Reed Words on how they find a brand’s voice and craft the “world’s brightest words”
When asked how a writer works, creative director Mike Reed will admit that the traditional image of an isolated, thesaurus-clutching individual is sometimes close to the truth. But for him and the team at Reed Words, the brand writing agency he established in 2013, it’s often much more creative and collaborative than that. For the past three and a half years they’ve been dispelling misconceptions that copywriters simply “making stuff sound nice”. Turning out copy that’s both well crafted and clever, they’ve worked collaboratively with clients such as Argos, Deloitte and the National Theatre. As well as helping brands find the right voice, this team of seven are pretty vocal themselves – they’re often posting wise and witty posts on their blog and have recently started a new column all about brand writing for Computer Arts.
We write the world’s brightest words. That’s how we sum it up, and what we want to achieve. We think ‘brightest’ is a nice word because there’s essentially two sides to it: one captures the flair and brilliance of ideas, and the craft of the writing itself; producing effective, compelling words. The other is about the strategic depth of the writing.
We’re constantly battling against preconceptions of what copywriting means. A big part of our job is trying to expand that definition somewhat. A lot of people think of copywriting as basically making stuff sound nice on a fairly superficial level. Our view has always been that it can – and should be – something a lot deeper than that. We approach it as a strategy job in that we need to understand exactly what our client is trying to achieve, and what the background and context is for the work, and feed that into the writing itself. It’s a style-plus-substance message in the end.
“A lot of people think of copywriting as basically making stuff sound nice on a fairly superficial level.”
I’ve always believed that writing was worth a lot more than a lot of people thought, and I wanted to show just how valuable strong writing could be for brands, designers, and the whole industry. I could do a certain amount of that on my own as a freelancer but it got to a point where I felt there was an opportunity to do something a bit bigger.
I had more work than I could handle as a freelancer, so in September 2013 I hired one person just to see if we could make it work with two of us, and then take it from there. It’s moved a lot faster than I thought it would. We’ve gone from one, to two, to seven people. That change from being a writer doing your own projects to an actual company with its own vision and mission is a really big jump, so in that three-and-a-half year period we’ve done a lot of work on evolving our process.
The way we collaborate externally varies quite a lot. Sometimes we’ll work directly with a client or alongside a design or brand consultancy. Internally, we’ll assign a lead writer to a project who will have quite a bit of contact with the client, while Laura – our client services manager – will usually write proposals and manage the project itself.
I tend to oversee the project and make sure it’s meeting the brief and is as good as it can be. And our two senior writers often act as partners on other projects besides their own, and will be there to look over stuff that’s going through.
Copywriting tends to be something people do on their own, so clients often just hire an individual writer – which is fine. I did that for a long time. But a benefit of having a team like ours is that the work you get back tends to have been through at least two pretty experienced and skilled writers before you even see it. So you get a really strong level of thought, consideration and polish. We feel like the product that comes out the end of that is stronger for it.
The traditional idea of a writer sitting behind a laptop with a thesaurus next to them – that does happen, but it’s often much more ‘creative’ than that. There are definitely whole days where you sit with your headphones in, and other days where it’s much more lively and collaborative. A lot of work that we do involves ideas in a fairly broad way; it might be coming up with headlines, trying to capture an entire brand in a tagline, or nailing a voice in a few words.
That can be done on your own, but it’s also good with somebody else, talking it through and knocking it back and forth between you. For example, on a larger job there might be two or three of us sitting together and workshopping with Post-its on the wall. The work still revolves around words, obviously, but it’s not quite the image of a lone person hunched over a keyboard.
In the past year, we’ve rebranded the Roundhouse with Magpie Studio. That was a really lovely project to do because the words really got a chance to shine. Another highlight was working on the Argos brand with The Partners, and in particular on their own-brand range called Simple Value. We developed a sort of ‘sub-tone of voice’ for the range (and all their other own-brands), and a set of mini-guidelines, giving Argos the tools to take it further and write lots more. That was a real lovely project. We enjoyed it a lot, and it’s won quite a few awards, so good news all round!
There’s seven of us at the moment. In terms of a creative team, there’s myself, two senior writers, and two copywriters. With a small team, the structure is pretty ‘flat’, with myself and Wendy – our commercial director – leading the creative and client service teams respectively. Laura manages our client relationships and workflow, working out who’s best placed to take the lead on each project.
“At a certain point it doesn’t matter who the writer is and who the designer is. When you get above the job title, you’re all just creatives solving a problem.”
When recruiting, before anything else we look for really strong basic writing ability. That sounds obvious but it’s quite a rare talent – that ability to put together a compelling sentence. Beyond that, we look for people who are wide-ranging in their interests and are interested in what brands are up to. They’ll have a rich, creative curiosity about the world – they’re not simply looking at words on a page. As a small team, the chemistry and cultural fit are also important, and so far I think we’ve done really well in finding people that all gel together well. It’s very hard to know until you meet the person and you go, “Ah, yeah. He or she is going to be just right”.
One of the nicest things about the job is collaborating with other creators who are not writers. Often if we’re doing an ad campaign or some sort of identity project we’ll get the chance to sit down with the designers and art directors and work with them on coming up with ideas. At that point it doesn’t matter who the writer is and who the designer is. I might come up with a visual idea; they might come up with a brilliant headline. That’s the part of the process I really enjoy. When you get above the job title, you’re all just creatives solving a problem.
Once in a while we use freelancers, but it can be very hard to find decent freelance writers – and when you do they tend to be too busy, because if they’re any good they’re in a lot of demand. Unfortunately we don’t take on interns just because of our size, although we’d love to. We’re all very busy so the person wouldn’t get the attention that they needed. I also don’t agree with unpaid internships, and at the moment we wouldn’t be able to pay them.
We all seem to really enjoy being in London and this part of town because there’s just so much going on. There’s so much for creative people to enjoy, that’s really important for me and the team. In a way, the location is probably more important than the space, which is essentially an office in a shared service building. It’s a very simple space, but it’s a really nice building to be in.
There isn’t music playing in the office, but if you walk in you’ll quite often find three or four of us with headphones on, which some people find helps them focus and concentrate.
We really believe in training and investing in people. People have been on different courses; from creative and idea generation to content strategy. Laura’s done business development training. Whatever is relevant to the task and helps make us better at our jobs.
Self-initiated projects are something we’ve been talking since we started. There are lots of ideas knocking around but we haven’t been able to focus on getting anything off the ground yet. Our blog sort of stands in for those, and gives the team a chance to write their own stuff. We’re also starting to write more for the press; we have a new column in Computer Arts, which is a really interesting departure for us where we get to talk more about the kind of work we do.
Photography by Sophie Stafford
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
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