TCC Podcast 6: Copywriting in a Small Agency with Luke Trayser - The Copywriter Club
TCC Podcast 6: Copywriting in a Small Agency with Luke Trayser

In the sixth episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast, Kira and Rob talk with Luke Trayser, Senior Copywriter at midwestern advertising agency Ivor Andrew. Luke shares his thoughts about writing on Medium, using humor in his copy, and what copywriters might expect to earn while working at an agency. Listen to the episode, then check out Luke’s writing advice on Medium. Click the play button below, or scroll down for a full transcript.

The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:

Ivor Andrew
Luke’s Articles on Medium
Simple Truth
How to be a Copywriter
A place to interact with other copywriters
Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull
Ogilvy on Advertising
Scientific Advertising
by Claude Hopkins
Luke’s Twitter
Kira’s website
Rob’s website
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
Intro: Content (for now)
Outro: Gravity

Full Transcript:

KH: What if you could hang out with really 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 try to do every week at The Copywriter Club Podcast.

RM: You’re invited to join the club for episode six as we chat with Luke Trayser, copywriter at Ivor Andrew, about writing for an ad agency, publishing on Medium, ghosting e-books, and his thoughts on how to be a copywriter.

KH: Hey, Rob and Luke. How are you guys doing?

LT: Hey there, Kira. Yeah. I’m doing good.

KH: Good. I think a good place to start, Rob, you originally found Luke when we were thinking of people that would be a great addition to this podcast, and you mentioned Luke, so I want to hear from you. What really stood out to you about him when you found him on the web?

RM: I was looking around for writers to follow on Twitter, and I stumbled across Luke’s profile somewhere, I don’t remember, and clicked through to some stuff that he had been writing on Medium, I think, in particular the article How To Be A Copywriter, or How To Be A Writer, and it covered, I don’t know, 12 things that you want to do. I thought, as I was reading through this, Luke might be fun to talk about, or talk to.

Luke, my first question for you is why Medium? Why not your own website or place where you own the real estate?

LT: Well, I’ve done WordPress sites in the past, and they’re pretty satisfying to actually work out in the back end, but it’s also really time consuming. Something I really liked about Medium was how easy it was to just get in there, write, and publish. While you don’t have total control over it, it does look pretty nice. It has a really nice built-in audience too. Yeah. It was just really easy for me to have an idea, crank it out in a hurry, without anything tripping me up like any light HTML or CSS or anything like that. Yeah. I found it really appealing, the way it was connected.

RM: Do you see most of your readers are coming from other people on Medium? How does that audience work in generating readership for what you do?

LT: Yeah, using the tags for every article that goes up there, I stumble into new people. Yeah. It’s a great way that I’ve made new friends without even meeting them face to face, like you two, a couple of good examples of that. Yeah. It’s always really mind-blowing to me that people can just find something by someone they don’t know and have it really resonate with them, and then a relationship can build from there. It’s pretty cool.

KH: Luke, did you start writing on Medium to find clients for your current agency work, or did you start this before that? Could you just connect the dots to your background in writing?

LT: Sure. Yeah. I first heard about Medium when I started my job in Chicago with an agency called Simple Truth. It was a great place, and one of my bosses told me about it and said I should give it a shot. We published a bunch of weird things, namely a fellow copywriter and I had some free time one day, so we took every NFL logo and tried to critique the design of it, with the joke being that copywriters know nothing about design.

RM: That’s so true.

LT: That went over pretty well, and we got some traction there, and that’s the first time I realized how powerful the platform could be. I mean, if you just write about what you enjoy and what you’re passionate about, people are probably going to find it and engage with it. After that article, I started doing some more on my own, while giving a shout out to my employer for being cool with me using an hour here or there during lunch time to write something.

RM: Your article, How To Be A Copywriter, is one that struck a nerve for me, and you started out with that conversation that I think every single copywriter has had at least a dozen times.

LT: Right. Everyone’s had it.

