Copywriters are revolting

December 7, 2015


If you’ve read a few of my previous posts you’ll realise that I’m not uncritical of the marketing industry and those who work in it.  However, I assumed this was simply because I’m a sad old git who just doesn’t “get it” any more.  I was therefore very surprised, and heartened, by the findings of a recent survey.  It shows that many of my much younger copywriting colleagues are also pretty pissed off.  Perhaps not as universally grouchy as me about the whole gig, but certainly very antsy about one particular aspect of it.

The Great British Write Off

A friend and client who runs a design agency (nearly as old as me and who has therefore lived through many industry changes) sent me a link to a rather odd little flip book presentation.  It has been published by the Direct Marketing Association as part of their Campaign for Great British Copywriting.

What’s that all about then?  Reading the DMA website I discover that “The DMA is here to champion copywriting, listen to copywriters, create the conditions in which they can do what they do best, highlight the value of copy to growing businesses and rally our community behind them as they rewrite the future of one-to-one-to-millions communications.”   Makes us sound like an oppressed minority or an endangered species.

Sad Men (and women)

As part of this campaign the DMA sent out a survey to the Great British Copywriting Community to compile a Copywriting Census.  433 questionnaires were returned and the overall tone of the responses was so miserable and dispirited that the ensuing report was entitled “Why your copywriter looks sad”.

The early pages show that 56% work in an agency, 27% are freelance and 10% are employed to write for a single brand.  In terms of age about 80% are under 45 with the under 35s representing about 60%.

Reading on it’s apparent that these copywriters are less than happy.  When asked to identify the main barriers preventing them from doing good work, 68% complained about the standard of briefs and 54% felt there was a lack of respect for the value of copywriting.  50% also cited the lack of time they were given and 35% complained of insufficient customer insight.  All four points are actually aspects of the second one – if copywriting was valued and respected then the rest of the team would make the effort to write better briefs, give improved customer insight and provide copywriters with sufficient time to do the job properly.


The report then cites some copywriter comments to add colour to the numbers.  Here are a few choice ones:

“If you don’t actually care about the words don’t expect the customer to either.”

“Copywriting is fighting a battle against people with too much power and too few ideas.”

“Content has never been more important but copywriters have never been less appreciated”

“When it’s good, it’s sublime….when it’s not, well, that’s mostly what you see every day.  Repetitive, forced, boring and predictable.”

“If you love writing, don’t become a copywriter.  I regularly describe myself as a ‘Track Changes Acceptor’”

“Copywriting is suffering from the illiteracy of marketing people.  Many of them can’t even write a sentence, spell simple words, or compose a coherent email, yet they have the power of life or death over copy written by someone who knows how to write and think.  It’s also suffering from the completely mistaken prejudice that people don’t read any more.  Walk down the street and you’re likely to collide with someone so transfixed by reading a smartphone, they can’t even see you.  Ride on public transport and most people are reading something.”

“The industry has abandoned copywriting.  Global guidelines and labyrinthine approval processes mean that Lorem Ipsum has been replaced with a selection of ‘marketing-speak’ buzzwords and brand-babble that makes even less sense to the reader.  There’s no attitude, no character, no shape and no message.  It used to be said that advertising was only worth doing if you’re doing something worth advertising.  The same’s true of writing copy; if you’ve got nothing interesting to say, shut the fuck up.”

“Copywriting is bland, uninspiring and sucked dry of creativity by clients who get too involved and search engines that don’t understand smart or subtle.”

“I would describe the quality of copywriting in Britain as strong.  I would describe the quality of agencies’ attitudes to copywriters as piss-poor.   I have worked in several agencies where copywriters are treated as being less important than designers and art directors.  Of less use than Mac Monkeys.  As glorified proofreaders.  As people who are described as being “wordy” in a way that implies that is a failing.”

“Quality copywriting is being buried by client fear, tickbox reviews, and the constant, ongoing, irritating belief that ANYONE AND EVERYONE can write.  Any semblance of wit or personality is being thrown aside in a panicked rush to get the salient sales messages in front of the audience as quickly as possible – lest they be distracted by something else first.”

Last word

Copywriting is hard these days, because everything is more complicated than before.  Thankfully I work with just a handful of direct clients and a couple of agencies, where the people know what they are doing and we all pull together to produce something good.

However, I also get a trickle of requests where I can see I’m going to be expected to turn a pile of crap into something coherent, compelling and polished, with no brief worth speaking of, a dearth of useful information, a hopelessly optimistic objective, in next to no time, for a laughably small amount of money, for someone who is totally out of their depth, has no respect for what I do and who is obviously going to blame me when I fail to perform a miracle that makes them look good.  Under those circumstance the job is impossible hell.

I’ve learnt this the hard way.  Here’s just one example.  I flew to Geneva a couple of years ago to takes a brief from an intergovernmental organisation that shall remain nameless (I was working with a branding agency who were great, it was just the client who was a problem).  They wanted me to write a report summing up the work they had done over the past 10 years all around the developing world.  Interviewing project directors scattered from the Himalayas to Ghana and rural China to Washington was a nightmare.  After pulling a week of 16 hour days I hit the deadline, and the send button.  20 minutes later I get a call from the client in Geneva saying “My boss in the US has changed her mind, can you just make it into a one year report, covering the last 12 months?”  “No” I replied “there is no information covering the last 12 months, it’s way off being collated.”  There was a pause, then the lady in Geneva said pleadingly “But you’re called Stories that sell.  Can’t you just, you know, make some of it up?”  “No,” I repeated “I only do non-fiction.”

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  1. Virginia Nicols December 15, 2015 Reply

    I sucked up every word you wrote in one endless slurp. Let me sit back and digest!

    • Jim December 21, 2015 Reply

      Thanks Virginia, hope you enjoyed it!

  2. Jeff Zadzilka December 21, 2015 Reply

    Great article. I often find it's a battle between writing what the marketing director or owner thinks is great versus what their prospects will respond to or find great. When response is not as good as expected, they look at the copywriter, yet there are other factors that go into the response. How good is the list? What kind of relationship do they have with the prospects on their list? How many prospects are on the list that are being mailed? Will you be allowed to A/B test various factors in the copy? What is the competition like for similar products. What is the price competition? How good is their product really and how far can you go with your writing before you feel like you would be lying to prospects on their list? ... and so much more???

    Thanks for the article and the opportunity to voice an opinion.

    Jeff Zadzilka
    [email protected]

    • Jim December 21, 2015 Reply

      You're absolutely right Jeff - we seldom get everything we need to do the best possible job but clients are quick to blame us (not those who briefed us). Also, as you say, there's a temptation to write what we think the client will like rather than what we think the target audience will respond to.

      Anyway, thanks for reading and responding!

  3. Michael Parish, Copywriter @ michaelparishink December 22, 2015 Reply

    Great article that resonated with me. Another battle we wage is in doing something that's different to the competition; that stands out in the industry. Clients say they want to be noticed, but are shit-scared of anything that's got real personality.

    • Jim December 31, 2015 Reply

      You are absolutely right about that one Michael! I come up against that issue repeatedly....

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