Writing words that sell. That’s your primary job as a copywriter.
But, there’s a bit more to it than that. Jack Stafford set up his copywriting agency The Copywriter Collective back in 2002.
His copywriting agency employs copywriters and works with clients around the world. In this week’s interview, he explains what a copywriter does, how to find a job as a copywriter, and how to get paid.
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Bryan: You've probably heard of copywriting, but what exactly does a copywriter do and should you become one? Hi there, my name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. And learning what a copywriter does, and how to become on is what we're going to cover in this week's episode. I've interviewed Jack Stafford who's set up a copywriting agency and run it since 2002. And he employees copywriters and works with clients around the world. Now, basically copywriting is writing words that sell. And if you're running any type of nonfiction in a way your writing words that sell because you could be selling your ideas, you could be selling your article, your book, or you could be selling concepts that you have in your blog post. That's your primary job as a copywriter, but there's a bit more to it than that. And one of the best ways to become a copywriter is of course, to get some hands on experience.
I would also recommend that you read a number of copywriting books like The Boron Letters by Gary Halbert and Tested Advertising Methods. That's another great copywriting book. I've worked for various companies over the past 10 years or so as a copywriter, mostly within the B2B industry and in the technology industry. And copywriting in a way has helped me improve my nonfiction in that I've learned about how to break up sentences and write for the web. And why headlines are so important. I also like copywriting because you can find a balance between creative work, and something that's a little bit more scientific. When I say creative work, you might have an idea that you want to explore in the copy that you're writing or in a sales letter. And then you need to apply a little bit of science in that it needs to resonate with readers and lead them on to the next step.
That next step could be them raising their hands to opt in to your email list. It could be them taking out their credit card to buy your book, or it could be them taking some other sort of action. Now, of course, copywriting is something that you will improve at over time, like any writing skill. And to help you get more of an understanding. I wanted to talk to an experienced copywriter like Jack Stafford. So I started by asking him why he settled his copywriting agency in the first place. And if copywriting is really a great way for writers to get paid today.
Jack: Okay, well we're a copywriting agency. Our headquarters is in Amsterdam. I started the company about 18 years ago. I was a copywriter myself. I started working in Eindhoven in the South of the Netherlands. I graduated university and I looked around for different jobs. And I don't know why, but I saw this ad for a copywriter in the Netherlands. I wasn't looking for a job abroad. I wasn't looking to immigrate, but then I don't know. It just sounded interesting. And so I was a musician and I just did a cycling magazine. And so I had no previous copywriting experience. I was only 21. I sent in a nice letter and some examples, and some songs. And they said, "Yeah, if you can write songs, you can be a copywriter." Which was nice. And so I got a job in Eindhoven. I went over to live there for two years and then I moved up to Amsterdam and I went freelance.
And I tried to get a full time job in an agency, but I couldn't I stayed freelance. And went on for a few years. And then I was thinking, I was working all the time because being an English copywriter in Amsterdam, there's not too many of those. You're not in London or Dublin. So I got quite a few assignments and I grew, and grew and got to know more English copywriters. And I thought when I stopped working, if I want to go on holiday, if I wanted to go traveling, if I want to retire, then my income will stop then. So that's a little strange, what can I do to enable myself to develop in future? I don't want to be a copywriter for the rest of my life. And I don't want to lose all the knowledge and experience and context I've gained. How can I develop this? So I started representing all the other copywriters around me, and they were quite happy about it. And it grew into this small collective of Great British creatives living in Amsterdam.
Bryan: Great to see you've been going since 2002. So when I first studied copywriting, and the way I learned about it is through reading copywriting books. Like The Boreon Letters by Gary Halbert's, and a couple of older copywriting books as well by David Ogilvy and so on. And that's an approach that many guides to becoming a copywriter recommend. But I also work for a technology website that's now out of business, but they gave me some copywriting work. And then I learned on the job about how to write copy for just this technology website. I'm curious, how would you recommend somebody acquires the skills they need to become a copywriter today?