RM: Exactly. “You do copyright? So, like, legal stuff?” Of course, in the followup, “No. It’s more like Mad Men, but not at all like Mad Men.” Anybody who’s been in that agency world, and even freelancers, are going to relate to that. Can you tell us a little bit about working for an agency? Why, as a writer, that’s the path for you. I think a lot of the people who listen to our podcast are freelancers, and so hearing from somebody with agency experience is maybe a little bit different than what our typical listener does.

LT: Yeah. When I graduated from college, I just knew I wanted to write somehow. I didn’t really know how to do it, and I fell into the agency life. I realized pretty quickly that it was really good for me. I enjoy collaborating with people and leaning on them to make my stuff better and, in turn, trying to make their stuff better when they need it. I’m a big believer in the power of that and getting brains outside of your own to contribute to your work. I think it always makes it a lot better. If that’s something that you believe in, then an agency is often a pretty good spot for you.

Now, the drawback is you don’t have as much power and control over what you’re doing day to day, and this is true for freelancing as well, but clients are going to poop all over your copy all the time. Just rolling with those things is just a part of the life I guess. If you’re cut out for that stuff, then it might be the right move for you.

KH: Well, it’s interesting about the collaboration aspect because I’m really drawn to that part, but I haven’t worked for a marketing agency. I’ve worked with startups and on teams before, and so I wonder if there’s a way for solo copywriters who are in their silo and writing at home, if there’s a way for them to still have that collaboration aspect in their work without actually joining an agency. Maybe it’s just not the right time to join an agency or doesn’t fit right now. Would you recommend anything, Luke, to help those people who want to get out of their own head?

LT: Yeah. That’s a good thought. I guess maybe a Slack channel would be a really good place for that. If everyone is really into it and giving as much as they’re taking, that could be really beneficial. Really, any place, whether it’s a hangout or just a daily chat, however you can have it, to have a round table and talk about what you’re working on, I could see that working, for sure. The benefit of the agency is that you’re forced into doing that stuff, so it makes it a little easier.

RM: Luke, I think, outside of the agency world, we all have this vision that you guys all wear black. You’ve got the trendy glasses. Maybe two or three of you guys wear berets to work, and you’re spending your days playing pool and maybe sitting in your office playing with a guitar, not really doing what the rest of us would call work. Is that a myth that you want to shatter?

LT: I guess some are accurate. I am wearing flannel right now, so that’s probably one strike against me.

KH: You do have a guitar, too. Right?

LT: I do. Yes.

KH: Yeah.

LT: I do. It’s at home, thankfully. I haven’t tortured any ears by bringing it into work. Let’s see. There’s beer in the fridge. I’m wearing flannel, but other than that, I don’t know. It’s a Midwestern vibe around here, I guess. Maybe on the coast it’s a little more intense, but here in the Chicago area, it’s a little different.

RM: I’m guessing, also, there’s the work aspect. It’s not a lot of sitting around doing nothing. Working at an agency is hard work sometimes and not always for clients that you want to work for.

LT: Yeah. Yeah. The workflow ebbs and flows, I guess, and there are days when you’re staying late, for sure, and days where you have some free time so you’re doing something on Medium, for example, to still contribute to the work day. I guess, yeah, writing about what you don’t want to write about, as you were mentioning, Rob, that’s the agency copywriter’s life, I think. There’s never really anything that you absolutely love that you’re writing about. It’s just about being a pro and getting your stuff done on time.

KH: Speaking of being a pro, I’m really interested in what your process looks like, especially working with other writers, potentially designers. I think there’s a lot that we could learn as freelancers listening about your process that maybe we could pull into our process, if you don’t mind sharing.

LT: I am a skilled and natural procrastinator. It’s something that I have had all my life, and I think it’s a very human thing. Any writer probably has the same thing. Something that has been really challenging for me is the moment a kickoff meeting ends and there’s information still fresh in your head, to take a few minutes and write some thoughts down and, a day or two later, return to that when you have the time and when it’s time to work on the project. That really helps bring all the information back, and you’re starting with momentum instead of crawling your way through it, which I found has been really beneficial.

