passionate. Ooops! I don't think that pissing off your readers ranks too highly on the "Killer tips to boost your blog" list.

        Those of you who are still "in"...good to have you around.

  7. Baiju Solanki September 18, 2013 Reply

    According to Wiki Passion is an intense emotion compelling feeling, enthusiasm, or desire for something.

    I guess a lot of people have confused the feeling they get when they do the do and get rewarded for it and the thing itself.

    Are people scared to openly say, I am doing this to get lots of money so i can then do EXACTLY the things I want. By referring to the thing they do as their passion is probably more about the edges of what they do, why they do and for end purpose, getting very blurred.

    I have probably fallen right into the valley of passion and realised it isn't so great, loving what you do, if you aren't getting rewarded.

    Maybe we should start a new movement.....any suggestions?

  8. David Eck September 18, 2013 Reply

    Brilliantly honest blog Jim. Hits the mark so well.

    Our company use, perhaps overuse, the 'P' word in describing what we do and feel about our own business. Then again, creating and booking luxury travel experiences for a living is entirely pleasurable and one day soon will be financially rewarding. The key for us is that many of our clients are travelling for a specific occasion - wedding, honeymoon, 50th anniversary etc. so it is an emotional journey they are taking and therefore we get swept in and along too to create the best itinerary. We also need another 'P' word - patience! We genuinely enjoy what we do.

    Having been in the marketing game for a while now, in the context of creative design and copywriting I wholeheartedly agree it becomes somewhat confused when applying the same principle.

    We will review our own copy though and promise not to unsubscribe from your very refreshing blog.

    • Jim September 18, 2013 Reply

      Hi David,
      Thanks for positive feedback. I was really having a rant at creatives who try to hide a lack of skill and ability behind protestations of passion (and refuse to show any work).

      With luxury travel, as you say, the whole product is emotionally and sensually charged, so people expect you to promote it passionately. Also, when you are creating an itinerary and an experience, and describing it, you have to "get into it" - it's almost impossible to do the job effectively unless you do it with passion. So in that context I think it is fine to say you are passionate about what you do, especially if you demonstrate it with great packages, destinations and ideas.

      I think it is when someone says they have a passion for providing office cleaning services, for designing instruction manuals for digital printers or for writing product descriptions in the Screwfix catalogue that one has to question their sincerity.

      It's tricky, this blog writing thinggie. People seem to like posts that don't pull punches (well, some of them - I've had more positive comments than unsubscribes) but then you realise that there are some areas you hadn't thought about where what you are saying so vehemently is not so cut and dried as you are making out. Luxury travel being one of them in this instance!



  9. Mike Garner September 22, 2013 Reply

    A cleaning company in Bridgwater used to have the strapline "Passionate about dry cleaning". No; never. The word is over used and should be retired. Just like "bespoke", but that's another debate.

    • Jim September 24, 2013 Reply

      Hi Mike,
      Yes, I can just imagine the people actually doing the work on £7.32 an hour being really passionate!



  10. Nigel October 21, 2013 Reply

    Most sense I've read in a long time. And pertinent, too. I got a ticking-off from a client last week for admitting there are careers I would prefer to follow. But that doesn't mean I don't give everything I've got to this one. But it's still just a job.

    Being 'passionate' is just the brainwashed flavour of the month. Like driving white cars, baking cupcakes, doing an adult degree or thinking vampires are sexy.

    • Jim November 3, 2013 Reply

      Hi Nigel,
      Sorry for slow reply, been on holiday. You're so right about other flavours of the month...each on is so "in" at the moment, but why?!

  11. Seth Rowden October 21, 2013 Reply

    Couldn't agree more with this post! I recently noticed a Primark advert for a 6 week Christmas temp job that required candidates to, amongst other things, have a knowledge of current fashion trends, be passionate about customer service, before ending: "GREAT place to work. Are you ready for the journey of your life?"

  12. Jim November 3, 2013 Reply

    Hi Seth,

    yep, and "journey" is another word that is grossly over-used. Just another way of making something totally banal sound slightly meaningful.

    Glad you liked post...

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