Inhouse copywriter Jon Lamphier joins Kira and Rob for the 78th episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast. We’ve known Jon for a few years now and really admire his ability to get readers to care about his writing. And he’s a lot of fun to hang out with. We talked with Jon about:
• how socializing at a trivia game led to a job as a copywriter
• what it’s like to work as at an agency and his terrifying first days
• when he first realized that copywriting was what he wanted to do (and that he was good at it)
• the kinds of work he took on as an agency copywriter
• how he developed the ability to throw out funny one-liners
• how he breaks down the creative process to get to the right idea
• what the day-to-day work looks like at an agency
• the dark side of agency life (the knife someone on the first day analogy)
• how he balances freelance and a regular copywriting day job
• how he gets himself into the mindset for coming up with good ideas
• the big career mistake he made on the way to an important pitch
• how a mastermind made him a better writer and agency employee
• what Jon is doing today as an in-house copywriter
• what he learned from moving his family to a new city for a new job
• his two-word advice to writers going through the job search process
We also talked about why he doesn’t limit himself to a single niche, where he sees himself working in sixty years (okay, maybe not sixty years), the books and other resources he loves as a copywriter, and the #1 mistake he sees copywriters making (and the opportunity it presents to those who are ready for it). To hear it all, click the play button below, or scroll down for a full transcript.
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:McDonald’s
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
Intro: Content (for now)
Kira: What if you could hang out with seriously talented copywriters, 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 78, as we talk with in-house copywriter Jon Lamphier about how he became a copywriter; the ends and outs of agency life; what he does to stay creative; and how he got so good at writing great headlines.
Kira: Jon, welcome!
Jon: Hey guys.
Kira: I can’t believe it’s taken us this long to get you on the show.
Rob: Yeah, seriously.
Jon: What? Why? You guys have had so many famous copywriters on the show, I am the opposite of that!
Rob: Maybe not famous, but every bit as talented, and certainly a better friend than most of them are to us.
Jon: All right, I’ll take….I’ll take that. I’ll take that; I appreciate it.
Kira: Laughs. So why don’t we start with your story, Jon? How did you end up as a copywriter?
Jon: All right. Well, I had a past life in another career, but, when I went to a trivia night one night after my wife and I had moved to Greensboro, North Carolina… Showed up at that trivia night, and made a friend who was actually the host. Told him I thought he did a great job, and we got to talking over a couple of adult beverages, and you know, he started talking about how he was overloaded at work. One thing led to another, and I picked up a freelance gig working for the agency that he was working for; I knocked it out of the park, and sort of fell in and realized that this is what I should’ve been doing all along, so…
Rob: So you’re not the kind of guy that grew up wishing to be a copywriter? You weren’t watching Darren Stevens on Bewitched, or you know, any….
Rob: ….Thinking “copy’s for me”?
Jon: No, I wasn’t. I mean, whether it was, you know, actively knowing it or not, like, I always loved advertising. I just… when stuff was clearly pointed at me, I could totally tell. And you could tell that I was bored with stuff that wasn’t, and that was fine, but I always loved words. English was a passion for a long time. Not in college, but, just the way that words work and what we can mean and how, you know, one thing can mean something to one person, and then another. That was always there, and, then the clever, sort of conceptual side of it kind of came to life when I got that first freelance gig.
Kira: So Jon, what would you doing before you got this freelance gig?
Jon: I got worked at McDonald’s for almost ten years. I got to do a lot of people managing and training of people; sort of got really got at firing people too.
Rob: Yeah, the “George Clooney” of McDonald’s? What was his role in firing people?
Jon: Maybe not that big, but you know, just getting people to understand what they had done, and how that was fire-able and how it was just like, hey, it’s nothing personal, it’s just the job, and that was sort of what spawned this mentality of wanting to work with people who were passionate about the same stuff that I was. I know that’s a weird thing to come from McDonald’s and you don’t think about that, but you can tell when people want to work together, or when they’re just in it for themselves. And that was real learning experience from that, that certainly applies to my current line of work.
Kira: So what was fire-able at that point? I need some stories!
Jon: Laughs. I mean, the same thing that’s fire-able everywhere, you know? Not showing up and not doing good work. Those are pretty universal things, and it’s not super-obvious to everyone at whatever stage of life you’re in if you haven’t been taught that lesson that you have to show up and you have to work hard. That’s it; nothing in particular, but if we want to keep it to things that are universally applicable, I mean there’s other stuff about that restaurant industry that people who’ve worked in that will understand, and it’s fast-paced, and you’re on your feet all day. And those are things too that make it hard, but at the same time, you still got to show up and do good work, so…
Rob: Making a mental note: show up. Do good work…yeah.
