Copywriter and Creative Director Sam Pollen is our guest for the 198th episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast. Sam works in-house at an agency focused entirely on copy—there are no designers—which might be a dream for a lot of copywriters. We asked Sam about the differences between the freelance world and the work his team does. Here’s an idea of what we covered during the interview:
• how Sam went from zoology student to copywriter and creative director
• why Sam prefers to work in-house and leaves the freelancing to others
• how he works with other writers in his role as a CD
• the creative process at agencies and how everyone works together
• how they work with designers and hand off copy to the design team
• this skills and training a copywriter might need to be a creative director
• Sam’s writing process and how he generates ideas for each assignment
• asking “stupid questions” to truly understand the products we sell
• how asking the questions that aren’t in the brief leads to a big idea
• what’s involved in the process of naming
• how Sam and his agency present work to their clients
• the challenges of working on brand voice and brand guides
• writing luxury copy and the different approaches to a variety of products
• why he wrote a book about a boy with anorexia
Sam’s story and advice are worth a listen. To hear what he told us, scroll down and click the play button. Or read a transcript a little farther down the page. And if you never want to miss an episode subscribe to the podcast with your podcast app, then leave a review.
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:Reed Words
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
The Copywriter Underground
Rob: This episode is brought to you by The Copywriter Underground, the place to connect with hundreds of smart copywriters who share ideas and strategies to help you master marketing, mindset, and copywriting in your business. Learn more at thecopywriterunderground.com.
Kira: What if you could hang out with seriously talented copywriters and other experts, ask them about their successes and failures, their work processes and their habits, then steal an idea or two to inspire your own work? That’s what Rob and I do every week at The Copywriter Club Podcast.
Rob: You’re invited to join The Club for episode 198 as we chat with copywriter and creative director Sam Pollen about working at an agency that’s focused on great copy, what it takes to build a verbal identity, his biggest struggle as a creative and as a copywriter, and why he wrote a book about anorexia.
Kira: Welcome, Sam.
Rob: Hey, Sam.
Sam Pollen: Thanks very much for having me, guys.
Kira: Yeah, we’re excited to have you today and let’s just start this conversation with how you ended up as a creative director. What was that story?
Sam Pollen: I think the story for me is probably the story similar for a lot of people in that position in that I just worked my way up, basically. I did a degree in natural sciences, so zoology and psychology, of all things, so not really related to what I do now at all. Then I worked in photography for a little bit, and then I worked in marketing and sort of fell into copywriting. So copywriting was not a deliberate choice for me, but it was something that I did some of in a marketing job and found out I was good at or good enough at. And then honed my skills and developed and found that that was something I found interesting and had some talent for, and so went from there.
About five, six years ago, I had started working with my now boss, Mike Reed, who set up the agency I work for, it’s called Reed Words. I was initially hired just to write a sort of, he was starting to build an agency and then we have grown from that point. We have a team of writers and I’m the deputy creative director. I direct other people’s work as well as it’s still doing quite a bit of writing in my own. Writing that I’ve done as well as writing and directing from other people.
Rob: Sam, most of the people that we talk to on the podcast are in the freelance world. And your career, seems to be a little bit different. Like you’ve worked in house and in agencies, primarily. Will you talk a little bit about what it takes to find a job as a copywriter in those kinds of environments?
Sam Pollen: Yeah. The first thing I’d say is that, I have been in house all of my career basically, and the primary reason for that is because I have a huge amount of respect to people who are freelancers. I’m not sure I have the personality for it. And maybe I’m just a little bit scared of it. I worked in house in kind of marketing and just little general marketing role and then in a small company that was actually a design agency and then more and more specialized in writing.
I think it brings a different set of challenges, right? There’s obviously the financial picture is slightly different. There are some things that are better and there are some things that are worse. And I think there is a kind of different maybe temperamental thing as well. As an in house member of any kind of company, you have all of the good and bad the goes along with being part of a company.
You have upon the contract and good things like that, but you also have more process and HR and headaches and things to deal with like that. I think it’s a mixed bag. I like the simplicity of it. I like not having to worry about when my work is coming from as much. I can focus on the writing and that’s been a really good thing to me. Most of my job is, I don’t do a vast amount of kind of new business sort of things. I mainly focus on writing and making the writing really good for myself and for the other rights as I work with. And that’s really nice thing, but that’s the privileged positions being I realize.
The grass is kind of always greener. I’m sure when people who’ve moved between freelance and staff roles kind of look at the other one, like, “It was really nice to be able to pick my own hours,” or they go, “It was really nice to be able to say this isn’t my problem at the end of the day.” And there is good and bad in both of those roles. I am happy where I am for now.
Kira: I like the idea of saying, “This isn’t my problem.” And passing it on to someone else. I think that’s always appealing. I would like to hear more about how you work with other writers and your role. A couple of questions come to mind, like how can we be better at mentoring and copy chiefing, other writers, especially a lot of freelance writers are growing micro agencies and adding subcontractors to their team, but we often feel like we’re not doing this as well as we could be.
