Frequently Asked Questions about Advertising, Copywriting, Freelancing,
and Life in General
As you'll see below, many of the questions I get are from people wanting to get into the industry.
Don't take any of this too literally. The only hard-and-fast piece of advice is that in Advertising nothing is hard-and-fast. Just sometimes hard. And usually needed fast.
What's on this page (click or scroll down):
Your first job
Advertising seems like an interesting career and I would like to find out more about it.
Yes, it can be very interesting, because the Advertising business reaches and covers just about every part of our society. It also brings together interesting people with a wide range of skills. Whatever your interests and aptitudes, there are niches that might interest you. Some of those niches are very competitive, however.
The profession can be a little frustrating, too, because it's not art and not a science. You
can't prove something will work. Or sometimes even that it did. Advertising is just one part of
the "marketing mix" -- no matter how good the advertising, success in the marketplace is also at
the mercy of product quality, distribution, salesmanship, corporate image, the economy and a
dozen other factors.
What's the advertising business like?
Advertising attracts many talented people, and competition for the most visible jobs can be
pretty stiff. Fortunately, there is more than one "advertising business." For every "big"
glamorous agency or boutique there are hundreds of smaller outfits that simply get the job done
for their clients. Many of these shops are no less challenging than the big ones, and their
standards can be just as high. There are also advertising jobs in the media and in corporate ad
departments. In addition, there are many related industries (which you might even like better),
such as broadcast production, photography, printing, graphic design, Web development, etc.
What is copywriting?
Copywriting in advertising and related fields is the process of writing ads, brochures,
commercials, mail pieces, and such. That means sifting through the input information from the
client (and maybe from a research department, personal experience, and elsewhere), deciding
what's the important part of the message, developing a "concept" that communicates that message,
coming up with the headline (or, if you're lucky, writing a commercial), writing the body copy,
working together with an art director to come up with a synergistic combination of words and
visuals. The beginning copywriter will be doing more headline and body copy writing than the
more strategic stuff, but should be learning to grow into those responsibilities.
Above all, advertising copywriting is part of a business. It is only a cousin, at most, to more
"artistic" forms of writing like scriptwriting, poetry, novels, plays, magazine articles,
reporting and the like. Some of the same skills are used, but they are not the same thing.
What is the difference between copywriting for marketing communications and
copywriting for other fields (such as book copy)?
I specialize in "marketing communications" which is a specific field, separate from other forms
of communications in the marketplace. It includes advertising, sales promotion, direct mail, and
many Web sites -- in short, media where the marketer pays for the space and controls the message.
Often, all these are just lumped together as "Advertising." Public Relations is arguably a
"marketing" communication, but in the practical world they're separate and have their own
specialists. (Small ad agencies may do both, but sophisticated PR takes a specialist.) And then
there's Corporate Communication, Technical Writing, Book Publishing, Editorial copy, and so on.
Many of the same skills are involved, but they essentially different professions, with different
needs and viewpoints.
What does an advertising copywriter need to know?
To begin with, a little of everything. If you can write interestingly and with freshness and
insight in a related field, you can learn to apply that writing skill in a business
Where many copywriters (and art directors, etc.) are lacking is in the business aspect.
Pretty quickly it become apparent whether the copywriter really cares about selling. Your writing
needs to speak to the real needs and emotions of the people who buy what the agency's clients are
selling. That's true whether you're selling soap to the masses, or multimillion-dollar TV
transmitters to a small number of engineers. You need to know your market, and be able to talk
with them as if you were talking to them personally. It's still true that "advertising is
salesmanship in print."
Some of that you can learn in school. Some of it can't be taught anywhere.
To become a copywriter, what background do I need?
There's no one way. Journalism is good training. As a college major leading to a career on the copy side, arguably a Journ major is better than one purely in Advertising -- it's more flexible, the skills are enduring, and it teaches you to inquire.
Come summer, personal selling is a good skill to develop. Different people will find that
are best suited to them and the areas they plan to specialize in.
So to start, do what you find interesting. Just about anything that helps you understand people,
keeps your mind fresh,
and teaches you the arts and sciences of business. Good copywriters are curious and don't wear
blinders. But then you need to focus.
Knowing how to write helps, of course. But let me repeat one thing: while
the business of advertising can be fun, it's business, not art. If you want to
express yourself in song, screenwriting, or novels, you can still be a copywriter, but at an
agency keep them separate (plenty will still leach across, which can be great!).