Jon: Yeah, that can be the whole thing! I mean, just…laughs…it’s hard to always keep that top-of-mind, but it’s certainly what drives me some of the time where it’s just….you have to go do it, you know. You may not feel like it, but you have to.
Rob: So let’s talk a little bit about your first agency job, and you told us how you broke in, which, I think a lot of people when they think, “Hey, I want to work for an ad agency,” they really struggle to break in. You did it basically by creating a relationship, but what were the early days of that job like, you know? Learning how to be an agency copywriter…just walk us through the details of that.
Jon: The first days of that were terrifying. And if they’re not terrifying for you, as somebody who’s never worked at an agency, you’re stronger than I am, but agencies have this reputation for being, you know, this exciting, really fast-paced, lots of stuff going on. I mean, we’ve all seen Mad Men and every other representation of an agency atmosphere, and it’s pretty true, I mean, apart from like the philandering and misogyny that’s in Mad Men, like a lot of the bureaucracy and the process and having lots of people who are good at different things and not necessarily overlapping? It’s really true. So, it’s an exciting atmosphere; there are super-focused on reputation and making impressions, but it was intense at first, because it is a lot of stuff that gets thrust on you and, again, if you’re not doing the work, it’s easy to just kind of fade into the background.
Kira: What type of projects were you working on?
Jon: At first I was working on projects that sort of already had a campaign around them, so I would do brochure pieces or, you know, landing pages, or smaller parts of a bigger campaign or bigger look and feel that had kind of already been created. So that was really what sharpened my skills as far as being able to jump in and out of different projects. I mean, that’s one of the huge upsides to working at an agency, and I think the reason a lot of people like the agency environment if you’re….you get…. I mean, I don’t get bored easily, but I’ve a pretty low threshold for boredom, and in an agency, you know, you get to work on lots of different types of accounts and get a lot of experience really quickly. You still have to work your butt off, but it’s definitely something where you get to show that you can write for a lot of different forms.
Rob: One of the things that I’ve noticed about you Jon is that you have an ability for the quick turn-up phrase, which seems to be a skill that a lot of agencies like, you know, whether it’s a headline, or a tagline, or just a creative idea. Is that natural? Do you work at that? Like, if I wanted to be more… develop that skill in me, what could I do?
Jon: First, it doesn’t hurt to have a family that’s incredibly quick-witted too, and being the youngest person in that family, you’re always—I mean, I say without, you know, any reservation, I am constantly seeking approval, and that helps sharpen your sword immensely! Laughs.
Rob: Right, right.
Jon: I had a grandfather who was hysterically fast, and just an absolute sniper when it came to funny lines and just breaking in at exactly the right time, and my dad and my brother, the same. And my mom, you know, was always quick with an eye-roll at something that was really great, but she just, you know, had heard it so many times before. But that’s a good way to start and if you don’t have that, yes, you definitely have to work at it. All it takes to be good at a quick line, at a small line, at a headline, at something that’s fast and getable, and funny and interesting or whatever your book is going to be….you have to be able to distill something down to its absolute core, and use as few words as possible, so. That’s how you get to there. You have to just work at taking stuff out.
Kira: Okay so, you helped me with my website, actually, my home page and my key message on that just by talking through it with you, you were able to distill it.
Kira: What is you creative process look like? You said, you know, just figure out how to distill something down, but that’s kind of hard to take in, like, how can we break down the creative process?
Jon: I love that you brought that up, because that’s one of my favorite things. I mean, working one-to-one with somebody like the way that we were doing it where we’re just talking through, you know, who you are and who you want to work with, you know, you’re an audience of one, right? I’m trying to sell to you to sell to other people who you want, and you were really great at being able to say who you wanted to talk to, and that’s essential for that distillation process, right? I mean, if you don’t know exactly who you’re talking to, if you try to treat it as a room full of people instead of just one person that you’re trying to connect with, it’s really hard to get beyond that, but, I do love that “If you’re a jerk, be a jerk” line that’s in your—laughs—I think it’s on your homepage, right? I mean, that’s…
Kira: Yeah! Yeah.
Jon: …basically, I mean, you didn’t say it in those words, but that’s what you were saying. You were like, I don’t want people to have to pretend to be someone other than themselves, so that was a really easy get for me. It’s like, what’s the extreme version of that, right? What’s somebody going to get in a heartbeat if they are this particular brand of person that not everyone is going to buy into, that’s fine! Just keep being yourself, and that’s another piece of it, is that genuine character of a quick line that people get and the right person is going to immediately identify with that is meant just for them, you know?