Jack: Well, I was very lucky. I got this job in the agency for two years. I was writing every day and with a mentor. So I had this guy, William, who was a very tough Scottish Newcastle guy. He was always on at me, always criticizing me heavily for my writing every day for two years. And it will be polished and polished. Take this back, redo this, redo that. That heavy criticism for two years is the best medicine. Because if you start freelance, you can work for five years. And maybe actually all of that time, you're already writing for six months if you condense it down. So I recommend in house experience, working for someone else. Be it an agency, or as you said, a company or another writer having a mentor and learning it. As you would carpentry as you would a metal work learn from someone else.
Bryan: So there are many different types of copywriters depending on the industry. What type of clients did you work for at first?
Jack: I was a B2B copywriter. So I would write for Philips that was in Eindhoven. And they just wanted brochures and eventually websites. So I do long copy from selling business products to business people. So there's more of a business language, it's not your short, sexy, consumer copywriting. And then I never actually worked up towards radio television, press ads. I never did much of that. I was always more long copywriting. Which nowadays most people is... that was back then before content writing. It goes from the really high end copywriters, the creatives who can hardly write don't write very well long copy, but they can come up with an amazing slogan or a very creative concept and they still called copywriters. And it goes down all the way to people who can write really great sales work, down to all those people who just write technical or content. There's a huge spectrum within this word copywriter.
Bryan: I'm glad you brought that up, Jack. So do you think copywriting is creative or is it best to follow like a proven copywriting formula?
Jack: There's no such thing as art. It's all a science. There are only formulas. If you really break it down, the greatest examples, follow the clearest simplest formula.
Bryan: One of my favorite formulas is the problem, agitate, solution formula because I think it's quite easy for anybody to grasp. If they're not familiar with copywriting, do you have any other formulas that you like or look at?
Jack: No, but that sounds like a good one.
Bryan: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I learned about that from Copyblogger actually. It's one of my favorite ones. And what about getting copy tested. So if you've written a sales page for clients, do you let them take it away and test it? Or is that something you look at yourself first?
Jack: Well, as a freelancer, you just do what they pay for. So if they want to pay for testing then you can do it. But then they have to pay for it to be written twice. Normally, it's enough of a struggle to get them to pay for it once.
Bryan: Actually on that is it possible for our copywriter today to earn a good living?
Jack: Oh, definitely. Yes. We just had this quarantine virus disaster as you well know, but our jobs kept coming in the same. The business is shifted, but some of the businesses exploded. All their competitors closed down and they were fulfilling orders left right and center. So everyone needs copy. I think it will be just be copywriters and cockroaches at the end of this.
Bryan: I think particularly with a lot of businesses going even more online than they were before they were before. They probably looking at how they're describing themselves on their websites and so on. So what type of copywriters sign up for your service?
Jack: What kind of copywriters? Well, we're not actually taking new copywriters at the moment. We're like a boutique agency. So we started in Amsterdam with Just British and now we expanded into full worldwide with all local copywriters. So we have all nationalities of copywriters, and we have three or four or five in each nationality. We do transcreation as well which is translation by a copywriter. So we have this pool of creative copywriters... The clients come to us because we'd get a job done in six languages by tomorrow.
Bryan: And do you think a copywriter should be particularly knowledgeable about their industry or their geography or country? Or can a copywriter cover many different areas?
Jack: If you want to succeed, you should specialize.
Bryan: Yeah. Any particular industries that you think are growing at the moment for new copywriters?
Jack: Pharmaceuticals is a good one.
Bryan: Pharmaceuticals, technology maybe.
Jack: Yes. Yeah. I think because it's much easier to specialize. I did myself, I'm a cyclist. So I subscribe to all these cycling magazines, and every other page is an advert. So all these companies are advertising and every company needs a website. So I made a big database for myself of cycling brands and emailed them all every couple of months saying, "Do you need some free copywriting during the pandemic?" Or, "Do you need some copywrite in return for free stuff?" Or, "Can I just do copywriting for you?" To grow yourself in the beginning.
