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Note to Boss: Copywriters Don't Always Write

By Ken Magill

One of the great misunderstandings between copywriters and many of those who supervise them is how copywriters work. I have experienced this misunderstanding often.

For example, once while working as a copywriter for a small business-to-business cataloger in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., the CEO hauled me into his office. He was not happy.

“You know what I hate, Word Man?” He called me Word Man.

“No, what do you hate?” I responded.

“When you pace the warehouse,” he said. “I hate it when you pace the warehouse.”

Indeed, I did pace the warehouse. A lot.

What my CEO—who I liked, by the way—failed to understand was that while pacing the warehouse, I was working. In fact, what most folks who supervise writers who aren’t writers themselves don’t understand is that the actual writing is just part of copywriters’ jobs.

Copywriters are in the business of ideas. Writing is the way they’re paid to express them.

In 2006, I wrote an obituary for Arthur Schiff, the legendary direct-marketing copywriter credited with immortalizing the phrase “But wait! There’s More!” and coming up with the name Ginsu for the famous infomercial knives.

In preparing to write the obituary, I interviewed Schiff’s former boss Ed Valenti, who in 1975 co-founded Dial Media, the company that would launch Ginsu knives.

Valenti said that shortly after hiring Schiff in the mid 70s, he noticed Schiff often sat in his chair, hands behind his head, smoking a pipe and staring into space.

“At first I didn’t think much of it, but after the second, third and fourth times, I thought, ‘This guy’s screwing me. I’m paying him big money and he’s sitting around staring into space,’” Valenti said.

So Valenti confronted Schiff: “I said: ‘this is not fair, you’re supposed to be working.’ And he said ‘I am working. You pay me to think. What do you suppose thinking looks like?’”

Valenti said he never bothered Schiff about sitting in his chair and smoking a pipe while staring into space again.

And since thinking is the majority of copywriters’ jobs, the good ones never stop working.

Once while sitting in our hot tub on a Friday night drinking martinis with my wife I blurted: “I’ve got it!”

“You’ve got what?” she asked.

“The headline for that story I’ve been working on!” I responded.

She rolled her eyes, sighed and said: “I’m proud of you, honey.”

And it’s not just marketing-and-advertising executives who fail to understand how writers work.

I once worked for a newspaper publisher who counted the paragraphs each writer produced, failing to take into account the fact that some of his lesser producers volume-wise regularly got killer scoops.

This is not to say there aren’t reporters and copywriters who are lazy-assed procrastinators. It is also not to say there shouldn’t be deadlines. I, for one, can’t get out of bed without a deadline.

But those who manage writers should understand that inspiration doesn’t necessarily come between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and a copywriter not typing isn’t necessarily a copywriter not working.

Moreover, a copywriter observed not typing isn’t evidence he or she necessarily needs more work.


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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by:
Date: 2011-01-13 16:16:31
Subject: I know exactly what you mean

I spent too much time waiting for buses yesterday when I felt I should have been sitting at the computer and writing; but while I was waiting I toyed around with different approaches in my mind and worked out how to write my post. So, even though it didn't seem as if I wasn writing yesterday, I really was. Caryn Lipson;