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September 24, 2013Where do all the old copywriters go?

“Do I actually help anyone?” It’s a question I’ve been asking for a while. Of course there’s several ways to look at it. “I help connect brands with their customers”.

Well, it’s not really helping people, is it?

“I help people find low, low prices on products they want”.

Yeah, it’s not really open heart surgery, is it?

OK, OK, I’m being glib. A sales assistant in a shop helps people make a purchase. A plumber helps people when their washing machine breaks down or when their boiler springs a leak. These are all vital, necessary services.

And I do help people sometimes, too. As a freelancer, I used to do copywriting work for charities — although I’ve turned charity work down because I felt bad charging for it — then there was that time I did some for free, and I felt bad because I was short on my rent that month. So I stopped taking on charity work.

I know plenty of people who’ve left the advertising industry behind and gone on to do related jobs in the third sector and, while they don’t earn as much, they find their lives more fulfilling. I know plenty more people who’ve quit to teach, or simply quit to pursue less altruistic dreams of being singer-songwriters, or just working in cafes because somehow they find selling one beverage at a time less disagreeable than sitting at a desk, selling products by the thousand with carefully written words.

Does it take a certain type of person to be a copywriter?

I was approached a while back by a company representing big tobacco. And while I thought long and hard about the job, I decided to say no. I’m an ex-smoker myself and I have family members who died of lung cancer.

But really, is it any different to any other product that I might sell?

If you start looking at it a certain way. Cars kill by causing pollution. Should I also turn down selling cars?

I’m quite happy to sell alcohol, despite knowing people whose lives have been ruined by alcoholism. So what made cigarettes different? Was it because I was an ex-smoker myself? Or was it because I don’t see having a drink or owning a car in the same category?

Or did I have a conscience after all?

There are very few old people in advertising. There are the few at the top, the rich, successful ones. But by and large, the junior and mid-level roles are taken up by people in their twenties and thirties respectively.

Where do all the old copywriters go?

Why don’t you see any fifty year old copywriters working in agencies? Do they burn out? Do they get a conscience? Or is it a young man’s game?

I got into copywriting in my twenties because it seemed like a good, easy way to earn money. I was failing to earn a living as a journalist and here was a way I could apply my writing skills in an environment that actually paid, rather than internship after internship and stray days gigging for magazines no-one would ever read.

And six years later, here I am.

But I never intended to become a copywriter. And I wonder if anyone does. Sure, maybe a few people will watch Mad Men and say “yeah, I’d like to go into advertising, that looks like fun”. But by and large I think it’s a job people simply fall into — and perhaps that’s why sooner or later people fall out of it.

Because, like being a plumber or a sales assistant, to most people it’s simply a job, not a calling.

Fans of the movie Office Space will be familiar with the “million dollar” question — if you had a million dollars, what would you do? I mean, what would you really do, after you bought the things you wanted… and you had nothing to do… you could do anything. And the answer to that question is what you’re really meant to be doing. For some people it might be setting up a cat cafe, for others it might be digging wells and building schools in Africa, for still more people it might be sitting at home and watching TV. But I’d be very surprised if anyone answered “if I didn’t have to work and I could do anything in the world, I’d be a copywriter”.

Why is that?

Is it an unfulfilling job?

Is it because we’re not really “helping” people?

Do we get tired of the amount of work that’s not writing — the clients, the meetings, the briefs, the planners, the endless rounds of amends to please a dozen different stakeholders — and give up?

Or is it because we’re inherently “creative” people who’d rather be doing something else with our creative skills? Are all copywriters secret artists or writers or poets or musicians? Or do they just yearn to be baristas and plumbers?

Will I still be a copywriter when I’m 40? I enjoy my work and I can’t imagine what else I’d do — but I look around me and don’t see many people still working in this industry in their late 30s.

In short, why am I still here when so many others have moved on? And where will I be when I’m old?

 

I don’t know. But I do know this — if I could figure out where all the old copywriters go — or what would make them stay — our jobs could be much more fulfilling.

We’d probably be less obsessed with chasing the youth market, too.

If everybody leaves the industry young, who writes for all the old people?

Are you a copywriter? How old are you?

Where do you see yourself in a decade’s time?

