Asked Questions about Advertising, Copywriting, Freelancing, and Life in General
By Randall Rensch
Don't take any of this too literally. As a copywriter, I've learned 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):
Advertising as a career* What's the advertising business like?
* Advertising seems like an interesting career, and I would like to find out more about it.
* What is copywriting?
* What is the difference between copywriting for marketing communications and copywriting for other fields (such as book copy)?
* What does an advertising copywriter need to know?
* To become a copywriter, what background do I need?
* Are there advertising courses I should take to learn copywriting?
* 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 topic?
Your first job
* I'm just out of school, am very creative and I like to write. How do I get started as a freelance copywriter?
* Do you use interns or know someone who does?
* What should I look for in my first copywriting job?
* To get a copywriting job, I need experience, and to get experience I need a job. How do I get past this Catch-22?
* How do I land my first copywriting job?
* What should I put in my portfolio, and how do I present it?
* How important are typos and grammatical errors in the letters I send?
* What do you like best about freelance copywriting? What do you like least?
* I already have strong copywriting experience, and am planning to freelance. Any pointers?
* I'm starting to freelance. How much should I charge a client?
* I've got some great ideas for ads (or commercials) for a certain product. How do I sell them to the manufacturers?
* I'm writing a book (poems, songs, whatever). What are procedures obtaining copyright protection?
* I'd be interested to know how you got started.
* Has your Web site brought you business?
Advertising seems like an interesting career and I would like to find out more about it.[to page menu]
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
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. [to page menu]
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. [to page menu]
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 are corporate communication, technical writing, book publishing, editorial copy, and so on.
Many of the same skills are involved, but they are essentially different professions, with different
needs and viewpoints. [to page menu]
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 situation.
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 page menu]
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.[to page menu]
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
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
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. [to page menu]
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 topic?
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. [to page menu]
I'm just out of school, am very creative and I like to write. How do I get started as a freelance
Don't. Potential freelance clients don't have the time or budget to underwrite your professional
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. [to page menu] [to page menu]
[to page menu]
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. [to page menu]
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 a while, 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 commercials for TV more easily than a TV writer can learn to write for
even one of the various forms of
print. [to page menu]
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 even in a business or literature
curriculum. Heck, even a film course could be good training. You can begin learning copywriting
on the job, if you can already write simply and clearly, are businesslike in your viewpoint, attitude
and habits, and have that good balance between confidence and being a know-it-all. And if you
have some samples good enough to get that first
job. [to page menu]
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 should decide you want to be in account work, or research,
or some other part of advertising, 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
some peripheral area as part of your game
plan. [to page menu]
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...
How To Put Your Book Together and Get a Job in Advertising,
by Maxine Paetro. (LEARN MORE)
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 (this is me talking, now)...
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, 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 to think.)
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."
[to page menu]
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? [to page menu]
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. [to page menu]
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 full-time 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 their needs. [to page menu]
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 or page unless it's production-line catalog copy... your incentive should be to help
solve a marketing problem efficiently and persuasively. Not to write more words or recommend more
pages than needed. And much of your time will be spent thinking and planning, not writing.
Of course, your charges need to exceed your expenses. Most newbies underestimate the expenses,
|Medical insurance (and time to comparison-shop for it)|
|Office space and equipment (computer, software, printer, fax machine, copier, file space, etc. )|
|Office supplies (thankfully, these can be relatively few for a copywriter)|
|Replacement and repair of the above|
|Self-promotion expenses (Web site, mailings, your brochure, entry fees, 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 canceled meetings, correspondence, routine filing, etc.)|
|Time for self-promotion (development of the things mentioned above, plus new business prospecting,
|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, reading, and other professional improvement|
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." [to page menu]
I've got some great ideas for ads (or commercials) for a certain product. How do I sell them to
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 (you've heard the phrase "great minds think alike"?).
But virtually none of those people know as much as the advertiser himself does about the product,
what has been done before, what has been already tested and rejected, what the competitive picture
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 would expose themselves
to a lot of potential legal hassle if they even looked at an unsolicited idea, 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,
they may not want it). 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 or
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,
full-time or part time. And see if you're
right. [to page menu]
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.
See your library or bookstore. These Web sites will also get you up to speed.
Graphic Artists Guild
U.S. Copyright Office
The Copyright Website
(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 law.) [to page menu]
I'd be interested to know how you got started.
Started as a 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. [to page menu]
Has your Web site brought you business?
A site can be worthwhile. It enlarges your reach, but is not magic. Mine, at www.rensch.com, 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. [to page menu]
© 2002 Randall Rensch
Rensch has brought his imagination, analysis and results-oriented viewpoint to a wide variety of products
and services over three decades. Although specialization is important to successful freelancing
(he's heaviest in financial, technical, retail, direct and online), Randy has been careful to maintain a balance between business-to-business work and the consumer advertising that began his career. The mix is synergistic.
Randy's award-winning work in radio and for retailers such as IHOP honed his
ability to simplify execution in short formats, a skill that was even more handy when Internet marketing emerged. These days, Randy devotes some of his time to making sites communicate equally well to
human visitors and search engine robots. To reach Randy,
or e-mail email@example.com.
Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer!
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