Stay curious and interested: Meet freelance copywriter Luke Leighfield
An English and music graduate, Luke Leighfield was a pop star in a past life, before he embarked on a career in copywriting – a job he didn’t even realise you could get paid for. He’s since worked in-house and freelance across the globe at agencies like AKQA and R/GA, writing for brands including Nike, Volvo, and children’s publisher Wonderbly. “I’ve done social, long copy, web copy, emails, scripts, campaigns,” he says. In addition, Luke runs a dizzying number of side projects. As part of creative trio Got Legs, he's funded his own running magazine through Kickstarter, is building an app to simplify donating to charity, and is even writing his own musical. Whether working at home or in-house at agencies, Luke shares lessons learned and reveals some of the benefits and realities of being a freelance creative in London.
Freelance Senior Copywriter
Current: Action Rocket, Bookchoice, Greenbelt Festival, Sideshow, U+I
Past: Nike, SoundCloud, UnitedMasters, Virgin Atlantic, Volvo
Self-employed since 2013
BA English and Music, University of Southampton (2005–2009)
How would you describe what you do?
I'm a freelance copywriter, among other things. I work with a range of clients – mostly agencies and startups, but also charities, a property developer and an arts festival. It's a pretty mixed bag. The work itself is also a mix. A typical week includes writing copy for a new website, emails newsletters, print brochures, social media – anything and everything.
What does a typical working day look like?
Some clients like me to come and work in their office, but most are happy for me to work from home – and that's what I prefer, too. I usually get up at 7:30, eat breakfast, drink tea, read something (Twitter on a bad day, a book on a good day) then answer some emails before starting work. Clients usually book me for a day at a time, so I'll spend that day on a particular project. I usually pop out for a run at some point, too.
What do you like about working in London?
I've found London to be a great place to work as a copywriter. There's tonnes of work about because there's so much going on here. And although you don't need to be local for a lot of copywriting work, most people still want to put a face to the name and know that you're close by in case they need you to pop in. Like I said, most of that work can be done remotely. But clients are often only comfortable with that once you've established an in-person relationship.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
When I was new to copywriting, I had to hustle for work a lot more – send lots of emails, ask friends, post about it on my social channels. Lately I've found that people are coming to me more often than I'm going to them, which makes life a lot easier. Usually it's because they've heard about me through a friend or colleague.
I think one of my big strengths is that I'm happy writing for lots of different things. I've done social, long copy, web copy, emails, scripts, campaigns. I've worked in a few different countries with all kinds of different people. I've worked at small charities and huge agencies. I've worked in-house and remotely. I've written about a lot of different subjects. And if there's something I don't know about, I'll read up on it and figure it out. Being curious and interested is helpful in the copywriting game.
“Copywriting is about stripping it back so that everyone can understand what you're trying to say.”
How collaborative is your work?
In the past, when I did more in-house work at agencies, it was pretty collaborative and I'd be working alongside a team of people. Nowadays, with freelancing, the work tends to be more solitary. I'll get a brief, do the work, then send it back a few days later. That said, there's always going to be feedback and minor amends, and I usually have to figure things out alongside other people.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I love the variety of work that comes with freelancing. Some clients and jobs aren't that fun, but I can suck it up if I'm only doing it for a day each week. In the past, if I found myself in a job or on a project that's a grind, but I'm there full-time, that can be pretty depressing.
Some people don't like working alone or from home, but I like both of those things. I've got some good friends who are freelancers and sometimes we'll catch up for breakfast or lunch, so that provides a bit of company. I also love having my own space that's set up exactly as I want it. I can have total silence if I want to or I can blast some Carly Rae Jepsen. There's no one around to complain. I also quite enjoy the administrative side of things – invoicing, accounting, and so on. I'm a bit of a nerd.
“Every time I do some work, I ask myself: Would I find this interesting? Would it hold my attention? Would I share it with my friends?”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I worked in-house at Wonderbly (previously Lost My Name) at the start of 2017 and wrote the copy for their new website. They make beautiful, ludicrously personalised children's books and their creative team was packed with talented, lovely people.
In terms of personal projects, I finished making a magazine about everyday runners last year called Run for Your Life. It was an 18-month-long labour of love. But I got to work with two of my best friends, Tom Price (photographer) and Matt Withers (designer) as part of our creative trio (Got Legs), and the project was a big success. We funded the magazine on Kickstarter and it's now stocked in shops around the world, and picking up some great press.
What skills are essential to your job?
Attention to detail – if I send over work with mistakes in it, I'm going to look like a right lemon.
Being friendly – people can always find another copywriter so it's important that I foster good relationships with the various people I'm working with.
Organisation – there are so many things to keep track of when you're freelancing. Hours worked, which clients you're working with on which days, invoices, receipts, expenses, endless email chains from different clients, multiple Slack channels. You get the picture.
Responsiveness – a lot of the time, freelance work comes through at the last minute and needs to be turned around quickly. So I've always got to keep half an eye on my emails.
Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
Always! I'm building an app called Everyday Giver, which makes it easier for people to give to charity, with two friends. I'm also writing a musical with a very funny person called Lily. Some friends and I recently started a new night for creative people to share their work in progress, called Unfinished Business. (The next one is on February 16th.) Tom, Matt and I are working on a follow-up to Run for Your Life. It may or may not be about running. And I'm always writing little bits of music.