Most importantly of all, what keeps you motivated? For me, it’s the ability to do something I love — play with words. And get paid for it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 24th, 2013 at 10:41 am and is filed under Advertising, Blog, Copywriting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 comments

  1. Kate Toon says:

    Great post and a question I’ve asked myself. I think most copywriters leave agency world and set up on their own. I left agencies when I was 34 – I’m not nearly 40 and still going strong.

    Working from home suits us old people great, you don’t have to move as much, you get to the loo quickly and you can make cups of tea all day.

    In a decades time I hope and expect I’ll still be doing what I’m doing right now. Hopefully with a bit more creative writing for myself thrown in. I have no desire to do anything else and I don’t think most of my clients give a hoot about how wrinkly or saggy I am (I’ll just keep the photo from when I was 36 up FOREVER).

    Glad to have found your site.

  2. Raymond Duke says:

    I like how you take a step back and look at what is involved in being a copywriter. An interesting question would be if being a copywriter has made you able to look at things in this way.

    I’m a 31 year old copywriter. I’m new, very new to copywriting. I’m still learning what a copywriter is.

    I have, however, been writing for a while. The transition into copywriting came from turning my hobby of writing into a way to make money. I have the luxury of having a decent paying labor job (longshoreman) that allows me to take on copywriting gigs with my free time. Basically, I’m not resorting to copywriting as a means of survival – it’s more of a churning a passion into revenue.

    In a decade’s time I’d like to see myself working with a handful of companies that I care about, and getting paid nicely for helping them grow their business. Maybe that’s the key thing: Working for companies/brands/etc. that you really want to succeed, rather than just wanting the copy you are doing from them doing well. Maybe you need to find out what you are _really_ into, and find the related organizations.

    For example, maybe you are into electric cars… so make the effort to become a premier copywriter for Tesla. Shoot Elon Musk a tweet and create a free ad for them each week. Since you are into electric cars, this shouldn’t be considered hard work.

    It’s hard finding motivation. Especially when you’re new. There is an OVERWHELMING flow of copywriting information, and most of it is from people trying to make a name for themselves, or for their brand. So how do you filter out the crap from the practical info? I’m still figuring that out.

  3. Nigel says:

    I just turned 50 this year. Been a journalist, then editor and a freelance copywriter for ten years. I’m a good copywriter, but it’s not a calling, and it’s pretty false. Not every brand that comes to us will be great, but we have to make them sound great. That’s the job, so it’s an inherently insincere one. I don’t love the insincerity, but it pays well and I have no other skills. In the end, though, it’s not the insincerity that’ll kill me off – it’s the increasing need to write for technological media that I have no grasp of. I’m becoming an old man.
    In an ideal world, I’d be a tennis journalist or a novelist. The first one has passed me by. I still hold out hope for the latter, as I do a place in the South of France. Now there’s a dream I can believe in.

  4. I’m a freelance copywriter in my early forties. I absolutely love what I do, running my own business and deciding who I want to work for. If I don’t like what a business sells, I decline.

    I find your post quite cynical, it’s like you don’t actually enjoy what you do. (It also sounds like you think 40 is old…!)

    I honestly wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. After spending more than 15 years in various jobs, I feel I found my calling when I started my own copywriting business 5 years ago.

    You think copywriters aren’t ‘helping’ people? But we are! Especially if you work directly for small business owners who are stuck for good copy for their websites or brochures. The gratitude you get from them when they first read what you’ve written for them, and later on their excitement about increased visitors and sales, are amazing for your sense of pride and achievement.

    I don’t think you’re ever too old to be a copywriter. Maybe if you want to fit in with the young crowd in a cool ad agency, but not to run your own business. I know for a fact there are plenty of successful freelance copywriters in their forties and fifties. Personally, I plan to continue doing this – and enjoying it – until I retire.

  5. Well, as I say in my post, for most people copywriting is a job rather than a lifelong vocation — and I’m interested in knowing why that is.

    For me, the reward comes from having fun and playing with words and being paid well to do so. But when you say “Copywriters are helping people! Especially if you work directly for small business owners…”

    No, really, no…

    Helping people find low, low prices isn’t the same as being a doctor or a teacher. The rewards are selfish — and perhaps that’s why I stay when so many other people don’t.

  6. You’re quite right Alastaire, being a copywriter is absolutely not in the same category as being a doctor or a teacher.