Sam Pollen: I think last thing to say would be everyone feels like they’re not doing it right. If you are a conscientious leader, and if you are in a position where you are managing other people and you’re giving them creative feedback, you are always worried about getting it wrong or kind of not giving them enough or maybe guiding them too much. I worry a lot about because I do a mixture of writing myself and directing other people, I worry that I’m being kind of too prescriptive and you have to check yourself about what is about me approaching something a certain way, because that’s the way I do it. And what is about what’s right for the job and what’s right for the client and what’s right for the project.
And balancing those two is kind of an ongoing process itself. Checking, getting an external person. I’m lucky enough to work in an agency, so I can ask someone else’s opinion, if they’re not part of that relationship and not part of that projects. That can be really useful. But yeah, it’s an ongoing process. I think you need to really be thinking about reigning in and letting people make mistakes and letting people learn through their mistakes.
Because I think we all know as copywriters, that’s how we’ve got better through our careers. And helping someone else do that is a very rewarding thing today is also really challenging thing to do. It’s not easy and I think you can be a really great copywriter and not be any good at that. And that’s okay. But I think knowing what you’re good at is a really powerful thing.
Rob: Sam, will you talk a little bit about the creative process that your agency? Much of the work that I do is oftentimes alone in my office. I miss my agency days and the back and forth, the creativity that can happen from that. So will you just tell us a little about that creative process where you work?
Sam Pollen: Yeah, absolutely. Worth saying at the time of recording, it’s obviously a little bit strange because we’re all working from homes. Normally we are in an agency in London and there were about 10 people in our team. It’s only a little office, a little agency, we all by and large, not fully, but in that office day to day. Occasionally we are onsite with clients or working from home or things like that. But basically, we’re all there day to day.
In terms of how it works. I think copywriting agency, there aren’t that many of us around, but there are a few of us. And I think it should be interesting because for some kinds of projects, it makes sense to replicate the kind of format of a design agency or kind of advertising agency. And I think that’s how lots of copywriting agencies structure themselves. So they will have a creative director who is who’s reviewing work that writers create and kind of signing it off. And then that goes out to the client. In the kind of classic design agency model.
Actually, I think for writing projects that often doesn’t make sense and you need a kind of more flexible model that is maybe more like the tech world. But it’s more about people being more self-guided. That person being someone who kind of spins plates and checks in and kind of acts as a sounding board rather than someone who is sort of a kind of a gatekeeper, if that makes sense.
In terms of the kinds of work we do, because that might be useful for understanding those challenges. Our agency does a kind of real mixture. When we first started, I think we were doing a lot of what you might call classic copywriting briefs. “We need a brochure, can you help us write it?” Or, “We need to create a new website, we want 50 words for this paragraph. We want 200 words on this page.” Al of that kind of quite rigid copywriting briefs.
Now, much more of our work is kind of bigger and more strategic for the company. So they will be bringing us in really to help with content strategy and to help with often if we’re working, because we do sort of naming and we do things to startups as well. So often we’ll be kind of shaping quite big bits of the business that will come. So, it’s a real mixture and we work across quite a lot of different sectors.
Again, that’s a really nice thing about being in an agency that happens to have a mixture of work because you get exposed to lots of different things. We do a lot for our clients, but we do really professional services and we do fast moving consumer goods, kind of consumer products as well. It’s nice to have that mixture.
Rob: So, you guys are focused on words and the copy that goes into a particular advertisement. But when you look at the portfolio on the website, there’s some pretty sweet designed too. Will you tell us a little bit about the design handoff and how you guys handle that on projects?
Sam Pollen: Again, it’s a little bit of a mixture, which I feel like it’s a really annoying answer. But there we go. Some of our work we are briefed direct. So we’re working with the design agency and we will kind of work as a sub agency on a team that is creating the creative work. Other projects that design will be happening in house with the client. So we will be working directly with the client. We don’t do any design ourselves and design is never part of what we’re offering. I mean, sometimes that relationship flips. So if we have a good relationship with the client, we will bring in a design partner to help us with that. But essentially, as nice as that website looks, I’m glad you glad you feel that way, but that’s never our work.
But yeah, we collaborate closely with designers. Personally I see writing as really as, we should think of it as a design discipline. We’re making strategic decisions about how a brand should be represented in the world. And really, you should bring together whatever technical skills you need to do that. So that might be illustrators, that might be writers, that might be UX designers. That can be a range of people, but bringing those skills together and allowing them to collaborate in a kind of genuinely fluid back and forth white is the best way towards a great creative result.
And I think historically writers us have been in that position where they get asked an hour before the thing needs to be sent to print, “Oh, we need a new headline for this page. It needs to be seven words long because we don’t want to change the design. What should it be?” And I feel like that’s generally not the best way to get good work out of a writer.
Kira: For copywriters who have an interest in becoming a creative director, whether it’s working within an agency like yours, or maybe building their own, what advice would you give them if they don’t necessarily have that background, but they want to get into it.