“If there's something I don't know about, I'll read up on it and figure it out. Being curious and interested is helpful in the copywriting game.”
What tools do you use most for your work?
In terms of desk set-up, I have a cheap and cheerful standing desk from IKEA so that I can spend some of the day standing up.
In terms of apps, I use Astro for email. I also recently started using a tasty little app called Notion to do, well, everything. It has all my to-do lists, client work, everything. It's replaced Evernote and Trello in my life. And I also use Google Docs, which is a copywriter's best friend – great for collecting comments and feedback from clients, and keeping it all in one place.
In terms of analogue, I'm obsessed with Field Notes notebooks. I write in them with 0.5 Muji pens.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I guess I wanted to be a musician. And I was, for about ten years. But it's not great for paying the bills.
What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
My parents always encouraged me to read so I constantly had my nose in a book when I was growing up. Writing well is linked to reading, so that definitely helped to push me towards copywriting. Aside from that, my parents and siblings all have a good work ethic, which has helped with freelancing. There's a lot of hustling involved, and you have be able to weather some tough periods if the work dries up.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied music and English literature, so in some ways there's an obvious link. But I didn't really learn anything about copywriting from my degree. In some ways, the two types of writing are polar opposites – writing essays at university is about trying to sound smarter than you are and dress things up with lots of long words and jargon. Copywriting is about stripping it back so that everyone can understand what you're trying to say.
What were your first jobs?
Well, I worked as a pallbearer and undertaker for a few years. And I did stints at Wimpy and Costa Coffee. But in terms of copywriting, I started out in a pretty hacky way. I'd quit my job at SoundCloud in Berlin and decided I'd become a copywriter. So I posted about it on Facebook and Twitter, spread the word with friends, then crossed my fingers. Thankfully, some friends and friends of friends took a chance on me and hired me for small freelance projects. I spent a few weeks copywriting at a charity called Tearfund, and a few months working for Brand Perfect (a now-defunct offshoot of Monotype). Then I tripped into a couple of agencies. And, well, now I'm here.
“When I was new to copywriting, I had to hustle for work a lot more – send lots of emails, ask friends, post about it on my social channels.”
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Quitting my job at SoundCloud in 2014 was a necessary move. I wasn't happy in my role and knew I needed to try something new. The biggest help in my copywriting journey has definitely been my dear friend, Jean Edelstein. She was a copywriter at SoundCloud while I was working in the community team and was a real mentor to me there. I'd never met a copywriter before! She showed me that copywriting was a thing you could do and get paid for. I had no idea. And, once I took the plunge, she helped me make contact with various people and find some work. I implore you to pre-order her magnificent new book and sign up to her newsletter.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
I find I learn the most on personal projects, like Run for Your Life. When you're working on something with a small team of people, you have to pick up loads more skills. I'd never edited a magazine before. I'd never interviewed people. I'd never printed a magazine and distributed it to shops. That small project was a big learning curve, and a valuable one. It's helped me and the other guys make a lot of new connections and pick up new work, and we now have a really cool thing in our portfolios that we love to pieces.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
In some ways, copywriting changes all the time and you have to keep amassing new skills. New platforms emerge. Social media algorithms change, and you have to work out how to be seen. People's attention spans get shorter. We view things on smaller and smaller screens, and have to adapt our writing accordingly.
But in other ways, nothing changes. Writing is writing. You're trying to communicate a message in a clear way that makes people pay attention. Every time I do some work, I ask myself: Would I find this interesting? Would it hold my attention? Would I share it with my friends?
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Spending many years as a self-managed artist meant that I was always in total control. But when you start working at an agency, there are suddenly a lot more voices in the mix. Then you have to get the client to approve your work. I've done a lot of work that's ended up in the bin, and that can be pretty demoralising.
“I’ve done a lot of work that's ended up in the bin, and that can be pretty demoralising.”
Although working at agencies with big clients, ping pong tables and free lunches can seem really sexy, it can also be deeply unsatisfying when your precious work gets tossed aside. That's why side projects are really helpful – having a project of your own that you're in control of.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
It's far better. People pay me to write about things from the comfort of my home!
What would you like to do next?
In terms of copywriting work, I'd like to work with more clients that align with my interests. Right now, I spend a lot of time encouraging people to buy stuff they don't need when I'd prefer to be encouraging people to run, for example.
Could you do this job forever?
Copywriting's not the end goal for me. I like to have my hand in all parts of the creative process and manage the whole thing. But copywriting is a vital skill and one that I'm glad I have.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
A lot of people inside an organisation or agency progress to being a copy lead, then creative director. As a freelancer, the path's a little murkier.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a copywriter?
The obvious advice is to start out somewhere as a junior copywriter, do some good work, and slowly work your way up. But, conversely, I think a lot of agencies now are looking for people from diverse writing backgrounds. The creative director who brought me in at R/GA is a wonderful person called Emma Lightfoot. She found writers in all kinds of places – comedians, journalists, authors, failed musicians (me) – and put them to work on big brands. I think that breadth of experience leads to more interesting work.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Mention Luke Leighfield
Mention Got Legs
Mention Matt Withers
Mention Tom Price