    In answering your questions I was just making the point that to me, it IS a fulfulling job and I know I am actually helping some people, even if I’m not saving lives or anything like that.

    I wonder if we should distinguish between an advertising copywriter and a business copywriter. I help businesses convey who they are and what they do, but I don’t actually write ads. If I did, and did nothing else, it might have made me more cynical about the meaning of it all as well.

    Thanks for raising an interesting topic, Alastaire.

  7. It’s interesting. I find it sometimes rewarding, sometimes fulfilling — but ultimately a very selfish vocation (one where I’m pleasing myself by playing with words, rather that one where I’m actually helping people or making a difference to people’s lives). And that’s why I think a lot of people quit — as they get older, they want their life to have meant something more than writing a few ads — maybe I’ll feel the same way when I’m 40, maybe I wont!

    Thanks for commenting, always up for a bit of debate!

  8. Judy Olsen says:

    I’ve been a freelance copywriter for 30 years and I’ve just turned 57. Old AND a woman. Practically illegal in this business. I used to be coy about my age but I’ve stopped because I have well over 1200 projects to my name and I’m probably 30x better than I was 30 years ago too. I’ve been surprised by the positive reaction, but have to say it’s far far better from clients in the rest of Europe, who are much less age-obsessed. I’m also a feminist and if old men in bad jeans can have respect as older creatives, then why the feck shouldn’t I? As for the tech part, learning stuff is one of the best parts of the job. Other reasons I’m still copywriting and freelance? a) Because I think writing is much better done in your own time and space. Offices are incredibly distracting places. b) The huge variety of work. c) The fact that my last full-time boss was a sociopathic power-junkie who demanded unpaid overtime but wouldn’t buy milk for our coffee. Never again.

  9. Couldn’t agree with you less, Alastaire. I’m 54. I’ve been a professional copywriter since I was 21. I had 18 years in very, very good ad agencies, and I’ve had about 13 years as a freelance. I still love it, still find it challenging and still find it rewarding. As to whether you do anything of value, I know that the better I am at my job, the more my clients sell. The more they sell, the more readily they can pay their staff and order from their suppliers, who can then pay their staff! And so on. It’s very basic economics. I’d say you do precisely as much good as does a barrister. Like him/her, you put the case for your client who/which may be more or less deserving, but either way you put the case as best you can!

  10. Dare says:

    Hi Alastaire,

    Honestly, you’ve just defined and made me to understand the meaning and concept of copywriting.

    From someone who is versed and trained in geology ( science niche), and at the moment in marketing/management job…..recently trying to lay his hands on blogging ( just set up one), your post really helps define my goal and my future on content marketing.

  11. Bev Osborne says:

    Where do all the old copywriters go? Those copywriters who, like me, started out with pencil and paper, long before anyone ever thought of typing copy onto a screen.

    Some of us are still freelancing, or senior admen and women. But I doubt if you’ll find many, if any, over-50s as part of ad agency creative teams, despite the fact that our decades of experience makes us better copywriters.

    As for freelance copywriting, well to be truthful I’m not entirely sure what the future holds for any skilled, experienced copywriter as more and more businesses prefer to source their copywriting from cheap elance or people-per-hour sites.

    As an older copywriter (55 and female), I’m about to embark on an MA in Creative Writing because, if I had a million dollars and didn’t need to earn a living, this is the kind of writing I would do out of choice. I would always have to write; it’s part of who I am. But I can’t see me copywriting until I’m 100. Even if it pays well.

  12. This sums up my daily existential struggles with being a copywriter. Like you, Alastair, I kind of fell into it. I always loved playing with words and found copywriting could be a lucrative way to do that.

    Some days I feel good. Proud. Successful. Because of a turn of phrase, usually. And then I vacillate to questions like “What am I REALLY doing? How can I make a difference–make people feel better, do better–instead of help people buy and sell and buy and sell?”

    On my best days, I help people write better. Or move people through speech. Leading brand voice and writing courses is the highlight of my work right now for this reason.

    But then it always comes back to selling some product or service or company.

    Then again, is there more nobility in selling ideas? And by that I mean creative writers who move people through story. It’s Oscar night so that comes to mind . . . The people who bring Dallas Buyers Clubs and Twelve Years a Slave to life.

    I’m in my early 30s so there’s still time for me to become like those you observe here. And when I come to that million dollar question–figuratively, I’m sure–what will my answer be?

