Copywriting in the Content Era: A Guide for Writers Starting Out

As content competes with advertising as a business and marketing tool, commercial writers (like me) are seeing shifts in the skills that we need to keep our work relevant.

Copywriting, especially in the context of advertising, has been one of the most storied and influential creative roles in marketing. Advertising legends like Leo Burnett, Mary Wells, and Lester Wunderman started their careers as copywriters.

David Ogilvy, my professional role model who built a global agency where I spent nine years, worked as a salesman, researcher, and writer before he became an agency CEO and industry icon. But he said he ultimately wanted to be remembered as “a copywriter who had some big ideas.” Before anything else, he wanted to be remembered as a writer.

Modern marketing still needs copywriting. But the skills and experience required to succeed in today’s era of content has created new demands on copywriters.

Great ideas in the content era still spark a conversation, but ideas alone won’t sustain all the interactions companies have with consumers. And content—whether a blog post, a video series, a game, an infographic, or a whitepaper—requires far more than a smart headline, tempting offer, or strong call to action to have any real currency with customers.

Roles of the Modern Copywriter

The modern writer needs to be the master of many trades. He or she has to be a researcher and salesman. Instead of going door to door to poll customers, however, today’s writers are using search intent modeling to find out what people want and the actual words they use to describe it.

The modern copywriter has to be a scientist, too, understanding data patterns and deciphering which strategies work and which don’t.

And, of course, the modern copywriter still has to be a student—always learning the new trends and technologies that are affecting the way consumers connect and communicate.

Lucky for copywriters starting out, the traditional agency silos have utterly collapsed, making working across different channels easier. After all, 20 years ago, a copywriter had to actively choose among advertising, direct marketing, promotion, public relations, and (much later) digital. There was no wrong career choice, but the skills and experience acquired were distinct.

Today, gaining experience across different sectors of the industry is easier.

But even though the lines between advertising firms, media outlets, and PR firms have blurred, every copywriter should know the following skills, and some specialties are better equipped to teach them.

1. Concepting

Advertising agencies still are the best places to compete at the concept level. The work admittedly can be disposable (sometimes only lasting a few months), but the value placed on the idea itself is like absolutely nowhere else.

I can’t imagine how your career wouldn’t benefit by your working at a global advertising agency or one of the top boutiques. Just be careful not to get caught in the trap of concepting for advertising instead of concepting something worth advertising.

No matter the client, the concept should be creative, effective, and memorable.

2. Radio and TV

What I learned from doing 500+ radio spots and TV spots helped shape my standards and skills for narrative storytelling.

Digital and branding specialists sometimes underappreciate commercial copywriting skills, overlooking the value of being able to write a story with persuasion and incorporate high production values.

Ad agencies (and in-house creative roles) still have the lock here, too.

3. Long-Form Content and Programming

Writing for direct mail, email, and collateral taught me how to expertly craft details like skim-able subheads. I became better at this when I started taking classes in journalism and article writing.

PR firms, content studios, media agencies, and editorial roles are usually the best places to pick this up.

4. Short-Form, Frequent Content

Writing for channels like social media, radio, and podcasting teach dialog techniques and how to vary a brand’s voice without changing character.

Again, PR firms and content studios are great places to gain experience in these areas. So are digital and social agencies that create bite-size content.

5. Performance Marketing and SEO

Writing Web copy teaches content planning and SEO integration. Those skills are extremely valuable in today’s digital world.

Digital shops, media agencies, and publishing sites are the most ruthless and effective teachers of this kind of performance marketing writing.

6. Visual Thinking and Influencer Communications

PR and journalism can teach brand transparency, visual thinking, and influencer communications. Design firms are also waking up to digital media. Content studios have been the best shepherds. Any of those places are good places to learn these skills.

* * *

A copywriter can take many different paths. For example, I have shifted from a traditional advertising agency (FCB) to a digital agency (R/GA) to a direct marketing specialist (OgilvyOne) to a content leader at a brand firm leader (Prophet). But if I were starting out today, I might begin at a PR agency to quickly learn how to write for the digital age. Or maybe I would start client-side in a content role, so I could work across social channels and learn a variety of voices and formats.

Whatever direction you chose, take a cue from David Ogilvy and embrace many different roles: All of them can make you a better writer.

Editor’s note: For a guide to marketing writing in a content age, check out Ann Handley’s Wall Street Journal best-seller, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content.

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