Okay, I’ll admit I’m biased on this one, but in my continuing digestion of David Ogilvy’s book on advertising, I found this passage and, well, it holds more value today than ever. Despite having been published in 1983:

Let’s break down what made up a “potentially successful” (gotta love how he hedges this) copywriter in 1983 and see how that applies to 2018:

Obsessive curiosity

A writer of any discipline is first and foremost a collector. They read. They observe. They organize and file. They indulge their own natural sense of curiosity to obsessive levels. “Potentially successful copywriters” need this sort of latitude. In the era of content mills and “we need to post this now” you run the risk of sacrificing that unseen connective tissue which binds great ideas to in-depth understanding. You, as both a copywriter and an agency that employs them, need to strike a balance between time spent cultivating this curiosity and deadlines.

Does your copywriter know – and more importantly express a DESIRE to know – everything about your client? their product? their competitors? their KPIs? If not, find out why they don’t possess this quality and see what you, as an agency, can do to fix that, or else find yourself a new copywriter. Do you avail them of the materials they need? Do you provide them with the time to research everything they can about a given client?

Does your copywriter express an interest in the client as individuals? Do they engage with them on calls? Do they ask questions? Do they try to learn as much as they can about the client’s target audience? Can they speak to them? Can they walk you through a persona or journey map? If your copywriter can’t talk about a client’s target customer, how on earth can they write effective copy to speak to them? As an agency, are you availing your copywriters to this level of access, and the toolsets they need, to write informed, 1:1 copy?

Finally, advertising. I admit that I, until recently, haven’t spent as much time as I should on this. I’ve either been too absorbed/busy at the project-level or too indifferent to the never-ending torrent of information out there about writing in the marketing space. I had focused my research efforts on things that would more directly impact a specific client versus what I do from an agency POV. Fortunately, I’ve 1) changed my ways and 2) work with an organization that values such efforts to the point of making it a specific task for when we log our time.  If your copywriter is indifferent to the latest in marketing, encourage them to take a 2nd look.  They’ll find that while the basic rules still apply, the never-ending stream of new martech affords interesting opportunities for building that bridge from intent to conversion. Viewing the latest in advertising can jump-start your own ideas. By viewing/reading one thing, you can now see a clear and meaningful way to build that bridge you’re currently having trouble with. Read the weekly websites, keep up with the awards, read the case studies and the latest tech. Read ads.

A sense of humor

Ogilvy doesn’t put a lot of faith in humor-based advertising. He recognizes its value and admits that, when done right, it can be a powerful thing.  So why is a sense of humor the #2 item on his list for “potentially successful copywriters”?

Don’t be a prima donna about your copy. Writers are, historically, rather introverted, private creatures. To that end, they tend to look upon collaborative endeavors as painful versus profitable. But having a sense of humor runs parallel to having a sense of humility. If someone from accounts rips your copy to pieces, a sense of humor will help you in that particular facet of your working relationship. If a client goes off on you, having a sense of humor can keep you from taking it personally. Finally, a sense of humor is what allows a writer to be good at the act of humor, i.e. telling a joke. We could spend months discussing the merits of being able to write comedy and all that entails, such as timing, audience awareness, knowing how things sound versus how they read, establishing guardrails of taste (again, knowing your audience) and the ability to weave a narrative at an almost subconscious level… All of these things serve a copywriter well. If your copywriter doesn’t have a sense of humor, or worse, has lost it – you might want to investigate.

A habit of hard work

If you have no respect for deadlines, then you have no respect for anyone you work with and for. Period. Note that I’m not saying that if you MISS a deadline, you have no respect for anyone – things happen. But 100% of copywriters know a) when and b) why they’re going to miss a deadline long before that happens. So when the deadline comes and all you can do is shrug your shoulders (I’ve witnessed this with freelancers before), you prove that you have no respect for the client, nor for the rest of the team that has either worked hard setting you up with your copywriting task (think accounts) nor the people downstream who require your copy to complete their own tasks (think development). But “a habit of hard work” is directly proportionate to the amount of respect you have for yourself, your client, and your company.

Are you satisfied with a first draft? If so, why? Is your quick acceptance simply a function of time? Do you feel the same about that copy after a night to “sleep on it”? A “habit of hard work” denotes a consistency of effort, a state of constant improvement. As a copywriter, one of the worst things you can do is become lazy or indifferent. You’ll take shortcuts. You’ll mail it in. Your ideas will have no shine. Your voice will be weak. You’ll find yourself without clients, without a job. As a favorite author of mine once said: “Will trumps talent.” Keep at it. Write every day, no matter what.