Rob: So is this the same process that you use in agency work, or in the work that you’re doing today? Or, is there more to it than that?
Jon: Well, I mean, there’s more to it…sigh. I mean, it depends on the media too, right? I mean, any piece of advertising, if it’s, you know, if the marketing is a little bit different…if it’s, you know, a larger content piece, you definitely have to have a little bit larger audience in mind, but anything that’s going to be read by one person at a time, I think you should approach it like that and, much to, you know, the dismay of my current colleagues who are in strategy or in research or whatever, I definitely pester them with “why” a lot, because if it’s not the real answer, I just want to keep digging and digging and digging about why somebody needs to hear this and why they’ll care. If you don’t have the answers to those two questions, you’re in trouble.
Kira: So can we talk about the creative process at an agency? What is that look like with all the moving parts and different teams in your day-to-day?
Jon: Yeah, I know, I know I’ve talked about the upside of working on different projects, but you usually don’t get a lot of time with decision makers, if you aren’t one of them at an agency, so…that means, you really have to take every opportunity that’s handed to you. So, the creative process for the most part is either, you know, just yourself, or you and one other person really trying to digest a huge amount of information, and that’s not unlike if you were working on your own, but it’s definitely the case where you have a lot more masters. You have a lot more people who are going to ask you about one thing or another, which is great because you can also ask them about stuff, so if you need to somebody who’s in research who does research all the time, you get to have that, usually at your beckon call. But yeah, when it comes to selling it and selling through, it can put up some barriers for sure.
Rob: Yeah, it seems like it could be an incredible learning experience where you’re almost drinking from the fire hose. But there’s a dark side too, I’m assuming. What are the things that we should be aware of, you know, if we’re thinking, “Hey, I want to work in an agency”, you say, “Okay, but think about this too, because you’re giving up x.” What is x?
Jon: I don’t know; I haven’t really thought about an apt analogy, but the one that comes to my mind is, you know, I’ve heard it movies probably that they say you need to, you know, knife somebody on your first day of prison, so people don’t mess with you. Is that something that you guys have heard before?
Rob: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Many wounds from my prison days.
Kira: Laughs. I have not, but that makes sense!
Jon: Right, I know; not that I’ve been in the clink either, but in the case of, you know, just making sure that…the dark side of it is, if you just get lost in the frey, right? It’s really easy to become vanilla if you just keep doing what people ask you to do. I think that for my approach at the first agency, I knew that I was good at what I did so I kept being that good, hard worker, but I also kept being kind of this loud, sailor-mouthed person, and it worked out because people respected that I was frank, and that I could produce work to back it up. So, the dark side is it’s really easy if you aren’t willing to drink from that fire hose and really take everything and try to learn as fast you can and digest the information that’s given to you. It can be draining, and you can just become wallpaper. Easily. So, don’t let that happen if you want to work at an agency. That’s the way you can at least become the go-to person for something.
Kira: So, what about freelance? Have you tried freelance throughout your career? If not, why not?
Jon: I have done freelance throughout my career. I envy people like the two of you who can do freelance and rely on it, because I just can’t work in a vacuum. It doesn’t work for me. I would do my absolute best work when I bounce back and forth between being really focused and kind of sitting in a room, and putting my nose to the grind stone and doing something really hard, and then coming out of that room and either talking with someone who either knows a little bit, or doesn’t know anything about it and trying to get them to buy into them, and then go back into the room and do it again, and go back and forth with that. Now, it’s really cool to have the mastermind or, you know, a group of people who you can really trust to show your unpolished work. But as a freelancer, you know, all of the other headaches as far as scheduling and just even convincing people that copywriting is worthwhile, that stuff that just drives me bananas, so. I can do freelancing, and I will do freelancing with people who kind of take a few boxes for me, but I’m always careful with you I pick to do freelance work with; I’ll say that. Laughs.
Rob: What’s your favorite kind of work to do? And maybe share an example or two of some of the stuff you’re most proud of.
Jon: I love doing broadcast, especially now that that just doesn’t mean just TV. That can be pre-roll, or it can be a longer web video. There’s a lot of leeway; you can do a lot of different things, and it’s definitely the kind of work where if you’re working in this sort of environment of respectful collaboration or, you know, you have a director and a producer and you’ve written a script and you can get into that work, it becomes so much bigger than it is if you start with a really good idea. I did some work for a local bank down in North Carolina that turned out really well because there were really only like four or five people touching it, and it moved through quickly, and it kind of went under the radar, and we skipped over some of the checkpoints of the agency I was at, but it was really rewarding work because we came up with some really good final products and it did good things for the client as well. So, outside of that, there’s still radio, and radio is obviously wonderful because that’s the writer’s medium when it comes to just strictly being about us, but you don’t get that many radio opportunities anymore, at least for me.