Sam Pollen: It’s a tricky one. I think a really valuable thing I did was some training. There’s lots of active training out there. It depends where people are, in the UK it would be the A&D author’s training in creative direction. And that’s kind of aimed at creative directors of all kinds. They’re not just writers but also art directors and whatever. But there’s lots of useful stuff on the kind of…
If there is an inevitable HR side to that, you’re looking after people and you want them to be motivated and you want them to have what they need and you want to hear from them about what you’re getting right and what you’re getting wrong, and there’s this kind of set of HR skills there that you haven’t necessarily had to develop as a writer. That’s really important.
And on the other side of that, I think is developing your kind of introspection skills. I think lots of writers, certainly I historically, and to some extent still, and lots of other writers are they really unpicked the writing process that they go through. They just do it and they’re very good at it, so they can create great copy and the get a great result, but actually thinking about breaking down the process of that, is what you need to do if you’re going to be able to take other people for it and kind of mentor other people.
Rob: Sam, I’m interested in your writing process. When you get an assignment, what do you do in order to generate enough ideas to work through the headlines, the copy, whatever the assignment calls for? What’s your process when you sit down to write?
Sam Pollen: Yeah. It all starts with the brief. Making the briefing process really useful to you is the first thing. I think one thing I almost always do, if I possibly have time, is come to the initial conversation with the client with a list of questions and having kind of immersed myself in that brand and what they’re trying to do, even if I don’t know anything about the brief they’re asking me about. I want to be able to ask them questions about what they do and kind of learn more about that business because I think that’s what helps you stopped to think about different angles and think about different creative routes and all of that.
As part of that, I often say to people, I kind of preface the fact that I’m going to ask them lots of stupid questions and then proceed to ask them lots of stupid questions. Which I think is a really valuable thing today. I find that around the point, part of a copywriter’s job is to take what they do and find what’s interesting for a customer or whoever that audience is in what they do.
And they have a clear idea of what they want to sell and kind of the result they want from a business perspective, but they don’t necessarily have a clear idea of what is actually appealing to the person they’re talking to. And so I feel like a copywriter’s job is to interrogate that and ask them, “Well, why should I care?” It’d be that kind of annoying devil’s advocate. So I try and do that in a briefing meeting without being too annoying. I think that ability to ask stupid questions is a really good starting point for a crazy process.
From there, what do I do? I do very old fashion thing in that I try and work on paper to start with. I try and write things down without editing myself too much depending on the project and depending on timelines and all kinds of things that sometimes doesn’t go so well, if don’t have time to do that. I love to just write down as many things as I can before I start editing myself and I try and separate the process of writing and editing as much as possible, which I think is quite an old school thing to do now.
But I think can be really valuable in terms of, if you start editing something and start crafting it, then you get stuck on that idea and you try and make that idea really good. And you lose the fluidity of turning out 20 different ideas, all of which are crap, but all of which can be honed and refined and developed. I think that that process of doing things on paper or whatever your process is that stops you editing yourself as you write, just churning stuff out, being the first stage of creative process can be really valuable. And then starting to refine and develop and circle the routes that are interesting and try and turn them into something that actually works and that is a bit more crafted.
Kira: I like the idea of stupid questions. Can you tell us more about that or even more examples? I think you mentioned, “Why should I care about this?” Which is a great question to ask. What are some other stupid questions that you’ve asked that maybe even take a little bit of courage to ask, because it’s uncomfortable or it is a stupid question?
Sam Pollen: I think courage is a really good way of putting it because I think when you ask questions, like you can often be in a briefing conversation and you feel like, “Oh, I should probably know the answer to that, so I won’t say anything.” There’s a confidence thing you have to build up there. Because I think it’s really useful for you to say ask, “Well, how did we get there? Why should someone do that? So, you’re more expensive than all of the competitors.”
Or say like, “Why would I pick you over this other competitor?” And those questions feel kind of awkward. You feel like you’re a lawyer in court and you’re trying to trip someone up, but actually that’s how you kind of develop the argument and help them explain what does set them apart, what doesn’t set them apart.
I often get briefs from clients, the list the USP. They’re launching a new product. And USP is a product that it’s easy to use and that it’s user friendly or whatever. I look at that and I go, “Well, everyone says that. That’s not a distinguishing thing.” I don’t necessarily think that every product has to have USPs, I think it’s about finding the story to tell. But I do think asking those questions that feel a bit awkward can help you on pitch how much they’ve thought about it, maybe, but also just what angle you’re going to be able to take.
It also allows you to start of sense checking what they’re expecting from you. Because I think there can often be a problem during a briefing process with mismatched expectations that you feel like you’ve got a really clear step from what they’ve said, but actually you go back to them and they say, “Oh, well I wanted it to be much more. You didn’t talk about this thing.” And it’s like, “Well, that was never in the brief.”
I think asking those dumb questions can be a really good way of kind of unpacking that in the meeting. As I said, I tend to preface that with telling them I’m going to do that, and saying I’m going to ask you things you’re going to think I’m really annoying and tedious and asking all of the stupid questions and I’m wasting your time. But the reason I’m doing that is because I want to hear you talk it through and I want to unpack this argument for why people should buy this product.