Ultimately, the clients pay the bills. The goal is to
sell the clients' stuff. And, although there are many important things you know about
advertising that your client might not, you'll never know as much about your
clients' businesses as they do.
Part of your job is to draw that knowledge out of the client. And to distill that knowledge down
to a key point that speaks directly to the needs of their prospects, catalyzing a marketing
message that's more than the sum of its parts.
Are there advertising courses I should take to learn copywriting?
Don't just learn copywriting. Learn to think conceptually about an advertising message, and how to deliver it with freshness and relevance.
A college advertising or journalism curriculum might have courses like that. Or they might be
kind of unrealistic. Also check your local art school, etc. for evening courses taught by
WORKING ad creative pros. The sort of thing where they give an assignment (a product, a category,
a strategy, or etc), then you come back next time with an ad or campaign for it, and everybody
tears your work to pieces -- er, critiques it.
Body copy and technical skills, while nice, are not as important in this type of course as the
freshness and relevance of the overall idea, the visual concept and a well crafted headline.
You'll plateau out on what you learn after a few such courses. It's like just 10% of a real ad
job, but it's the most important part, good practice, gives you presentation experience, toughens
your hide, boosts your confidence, and can help build your portfolio. It may also make lead to
some industry contacts.
Whether you get good reviews or not, remember that it's a professional opinion, but just an
opinion. Same goes for any particular work method taught in a particular course. There's more
than one way to think up stuff.
For school, I am comparing and contrasting different models of the process of
effective advertising such as AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) or KISS (Keep It Simple
Stupid) or R.O.I. (Relevance, Originality, Impact). Do you have any ideas or comments on this
How about WheW! (WHatEverWorks!). Really, all those things are important in EVERY ad, but while
such models have a role in training and research, they can also lead to formulaic creative.
Here's another work method. I once had a teacher who advocated the equivalent of method acting
"become" your prospective customer and think up a scenario where you'd use the
product. It might work for you. Understanding your customer's viewpoint is always important. But
an elaborate storyline process could also distract you. There are other ways to develop
concepts, headlines and storylines.
You'll develop your own feel for what creative methods work. Follow up and maybe you'll also find
out if your ads worked, too. That's the ultimate model for effective advertising.
I'm just out of school, am very creative and I like to write. How do I get
started as a freelance copywriter?
Don't. Potential freelance clients don't have the time or budget to underwrite your professional
That used to be my blanket advice. Lately, though, copywriting has become the new work-at-home cottage industry, and some respected gurus have taken to encouraging it. I'm sure there must be many novices who go straight to freelance work, picking up some, maybe even a lot of it, by virtue of their having knowledge in a particular field, or by being able at least to write better than many small firms do by themselves. If you're able to get a foothold, congratulations. Learn all you can about your craft and your clients' marketplaces.
Nevertheless, if you're serious about becoming a professional copywriter, there's a limit to what you can learn that way.
I still recommend you seek a job in an agency or ad department where you can do good work or learn from people who do,
even if it's only an internship or a part-time job. You will learn and accomplish MUCH more at
your level when you're part of a complete, ongoing team. And it may open many more options to you in the long run.
Do you use interns or know someone who does?
Sorry, no internships here. In fact, no other employees. And any of my clients who hire interns
do it without involving me.
What should I look for in my first copywriting job?
Try to find a position that offers:
a little variety in the types of clients, products and work assignments over the course of the year (if not at the same time),
some view of the other aspects of the business (sometimes a smaller company is therefore preferable to a huge one, unless you are inherently tactful and good at networking after hours),
a boss who has confidence in you, and co-workers who enjoy their work (you'll learn more, faster, and positive attitudes are contagious)
The goal is to be doing some "conceptual" work soon, not just be pegged as a journeyman
copywriter. But as in any business most people have to begin with the basics, and in the long run
it's worth knowing them well.
Traditionally, one of the best training grounds has been in something like department-store
retail advertising -- where you write every day, the products vary, and you know quickly how well
it worked. But anything from that to Web work can have good points. Even pennysavers, newspapers
and local radio or TV are places to learn basic skills.
It can be fun to work at a WKRP* (or the print equivalent) for awhile, and might lead in even more
interesting directions. Knowledge of production tools and techniques can also be helpful, but
agencies have people who specialize in that. Also note that most creative directors feel that a
good print copywriter can learn to write TV commercials more easily than a TV writer can
learn to write for print. (*"WKRP" was a TV series about a small, oddball radio station.)