Rob: Yeah and it seems like with radio, I mean, there’s just so much bad radio. There’s bad everything, but…
Jon: There is! Laughs.
Rob: …for whatever reason, like, radio seems to gravitate, or pull in people who just can’t write. Like, it seems like a medium where people can stand out if they really gave it some thought.
Jon: That’s true, and I think it may be that TV is a lot sexier, so people who could write for radio just started writing TV scripts instead. Maybe it’s more yes, you can make a killing in radio if you’re really good at it, but, yeah. There’s also the draw of things that are a little bit more…I mean larger, conceptually, right, because when you do that video piece, it’s a whole other thing and you got to work with more people, and…. it’s bigger, that’s all.
Kira: I’d love to know, Jon, when you had a moment where you’re just like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got this…” You know, maybe it was earlier on in your agency career, but you were just like, “This is what I’m meant to do; I’m so good at what we’re doing”
Jon: Well, I know we don’t have a seven-second delay or anything on this, so…
Jon: I’ll keep some of the blue nature of this out, but that first freelance gig….again, like I said, when I realized that it clicked, I came up with….it was for a brochure, and the line on the back of that brochure? It was for a trucking company, and they were…you know, they were a little rough and tumble; they weren’t the drivers themselves, but they were people trying to hire drivers and also explain to people that they had lots of different ways to move their freight around the country, and you know, I had an inkling that this was the kind of crowd that was going to be okay with something a little suggestive, something a little….not blue; let’s call it, like, “light blue” or “sky blue”. But the line on this brochure was just: “You’d be surprised what we’re packing”. And, read into that, whatever you will…
Jon: Like, it just clicked and they loved it so much when it happened. It was such validation that I knew it was the right audience for the right line, and again, it was that distilled kind of thing where I was like, “Okay, I got this.” And that was early on in the process of trying to write for these guys. So that was kind of where I just new, look, I know how to do this, and it doesn’t really matter who the audience is.
Kira: So Jon, I want to hear how a big part of your work is creating big ideas, and being creative. And it’s really easy as a copywriter, especially when you are on your own, like you said, to just kind of start following formulas, or getting really comfortable with the type of copy you write, and not thinking bigger or really creatively about the work we’re doing. Do you have any tips of exercises, or anything that works for you that really helps you just think different? Other than the collaboration, which you already mentioned that it helps to share ideas with other people and bounce some ideas around.
Jon: Yeah I mean, the collaboration thing. Definitely, you know, don’t be the smartest person in the room, if you can avoid it, but if you’re by yourself? I mean, bathe yourself in advertising. Bathe yourself in content; just get into all of it, you know? And, if it’s truly, you know, what you’re passionate about and what’s going to get you going, you’re going to be angry a lot of the time, laughs. But, for me, like, I’ll read bad advertising or listening to bad radio, or just see a bad billboard, and just get fired up about it.
Jon: I mean, I know that that seems weird, but honestly, the fact that I get fired up about stuff like that? I come back to saying like, that’s a good exercise because it means that, you know, I’m overreacting, but, you know, is it… I forget who said that, or if that’s a common saying, but you know, where you overreact, you know, that’s where your work should be. That’s where you need to find your work. So yeah, go just do that. If you don’t get super-excited when you see something that doesn’t work, or get absolutely blown away when something works perfectly, like, that’s how I sharpen it. And do continuing education too, right? I mean you have to branch out and do something that you’re not comfortable with if you want to grow. So, that’s always going to keep me sharp as a copywriter, and then just, in terms of being creative; just see how other people would do it, right? And if you’re on your own, that’s how you see what other people can do—by looking at their end product.
Rob: So we talked about a few of the things that you’re most proud of. Do you have a failure or two that you sort of look back, and kind of cringe and think, “Oh man, I wish I’d done something differently with that.” Does that happen very often for you?
Jon: Oh yeah. It doesn’t happen very often anymore, but when I was first starting out, you know, I took that passion and that drive, and there was one particular experience that was not great. I actually got tapped—It think it was a Thursday or Friday; it was right before the weekend, but we had found out that we were probably going to be going into review for a pretty big account at the agency that I was on. And, the person who was more senior to me, who was working on the account, was unavailable. So I had to jump on a plane to go pitch some new creative to a big client, and on the way there, in the plane, me in the CEO of the company got into a little bit of an argument.