Rob: And I’m guessing it’s sometimes the result that you get by asking those unique questions, or maybe they’re even silly or dumb questions, sometimes that uncovers a big idea that you can then use in the advertising?
Sam Pollen: Yeah, absolutely. I know it would be really helpful for me to have an example at my fingertips of that. I’m sorry I don’t, but yes, totally. If you ask these questions about can quite often unpick some routes that’s really interesting. Actually, the the thing that really sets this product apart is X. That no one’s no one’s put in the brief because no, one’s had that conversation out loud and kind of really unpicked it in that way. 100% that can often be the stock for really good idea.
Rob: While we’re talking about that big idea, how do you know when you’ve come across an idea that’s maybe a step above? When you’re writing out all of the headlines and you finally get that one, you’re like, “Yep. This is the winner.” What does that feel like? And how do you know that you’ve hit the goldmine there?
Sam Pollen: That’s a hard question to answer. I think most really good ideas have an innate simplicity and they work to someone even they won’t have had to go through all of that process of context setting and all of the research that you’ve gone through, it just hasn’t been an immediate sort of fluidity and it just feels right. I know that’s the worst answer in the world, but it just feels right. But I think that is a lot of the process of copywriting is kind of honing something until it feels like it’s the most elegant version of whatever the idea is. And it says just enough without saying too much.
I think that’s often what underpins a good idea. But I accept that it’s that it’s one of those annoying things that people give…where kind of it’s not got anything to really grapple, honestly. But I do think that’s true is that you just be kind of refining things until that point where it feels like you’ve got just enough there and that’s the point at which it really sings.
Kira: And maybe this is a similar a process for naming and naming for the startups. But I think the whole idea around naming and selling that as a package is really appealing. It’s not something that I’ve done. Can you just talk about how the naming process is different and how you need to approach that and even how I always wonder about the deliverables that you send to a client for naming. Are you sending a bunch of names or are you really narrowing it down to the best name? Can you just give us a little bit more info about that?
Sam Pollen: Yeah. Naming is a really challenging thing. Because one, there’s a whole legal side to it. People have to have a name they can use, and we’re not lawyers so that can be a challenging process. And I think we say that up front and we sometimes we work with a partner who will check those names and just checking if they’re viable and if they can be used. So that’s one whole thing.
But in terms of the kind of creative process, I’ve worked with lots of different naming presses, lots of design agencies that we work with. We’ll also do naming as part of this process. You see what they end up with. They will provide a client with a list of like 200, 300 names. From my perspective, I think it’s very hard for anyone to look at that make a decision to come up with a good product from that kind of process.
If you’ll just throwing all of them at the wall and seeing what will stick, I’m not sure that’s a great creative process. And I think if you tried that with any other creative product, you’d be like, “Oh, that’s a ridiculous way of doing it. I’m not going to give you 200 options. I’m not gonna give you 200 routes. And people do with naming because the product is small. I don’t necessarily think it’s a great reflection on your creativity and the insight you’re bringing, if you give people 200 options and say, “Pick one of these.”
When we do naming, we try and making more of a process. Start with having an initial workshop where we are exploring themes, and exploring the kind of names that work. And I think it does a bit of so training we do at the start of that to talk about the different kinds of names that can work. I think a lot of people have preconceptions of what makes good names.
And actually lots of names that we use and that we think are great names now felt like quite weird names at the time. Google obviously is a number and it’s quite an abstract thing, but appeal to engineers, that means nothing to most people who use the product every day. And the reason it caught on is because it has a simplicity and it’s really easily pronounced and it works on different languages and all kinds of things.
But naming is a really tricky thing, because people bring to it, I think some preconception of what they want the name to capture, but often the name can’t really do that. The names that they have in their heads that are great, are great because they fill up with resonance and we make things about their friends and they’ve built up value and equity over time.
So that can be a bit of a challenge. I think taking people through that story and talking to them about different types of names, we used some visual kind of grids to show people where names can fit in the market. Because I think naming is inevitably, like any creative process, it’s also about for a commercial creative process, it’s about finding your place in the market.
And you can pick names that help you fit into that market and become an established player. Or you can pick a name that sets you apart and kind of bring something fresh and different. Kind of taking people through that visually it can be really useful. And we do that in kind of workshop process where we’re quabling things and saying, “Is this expected for your market? Is it abstract or is it more prescriptive? Are you calling yourself British Airways?” Which is super descriptive naming? But at least that’s what that company is about. Or are you calling yourself monarch or the name of another airline that is a little bit more abstract. I think taking people through that argument is really useful.
In terms of the actual creative product we give people for that, it’s often a very short list of names and then we will iterate with them from there. And so we’ll pick up on themes that we think are interesting. These names might not be quite right. Which of these themes, which of these formats, which these ideas feel interesting and then we will explore those more. I think naming particularly compared to other copywriting processes, getting the process right is as important as the creative product.
Rob: Yeah. Now that you talk about that, I kind of want to come up with a product for you guys to name so I can sit through that naming workshop. Because it sounds like not only an interesting process, but a really fun process. When I’ve worked on naming projects in the past, it’s definitely been different from that. And usually a much tighter kind of a project. So that’s really interesting to me.