If you feel that you, as a copywriter, are lacking in any of those areas, you may need to reassess your current environment. And agencies, if your copywriter suddenly displays a lackadaisical attitude towards their work, you’d better address that before it takes root. Are you keeping too tight of a leash on them? Too loose?

The ability to write interesting prose for print

Ah, the hook. Print media may have changed in terms of format and constraint, but the written word is still the written word, be it a combination of ink and dead trees or code and LEDs. The messaging – and the art of it – is still 100% the same. However, given the rapidity of delivery, the sheer volume of published advertising thanks to digital platforms, and the influx of consumers of your messaging in part to an ever more connected society, the need for “interesting prose” is of a higher value than ever before. If Google only gives you 80 characters to work with, you need to be REALLY interesting in those 80 characters. If people get served 5,000 ads in a given day, how important is it that your messaging stands out? A word of caution: don’t resort to tricks that offer little more payoff than a rug-pull. You’ll only get one shot, and most of the time that shot misses. Be inventive without being deceitful, be personable without being fake, elevate interest that has a very real, demonstrable payoff.

The ability to write natural dialogue for television

We can, of course, substitute the word “television” for video now. We can further break that medium down by VOD platforms, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc… And yes, even (still) good old-fashioned broadcast television. Natural dialogue is one of those components of a well-written message that you don’t think about until it isn’t there. Natural dialogue supports the messaging and the brand’s intent. Unnatural dialogue derails the reader/viewer and forces them to focus on the oddity of the messaging, you shut down their “right brain” and their “left brain” takes over trying to solve the problem of this awkward messaging – a problem that shouldn’t be there.  When you’re writing scripts for video, you’d better be reading them back out loud. Ideally, you’ll have people who’ve had nothing to do with the writing of the scripts reading them out loud. You’ll catch the unnatural sections immediately. If you don’t read them back, if you don’t vet your dialogue, then it’s up to your clients, or worse, their customers, to let you know how bad your messaging is.

The ability to think visually

But I only traffic in words! No, you don’t. Even when you’re writing a simple yet succinct ETA, completely devoid of pictures or video – you need to be writing visually. Are your words creating a visual in the reader’s mind? Are you describing a product in a visual way? Are you illustrating a problem that your client’s product/service will solve? If you write something and ask someone to describe what they see in their mind when they hear/read your messaging, will it match your intent? If not, rewrite.


To write the best ad. Not YOUR best ad. THE best ad. In addition to your own ability, there will be factors outside of your control that will make this task difficult. You’ll need the right client, one who isn’t afraid of a little A/B testing, who trusts your abilities, and is willing to listen to your pitches, no matter how wild they may be. You’ll need the right agency, one who isn’t afraid of a little A/B testing, who trusts your abilities, and is willing to listen to your pitches, no matter how wild they may be. 🙂 You’ll have to earn this amount of trust and latitude. And you can’t always earn this based solely on what was greenlighted. Every writer has work they’re proud of, work they know could work, only it wasn’t meant for client X, at Y point in time, for Z market. Does that failure to meet these standards render your work “wrong” or “useless”? Not at all. Remember that writers are collectors. I’ve personally used pieces of writing that one client passed on, to the pleasure – and success of another. If there is no ambition to constantly improve, which is balanced by trust and faith in your own ability, you’ll soon grow to hate what you do and view it as a “job”.

As an agency, always encourage your copywriters to swing for the fences. You never know when an idea is ahead of its time and will prove to be perfectly suited to another client, for another point in time, to another audience. Push your writers – in a good way – to delve into their creative reserves. If 1) you constantly take whatever they give you as the gold-standard, or 2) constantly rework their messaging because of personal taste, office politics, or the need to “be involved in the process” – where is the copywriter’s ambition going to come from? Where is their motivation to go beyond just submitting that which will draw the least amount of attention?

Copywriters: never delete, just rename. Keep your stuff, go back over it from time to time. Re-read your notes. Constantly assess your client’s place in the market, the status of their audiences, new tech that could make one message work or another fail (an opportunity!) and you will keep that ambition alive.

Oh, and if you haven’t, read this book!