And the survey says…

When I was little, my gran used to take me into town for a drink with her friends. I’d sit in the British Home Stores café playing with whatever toy she’d bought me from Poundland, while she’d chat with her friends about the kind of things grans would chat about.

What her next door has been up to.

The weather playing havoc with knees.

How the old times were better.

 

At some point during the chat, the same topic would always pop up:

“Hasn’t Ash grown?”

The general opinion was that, yes, I had grown.

Of the four people asked, all four agreed.

100%.

The data spoke for itself.

But if you’d opened that question up to 10 people, or 100, or 1,000, the data might have looked different.

Some people might have (quite rightly) said that, since last week, I hadn’t grown that much at all. Some might have said I actually looked a little smaller.

The data would have been divided, with maybe only 60% of people thinking I’d grown, which is a much less quotable stat.

 

In an industry where data seems to have more value than a decent idea, it’s worth asking where that data has come from, and whether it really means anything when you look closer at the numbers.

Is the data telling you something useful, or are you seeing the facts you want to see?

Are you asking people what they think, or are you putting thoughts into their heads?

Is your data taken from a coffee table of grans, who’d agree with anything if it meant they could give me a kiss on my cheek?

 

Be more me

When you work as a copywriter, it can be quite easy to forget who you are. Not in a soul destroying, career doubting kind of way, (although that does happen too, at least every other Wednesday,) but more in a way that makes you forget how you speak.

As you first learn how to write, you’re encouraged to develop your own tone of voice, your own distinct style that makes you stand out from the crowd.

This is what gets you praised at school. This is what will make your English teacher stop and pay attention. This is what will help you pass your degree and get those early gigs as a features writer or social media manager. (Personal history. Follow your own path, yeah?)

Your tone of voice will define your early portfolio and get you those first steps on the career ladder. People will want you because you are you. Or just accept you because you’re there, one or the other.

However, the longer your career goes on, the more being you becomes difficult.

Clients don’t want you because you can write in an irreverent, witty way. They don’t care much for your imagination and personality when simple, clear copy will do the trick just fine. If you can sell their product in plain English with a strong call to action, they’ll take that instead of the option you’ve given them that includes a dragon wearing chinos.

The more you write, the more this becomes a problem.

You learn to speak in other people’s tone of voice instead of your own, adapting your writing style to suit different briefs and different demands. Now, this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Any copywriter worth their salt can change the way they write. To be able to slip seamlessly into writing for Client B when you’ve just finished a job for Client A is a skill not many people have, and it will stand you in good stead with anyone who relies on your words.

But by doing that, you can very easily forget how to write as yourself.

Some feedback I got the other week reminded me of this.

“This is great, but it’s a bit too Ash.”

That was the kind of comment I used to receive all the time. In fact, I’d respond to every brief with my own tone and character, offering it a twist that no-one else could and hoping that, this time, the client and my words would see eye to eye.

But recently I’ve been hearing it less and less. I’ve had to tone my ‘Ash’ down and ramp my clients up, and that’s a good thing if you’re my employers, or the people who pay my employers to do work.

But it’s a bad thing when it comes to Brand Billinghay.

This is a brand I’ve been building for 28 years now, and at its peak it saw me writing for numerous indie publications, a major British broadsheet, countless blogs, several arty creative types and some of the biggest clients in the UK.

Now I just do the latter, which I guess you can look at in two ways:

  1. My career is now shit hot. I mean, listen, haters, look at me now. I got paper.
  2. I don’t blog as much as I’d like to, and when I do, I struggle to remember how to be cool and alternative.

 

So which one of those matters the most?

The answer is neither and both of them. Somehow, in order to achieve true Ash happiness, or Ashiness as it shall henceforth be known, I need to combine writing fluently in client tongue with writing utter nonsense in my own language.

I need to rediscover what makes me, me. Otherwise I’m just the same as everyone else.

You’ll see countless copywriters who are very good at their jobs, but write just like any other good copywriter could. They’ll do their work well, but it won’t be memorable or cause any debate in the office. They won’t be told they’re being too Dean, or too Susan, or too Robert.

They’ll make life easy for their account managers and plod on with a perfectly happy career until they hit 40 and are no longer deemed relevant to their agencies, at which point they’ll go freelance and write some more perfectly good words for other people.

No problem with that. Good for them.

But I don’t want to plod. I don’t want to write like anyone else, or settle for doing things well.

I want to do things my way and make my own mark. I want to hit 40 and be looked at as a pioneer, invited into universities to deliver talks on how to stand out in, what by then, will be an industry full of jargon and data, all producing the same kind of work.

I want to write books, change mindsets, and make ads that people will still be talking about in the future.

Can I do that by writing like anybody else?