One of the things that it strikes me that agencies do so much better than freelancers is the presentation of the work that we create. Probably because you often have people dedicated to client management who aren’t necessarily doing the client work. But will you talk about the presentation process and your involvement when you have final copy? Maybe it’s a name, maybe it’s an ad campaign or sales collateral, whatever it is. How does that get presented to the client?
Sam Pollen: It’s an ongoing question because I think people really struggle with presenting copy. You want to explain your thinking. You don’t want to just leave people to it because there’s this kind of you want to tell them how you got there. But also, I’ve been on many calls where I’ve then ended up reading out a lot of copy to people. And that feels like a very awkward situation as well. Because you’re asking people to react to something, but like immediately on a phone call and they will pick up on some bits of it, but they’ll miss other things. I think that can be very challenging.
And what we tend to do, and this is not a perfect model because it depends on the situation, the relationship and all kinds of things. But I like to create a presentation, which is basically just the copy with maybe a little bit of rationale, but not too much. Share that ahead of time, but then tell people I’m going to explain it and talk them through on a call or in a meeting, when we can do meetings again. And then talk them through it, but avoiding the process of just reading out a lot of copy to someone which I think can be really hard.
The ideal situation is someone has read that and reviewed it, but then you have time to justify the choices you’ve made and explain the creative ideas behind it. And then giving people the opportunity to go away and kind of mull that over and then come back to you as feedback. Again, I feel like getting our process right is important. And in terms of what we do in terms of putting together presentations, we do put together, we tend to present things in a deck. So I think it probably looks a bit nicer than it might do from some freelancers, but equally there’s nothing particularly special about it.
We’re not designers and we tend to use like a Google slides template and lay out the copy neatly in that. It’s nothing more complicated than that. I think if freelancers think that agencies are stealing a march on them by making everything look really beautiful, we are certainly not that agency. We’re making it look neat and professional and managing that process of how we share it with them. But there’s not too many bells and whistles around it.
Kira: The presentation that you’re sharing before you jump on a call with them, is it roughly like five slides or 20? And are you sending it an hour before or in the morning of, or a day before you actually jump on the call with them?
Sam Pollen: It depends a lot on the client. Partly because I’m based in London, but where we work with clients around the world. And we’re often working with a lot of our clients who are in North America. So there’s a whole time zone thing as well. I like to give people something I’m going to talk to them through, at least a few hours before I’m going to talk them through it and ideally the day before. And obviously it depends a little bit on schedules and things like that. But my goal really is that people have had time to at least skim that document so they have some idea. I guess, a bit prepared for how long they’re going to have to listen to me and what I’m going to talk them through.
And even though they can come to me with questions. That said, I don’t want it to be long enough that they have kind of made up their mind about it. It’s a bit of an art, but I want them to read of it and kind of come to it with sort of maybe a couple of opinions. But I don’t necessarily want them to have finalized how they feel and had a chance to discuss it there. If there’s multiple clients in the room, which there usually is, I’d love for them to have all read it individually, but not have time to compare notes.
Kira: That makes sense. That helps. Let’s talk about developing a brand voice. I know that’s something that your agency does as well. What does it take to build a brand voice the right way and where have you found copywriters messing this up or just making some mistakes with capturing that brand voice?
Sam Pollen: Well, I think one thing that often is a challenge with brand voice is that 70% of some nice businesses, a lot of what makes that brand’s voice effective is same. Some of building a brand voice about differentiation, but a lot of it is just about the general principles of good writing. So making things clear and making things feel personal and making things direct and talking about things the audience will care about. So, talking about benefits rather than features.
And lots of those things are the same for almost any company. Not in absolutely every situation. And we certainly work with some brands where their voice is a lot more esoteric, but generally I would say there is a half or two thirds of that prices should be the same for lots of brands. And it’s really about kind of the principles of good writing.
So that’s one thing I think is often missed, because I think people want to dress it up to be, “This is completely uniquely created for you. And every aspect of it is honed for your brand.” And I think actually being upfront about and saying, “Some of this is the principles of good writing and we are just going to kind of lay out. We think you should break up long paragraphs and you should make sure this is personal and you should…” All of those things. That’s some of it. And kind of being upfront about the bits between that and the bits that are differentiating, the bits that are kind of cherry on top of the cake, that’s actually setting them apart. I think being upfront about that can be really helpful.
The other thing that I find that kind of brand voice projects often miss, is certainly when they’re coming from, this is more something that I skimmed from one design agency that have done a kind of voice peace is that they’re often very, very top line. They might be useful for someone who is quite a good writer and knows the brand very well already. Because it’s just a couple of principles or a couple of tips or something like that. But actually, for most people who have to write for that brand day to day, it’s not enough to go on.
So certainly when we work on brand voice projects, we tend to really focus on samples and really focused on samples that cover a broad range of communications situation. But ultimately every brand almost everyone in the company writes on behalf of that company. Some of them will be writing marketing campaigns and writing copy for the website, which is very visible, but other people are writing emails to clients and sales people or calling people and talking to them, there’s all of this. We’re all communicating words all day long. And all of that adds up to the brand voice.