Kira: OH-no! What?
Jon: On the way to a pitch, yes. So, I mean, again, part of it was just, you know, brazen, passionate, youthful idealism, but the other part was something I really felt strongly about, you know? We had three ideas that we were going to pitch, and I felt really strongly about one, and made my case, and talked to the CEO, and I really thought he was listening, but the end of my spiel, where I really thought I made a good case for it, he said, “Well just remember, it’s not about selling the best idea. We’re here to sell any idea.” Which, absolutely just broke my heart, as somebody who’s passionate about it, and I just kind of got into it with him a little bit, and that’s… Maybe it’s not a copy failure, but it’s a big regret, because the answer to a lot of problems that come up in copy, is that you tried to do what was right instead of what you were asked to do, and that is the dance that all of us have to kind of get into everyday, so, that’s a failure for that I’ll never forget.
Kira: But it’s not a failure, because you defending yourself!
Jon: Well, the end of the story is, six months later, we lost the account.
Kira: OH! Laughs.
Kira: Okay, that….
Jon: Yeah. There were other external factors; it wasn’t just because of that. But, it was a failure because I didn’t recognize the audience, because at that moment, I wasn’t pitching to the end consumer anymore. At that moment, I was pitching to both the client and the CEO, and if they weren’t happy, I wasn’t doing my job. So, I know that that’s a slippery slope, and maybe there’ll be a ton of comments about that after the show. But, I definitely feel like that’s a really tough line to walk, and it’s the one I usually end up on the “doing what’s right” side too often, and that’s when I get in trouble.
Rob: And I think that’s really common in agencies too, though, because there’s sort of competing interests here. One is yeah, you need to create advertising that’s compelling and that’s going to make the client happy, but you also have a business that you’re trying to keep running. You’ve probably got employees dependent on keeping the account. So I get the tension between selling any idea, and selling the right idea. I can understand how that happens. I’m fully on your side, that you still want to do the best thing for the client, but, it’s just a reality at the agency life that there’s this fear of having to go back from a pitch and say to ten people, “You don’t have a job on Monday.”
Jon: Yeah. And again, I would even go further: I know you say doing what’s right for the client. I kind of think that a mistake a lot of copywriter make is not thinking about the end consumer versus the client, right? Because the client knows what they want, but it may not be the right thing for the consumer at that point too. So it’s those three layers more than just agency versus client; it’s agency trying to do the right thing for the consumer, because that’s what’s going to make the client more money and make you more money vicariously if you have that set up. So, yeah. It’s an interesting balance for sure.
Kira: So Jon, we met you in a mastermind, and got to know you in there. So, I’d love to hear just how that particular mastermind that we were in with Copyhackers…how that changed your career, because you were one of the few agency people in that mastermind with us.
Jon: Yeah, I actually got my agency to pay for some of that mastermind, which is always…
Kira: Oh! Nice! Laughs.
Jon: …always a good thing when you’re at an agency if you have somebody with continuing the education budget, but, what I noticed right away and the thing that kind of changed my perspective, I got into it because I had read a lot of Copyhackers’ posts, and downloaded some of their free content, and it was something that I was familiar with and had written content before, but I definitely hadn’t touched the CRO side of things, and sort of the more technical side of measurements and that kind of stuff too, and the thing that I noticed immediately when I’m introduced to all of you guys and the rest of the people in it to….I was the only one who identified as a “conceptual copywriter”, versus like an online copywriter, or a digital copywriter, or a conversion copywriter, and I don’t know if people were just trying to play to their audience there, and say I’m a conversion copywriter, because that’s what the course was all about…Laughs…but it did two things for me in terms of how it kept me going forward and changed my career a little bit too, was that it reinforced what I already knew, that you know, I wasn’t alone and this being my calling.
You know, there are other people who have the same mindset, but it also made me appreciate the business side of things a lot more. Like I said before, you know, I hate dealing with the financing and the scheduling and all of that stuff that goes along with being solo, but it gave me this huge volume of new information about how to write content, and how to do landing pages better, and how to make sure email sequences are functioning properly. So, yeah I mean, that changed it because I had that perspective that I could bring back to the agency and talk to the digital people, or talk to the social people, and have a lot better conversation and a lot better end product working with them rather than letting them just talk at me.
Rob: Well, and after that mastermind, you went to work for Copyhackers for a while. I think all three of us are big fans of Joanna, as well as a lot of people who are in The Copywriter Club. What did you learn from that experience in working with Copyhackers?