Bryan: And does that cold outreach work?
Jack: You have to have it. Percentagely, it's a very small percentage, but eventually, yes.
Bryan: Okay. Okay. You talked about a database of clients and looking at advertisements in cycling magazines and so on. Do you recommend copywriters have a swipe file where they put all their advertisements in and reviewed them.
Jack: To build up a database.
Bryan: So one approach I've come across is the idea of a swipe file where you take interesting advertisements and headlines on so on, and you put them all into your swipe file. So when you're writing copy later on, you can go back and look at your swipe file and you can see what type of copy other people have used and maybe use that as inspiration.
Jack: Oh, that's great. I haven't heard of that. I've heard of Pinterest, but I haven't heard of swipe.
Bryan: Yeah. I guess Pinterest could be a social media or a virtual swipe file.
Jack: Okay. That's a good tip. Thanks. I'm learning from you.
Bryan: Okay. So when you're writing copy for a sales page, what's the approach that you would take?
Jack: Well, it just depends on the client and a brief, I insist on a written brief. I want them to tell me what they want because we work for different clients. So we work directly for brands. We work for advertising agencies and we work for small businesses. It's the easiest to work for is the advertising agencies, or the communications marketing agencies because they know exactly what they want they write a brief. They have little boxes for you to put the copy in. This headline has to target this target market. Whereas if you're working for someone who's just invented a widget and they've no marketing background, then you really have to start from scratch and you spend more time writing the briefs then you do the actual copy.
Bryan: So what makes for a good brief for a copywriter or what should a copywriter look for in their brief from a client?
Jack: That's a very good question. That's probably the most important question to ask. Yes. Just knowing, getting it down in black and white, what they want, just what they want to achieve. What's the end result because do they want people to go to this website form? Do they want people to apply for a trial, a 30 day trial? What's the objective and then work backwards from that.
Bryan: So we talked there a few minutes ago about getting feedback from the client. One issue that I've had in the past is I would write copy for somebody and then they would send feedback. And it's very ambiguous, or it will be conflicting feedback. If let's say two people working for a client have reviewed the copy and they just both leave comments in a word document, and it's up to me to interpret it. Do you have any suggestions or tips for managing problems like that?
Jack: Yes. Don't write for committee, definitely insist in your quote that you offer one or two rounds of revision maximum. And then after that they have to pay.
Bryan: Okay. Okay. And you also talked there about headlines. How important is the headline in a sales page or perhaps some emails that you're writing copy for.
Jack: It's all in order of priority. And you should write that last. So you write everything else and then sum it up in the headline, but that's really an art form. To get people to get to read the rest of the article. So as you say, the testing is very good for that because your opinion, as a writer, you can't put yourself into the minds of all the people reading the article. So you can be creative, you can say, "Okay, I'm going to be funny. I'm going to be serious." But testing will tell you what works and what doesn't.
Bryan: Do you have any suggestion for somebody who wants to get started with testing a headline?
Jack: Facebook ads is very good for that. You can test for a couple of dollars. You can put it in and then you'll get results the next morning.
Bryan: Okay. And how many headlines would you typically come up with for a project?
Jack: Again it depends on the client, how much they want to pay. As I say, if you do the headline last it's a lot easier. You're in the groove. You've already come up with a lot of sub headlines and the headlines come to you. You just pick out sometimes the best bit of copy in the whole article and put that at the top. Or maybe you start with a question, or some statistic of did you know that? There are many, many options. So again that test.
Bryan: So I was struck there that you brought up pharmaceuticals as a good industry for an aspiring-
Jack: That's a joke.
Bryan: Because what I was getting is when I've written copy for technology companies. Sometimes I'll get messaging, or the brief and it will be quite feature driven, or there would be a lot of technical information. And the challenges is to turn those features into benefits. Are there any approaches that copywriters can take if they're getting a lot of technical information and they want to turn it real word language for customers?