We very much see that all as part of the brand voice and part of what you should you thinking about when you think about the words to use. So for that reason kind of picking samples and kind of working in a way where you actually listen to those people as much as possible. So trying to get workshops and kind of have an interactive elements there as well, listening to people’s like, “What are your communications challenges? You sales rep, you have to call 50 people every day. And talk to them about this product. What do you find hard? Where do you trip up” This script that people have given you? How does that work? What is not working for you? Which bits about do you skip over because you know that they turn people off?”
And kind of learning as much as he can from different parts of the business, is what we find makes the brand voice project actually effective and something that people can actually use rather than just a really nice document that sits on a shelf above the kind of head of brand’s desk and that no one ever reads.
Rob: This seems immensely helpful to anybody who’s working in communications at a company, even a small company. I know you guys call this the verbal identity, but so much different from the brand identity, which just shows you how to use the logo, maybe shows you some fonts and colors, even some photos, but doesn’t really go in depth. I really liked the idea of providing sample emails, sample captions, and lots of copy blocks that show people how to use a brand voice effectively. I think this is a really cool product and something that most agencies don’t offer.
Sam Pollen: Well, thank you. I say anything but a lot of the conventions of the way we do, tone of voice guidelines being the kind of classic product that people produce? A lot of the conventions of the way we do that that’s been inherited from design brand guidelines that you say, and the thing with design guidelines is that like two or three people in a company, even a big company, often very few people have to design things. And they are experts and they understand those rules and they can apply them.
They can be very prescriptive and very simple. But the voice, everyone is using words on behalf of the company. So, you need something that is more all-encompassing and something that involves more listening. Because people have to use this day to day in their company and they will all have different challenges and they all use words every day. So hearing from them, I think copywriters are sometimes, because we’ve all had that horrible feedback from people who haven’t really got what we’re trying to do and we’re scared about talking to people about how they use words and how we can help them. Whereas actually for an effective brand voice project, that’s a really important part of the process.
Rob: So, Sam, while we’re talking about this, can we talk about the mistakes that we tend to make when we’re creating brand voice guides or even verbal identities? Aside from leaving out the whole brand voice of the words, what are other mistakes that you tend to see us making when we create a brand guide?
Sam Pollen: Another thing that I find, I see a lot of often kind of I think it’s not so much about mistakes. I guess it’s about things that I think is sometimes not thought through enough or kind of potentially slightly misused. A really good example of that would be personas. We use personas sometimes in guidelines and they can be really helpful for bringing something to life. But I think they have all kinds of pitfalls. I realize I should probably just explain what I mean by that, just so it’s clear.
You often see in brand voice guidelines that say, “We want our voice to sound like Jeff Goldblum,” or something like that. They’ll pick a character, sometimes it will be a literal real person or kind of character in fiction. And sometimes it will be like people use like archetypes. Like union archetypes that will be the challenger, or it will be some kind of little term that kind of summarizes what that person is. The bold pioneer or whatever.
I think those are often derided because they often feel like the kind of thing that branding people say to you, and no one actually knows what they mean. And actually I think they have a real use because I think if you pick the right one, it can give people a shared understanding of what this brand is about. And it can be the thing that they have in their heads day to day, that reminds them of all of the detailed stuff that sits below that. But they can also take people in really different directions.
A problem I have with them is particularly when people pick real people, I often see ones that pick actors, for example. I think that that is then very influenced by like what people happen to have seen that actor in, what we happen to know about that person. So your Tom Hardy is different from my Tom Hardy, because I’ve watched Peaky Blinders and you’ve watched something, whatever it is. It varies depending on the person.
But I do you think that everyone in the world has different resonances and associations with different people and even different words. So there’s a real challenge when you’re creating persona, or when you’re creating something that’s supposed to be that top level, because it can steer people the wrong way. I think that the general failings I see with some kind of voice guidelines is that they work for everyone who was part of their creation. They work for the people in the room, but they maybe don’t speak enough to the challenges that other people are going to face interpreting them.
No one’s been in, other than a kind of sign off sense checking point of view, like, “Are you happy with this?” No one has been in and kind of really interrogated them and said, “Based on these guidelines, can you actually try and write this? What do you think the missing pieces are? Does this work for what you need to write day to day or actually, does it kind of feel irrelevant because it just doesn’t cover this whole situation that you have to deal with every day?”
Kira: Sam, I read on your website, maybe it was one of the articles you had posted, or your agency had posted about writing better luxury copy. That’s not something we’ve talked about in the podcast. Are you able to talk about what that means and what it looks like to write better luxury copy?
Sam Pollen: Sure. It’s a slightly tricky topic because, I think one, luxury comes to such a broad range of things. So people can be talking about perfumes or they can be talking about yachts or they can be talking about things that everyone buys, but sees as aspirational. Is Apple a luxury brand? kind of, because it’s kind of expensive. Or it can be things that very few people will ever actually interact with. That’s one challenge.