Maybe, but the best chance I’ve got is by writing just like me.

Be the client when necessary, but when it comes to my own time, be as Ash as it’s physically possible to be.

When it’s wrong to be right

Confidence can get you a long way in the world.

It’s got Donald Trump to president. It’s taken Christiano Ronaldo to the Ballon d’Or. It’s helped me pull of many a questionable outfit.

Confidence is key, a lot of the time.

But sometimes, having too much can ruin things.

Especially when those things are ideas.

There’s a lot of confidence in marketing, and often you need it to get an idea across or stand up in front of someone and present your work. Ideas can be a very personal thing, and it takes guts to put them out into the world for people to judge.

That’s a good level of confidence.

It becomes too much when you won’t let your idea die, or push it so hard it knocks other good ideas off the table.

It happens all the time, when confidence becomes ego, and ego becomes the reason creative work clashes. When egos can’t decide who’s right (because ultimately, they believe it’s them) they mesh the ideas together as a compromise, ruining them all and turning the work into a horrible cocktail where nothing stands out.

Compromise never leads to something you really want. Look at Brexit. The final result won’t please people who voted leave, while those who voted remain will wonder what the point was. (No, but seriously, what is the point?)

While it will be sold as a win-win, it will actually be more of a meh-meh.

Sometimes it’s better to be wrong than right.

Accepting another idea is better and putting your ego to one side can help that idea shine, instead of blurring it with something else.

Accepting someone else might be on to something can make you look like help instead of a hinderance.

Being wrong can ultimately lead to something being right, which is better than being right and creating something average.

Only half of me is human and other such stories I tell people to increase their perceptions of my abilities

Working in marketing includes a lot of bullshit. We bullshit how long it will take us to finish a job, we bullshit how cheap we can do it for, and we nearly always bullshit rationales for our ideas when the client questions them.

It’s all part of the fun.

I bullshit all the time, but then I’m a copywriter, so it’s in my DNA. If I’m trying to write about a product, often the truth is a little underwhelming. However, the story I can tell around the truth leads to more opportunities, so I bullshit it.

Does product A lead directly to X? Of course not. But, if you use product A in a certain way and the stars align perfectly in the sky, X is a very real possibility.

I also bullshit a lot about myself. The Ash Billinghay brand relies heavily on imagination, as without it, I’m just a copywriter.

With it, I’m so much more. So, suspend your disbelief for a few paragraphs, and come with me on a journey through the bullshit I’ve told people. Starting with…

I’m Stephen King

Most rational people wouldn’t give this one a second thought, but the person who believed it wasn’t rational at all. In fact, she was very drunk and propping up a bar. We got chatting as I ordered some drinks, and when she asked what I did for a job I didn’t have the patience to explain copywriting to her. I just said I was a writer, and she asked what kind of books I wrote. I said horror, she said, “No way! Like Stephen King?” I smiled, and she said she knew she recognised me from somewhere.

Thus, a legend is reborn, and my drinks are paid for by someone who thinks she’s just met a celebrity. I’m much younger that Stephen King, but she was very, very drunk.

 

My parents were both writers

I don’t think copywriting ability is genetic. My diabetes might be, and my bad eyesight definitely is, but I learnt how to write irreverent nonsense all by myself. Still, it sounds grand to say I come from a long line of copywriters, and when you’re speaking to someone you know you’ll never have to meet again, you can be whoever you want to be.

I was Ash Billinghay of Billinghay and Billinghay, a family-run agency with excellent heritage. Not heard of us? That’s because we’re incredibly bespoke and entirely fictional.

 

I’m allergic to marketing jargon

This one is clearly a lie. If it was true I’d have died long ago, or at the very least be rolling around on the floor in agony with hives all over my skin.

I just don’t like jargon. There’s no need for it, plain English is the way forward, and you absolutely need to stop using it.

But it doesn’t bring me out in a rash, unless I’m feeling particularly bored in a meeting, in which case I may start sneezing until someone notices and asks me to stop so they can carry on talking about the digitalisation of Gen Z. Bless me.

 

There’s value in bullshitting sometimes. It spices up your day and lets you have some fun along the way. Admittedly, most of this post has been bullshit too, but if you’ve got to this point, it’s done its job.

Stop it

Hey, you’ve seen advertising, right? That stuff that get in the way when you’re trying to live your life, those flashy pictures that prevent you from enjoying yourself, the things that pop up on your screen when you’re trying to read.

Yeah, advertising. Well then, you probably have an opinion on it, and that opinion probably includes a whole host of things you’d rather see less of.

What’s that? It doesn’t? You’ve got better things to be doing with your time then complaining about the state of advertising to try and get a few likes on social media, and boost your personal brand’s presence?