    I’ll let you know.

    And I hope you do the same.

  13. John Fountain says:

    I’m 54 years old. Started working in London agencies when I was 19. Back then being in the creative dept of a top London agency was my passion, my calling, and I had work in D&AD by 21.

    Back then, it was the best job in the world – bar none. And I’ve fought long and hard to stay in this profession – I’ve watched many top people leave and I’ve been out of work myself countless times. When you work in an agency, unemployment comes with the territory – unfortunately .

    Unlike you guys, I’ve personally never really had a great urge to write. I was certainly never employed to craft elegant copy – my skill was always about coming up with ideas. It just so happens that over the years I’ve become more polished as a writer, and these days I enjoy it as much as coming up with the concepts. Ideas first, words second.

    I’ve tried freelancing but I find it boring. My problem is I’m not learning anything being on the end of a phone – so I’m usually found in a creative dept of some description, because I like being around creative people. It’s fun. We laugh a lot. They teach me stuff and I have to stay on top of my game to keep up with them.

    In answer to your question – most people over 50 do something else. Or they relocate overseas – somewhere warm. Most don’t feel the same as me and I understand why. They get sick of the politics, the bullshit and they end up doing their own thing, going freelance, setting up on their own…whatever. I’ll probably do the same in a few years – only because there’s other things I want to do. Like mentoring young writers and teaching. I’m still very passionate about the craft of copywriting

  14. Sarah says:

    I agree with Jocelyn on the daily existential struggles of being a copywriter.

    Like a few others, I kinda fell into copywriting too when I realised my perfectionist ways and love of the power of words could actually be a job.

    ~13 years later (age 33) and I’m working from home as a copywriter, but for the online gaming industry: poker, casino, etc. Hence my own questions on why I’m doing it.

    I don’t like the moral implications of what I do and often find myself wondering about alternatives, both within copywriting and outwith it entirely.

    I actually landed on this page after looking for info on charity copywriting!

    But it’s the need to earn a living that keeps me here right now. That and the loathing of the office environment, 9-5 rat race, and taking shit off power-crazed superiors.

    What would I spend my time doing if I won a million? I’m really not sure. I guess I’m still working that one out. By the time I do, I’ll probably be another one of your ‘old copywriter’ statistics, having moved onto my life’s purpose!

    (fingers crossed)

    Sadly, my love of words has all but died through relentless inflictions of power card play and ponderings over those incessantly biting moral implications.

    But for now it’s all I know, and I know it well, so needs must and all that.

  15. James says:

    Good post, and something that I’ve been asking frequently.

    I’m mid forties and have had a successful career, for the last 20 years, as an independent copywriter and strategist, working for major brands and one-man-bands. Prior to that I was a journalist.

    For me, the job’s run its course, for a variety of reasons – primarily I can’t take the bullshit and shallowness any more (experiential, 360 branding anyone?) and the degradation of words due to social media and digital environments. I completely accept that when I’m being briefed by a 20-something ‘account handler’ (do please note the inverted commas) it may not actually be that their complete absence of education, training, experience and insight is their fault; it may simply be that I’ve turned into a grumpy old git. Consequently it’s clearly time for me to bow out before I slap someone. Hard.

    Getting out is proving hard, however. Copywriting skills are not truly transferable because they’re so specific. What the ad and design industries term being ‘creative’ I apparently excel at, but actually it’s a pretty shallow skills’ set…which may explain the muppets with on-message haircuts that tend to inhabit so many creative departments. I originally stopped writing as a journalist because it was easier and more lucrative to turn to copywriting, and gave me a huge amount of freedom: all of which I’m grateful for. Thing is, I believe that decision may have painted me into a corner in terms of options at the age I am now.

    Where do old copywriters go? Who knows, who cares? Better to be an art director in a visual age, anyway.

  16. Sarah S. says:

    Like Sarah mentioned above, I also landed on this page while looking for info on charity copywriting. How ironic!

    I find all these comments very interesting and valuable since I am new with copywriting, and I took a long time figuring out what niche I’d like to write for. I finally decided on writing for charity/nonprofit organizations. I’ve learned it is a huge industry and there is definitely demand for copywriters in it.