I think luxury brands write in lots of really different ways. Some of them write almost nothing. You’d think a lot about a lot of fashion houses. There’s very little copy to anything they do. It’s all said in all of their ads, they’re visually loud. And they’re about selling an idea. But there’s almost no writing for a lot of what they do.
If you, flip that around, there are lots of, certainly in the UK, there’s lots of kind of old British brands that write in a very Victorian style which is actually often really lovely. We work with a couple of them. I’m not suggesting that’s a bad thing, but it’s kind of different interpretation of luxury. Something that’s very tongue in cheek and very playful and very fun.
I think luxury brands what’s really interesting about them is that they are less constrained than some other kinds of brands because their business doesn’t depend on moving products. Normally, doesn’t depend on moving like mass product to mass consumers. They are less focused on click through rates, SEO and things that might be very important to a different kind of brand. And they are more focused maybe on storytelling and kind of creating an image and creating a world that really engages people. And that can be really fun from a copywriting standpoint.
A lot of the most interesting brands that I’ve written for have just been from a pure writing craft point of view and things that have been fun to write, have been luxury brands because we’ve worked on a whiskey brand for example, and it allowed us to write in a very lyrical, poetic way that wouldn’t be right to most brands. Because if a brand was trying to get hits online and that was the kind of primary metric for how successful they were going to be, it would have been very tough for them to pull off that kind of voice. Sorry. That was slightly rambling answer. Did I answer your question?
Rob: Rambling answers are always good.
Sam Pollen: …it’s appropriate that I’m lecturing. (laughs)
Rob: For sure. I’m curious Sam, if you’ve noticed a difference in the kind of writing that we need to do with how the world’s changed over the last couple of months. With all of the shutdown, the fear that some people have the reaction to that fear, which is, “Hey, forget it all.” Or whatever. How has what you to write and what you have to create for the brands that you work for changed?
Sam Pollen: It’s an ongoing thing and I think people are reacting to it as it changes. I think we’re entering a period now where we’ve gone past that initial kind of shock reaction where everyone was sort of talking mainly, either not talking at all or talking about how you could still access their products and services in this new world, or possibly just talking about, I think a lot of brands we’re talking about the positive things they were doing to help in that new world. Which was great.
I think that was a challenge because sometimes, if you got the tone of that wrong, it could feel exploitative rather than helpful. And that’s the whole challenge. So there was that initial phase and now we’re in the phase where people are talking about, “Well, how is the world different now?” And the things that needs prioritize and value, how have they changed?”
Whatever the way consumers think and behave changes, then the way we write copy and the current creative that we come up with needs to change. I think you mentioned in the preamble, but I write fiction and I think there’s been some I’ve seen on Twitter, people talking about this idea, “Oh, we’re going to be drowned and things that are all about sort of dystopian books about coronavirus and how everything is… The world will never be the same.
And my reactions to that was kind of like, “Oh, well shouldn’t we be?” This is the biggest thing that has happened to lots of people in their lifetimes and it’s entirely appropriate that we create art about that and that we respond to that in the things that we do. Anyway, that’s a sort of sidetrack. What have we been named for clients I think is, we worked with some health brands that had a need immediate needs in terms of kind of content strategy, “How do we respond to this, what we say about what we’re doing?” So that was a really interesting challenge and that was a challenge that lots of copywriters I think, will find familiar in just doing things quickly in a responsive way. And that was kind of super interesting and super challenging, but enjoyable as well.
And then I think there’s a lot of brands that are grappling with the fact that they come sell through some of the channels that they used to sell through. So certainly, we work with, I was talking to a brands today, actually, I won’t give too much away about who they were, but they were saying, they seller sort of luxury product that most of it is sold in store, in person, and that’s obviously not been a thing for them for the past couple of months. And it’s going to be the very best reduced for many months more.
So their challenge was, how do we bring this to life online? This product is very tactile and it’s very much about the experience of being up close to it. How do we do that in words? And how do we kind of cut through in a world where we really need to communicate online and where our product doesn’t feel as special and doesn’t feel as differentiated as it does if you actually touch it and feel it and have it in front of you. They were thinking, that’s a challenge we’ve got to tackle in our copywriting. They were thinking about, “What is the experience of this product and how has it changed?” And I think that’s a question that everyone should be asking themselves right now.
I think kind of in some ways it’s a really challenging time for everybody. I think if you just look at it from the kind of narrow creative process, it can also be really interesting. And I think lots of companies have kind of, you’ve seen you’re local, certainly around me, there’ve been wine shops and delis and things like that. Who’ve had to kind of make up new business models and new ways of doing things over overnight. And I think the same as kind of true in copywriting. Brands are just suddenly realizing they’re going to have to communicate their value and the things they do in a totally different way and copywriters have a really important role to play in helping them do that.
Kira: I would like to talk more about you, Sam. What has been your biggest struggle as a creative as a writer?
Sam Pollen: What is my biggest? I was talking earlier about the writing things on paper and why I do that in terms of getting ideas out rather than finessing ideas. I think that speaks to a general challenge that certainly I have, is that it’s very easy for me to focus in on one thing and try and polish that and lose sight of the kind of range of possibilities. That is something that I have fixed myself through ways of working and the process I go through. But it’s definitely an ongoing challenge. How do I not just pick up one thing and run with that? How do I step back? And I’m kind of really think about the full range of ideas?