Jon: I learned that Joanna is incredible. I love Joanna; I’m jealous that she can be so focused and committed to her brand. Copyhackers is Joanna, there is no extricating the two, and she’s fearlessly passionate about what she believes in. So you know, I learned a lot of new things every time I talked with her. I feel really fortunate to to have worked with her, and, you know, her passion, you know, her ability to have a brand and not deviate from it, and create value because of that, you know, was really, really inspiring. And that kind of thing is easy to pass along when you see it first hand like that, and apply it to even bigger brands that aren’t just represented by one person, but, it’s easy to forget how one person can be the brand, and how important that is.
Kira: Yeah, and so, I think often times we wonder, well what does it take to be at that level? Like, the Copyhackers level; the level where Joanna is where she’s speaking on stage, and she performs at this level of excellence in everything that she does, and so many people respect her. But what does it actually take behind the scenes? I’m sure it’s not easy, and she’ll be the first one to say it. So what did you learn from just, kind of observing how she operates and moves through the world?
Rob: She lives a life with a as few distractions as possible, and I’m blown away. Again, her dedication is incredible. Like, everything that she’s doing, she’s trying to make it the most productive thing it can be, and the most in point, and the most Copyhackers it can be. So, again, the thing I learned was about, you know, staying on brand with her. She just didn’t let things distract her, you know? If there was something else could help her and fit in and made sense with her brand, she went for it, you know. She just made partnerships. But, if it didn’t make sense, if something wasn’t right, she wasn’t afraid to just put in the extra time and work hard to make sure that it was right. And that sometimes involves, you know, tearing stuff apart that I though was, you know, not too bad! Laughs. And that’s fine! That’s what you want. Again, that goes back to not being the smartest person in the room. You know, working for Joanna, I don’t think I’ve ever had a boss who taught as much as Joanna did. And hopefully my other bosses don’t hear that. But, that’s okay.
Kira: We will shall this will all of them.
Jon: I know.
Kira: Thank you.
Rob: I totally agree with that, though. I mean just even being in her mastermind, I learned a ton from her and I know she shares it with her books, she shares it in the training she does…I mean, she’s a class act when it comes to teaching. She knows her stuff, you know. There’s no doubt about it. So Jon, what’s your job look like today? I know you recently took a new job in a new city, but, tell us a little bit about the kind of work that you’re doing now.
Jon: Yeah, so after a long time of avoiding in-house opportunities like the plague—for the reasons that I kind of explained before, you know, I didn’t want to get bored by just working on one client, but this—this job that I’m in now, I work for…it’s called an IDFS, which basically means there’s a hospital system that’s owned by a healthcare insurance company, and they work together to sort of inform each other and make each other better, and I’m a senior copywriter on what they call “tier one” projects, which means it’s usually branding work or, you know, big-idea type of stuff. Sounds like I’m beating my chest, but it’s the kind of stuff where, you know, you’re trying to sell that idea into consumers, because it’s relatively new as far as the concept goes, and it’s really interesting to see how benefits to the consumer manifest from that model. So that’s kind of where I’m at right now.
Kira: Wow. So, when you took this job, I believe you moved to a new city…
Jon: I did.
Kira: So what was that like? I mean, even just looking for new jobs in other cities, moving you family, you know…moving your wife who also had a job. What was that like and what did you learn from that experience?
Jon: It’s the second time I’ve moved to a new city with my wife, but this was the first time with kids, so yeah. Looking for new jobs in different cities? It’s not something I’m scared of, particularly, because I know that there’s other opportunities and stuff like that and I’m still going to be me wherever I go, so that sort of keeps me grounded. But yeah. Again, the reason I picked this job was, they do every kind of media you can think, you know, from out-of-home, to traditional advertising, all the way down to having a huge digital department and doing a lot of direct mail and a lot of fun stuff like that, so. But the format that they have for this job that I found too was that they have an in-house agency, and they treat it that way. So that was definitely something I was looking for, but as far as a new city, a lot of that had to do with my kids, too. That’s definitely something to take into account; find out what’s important to you, you know, like, it was an incredible process and the kids were central in doing that, and making the choice that we did to move to where we are.
Rob: So, a lot of people that we talk to get frustrated when they’re looking for a job, whether they’re looking for projects as a freelancer, or if they’re searching for an in-house, or an agency job, you know and, after making a few pitches, doing a few interviews, they get frustrated and are ready to give up. You went through a bit of a search process yourself. What advice would you give to copywriters who are going through that process? Who want to work as writers, but are maybe that that job is a little elusive, that it’s not as easy to find as they were hoping?