Oh, well good for you. I don’t, so here I am.

 

THING ONE: YOU

Brands have this weird belief that we should care about them. I don’t, and nor should you. They’re just an office full of middle-aged men, trying to convince us they’re more in line with our way of living than the office next door, full of slightly younger men who are doing the same thing via Snapchat.

The reality is, I don’t know what your brand stands for, I just know it costs 20p more than the brand next to it on the shelf, so I’ll choose that one.

 

THING TWO: MILLENNIALS

The term ‘millennials’ was invented by someone too lazy to try and make their advertising original. They thought if they could paint an entire generation with the same brush, it would make their lives easier. After all, everyone between the ages of 18 and 25 thinks the exact same things, so why wouldn’t they love the new flavours of Diet Coke?

I was sat in a meeting where someone said, “Millennials want to live for now. They want experiences, fast and forgettable, moments. They don’t care for the future.”

Not only was I sick in my mouth, but I also opened their mouth and was sick in that too. Then I looked at my savings account and realised how useless it was, as it didn’t help me experience ‘now’ in the slightest. I spent it all that night on something I can no longer remember.

 

THING THREE: VIDEOS THAT PLAY BEFORE THE VIDEO I WANT TO WATCH

I know they think that I’ll watch their content if they force me to. I know that someone has decided it appeals to the same target audience as the video I want to see. I know their research has suggested 15 seconds is the ideal amount of time to capture my attention.

But they are wrong.

Not only will I look away for that 15 seconds, but I’ll also remember the brand that tried to sell to me, and be less likely to spend money on them ever again.

The click-bait on Facebook told me there was a video of an animal doing a funny thing, and that is literally all I can think about right now. Not your advert. Not your call to action. Not you, unless you too are a dog that does something I won’t believe.

The worst ones don’t even give you a skip option, which is literally the only think I’m paying attention to.

 

THING FOUR: BRANDED CONTENT

Have you ever read any? No? Me neither. A sponsored article, a lifestyle piece that disguises itself as something interesting, only to reveal it’s actually a really long ad for a mobile phone, anything that has to include an ad hashtag to stop me believing it’s genuine.

Behave. You’re kidding yourself if you think anyone other than your mum is going to read it, and she’s only going to do it because she’s forced to love you thanks to genetics.

It’s bad, it’s boring, and I could have written it better in a sentence. Pay me money.

 

Anyway, that was it. Enjoy your weeks.

 

 

 

BE THE BRAND LIVE THE BRAND

Once, recently, I went to a meeting. I do this sometimes, when people more senior than me decide I can be trusted in the real world. I don’t agree with their judgement, but that’s up to them.

Anyway, at this meeting lots of things were said. Some of them I wrote down in the form of notes, others I did not.

One of the ones I did write down was the following:

The brand is the experience.

Now, this might just be marketing bullshit, as most things in marketing are, but it got me thinking:

What would my brand be, if it was based on the experience of others?

The first thing that came to mind was professional integrity, but then after laughing for a little bit I moved on to the more serious answers.

I based these all on genuine feedback I’ve had from my peers, who are fortunate enough to have spent a considerable time working by my side. I wish I was my peers.

EXPERIENCE ONE: IRREVERENCE

I’m rarely known to answer a brief in the way that brief feels it should be answered. I mean, I once wrote a credit card campaign based on the idea that they’d be useless if a bear attacked. This later got merged with another idea and made even less sense than it would have done originally.

When I’m forced to do work that doesn’t allow for such creative expression, I still do a better job than anyone else would do, just with an angry look on my face. Stop killing my dreams, man.

That leads me on nicely to…

EXPERIENCE TWO: MODESTY

It’s been commented on that I, perhaps, have a mild ego. Some people would say that I have such belief in my own ability to think of conceptual ideas and write kick-ass copy, that they’ve personally felt inadequate when in my presence.

That’s fair enough.

I know I’m good, but I always want to be better. In fact, I want to be the very best there ever was. I want to be the kind of writer people study later on, and remark on the fact I was as beautiful as I was bright. Shut up, it could happen.

 

EXPERIENCE THREE: OFTEN GETS DISTRACTED

Ok, so here’s the thing. Once I was writing something pretty dull while someone else was working on something that looked more fun. What happened next was that I not only finished my dull work, but also wrote the other work in the same time, with better results.

I do get distracted by ideas all the time. It makes holding a serious conversation with me challenging, as you can see the point my eyes glaze over after you’ve said words like, “millennial demographic” or “the data suggests”.

Give me something cool to think about though, and the only thing that will distract me is the burning desire to own that brief like a freshly baked cookie that my sister is trying to eat before me.