    But I did debate a while if I would actually write for causes. I was worried about feeling like I was taking money from hungry kids. And my first assumption was that it is very low pay due to all the funds going toward the cause. But actually, I have found through AWAI, that it is very lucrative.

    Yet I’m not looking to be rich. I would feel bad if that’s why I chose to do this. I am looking for freedom, as some of you above have mentioned. And I like the idea of running my own business. That’s why I’m getting myself into this.

    As for writing for charities, I have always loved helping people. And the way I see it is that I am helping a company that is trying to help causes which in turn helps the world. That speaks to my core self and I can honestly see myself doing this for years.

    I realize I could help people in ways other than writing. But I think I fell into copywriting because I’m also an artist and a writer anyway. If I didn’t pursue this, I would be a mix between a painter and a novel writer. I feel like copywriting fits well with me and that it will be the thing that sustains my other passions.

    As for now, I will go full force in copywriting.

  17. Marie says:

    Hi, I feel compelled to add a short comment, after reading so many of yours.

    I’ve been a Copwriter for 18 years and am now 41. As many if you have mentioned, this does, unfortunately, mean that I’m one of the oldest people in my agency. Despite not feeling it! I have however, managed to rise through the ranks over the years and am now ‘Head of Copy’ with a team of four amongst a creative department of twelve.

    The main difference with my job however is that I actually studied Advertising at Uni and spent three years with layout pads and marker pens learning how to develop a conceptual idea (which in my experience is becoming a lost art!) of course, I can write. I read a lot as a kid, which made this a skill that came naturally to me, but I think of myself as a ‘Creative’ just as much as a copywriter. As, these days, with everyone and anyone sharing their views and opinions through their own blogs, I feel that’s where the true value of our skill lies.

    Importantly though, I work in the world of recruitment. And, I think tat may be at times a little more rewarding than just writing ads aimed at getting people to buy one brand of trainer over another. My job us to connect people to a organisation and help them believe they can build their future there. I sell the dream, but a really valuable. After all, this purchase affects your life.

    That said, age 41 I am considering the wirld of freelance. The politics. The bullshit. I guess after awhile, there’s only so much you can take. And personally,I think I’ll then write a screenplay for a bbc drama ;) look out for my name ;)

  18. Elizabeth says:

    I’m a copywriter, and I found this while looking for charity copywriting work too.

    I’m 24 and I very much fell into it, I work at a big agency in London and it’s my first proper job. It doesn’t make me happy and I’m constantly questioning why I’m doing it. I’ve only been doing it for two years, but it feels incredibly shallow and meaningless.

    I like the idea of going freelance though, because of the freedom (and the decent money of course). Plus the people can be a bit of a nightmare, so if I can avoid all of the politics etc I’d like to.

    I’d like to write for charities, but it seems hard to get into. Alas, I shall keep trying.

  19. Gina says:

    Great thread! Glad I found it while procrastinating a copywriting project at midnight . . .
    I am a 48-year old female copywriter. I’ve been freelancing for ten years. Before that, I managed creative teams for Fortune 500s, managed marketing departments for startups, and worked as a senior writer for an ad agency. And here I am. Burned out.
    For me, freelance copywriting was a lifestyle choice. It afforded me the freedom and finances to escape the 8 to 5 in a grayscale cube. But even the allure of working in my pajamas, taking mid-week hikes and enjoying long lunches with friends has lost its appeal. Now what? I don’t know. I do know that I, like James, need a change before I slap a 20-something art director or account manager who guffaws at any request for something similar to a creative brief.

    I’d like to make a real contribution, however minimal. Not one that ends up in a black sales hole. Any career change success stories? Let’s keep this thread moving and inspiring!

  20. Really enjoyed reading this! I’m a singer/songwriter and aspiring TV comedy writer who has failed to make a good enough living in music, that I am now considering my options. I’m 29 and just starting out in copywriting :/ eek! Got a lot of catching up to do, but I have to pay bills, eat, rent etc., Alongside being a musician, I worked in a corp 9-5 office in a job I hated! It was making me so miserable! So I got out and am now searching for junior copywriting jobs to begin a portfolio! If you have any advice on London-based creative agencies who take on juniors, that would be really awesome!

    I turned to copywriting as writing has always been a theme running through everything I’ve loved to do, writing poetry, songs, scripts and it seems like the best way for me to try and make a living whilst being true to myself in some way!

    All the best to everyone!

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