Other than that, I just really try to get stuff to the designers on time because, honestly, it takes writers … I don’t know why, but we’re a lot quicker than designers. It could be because they’re working in Adobe, and there’s a whole bunch of stuff that they have to worry about, and all we have to do is type like monkeys. For that reason, I try to get them stuff even early if I can, and they’ll ask if I’m feeling okay, and I’ll tell them, “Yep. I’m feeling fine,” and then they’ll appreciate the early copy.

RM: Getting a job at an ad agency is not the easiest thing to do. In fact, I think a lot of writers who want to break in feel like if they don’t go to a portfolio school or one of the other ad schools that it’s almost impossible. Luke, will you talk a little bit about putting together your first book and how you got your foot in the door?

LT: Yeah. It was really just my blog. It was a Blogspot-hosted thing, and just went in there, and I was proud of what I had written. That confidence apparently showed, and they liked my tone of voice. I should also mention that I failed on a lot of job interviews before that, and that dealing with that rejection and getting back out there is really huge. If you want to work in this industry, eventually you’re going to land in a place that recognizes your tone of voice, recognizes you as a person, and they’re going to want to work with you, and that’s the place where you want to be.

KH: Luke, it seems like humor plays into your copy, at least from all the articles I’ve read so far, and even just the way that you show up online, I think with your mohawk, your crazy…

LT: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

KH: Yeah. It stands out. As someone who tries to integrate humor into my copy, it doesn’t always come naturally. Sometimes it doesn’t really land. Do you have any advice for people that really want to hone that skill and incorporate more humor in their copy?

LT: Yeah. I actually had never really thought about how I cultivate my own sense of humor before reading your question about it, Kira. I gave it a little bit of thought. I guess the big thing is I always try stuff out. Whether it’s in person or typing on a monitor, I’m not afraid to look like an idiot to say something that doesn’t land.

KH: Yeah.

LT: By maintaining that poker face, that actually rebounds the joke in a lot of ways. In person, that tends to work, and that experimentation translates into what you write. I have no idea if that makes any sense, but it’s something that I had to work on a little bit. I used to care a lot about what people thought of me, and now that I’m … What am I? 33, I don’t care as much about that anymore, and that’s really freed me up.

KH: That’s interesting. It seems like it really ties back to maybe your own confidence in order to try something new and possibly just have it totally fall apart, and maybe throw in a little bit of humor, and it just doesn’t land, and you just have to be comfortable with yourself to let it go and try the next time and try the next time. Maybe that’s what separates the two, the people that are willing to try it and the people that just won’t even touch it, and they stay in the comfort zone.

LT: Yeah, definitely. They can’t all be winners. It’s like a universal truth for copywriters and for everybody else. You’re going to fail a lot, so just embrace it and get back on the horse.

RM: Luke, one of the things that strikes me as really different about working in an agency versus freelance is that a lot of freelancers, at the very least, they harbor this dream of becoming the six-figure copywriter or maybe the million-dollar copywriter. My sense is that in agencies, particularly small agencies like the one you work at, the million-dollar copywriter is a bit of a myth. Talk to us a little bit about what copywriters who work at agencies can be expected to be paid, and what are some of the trade-offs between what you can earn as a freelancer and what you might be earning at an agency but the other things that you get in addition?

LT: Sure. Right now, my official title is Senior Copywriter, and that’s something that you get with five to 10 years of experience, generally. Here in the Midwest, it seems that that salary level is probably going to be somewhere from $60,000 to $90,000 a year ish, somewhere in there. For me, it’s on the lower end where I’m at now because I have a son who’s two years old. He’s just the coolest, and I actually work in the same town that I live now. Just in a couple hours, I’m going to be walking home for lunch and eating lunch with my wife and my son, and that was a trade-off I was more than willing to make, to switch from being a Chicago copywriter to being a suburban copywriter.

