Sam Russell, copywriter at Reed Words, discusses finding his calling
After starting out as an account management grad at ad agency JWT, Sam Russell realised copywriting was his calling. He now plies his pen at brand writing agency Reed Words on everything from headlines to websites. Here, he tells us why an English degree isn’t always essential for the role – and how copywriters spend as much time talking about words as writing them.
Writer, Reed Words (July 2016–present)
Copywriter, Bladonmore (2014–2016)
Account manager, J Walter Thompson (2012–2014)
BA English Language & Literature, University of Oxford (2006–2009)
How would you describe your job?
I’m lucky enough to work on lots of different kinds of copywriting. Traditional stuff, like ad headlines and websites, and more strategic projects, like naming a new brand or figuring out what kind of voice it should speak in. It’s a fun mix.
What does a typical working day look like?
Coming up with stuff is hard. Even harder when you’re knackered and your brain’s gone to mush. Which makes it odd that large parts of the creative industry seem to encourage an all-hours culture.
Again, I’m lucky to work for an agency where a 40-hour week is the norm, not the exception. Occasionally I’ll spend all of my time on one project, but most weeks I’m split across a handful of different jobs.
How did you land your current job?
To start with, a bit of luck. I spotted the right tweet at the right time, submitted a few concept pieces alongside my portfolio, and then went in for two interviews.
“Coming up with stuff is hard when you’re knackered and your brain’s gone to mush. Which makes it odd that large parts of the creative industry seem to encourage an all-hours culture.”
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I normally work in our Soho studio. But occasionally we’re asked to work on a project with a partner branding agency, which means working from their office, with their creative directors and designers. It’s a good way to see how different agencies and creative teams work.
How collaborative is your role?
It’s remarkable how much difference a pair of fresh eyes can make to your work. I tend to start projects by myself, before partnering with someone else on the team to develop and refine the work.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I worked with UCL on its Global Citizenship Programme, a summer school for students to explore global challenges like climate change and infectious diseases.
I liked this job because I was involved from start to finish. As a copywriter, you’re sometimes brought in towards the middle or end of a project, after the strategy has been decided. But on this one, I ran workshops with UCL students, worked with the client to find new ways of talking about the programme, and then got on with the more traditional job of restructuring and rewriting the website.
What skills are essential to your job?
Copywriters probably spend just as much time talking about words as writing them. Being able to explain (and occasionally defend) your approach is pretty useful.
How I Got Here
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
An English degree can be useful preparation for a job in which you spend all your time with words. But it’s far from essential. And to start off with, I think it might be a hindrance.
In academic writing, you’re usually speaking to a small, expert audience. But in copywriting, you’re more often writing for a huge audience, who might not know anything about washing powder, start-up finance or renewable energy. Making that switch – and losing the wordiness that academia sometimes encourages – can take a little while.
What were your first jobs?
My first job was as a junior account manager on the JWT grad scheme. I realised early on that account management wasn’t for me, and started to look for ways to move into copywriting.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
While I was at JWT I started writing social media calendars and customer newsletters. Working on these – and not totally screwing them up – gave me the confidence to become a copywriter full-time.
“Copywriters probably spend just as much time talking about words as writing them. Being able to explain (and occasionally defend) your approach is pretty useful.”
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
My final project as an account manager was really useful. It was a huge, international rebrand campaign, involving a whole roster of different agencies. I didn’t work on the copy, but the experience made me realise how important the right words can be bringing everything together.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Getting rid of all that long-windedness (using fewer words).
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I probably underestimated how much can go into finding the best expression of an idea. It can take a lot of wrong turns before you end up at the right line.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Designers get all the interesting toys. Copywriters make do with pencils, paper, post-it notes – and the occasional sneaky glance at thesaurus.com. It can be a really useful way to ameliorate your copy.
“I probably underestimated how much can go into finding the best expression of an idea. It can take a lot of wrong turns before you end up at the right line.”
What would you like to do next?
It feels like there’s more demand for copywriting than ever before, so the moment, I’d just like to work on as many different kinds of project as possible.
Could you do this job forever?
Sure, I don’t see why not. It’s fun.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a writer?
Pay attention to how your words look on the page. That might sound really obvious, but I’m always surprised how much better people respond to words that look nice.
Besides, putting your headlines or brand names into long lists can make your work look like it’s the product of a vending machine, ready and waiting to churn out some more. By giving each option room to breathe, you’ll hopefully encourage more considered and thoughtful feedback.
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on Reed Words.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Photography by Sophie Stafford
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