 

EXPERIENCE FOUR: FAST

The fastest copywriter you’ll ever work with. That’s what I’d say if you asked me to describe my working ability in relation to speed. Give me a day to do a job, I’ll do it in half that time and spend the rest of it asking you for more, or writing a blog post about me as a brand.

This speed does have its downsides, though. For one, my fingers type so fast they now have weird little finger abs and intimidate other fingers in the finger gym.

Also, account managers charge me out by the hour, so at the same time as I’m wowing their clients, I’m also costing them dollar. Sorry.

 

EXPERIENCE FIVE: HAHAHA SO FUNNY

Some people find my off-hand commentary on life funny. Some people would say that my sarcastic delivery and razor-sharp wit make me a delight to be around. Some people would say I should talk more to them.

Others would not.

This is ok, because if I was to be funny to everyone, it wouldn’t feel special to the individuals who deserved it. It’d be like, I don’t know, the Queen giving everyone a knighthood. Or everyone catching a cold at the same time. Or death.

 

EXPERIENCE SIX: SOMETIMES HE TAKES IT TOO FAR AND HE SHOULD STOP

This blog post is a good example of that.

However, that can be a good thing, can’t it? I don’t give up on a brief until I’ve exhausted every possible idea, I don’t leave the studio until I’m proud with what I’ve produced, and I don’t stop telling a joke until the recipient is absolutely convinced it’s hilarious.

Persistency pays off.

 

EXPERIENCE SEVEN: POTENTIAL TO BE GREAT OR MAYBE ONE DAY GO INSANE

I’ve been told several things in my career to date.

Many times, I’ve been told I have the potential to be a creative inspiration, potentially one day be a creative director, maybe even go on to greatness.

More times I’ve been asked if I need to talk to anyone, like, professional.

You must take the good with the bad, and without the bad, I don’t think my good would be quite so, you know, good. I’ll use it to my benefit.

 

 

THE BRAND

So, what does that make of my brand? Is brand Ash one you’d buy into, or one whose recent advertising campaign looks seriously misguided? Why is there a bear in it? Is that even allowed on TV at this time of day?

I don’t know, really. I think it’s still a work in progress, like an older version of the Apple logo where it’s still recognisable as what it went on to become, but not quite there yet.

I’m excited to keep moulding what makes me, me, and see where it takes me.

I’m also excited to meet my eventual counsellor. We’ll have fun.

New year, same you, just with an ambition to be better that will likely fade away by mid-February

I hate clichés. Predictable ideas, boring work that has been done before, and 99% of the content on LinkedIn makes me want to remove my own flesh and soak into the soil.

Sadly, I work in marketing, so this shit surrounds me all the time.

In January, the air is full of it. We’re polluted with creative crap that scrapes the barrel of what you can class as an idea. Whether it’s trying to get you to join a gym, eat better, chase a new job or give up that crippling meth addiction, marketing wheels are whirring away to push out the cheapest content they can produce in the hope you’ll pay attention.

Which is weird, because if they did that in, say, April, you’d call it out.

You’d see that recruitment ad telling you it’s time to become the person you always wanted to be, and instantly spot that there’s no actual thinking behind it.

You’d spot the poster for the gym and realise you can’t justifying £40 a month just to get sweaty on your lunch break.

You’d be smarter than marketing, wouldn’t you? Because you’re a good, bright person. Bullshit can’t fool you.

So why, in January, do people who are supposedly experts in their field think it will work? Why do people who work in an industry whose soul intent is to disrupt your regular thought process and make you think about something else, continue to push the same things you see every year?

Today I did as I do every day, and scrolled through LinkedIn hoping to find someone willing to pay loads of money to a sarcastic writer with a teenager’s haircut to write something witty and irreverent.

I did the same on Twitter, even Facebook.

The amount of shit I saw was astronomical. Admittedly, that’s nothing new on LinkedIn, where everything is always shit,* but it still hurts to see. There are people out there – creative people who have dreams, who grew up wanting to change the world – being forced to create things that will already be forgotten about by the time a copywriter comes to write an angry blog about them.

Is January some kind of magical time when people will discard the person they’ve always been, and decide that, yes, this is the time they want to take up a brand-new career?

No, it’s just another month, just as shit as all the other months, just as melancholy as every other passing moment in our existence, just another period of time that will pass by without note as the world crumbles around us and our dreams gradually turn into resentment.

You like eating pies. January isn’t going to change that.

You enjoy sitting at your desk, earning an average salary for doing the least work possible. January won’t change that either.

As for trying to stop you drinking? If January achieved that, you’d literally have no reason left to live.

Fuck January. Be the person you want to be whenever you want to be them, and don’t let a month bully you into thinking any differently.

*I’ve posted this on LinkedIn, meaning this too is now shit.