To get a copywriting job, I need experience, and to get experience I need a job. How do I get past this Catch-22?
The trick to copywriting isn't so much in the writing as in the thought process, and being
inventive in a way that solves problems for both the marketer and the consumer (which could be a
business consumer, of course). The actual writing, that you could learn in anything from a business to a literature curriculum. Even a film course could be good training.
You'll learn the fine points of copywriting on-the-job
How do I land my first copywriting job?
You don't necessarily need previous job experience, but you will need a portfolio of your work,
even if it's speculative work.
Your "comp" ads needs to look presentable, but that doesn't mean "finished." Above all, show
fresh, original ideas and intelligent thinking. If you decide you want to be in account work,
or research, or some other part of advertising outside the Creative Department, you'll probably need
more specialized knowledge.
You might already have it, depending on what you've been doing so far. Or, you might need to take
a course or work in a peripheral area as part of your game plan.
What should I put in my portfolio, and how do I present it?
That would take a book to tell you. Fortunately, someone has already written it.
There are also a couple other good books specifically on jobfinding in the advertising industry,
not limited to creative. Worth a look at your library or local bookstore, at least. Meanwhile,
here are some basics.
The key thing is that it should be your best stuff, 10-15 ads at most, and it should show
your thinking -- if your speculative comps look like finished ads, that's fine
(computer comps are the norm), but better to
have a bunch of great copy concepts featuring stick figures and well-crafted headlines than
mediocre me-too stuff that looks produced. That's especially true if you're a copywriter, but its
probably also true if you're aiming to be an art director. (Agencies are going to want an A.D. to
be graphics-software literate, but they also value the ability to draw, and above all the ability
Be yourself. Heed any advice you get regarding your portfolio, and play with it, but don't let it
make you do something you don't believe in. Over time, other equally qualified people might give
you conflicting advice. You should decide who to listen to, understand why, and go with what
works for you or what sold bazillions for the client.
To paraphrase what a creative director told me early on (this was after a rare copywriting test),
"Your copy shows that you don't know much about the industry you're writing about, and the
headline concept is one of the industry's oldest, but we wanted to meet you because you've done
some other interesting things in the ad despite -- or maybe because of -- your limited knowledge
of the field."
How important are typos and grammatical errors in the letters I send?
Before and after the Big Idea stage of an ad or campaign, there are lots of details to be worked
out. Juniors are often assigned to handle those details. If you were an employer seeking
someone to be trusted with details, what would you (not) want to see in a letter?
What do you like best about freelance copywriting? What do you like least?
Best Part: The variety. It's interesting to be involved in a wide variety of subjects and markets, each with a different need, and being able to apply the lessons learned in other areas.
Worst Part: The variety. Advertising is only part of developing and marketing a product, so you don't always get the Big Picture. That's even more the case in freelancing -- I'm often involved in a project only as long as necessary. That can be frustrating. On the other hand, it's often much easier to see what's happening when you're on the outside looking in.
I already have strong copywriting experience, and am planning to freelance. Any pointers?
Don't quit your bread-and-rent job until you have real clients lined up for your new one. If you
can ease into it without jeopardizing the quality of your fulltime work, consider that. You'll
soon find, though, that there are practical differences between freelancing and moonlighting.
Remember that clients aren't looking for poetry, plays, jokes or cartoons. They want to meet the
needs of their customers, sell their product and make money. So should you. You can't sell your
own stuff and make money unless you can give a potential client confidence that you will meet
I'm starting to freelance. How much should I charge a client?
There are many ways to calculate rates. The amount varies by market, the type of work, quality
of input and project planning, and other factors, so I won't get into specifics. Some work is
best done by the hour, some by the project, some with a cap on the hourly total. Don't work by
the paragraph, page or word unless it's production-line catalog copy, or an article needing little research
Of course, your charges need to exceed your expenses. Most newbies underestimate the expenses,
- Medical insurance (and time to comparison-shop
- Self-employment tax
- Office space and equipment (computer, software, printer, fax machine, copier, file space, etc. )
- Office supplies and subscriptions. (Thankfully, supplies can be relatively few for a copywriter.)
- Replacement and repair of the above
- Self-promotion expenses (website, mailings, your brochure, entry fees, dues, advertising, etc.)
