Be more you

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 27 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 hipsters who are all trying to do the very same thing.

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

Or, more realistically, I want to be told to stop and seek professional help.

Can I do that by writing like anybody else?

In part, sure, 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.

Are House of Fraser emojionally stunted?

Social media is strange. It’s been a strange idea ever since it first started – why would anyone ever need that many opinions flooding their lives? – and it gets weirder all the time, with worse jokes, longer rants and, as this post is about to prove, more badly planned branding showing up every time you blink.

Today’s weird came from House of Fraser, the shop that’s been on your high street since forever and sells clothes that your mum thinks you’ll look good in. In my head I have a very clear image of what House of Fraser offers, and that is overpriced Superdry merchandise and obscure boutiques that you’d never find anywhere else. I was happy with that understanding, I did not need it changing, I was content.

However, it would appear that House of Fraser’s marketing team were not content with that appearance at all. They wanted to do something to change such perceptions and, as is often the case with social media marketing, they got it horribly wrong.

Earlier on today they announced that they were coming over all emojional – yeah, that’s some top emoji wordplay right there – and spent the next few hours tweeting the kind of emoji speak that you’d expect your aunt to use on Facebook messenger. It didn’t make much sense, it confused me, and worst of all – it made me doubt what I thought I knew. I hate it when things do that.

Now it would be very easy for me to be sarcastic about HoF’s attempts to be hip and cool here, but as someone recently said sarcasm is the only tone of voice I know how to write in, I’ll ignore that powerful urge. Instead I’ll be all objective and analytical. Suck on that, doubters.

While House of Fraser might have jumped on the emoji bandwagon a little bit late, and while most of the responses to their tweets might have been mocking them for their poor emoji grammar, they’ve gained a shit load of engagement from it.

An absolute shit load.

People have been sharing their nonsense all over the place. They’ve been replying to their nonsense with nonsense of their own. They’ve been writing articles about their nonsense and analysing it using boring marketing cliches. It’s been a wonderful day for House of Fraser’s social media team, and who am I, a humble copywriter, to piss on their parade?

Yes, it was outdated, yes, it stank of an older relative trying to talk to you in a way you’d understand, and yes, it showed absolutely no understanding of the English language. But did it work?

Hell yeah it did, nonsense nearly always beats common sense. Good on you for trying, House of Fraser. I still won’t be shopping in your stores but that’s because of your massively over-inflated prices, and absolutely nothing at all to do with your bonkers social media approach.

On the other hand, BBC Sport, your social media team deserve absolutely no forgiveness for this:

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That Be Like Bill meme is the worst thing to happen to the internet since vloggers started believing in their own hype. Stop it, brands, it never was cool and you’re only going to make it worse.