Jack: Yeah. Well, a lot of the time it's good as a copywriter not to really know too much about the product. I've gone to had a factory tour and then you get all the information about it. And then the marketing manager asks you to write about their machine or the thing they're producing. Because when they try to write it themselves they're just too absorbed in the process. They're just too amazed by the specifications. So if you come in with fresh eyes, you can often understand what the real benefits are and translate those.
Bryan: Do you find it's useful to interview would be customers that the copy is aimed at?
Jack: You don't have time really. Once you're a successful copywriter, you might have three jobs this morning. You're just banging through them. If you're specialized, if you're a fanatic about guitars, you are the target audience. So you know all writing about guitars, and you know the terminology and know what people want to hear. So that's another reason to specialize is that you are the target audience.
Bryan: So you're drawing on your own experience or hobbies or interests. So you mentioned the Copywriting Collective has been going since 2002, that's nearly 18 years. How has the copywriting industry changed for you since you first started?
Jack: Well, it's the internet revolutionized everything. When I started printing brochures. Not many things get printed anymore. So there's a huge demand for volume in terms of copy. Like you if you need a 4,000 word web page to write. We need to cover all these search terms. It's changed dramatically since we began. I don't know for the better or for the worse. I'll leave that up to you.
Bryan: You mentioned there about search terms. How do you balance working in search terms into copy versus writing copy that you feel is brief? Would you look at them a map of key words, or do you have some other approach that you recommend people take?
Jack: It depends. Sometimes you can sell yourself as you say, "Well, I can do some keyword research for you. You get a subscription to one of these services like SEMrush and then you do it. You provide these related keywords to a client. So you adding value and I'll provide you with a key worded article. The truth kind of shifts. They used to couple of years ago, you had to have include the keyword 333 times. Now it's you shouldn't have it. And then you should have all the related words. Like if you're writing about New York mention the Statue of Liberty and things like that. But if you're writing a natural professional proper article then you're going to cover everything. It's only if you try to be a bit gamey then people are going to see it, and you're read time is going to fall through the floor because people they feel like they're reading a robot. So it depends. Just keep it natural.
Bryan: Yeah. It can be difficult to balance writing for humans versus inserting some particular keywords that you might be targeting to rank in Google as swell. So because your agency has been going so long, do you find that you've got a lot of word of mouth business?
Jack: Definitely. Repeat business is very good. The 80/20 rule, we get 80% of our work from 20% of our clients. And also 80% of the stress from another 20%. If you keep growing in the business, then especially if you're specializing, then your name gets around. You have really occupy that sphere you exist in. You're on all the LinkedIn groups, you're on all the Facebook groups, you're goin to the conferences, you're going to the expos. And you'll just start to know everyone in that industry. So that's another reason to specialize.
Bryan: So I was looking at your website before our interview and you have an interesting article about how much copywriters should charge. And you talk about how some copywriters charge too little. Would you be able to explain your thinking on rates for copywriters today?
Jack: I didn't write that article. So I haven't read it so I'd have to guess, but we do all around the world. So the lower you go the hotter it gets, the less you can charge. In Spain, in Italy the rates are much, much lower than up in Norway. It depends on your geographical location also your industry, if you're high tech experienced technological or pharmaceutical copywriter then you can charge a lot more than if you're just getting your gigs from the website, then you're competing on price. But a copywriter [inaudible 00:19:05] we have to compete. We can't compete with all these people because we're adding a margin on top. So we charge based on quality not on price.
Bryan: Okay. Okay. So when you are starting an agreement with the clients do set up by the project and the amount of rewrites rather than hours spent.
Jack: We ask the copywriter to quote. We find that the best way. So we get a written brief from the client. We send it to the copywriter. We send it to a few copywriters. How much do you want for this job? How much would you charge? We add a little bit on the top, and then we asked the client to decide.
Bryan: Are there any particular tools that you think a copywriter needs these days.