RM: I imagine, also, you’re obviously fully benefited. Those kinds of things play into it, where a freelancer doesn’t have those kinds of things.

LT: Yes. That’s something you should definitely expect, and if it’s not being offered at an agency, you should run away.

KH: Do you think it’s common, Luke, for writers to flip-flop and go back and forth? Maybe they start at an agency, go freelance, go back to an agency. Is that something that maybe it’s just the natural path for us as writers at different stages in our life, or from what you’ve seen with writers in agencies, do they stick to the agency world if they’re an agency writer, and if they’re freelance they stick to the freelance world?

LT: Yeah. From what I’ve seen, they seem to stick.

KH: Yeah.

LT: Just speaking from personal experience, I do every once in a while have a random freelance project. One was for a website down in Florida. I had a friend who had a business that he was starting up, and he needed some help with it, so I took a couple hours over the weekend and knocked some homepage copy out for him. That stuff just kind of pops up once in a while. Taking that extra time on weekends for a project or two is actually pretty fun, and it can really strengthen what you do during the nine to five too, so it’s something that I’d recommend for really any agency copywriter. The caveat, of course, is to spend company time doing company work and not to work on your freelancing stuff. Even if there’s downtime, it’s not a terribly ethical thing to do.

RM: Sure. I think a lot of writers struggle with the feeling that they’re a fraud or they’re making it up, that imposter syndrome. It probably helps to have an agency logo on your business card, the title Senior Copywriter, but, Luke, how often do you feel like, at least early in your career, maybe it still happens, that you’re making it up as you’re going along? Do you struggle with that same feeling that other writers do?

LT: Yeah. Yeah, pretty regularly. There’s one example that sticks out. When I started at Simple Truth in, let’s see, 2013 maybe, I remember my first internal concept presentation with my colleagues, and I presented something for our key client, Allstate, and it fell flat on its face and got absolute nonstop crickets. Just thinking about it now, I’m flop sweating. I just remember that shear moment of panic and wanting to run away and feeling like a fraud. That’s another example of failure, I guess, and making sure that you rebound really swiftly and confidently, even with a moment as terrible as that use that as fuel, I guess, to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Something that I tell myself now is I do know words, and if you’re a copywriter and even if you want to be a copywriter, that means you know words better than your clients do, better than pretty much anybody else does, so you have to remind yourself of that and just tell yourself you are an expert, because in reality you are. If you do believe that and if you do start carrying that, then people are going to believe that too.

KH: Luke, you mentioned Allstate, and I checked out your website, so I know you work with some big clients. How, as an agency, do you find these clients? Because I’m sure you’re doing it the right way, and potentially we can do what you’re doing so that we can find our own clients, or possibly find bigger clients. Do you have any tactics that you use as an agency to find these bigger clients?

LT: That is going to be a disappointing answer for you, Kira, because…

KH: No.

LT: … I showed up and Allstate was part of the process already. My bosses were feeding me Allstate work, and I was more than happy to oblige. Yeah. I could bs an answer for you, but I don’t think I’d be able to.

KH: Let me mention this then, because I did read about … One of your articles was about sending direct mail and the power of direct mail and sending s’mores or marshmallows to potential clients, and that it actually works. I’d like to hear more about that.

LT: Okay. Yeah. That was actually a recent project, and it was pretty fun to work on. It was really a postcard, a direct-mail postcard, that we sent, but on top of that, we sent … It was contacts in the food industry. I think like 20 or 30 food industry contacts, and we assembled this cute little package. There was this amazing chocolatier … Is that a word? I don’t know if that’s a word.

RM: If it’s not, it should be.

