What's A Copywriter, Anyway?

True story: A little over a year ago, I got a job as a copywriter without really knowing what a copywriter was. I knew I wanted to write for a living, and I knew that to be successful in the position would require creative determination. I knew that to get the job, and keep the job, I had to work hard, write well, and prove my worth as someone who has ideas worth contributing.

What I did not expect is how dynamic and fluid the world of advertising is, and how quickly an agency must adapt to advancing technology and new platforms. We have to solve a puzzle that is constantly rotating and changing shape: it’s no longer as simple as fitting the square peg in the square hole. It’s having to constantly rethink the whole box in which the message is traveling.

Luckily I love to write and love to learn, so digging into the world of copywriting without a lot of background has been more exciting than overwhelming. When I first started working at Swash Labs, I hadn’t seen Mad Men yet, so I wasn't even able to envision the antiquated idea of a Draper-esque tagline-swinging, gin-drinking, storyboarding ad-machine. Now when I tell people I am a copywriter, I like to think they imagine me being a super badass like Peggy:


But... that’s not quite it. Technology has advanced since then and so has advertising. The founder of the big British agency, Mother, said this of the profession: “It used to be that as a copywriter you mainly did TV spots and print ads and your job was to just get better and better at doing that. Now you have to keep learning entirely new things all the time.” Accurate.

Copywriter may have taken new meaning since the explosion of modern advertising in the 50s and 60s, but the essential elements are there. We still make work with the same purpose: Give people a reason to connect to something, and ask them to put that feeling into action.

Print Ad by George Lois for Olivetti, mid-1960s

Print Ad by George Lois for Olivetti, mid-1960s

Facebook Ad by Swash Labs for Denton Animal Support Foundation, 2015

Facebook Ad by Swash Labs for Denton Animal Support Foundation, 2015

In my exploration I only just recently stumbled across the story of Ogilvy, a famous copywriter, and the blind man. Excuse me if you’ve heard this one before:

Every day on his way to work, Ogilvy would pass a blind beggar. One day the beggar had a sign that read “I am blind. Please help.” Instead of giving the beggar money, the copywriter picked up his sign and added four words, so the sign now read:

"It is spring and I am blind. Please help."

People who walked by the beggar and read his sign now experienced a more perceptible empathy for the man. When Ogilvy passed the beggar later that day, the blind man’s cup was full of money. Behold, the power of words.

The driest definition of the term copywriter is one who writes text for advertisements and publicity materials. But it goes beyond that. Whether it is building a campaign for a nonprofit to help save lives, convincing someone to eat pizza for lunch or buy a certain kind of smartphone, or literally quarters jingling in the bottom of a beggar’s cup, copywriting, at its best, harnesses the ability to tell a captivating story that inspires change.

I love being a copywriter.