Jack: I just signed up to Grammarly also in emails because that also checks emails. Because when you're firing out emails to clients then you know, here's the copy and you make a spelling mistake in the email, it's very embarrassing. It doesn't bode well for the article. And it's always good to have. It's just like another pair of eyes on the article. It does spot things that you haven't read. You haven't spotted. And also some of the clients they're using it. So if you've repeated the word that 15 times, then it pops up. Sometimes the clients say this is word is too repetitive. There's no way that they would have noticed that because you didn't notice it. Obviously, they're using it. It's just as a safeguard, but I don't to use it to create the article it's just as a checking.
Bryan: So let's say I've started working as a copywriter, and I've got a couple of clients. But now all of the deadlines are coming at me at once, and I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed. Do you have any tips or suggestions for how to manage multiple projects at once?
Jack: Get up earlier.
Bryan: Yeah. Just work harder.
Jack: But also you have to do the copywriting before you open your first email of the day. The night before you have to set yourself up to succeed. You have to predetermine all your thoughts and actions. So the night before you've already made all the source material. You've had it digesting in there, you've had it fermenting in your cerebral space. So you can get up in the morning, and then you're going to start writing. You not opening emails doing something else. "Oh, I just got to reply to this guy quickly. Okay where's the brief. I've got to download it. That's taking three minutes to download that file. I'll just email this guy." You're just off down all these little avenues. You need to have a still space to write from. Set everything up, put your computer where it's going to be. Make sure your coffee cups there and it's refilled. Everything set up the night before and you get up really early in the morning and do your writing then. I've done I think by nine 'o clock. You look ready to have yourself fragmented in a world of emails.
Bryan: Yeah. And day to day work. That's similar to what I do. So when you look at businesses today and you see what's on their website, what kind of mistakes do you see businesses making who don't have a copywriter? When you read what's on their site.
Jack: Well, we work for clients in China, Eastern Europe, Taiwan, all around the world. So it's just a disaster. Just Google translate basically.
Bryan: In their actual messaging. Do you find that there's any things that people say when they don't have a copywriter? Like for example, they might use really long sentences.
Jack: Yeah, definitely. And as you say, they put the feature not the benefit. Which is basically if you had to sum up what a copywriter does over a normal writer is that you're pumping out the benefits, and you're putting yourself in the minds of the consumer or the end user. And you're pushing out why this will transform my life.
Bryan: And then to flip things around. Are there any companies or businesses that you think do copywriting really well today, or talk to customers really well with their copy?
Jack: The leader in all these new industries, like for example, MailChimp, it's a very visual website. You scrolling down with the panels and there's just one sentence and then scrolling up... There's a few cartoons it's very clean, it's one sentence and one sentence. The less copy and then they know it has to be even better. Because when you go onto a website it's everyone there explaining how good they are in paragraphs and paragraphs. People are on mobile phones. People are not going to read a novel about the wonders of your product or your company. When you're deciding which service to sign up for, you flip through all these websites. The winner is the one who has the simplest layout, the simplest presentation, the simplest messaging. They obviously have the best copywriter.
Bryan: Does design lead copy then, or does copy lead design?
Jack: I think design is much more important. The picture is much more important, the design, the layout. If you see this beautiful website with this space for three lines you can think up, then you know you have to come up with something very good. You know that here's the one, two, three, and you've only got this tiny bit of space. It takes you longer to write less.
Bryan: Can be harder to say more when you have less characters or you have a shorter word count. I find it's actually more challenging to write three sentences rather than three paragraphs.
Jack: Who was it? Who said, "I'm sorry, this letter is so long, but I didn't have time to make it shorter."
Bryan: Yeah. I think it was Ernest Hemingway or George Orwell. One of those writers. Great to talk to you today Jack, where can people find out more information about you or the Copywriter Collective.
Jack: Yeah. copywritercollective.com. You can check it out. As I said, I'm a musician and I'm still a musician and I'm recording a lot of music. So you can check my website jackstafford.org.
Bryan: Thank you Jack.
Jack: My pleasure. Thank you, Bryan.
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