LT: It sounds delicious, regardless. A couple doors down from us, there’s this place that makes amazing homemade chocolate. We called on them to assemble these s’mores kits, and we packed them in a mini cooler, and we sent these treats to these food industry contacts that we had never met, along with this postcard. We actually got two new clients from it. Yeah. I’m a big believer in the power of direct mail and just doing something a little bit beyond the postcard, still included obviously but supplement it with something that feels more like a gift. It’s often going to be opened. I mean, probably 100% of the time it’s going to be opened and hopefully enjoyed, and hopefully people are going to remember it and eventually respond to it. I think that’s one way. With all the amazing technology we have right now and how online and connected we are, it’s still a blast to get a surprise package in the mail, and I think it always will be.

RM: Yeah. Luke, I think earlier in your career, you spent some time at a company ghosting e-books. Is that right?

LT: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I did.

RM: Yeah. Among writers, there’s a different between copywriting, which is sales oriented, and content writing, which is more things like e-books, blog articles, that kind of thing. Talk to us a little bit about the process of writing an e-book, which feels like an enormous project, maybe really difficult, certainly for a lot of beginning writers, to try to tackle. What does that process look like, and what did you get from that experience?

LT: Yeah. It was daunting. It’s definitely the most long-form handful of projects that I’ve ever done. I think the company is called Hyperink, and they required an 8,000-word minimum, I believe. It was a process, and daunting at first. I really just tried to take it piece by piece instead of looking at the whole thing and getting overwhelmed. I found that that helped quite a bit. Another thing I realized, after considering this for a second, is that ghosting is kind of what a copywriter does all the time. Right?

RM: Right. Right.

LT: If you have paid work for your clients, then their name is on what you write. Your name is nowhere to be found, but you know that you wrote this thing, that you created it, and there’s that sense of satisfaction that I imagine maybe a contractor gets when he looks at a building and he thinks like, “Hey. Cool. I made that.”

KH: Which is funny because I feel like some copywriters really own the term ghostwriter, and then other ones are afraid of it, like me. I would never call myself that because it bothers me.

LT: Yeah.

KH: But you’re right.

LT: Seeing someone else’s name on your words, yeah.

KH: That is exactly … but I’m doing it. I do it all the time, but I haven’t been able to call myself that.

LT: Yeah. There are ways where you can own your own work, obviously if you write stuff personally or, Kira, like with your website, it’s obviously 100% owned by you. The stuff I write on Medium has my name attached to it, so if that’s important to you, then there are ways to let people know, “Hey. I actually write. I’m a good writer here.”

KH: Right.

RM: Occasionally, you’re going to have some work that maybe you don’t want your name associated with. Right?

LT: Yeah.

RM: Yeah. That’s always a safety valve.

LT: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Spot on.

KH: Luke, you mentioned that you’re a senior editor, and I need to ask you, number one, how many people you’re managing, how many copywriters you’re managing, if you’re managing them, to start.

LT: Right now, zero. This is a small agency over here, and there’s the couple of summer interns that I manage, but other than that, it is me, and the full-time senior copywriter, and we have one part-time copywriter who bounces things off me, and I’ll edit his stuff, but he’s not full time.

KH: Okay. Well, I was going to ask, and this still applies, a lot of copywriters, including myself, have brought on other writers for bigger projects and potentially considered creating their own agency with a couple other writers. The idea of managing other copywriters freaks me out.

LT: It probably should. Yeah. That’s healthy.

KH: That’s what I want to hear from you, I guess, the pros and cons, just based on managing the interns you’ve managed and the part-time copywriters, why I should do it, or why I shouldn’t do it.

LT: Yeah. Let’s see. It just comes down to that word again, for me, is that collaboration is such a massive beneficial thing, and if you can maintain that healthy sharing atmosphere, then I think the words that you produce are going to be worlds better than you would produce on your own. One way that I did that in my previous job … I was one of nine copywriters, and I was lower on the totem pole, but one thing I started over there was when we had a big project to work on with a lot of concepting and headline writing involved, I would create a Google Doc and invite a couple colleagues who were also working on it to get in there and just word vomit some things into the document. It would initially be trash, but we would play tennis with it and just go back and forth. It was really fascinating how that process just created really, really solid copy that never would have been done on our own. It was because we had those extra heads in there.