Rob: So, Sam, if somebody were listening to this and thought, “I like what he’s done with his career. I kind of want to go to the same place.” What advice would you give to them? How should they get started and what should they be doing and focused on in order to get to where you are today?
Sam Pollen: It’s very flattering when you say get to where I am today. Like I am in a very lofty position.
Rob: Yes, of course. The pinnacle of your career.
Sam Pollen: I don’t know if I feel that way, but it’s nice to hear someone say that. Well, firstly, I would say that I think copywriting is a really hard industry to get into. As in the routes into it just aren’t clear. I mentioned that I did a science degree. I think lots of copywriters did English or some kind of communications degree or course or whatever. I did something different.
I only found copywriting as a career because I was doing jobs that involved having to write words for companies and realized that that was something you could do as a job. Maybe that sounds really naïve and stupid. But I think that we think of partly because I think this is partly Mad Men’s fault, copywriting got very narrowly defined as like the person who writes the tagline in an ad, for a long time.
And actually the truth of it is that copywriting is something that, whether you’re a full time copywriter or whether you’re just doing it as part of another job, it’s something that exists for every company and is a big part of the way every company does business, particularly in a kind of online world.
I think the first challenge there of like, how do you even get started in copywriting? I think my advice there would be certainly, my first jobs in copywriting were not copywriting jobs they were jobs that allowed me to do some copywriting as part of the job. I was very up for doing anything that involved writing and I said so. I told people around me, “Okay, we need to send an email out about this, can I kind of draft that and be the person who’s sort of responsible for that?”
And people picked up on the fact that I was good at writing and I enjoyed doing that. And then writing became more and more of my job. So even if I was in a job, I think I was called marketing manager, I was at a design agency and I was primarily sort of managing PR and putting things on the website and things like that. But more and more of my job became about writing because I expressed enthusiasm full-out.
I was lucky with the environment I was in and obviously not every workplace is going to be supportive of that, but I would certainly say that as a general rule, I think looking for a job title that is copywriter, is certainly one way of getting a copywriting job, but actually there are loads of very satisfying “copywriting” jobs that are not called copywriter. If that makes sense.
Kira: Yeah, that totally makes sense. Because we teased it at the beginning, I’ve got to ask my final question. Why did you write a book about anorexia?
Sam Pollen: If I may, I’ll put a plug for the title of my… I wrote a book called The Year I didn’t Eat, which is out in North America and the UK. And it’s for teens. Sort of 10 to 15 year olds, something like that, and it’s about boy who has anorexia. I wrote that because I had experienced that myself when I was a teenager. And there is very little fiction, well there’s very little anything really that deals with what that experience is like as a man. Which is a little bit different to what that experience is like as a woman.
So, I wanted to write a book that was about that and sort of told that story and would be helpful maybe to people who are going through that, and also people who knew people who had experienced that and kind of wanted to understand it a little bit more. I guess like a lot teen levels, it’s also kind of about being a teenager and then the challenges of that and the challenge of talking to people around you about how you feel, which is I think a very relevant topic of the moment, I hope.
But yeah, I wanted to do that. I’ve always kind of written things for personal interest alongside my day job, alongside writing kind of commercially. I would have to say, I think there’s probably lots of copywriters who listen to your podcast who are hopefully budding writers. I would say that that is not going to be my full time career anytime soon, sadly. But I enjoy doing it and it makes you a better writer of all kinds if you approach writing from different angles and try to do different things for different audiences.
Rob: Yeah. We can look forward to the movie version, I suppose, of your book. Then you can spend all of your time writing.
Sam Pollen: Exactly. Then I quit and go and sit on the beach somewhere. Publishing is tricky. But I’ve enjoyed the experience when it lasts. I think you have to approach it in that way of a love of writing being the primary thing and the reason you’re doing it,
Rob: Sam, this has been really insightful look into your writing life, but also the agency life, which we don’t get a chance to talk about very often. So we want to thank you for that. If people want to connect with you or learn more about what you do, where should they go, how can they find you?
Sam Pollen: Yeah. My agency is called Reed Words, so, R-E-E-D Words, and you will find us on Twitter as that Reed Words and on reedwords.com, is our website. And I’m Samuel Pollen, I am Samuel_Pollen on Twitter and that’s probably the best. I’m in diaspora too often so that’s probably the best place to find me if you’re looking for me. I also have a website that talks more about my book, if you are interested in that.
Kira: All right. Thank you so much, Sam.
Rob: Thanks, Sam.
Sam Pollen: Thanks. Take care.
Rob: You’ve been listening to the copywriter club podcast with Kira Hug and Rob Marsh. Music for the show is a clip From Gravity by Whitest Boy Alive, available in iTunes. If you like what you’ve heard, you can help us spread the word by subscribing in iTunes and by leaving a review. For show notes, a full transcript and links to our free Facebook community, visit thecopywriterclub.com. We’ll see you next episode.