What is a copywriter?

What is a copywriter? 

Until Mad Men came to TV screens and taught everyone that copywriters were heavy-drinking, amoral philanderers who occasionally wrote advertising slogans, most people didn’t have a clue. Not all of that description is still true, by the way. At least not before lunchtime.

For an occupation that specialises in branding, copywriters been spectacularly bad at branding ourselves. In English-speaking countries, many people still confuse ‘copywriting’ (writing to market or sell something) with its homophone ‘copyrighting’ (securing the legal ownership rights of creative work). Elsewhere, things are even worse. In Spanish, for example, there isn’t an adequate single-word translation for ‘copywriter’. ‘Redactor’ is too vague. It’s common in Spain to cut ‘copywriter’ down to ‘copy’, which doesn’t help, still isn’t Spanish, and makes people think of Xerox machines.

It’s a mess. But I’ll try to clear it up.

In the ‘Mad Men’ golden age of advertising, copywriters were giants. Their campaigns were frequently more entertaining than the TV shows, newspapers and magazines in which they were placed. That era ended when the digital barbarians arrived at the gates of publishing. The web changed copywriting forever.

Now, copywriters have to be much more flexible, and much faster. Freelance copywriters (or commercial writers, or content writers – even the job titles have changed) have to write marketing and sales-based material of all kinds: landing pages, blog posts, emails, banner ads and website content, taking into account SEO goals and strict guidelines. That’s as well as writing effective advertising copy from time to time. Staff copywriters in creative, marketing or advertising agencies may be more specialised but still have woollier roles and more team-based responsibilities than their pre-Internet predecessors.

In the DMA’s video above, some of Britain’s greatest golden-age copywriters and some of today’s young talents share their opinions.

The generational divide is clear. The younger writers are steeped in social media; the older writers are disdainful of digital. The ‘Mad Men’ of the video bemoan the loss of craftsmanship in the Internet age but understand the pressure under which copywriters must now work.

“The key issue is this contradiction between everything being wanted instantly, and there’s no time, and the need for craftsmanship.” – Howard Fletcher

There are complaints from current writers, and sympathy from the old-school experts, about the tyranny of the client: the endless stream of comments in the form of ‘track changes’ that require time-consuming re-writes. In an age when everyone who has a keyboard believes they can write, the ability of actual professionals to do a good job is diminished.

Copywriting may be, as Ross Newton says in the video, indefinable now. But those of us who do it still recognise it.

The members of the younger group have diverse job titles. Asked, “Are you a copywriter?” they all answer yes.

I’m a copywriter too. I still study and learn from the giants so that I might stand on their shoulders. I turn to writers like Paul Arden, David Ogilvy, David Abbott, Andy Maslen and Dave Trott for inspiration and insight. If you write for business, I encourage you to do the same.

A copywriter writes to help other people sell things.

The number of ways to do that is growing constantly. At BCNcontent, we write every day for websites and digital marketing channels that demand specific knowledge. We write content. We write what our clients require. But copywriting remains a craft, not a race to keep pace with innovations. In the end, great writing transcends technology.


Creative commons Flikr image by amira_a used with permission: link

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Steve Tallantyre

Founder and senior copywriter, BCNcontent


  1. Great piece – now longing for a Don Draper in my home office…I tend to say ‘storyteller’, nothing like a little confusion.

    • Steve Tallantyre

      Storytelling is a big part of the job – and getting bigger all the time. Sales and marketing people at all levels are realising just how powerful storytelling can be.

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