What is the role in modern business for the traditional advertising copywriter?

Much as we’re talking about business writers, bloggers, content writers etc., etc. at the moment you really can’t deny the key role that the copywriter – advertising writer – has played and is still playing in the business communication industry.

What is the role in modern business for the traditional advertising copywriter?

This is one of the most famous press ads ever, written by the late David Ogilvy who was a legendary copywriter. The headline goes straight to the potential buyer’s “what’s in it for me” in a subtle yet powerful way. Needless to say it sold a lot of Rolls Royces.

Like it or not, advertising is where the big bucks are and although the whole ethos has become much more touchy-feely these days with native advertising, inbound marketing, blah, blah, one rather shrill reality has emerged.

More than ever before, with current media options copywriters are still crucial to businesses that need to use written communications to sell. Why? Because they (we!) know how to adapt our work to suit clients’ requirements a lot faster than a chameleon can change its colours.

Where this genre came from in the UK

After my start in the writing business having done a journalism apprenticeship on a local newspaper in the UK – back in those dark ages there weren’t any degree courses you could take in that specialisation – I decided to hone my writing skills a bit more and apply for a course in Advertising Writing and Visual Communications at what at the time was a well known art school in the south of England.

Despite tremendous competition from around 600 applicants for this course which only took 20 students, max, I got in by the seat of my pants.

What is the role in modern business for the traditional advertising copywriter?

The late James Robertson Justice

The Senior Lecturer on the course was an absolute carbon copy of the late, great comedy actor James Robertson Justice, who in the legendary “Carry On” movies portrayed a loud, grumpy, bullying senior figure who shouted a lot and although feared, made quite a lot of sense.

This guy’s name was Bill Galley and I loved him to bits, especially as after I had graduated he became a best friend and mentor for me for many years until he passed away, aged about 90, much to thousands of his followers’ grief.

Get this, copywriters – it’s advice that still works today

Bill was mainstream mid-20th century Madison Avenue. He had cut his teeth in advertising agencies there as a youngster in the 1950s and 60s. David Ogilvy was a personal friend of his. And true to form from that era, Bill didn’t screw around with his words.

On my first or second day at the college Bill glared at us over his bushy beard and boomed, “if any of you guys has a personal writing style, you can leave the room now.”

After we had all picked our lower jaws up off the floor he explained that good copywriters don’t use fixed styles of their own. They need sufficient verbal agility to select or devise and use an appropriate style for the project in hand, the message to be conveyed, the audience concerned, the media used, and the commissioning organisation paying for it. (That meant whether it’s a commercial enterprise, a charity, a publication, or anything else.)

And we have to make it work, sometimes in tough circumstances

A tall order? Perhaps. But then copywriters, if we’re good, do get quite well compensated for our ability to be verbal chameleons.

And we earn it. Even before the days of online communications which blasted open the range of media, or at least genres of communication businesses use, we copywriters were acutely aware of the need to match messages to audiences to media … stir, taste, rinse and repeat.

Is a good copywriter just a commercially minded ghostwriter?

Hmmm. Probably, yes. And that takes some doing.

In these circumstances you – as a copywriter – are not just pretending to be your client’s company, product or service; you’re being the voice that gets through to your client’s customers and prospects and gets them clicking or picking up their phones.

A big challenge – but one we have been trained to handle well, and one which those of us with skill and experience perform to perfection. (Well, nearly always.)

I compare good copywriters with good actors.

Good practitioners from either group don’t just pretend to identify with what is needed; they immerse themselves into the “role” (be it theatrical or commercial) and produce a result that is realistic, targeted and utterly believable.

What do you think?

Are copywriters merely sales people in writing?

Or do we have an infinitely more sophisticated role to play in marketing in the 21st century?

Please share your views.








  1. I love your comparison of good copywriters and good actors. I agree. My nephew (in his mid 20s now) got a job with a well known international ad company. He has lots of creative talent in everything (music, computers, film, and photography) so could have gone into any of them. He chose advertising. That shows me that advertising is STILL very important and copywriters are NOT “merely sales people in writing”!

  2. It’s probably just that combination of talents that got him the job in advertising, Trudy – they are all needed in the ad industry and if they are combined into one person, all the better.


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