- You should also consider insurance for business items possibly not covered by your homeowners or renter's policy, other insurance, tax-preparation services, increased phone usage, and other expenses.
Furthermore, you can't just take your required income, add your annualized expenses, and divide by 52 weeks! Also consider the following time, generally not billable:
- At least 2 weeks vacation (the planned kind)
- 10-12 paid holidays per year (Surprised? Count 'em.)
- Sick days (or, at least,
days when you aren't feeling up to your usual efficiency)
- Non-billable administrative time (billing, some cancelled meetings, correspondence, routine filing, etc.)
- Time for self promotion (development of the things mentioned above, plus new business prospecting, pitches, etc.)
- A little slack, so you won't have to turn away rush work for good clients (if not needed, you can
use some of this for self promotion, etc.)
- Time to learn new software and upgrades
- Computer system administration (or do you have one of those computers that
never gets messed up?)
- Slow periods (e.g. the week between Christmas and New Years', Thanksgiving week
. . .although if you plan ahead, you might be able to fill these with some of the above)
- An occasional favor
- The period after a major project -- if it kept you too busy to do the
and "keep in touch" phoning that should be part of your routine, you might find
yourself without another assignment ready to jump into.
- Time for trade shows, networking, reading, and other professional improvement
So if you charge, say $50 an hour, and work every day of the year except vacation and holidays, and have an average of 3 billable days per week (the rest of the week tending to tasks like those listed above, or waiting for the phone to ring), let's see ... $50 x 7 hrs x 3 days x 48 weeks = $50,400 before taxes. That's about what it costs for an individual to live in a major U.S. city, so you're barely breaking even, with little to put away for retirement, your kids' college, etc.
Of course, some companies have a steady stream of work for an independent contractor on a part-time basis. If you have a few clients like those, then you can put in more billable hours and might do well. On the other hand, if you're reading this page, you're probably not at that point yet ... and not everybody gets there. Still wanna freelance?
Unfortunately, all that stuff is your problem, not your clients'. But you'll find that good clients realize all this better than many freelancers do, and are willing to pay appropriately for good work. Some wise person once wrote: "Nobody treats you like a business if you don't."
I've got some great ideas for ads (or commercials) for a certain product. How do I sell them to the manufacturers?
As you might guess, there are a LOT of people who think they have saleable ideas for commercials and ads. Some actually do. Probably the same ideas as you. (You've heard the phrase "great minds think alike"?)
But virtually none of those people know as much as the advertiser does about the product, what has been done before, what has been already tested and rejected, what the competitive picture is, etc.
So, no offense, but that means for every good, on-target idea, advertisers would get many, many more suggestions from people whose ideas aren't useful. And companies expose themselves to potential legal hassles if they even look at unsolicited ideas, good or bad.
That doesn't mean you can't write and ask. But ask first. Comment on their product or their advertising if relevant, but do not send your idea (even if you would give it to them free). And regardless, realize that if they do something similar someday, it probably originated along an entirely different route.
The person you would contact is probably the Marketing Communications Director, Product Manager, or Brand Manager. Look up the exact name and address in the Standard Directory of Advertisers red book at your library. You might be referred to their advertising agency, and all the same cautions apply.
If you truly think you have a steady stream of great new ideas, consider going to work for an ad agency, fulltime or part time. And see if you're right.
I'm writing a book (poems, songs, whatever). What are procedures for obtaining copyright protection?
Sorry, can't help you. What you're asking about is "copyrighting," not "copywriting." Please note the difference in spelling. I do the latter.
(For specific advice and information, be sure the source of your information is current. Remember
that any site on the Worldwide Web might contain information that is out of date. And if you feel
you need to contact a legal professional, choose one who is qualified to practice in copyright
I'd be interested to know how you got started.
Started as a suburban New York City radio copywriter. Learned a lot about honing my words, things like production, comic
timing, writing to length, and pitching an ad idea to the client, but darn little about actually
selling the product or how an ad agency functions. If you want hard-core advertising work but are
starting in a left field area (e.g. newspaper, pennysaver, TV station), work meanwhile to make
contacts in the mainstream ad agency business, and consider moving on before your experience
begins to plateau.
Has your Web site brought you business?
A site can be worthwhile. It enlarges your reach, but is not magic. Mine is much larger than necessary, having grown gradually since early '96. It began as a learning experience. I guess it also showed I intended to stay around as a freelancer. And have.