Jon: Don’t stop. Keep asking, keep looking. And don’t just blast your credentials out to a bunch of people who you may not actually want to work for in the long run, you know? Like I said, this was a job that I definitely thought was a good fit for me, so I pestered the heck out of, you know, all the people who I had any contact with here, you know I made a contact through another friend, somebody who actually worked there to make sure that I could throw her name onto my application, you know? At the end of the day, a lot of it is that person-to-person connection. So, if that means just, you know, having your LinkedIn game really tight and you know, finding what connection you can reach out to, don’t give up on it if you really feel like it’s a good job. Until they say, like, the position has been filled or, “Oh my God, please leave me alone”…
Jon: …don’t stop! If it’s right and you genuinely feel like it’s the right place where you want to be, you’ll eventually get through that door.
Kira: Yeah. So you probably have a unique perspective on this, but from observing the people in our mastermind and the other copywriters that you know who are trying to build their business beyond agency life, what do you think holds them back? Is there one mistake that you noticed from afar that you’re like, man, if they could just get this right, so many of you would be more successful in what you’re doing?
Jon: I think it goes back to branding, I mean, I know we already talked about you and Joanna in terms of really knowing who you are and having yourself be the brand. But I feel like if somebody tries either to overreach or be too broad, or you know, not pick something where they can be passionate about it, and I’ll probably end up eating my words because I’m not a huge fan of cornering yourself with a niche, either, but I feel like trying to be more than you are, or trying to overextend yourself and do too much too fast without being able to back it up… selling yourself to bigger clients is easier when you have more evidence, but you also have to be able to still do it. Even if you don’t have that evidence, you need to have that 1:1 conversation that backs up whatever you’re presenting online so, if there’s any disconnect, or any piece of it that doesn’t feel genuine, I feel like that’s a really hard place to start when you’re on your own.
Rob: Talk a little bit more about this idea that you’re not a fan of cornering yourself in the niche. We definitely talk a lot about this at the Copywriter Club, there’s a lot of proponents for niching. There are a few people who stand up and say well, you can still make a great business without a niche… tell us your view on that.
Jon: It’s personal for me, to start with, again. The whole, I want to be able to work on more than one thing and the fact that I’m in-house now, again, is a testament that I’m not totally against finding a niche because all I write about all day is healthcare. But, knowing how to write across different medias is important and I’m a lot more confident in my ability to conquer any job that comes across my desk. I’ve written for SaaS or CBG or medical or hardware or children’s products or cosmetics, or whatever, so if you want to, do it all if you want to be more versatile and valuable to some people… or don’t do it. Niching is a totally viable business model too. Lots of people that we know, and I’m sure people listening, have niche businesses that they’re super passionate about writing about one subject you know? And they can find that voice and tone that connects really fast, but for me, I think you’re more of a unicorn and more valuable, especially if you’re looking to go into an agency or go into somewhere outside of yourself, you have more value.
Kira: So Jon, for you, what does your path look like? I mean, I know there’s no set path and you may not have a plan for the next thirty, forty, fifty, sixty years –
Rob: Wow. Yeah, you’ll be writing for a while.
Jon: I hope I’m not. If I’m working for sixty more years, I’ll…
Kira: Laughs. You never know! So, an in-house copywriter. It’s such a squiggly path, right? To be in-house and possibly freelance. What does that path look like for you right now? Where do you see yourself going as you kind of progress in your career?
Jon: I mean, I really do like where I’m at now. And I’m not just saying that because somebody might hear it.
Kira: No, no! Not to say you’re going to quit your job tomorrow, but if we were to be in-house, what is that progression, as you grow as a copywriter?
Jon: For me, wherever I’ve been, the pursuit is always to do meaningful work. And I know that that’s kind of like a broad statement, but it doesn’t matter what I’m working on necessarily, and I think that speaks to the fact that I’ve done a lot of things. As long as there’s purpose behind it, there’s a genuine need for what I’m doing, the person that I’m talking to actually needs it; I know that doesn’t say where I’m going to be in five years, but it’s going to be an absolute determinate of whether I stay or go. The day that something feels like it’s meaningless and I’m just spinning wheels or I’m just doing something because someone told me to, that’s my nightmare. So, if my job becomes that in a year, I might go, but that’s probably not going to happen.
Rob: We talked a little bit about the value of a mastermind. What about mentors? Are there particular people that you look up to and learn from more than others or even books or resources that you go to that keep your skills fresh?