If you do start your own thing, I think that that’s something that you should absolutely strive to implement immediately, as soon as possible, and make sure that all your new hires believe in that, they are capable of that, and any who don’t might not be the right fit.

RM: Yeah. Luke, I have just one last question for you. In your article about How To Be A Copywriter, you talk about the importance of continually learning and keeping fresh on ideas, that sort of thing. Where do you go to learn new things, to keep abreast of pop culture or creativity or whatever that is? What are your go-to sources?

LT: Yeah. Good question. I hang out on Medium quite a bit and check out the new stuff that’s being published under the copywriting tag. That’s fun to do when I have a minute to kill. Other than that, I like to reread a lot of books.

RM: What are some of your favorites?

LT: Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull…

RM: Fantastic book.

LT: …he’s one of the shot callers at Pixar… Yeah. It was really, really eye-opening, and there was just a bunch of really great nuggets in there.

RM: One of the things I love about that book … Sorry to interrupt your list, but…

LT: Oh, no problem.

RM: …but Ed takes… I think he does almost the impossible where he looks at creativity from a process standpoint and what do you have to do at each step along the way in order to foster and nourish creativity, managing it at the same time that you’re trying desperately not to kill it. Right?

LT: Right.

RM: It’s such a great book. Yeah.

LT: Yeah. He’s a fascinating guy, because I don’t think creativity is one of his skills, but fostering creativity absolutely is, which is a pretty unique combination. As far as other books go, let’s see, Ogilvy on Advertising, only the sections on copywriting. The sections on account management make me want to throw up.

RM: For sure.

LT: I don’t read those parts, but just a bunch of books just by the old veterans seem to really hold up, whether it’s Ogilvy or … Is it Claude Hopkins? Am I … Let’s see.

RM: Yep.

LT: I think that’s his name.

RM: Yeah, that’s Scientific Advertising, I think.

LT: Yeah. Yeah. It’s just really good information that still holds up.

KH: Luke, where can we find you? Everyone that’s listening who wants to read your stuff on Medium and track you down, where can they go?

LT: Oh, yeah. It’s plugs time, awesome. Okay.

KH: Plug. Plug. Plug.

LT: Yeah. It’s probably Twitter and Medium, I would say, is most applicable to what I do as a copywriter. Twitter, my handle is @TrukeLayser, which is my name just jumbled up. That’s T-R-U-K-E-L-A-Y-S-E-R, @TrukeLayser. It also used to be my handle on Xbox, and I would get messages from randoms that I did not know saying, “Hey, idiot, you spelled laser wrong.”

RM: Nice. Nice.

LT: So that was fun. On Medium, you can just look me up by first and last name, Luke Trayser.

RM: We should add you’ve got some great advice out there to people who would want to break into writing, how to be a writer, and some thoughts about your own writing process, written about humorously but also some really good advice. If somebody wants to actually learn how to eat a donut in the proper way, you’ve written about that too.

LT: Oh, holy cow. Yeah. I have a stance on that. I won’t spoil it here, but yeah. One final note, if you do want to write on Medium or you do want to get paid, just make sure you brush up on your headline/subhead skills, and also figure out what a good image is and how you should use that, because that’s literally all you have a lot of times to get people to click on your story, so work on that stuff.

Another word of encouragement is that your stuff probably won’t get noticed right away, and try to combat that depressing feeling with consistent productivity. If you do that, if you write all the time about what you really love, then eventually something is going to stick, and your audience is going to grow a little bit.

RM: I think that’s great advice for Medium and for writing careers in general.

LT: Yeah.

KH: Well, thank you, Luke, for taking time out of your day to hang out with us and The Club, and we’ll share your links in our show notes as well.

LT: Okay. Thanks very much, you guys. Yeah. This was a lot of fun. It was good talking to you guys.

RM: It was great chatting with you.

KH: All right. With that, we’ll wrap the show.

RM: 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 free Facebook community, visit We’ll see you next episode.

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