Jon: David Ogilvy is amazing. If you’re not reading David Ogilvy and you want to be an advertiser, you’re doing yourself a disservice. One of his quotes is, “The consumer is not an idiot. The consumer is your wife.” And that might be taken the wrong way by some people, but everything that he was about was that deep respect for the person that you’re talking to and that relationship that you have with them and how important that is when you’re writing effective copy. So he’s definitely one from a traditional advertising standpoint. But yeah, I mean, there’s lots of people. I’m sure lots of people would say Aaron Sorkin. If you don’t know, Aaron Sorkin worked in News Room, a couple of other things. But it’s not just that he’s super witty and smart and writes incredibly compelling scripts. What he’s doing is usually most effective when it’s inspiring and it’s focused and it’s people trying to doing the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people, right? Usually. And he puts himself in places where he can have smart people talking about things. But that’s that kind of relationship again, where, that’s the drama, that’s the emotion that I would want to create in copy. That sort of treating the person with respect enough to know that you have their best interest in mind. That’s the message you want to get across all the time. You’re trying to help them in a genuine way.
Kira: Now, Jon, I feel like it’s really easy for us to get stuck in our little bubbles that we’re in. I’m curious—what opportunities do you feel like copywriters might be missing today? Maybe you see a huge need in your marketplace that isn’t being tapped and where copywriters are needed and we’re just not even aware of it. What does that look like?
Jon: I hope I’m not just saying the same thing over and over again, but not thinking about the consumer all the time I feel like gets missed a lot. What I try to do, and the mistakes I see usually stem from people not making sure that when whoever is reading their copy, at the end of reading it, they’re going to be uninvolved still, that’s a problem. That’s the big idea. Everything that i love about great copy stems from that and everything I love about great copy stems from that. So, anywhere that that exists. If you see a website that’s terrible, especially if you’re just starting out, reach out to the people who own that website, especially if you know it’s something you could fix and you could help them be more effective in communicating. That’s an opportunity right there. I don’t necessarily see anywhere that’s lacking copywriters because there’s definitely not a lack of copywriters in the world, but I think quality over quantity is what’s lacking.
Rob: Yeah. I don’t know if this is a question but, one of the things that I noticed when I read the copy that you produce is that you have a real ability to get emotional and to really move people and to get to that point where you’re saying… they care at the end of the email or the advertisement or whatever it is. And one of the things I really admire about what you’ve been able to do with the copy you write.
Jon: I appreciate that. That’s an incredible compliment from you. I respect your writing for a lot of the same reasons. Again, we kind of call back to the beginning about writing effective headlines. I’m usually not looking to make somebody cry, or make someone burst out laughing, but you know, those are acceptable responses if it gets somebody engaged, right? It’s your only chance to hook somebody. Especially if you’re talking about emails. Once you get somebody in and once they’re reading what you’ve sent to them, you’re missing an opportunity if you don’t keep going with that. If you don’t keep pulling them along. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, too, but I hate when we call ourselves storytellers. I get it; I get that it’s an easy way to describe it, but you know, like, Tolkien is a storyteller. Neil Gaiman is a storyteller. People who pass down mythology are storytellers. We sell products. Or services. We can’t inflate art with advertising. But you can use the same emotion to get at that sale, and make it not feel like it’s overt. Right?
Kira: That’s an important distinction. So, Jon, if we want to work with you, ever, the same way that you and I jumped on a call and we just had this conversation and bounced ideas around; do you offer any type of service like that to freelance copywriters?
Jon: I don’t have product-type services, but I’m happy to talk through whatever with anybody, if somebody really feels like what I’m saying makes sense to them and they want to talk something through, ping me on Twitter, or go through my website; that works too. But no, I don’t have product-type services. I’m genuinely happy to help someone on a 1:1 basis, because that’s the most fulfilling, again, like we talked about with you, or with our good friend Lianna, who, I think has been on your podcast before, right?
Jon: We did the same thing with her. It’s just when it clicks, it’s really satisfying, so yeah. I’m all for that.
Rob: Yeah, I mean, you’re not here to pimp your service, but I would say that you’ve got a really unique ability to help tighten a line and really get to the essence of what something is, again… something I really admire about the way you write, the way you think, and so, if a copywriter has got something that they think is pretty good but they just want a second set of eyes, reach out to Jon, because he may be able to help you tighten it up.
Jon: Thanks, guys.
Kira: All right, Jon, thank you for your time and your expertise and experience, especially in the agency world. We really appreciate it.
Rob: Yeah, love it.
Jon: Yeah, of course! Anytime!
Rob: Thanks, Jon.
Jon: All right, guys.
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 on 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 Facebook community, visit thecopywriterclub.com. We’ll see you next episode.
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