What Makes Top Copywriters Tick (and Why)? Part Two

Posted Wednesday, 20th April 2011

Multi-award winning copywriter Steve Harrison

  • Want to be a great copywriter like Ogilvy, Bernbach or Gossage?
  • Prepared to work late into the night to write that killer text?
  • Tired of hearing that classic copywriting is finished?

If you’ve answered “yes” to these questions, then this is the interview for you.

You’re about to learn invaluable hints, tips and secrets from one of the most successful copywriters of all time – the multi-award winning Steve Harrison.

‘The greatest direct marketing creative of this generation and an icon of the business’ (Campaign)

Steve’s talent, dedication, and sheer love of copywriting helped win him more major domestic and international awards than any other creative director worldwide. And he earned these honours working for clients like American Express, IBM, Xerox, Microsoft, Rolls-Royce and BT.

“Euston, Do You Copy?” was lucky enough to chat with him on the phone for twenty minutes recently. So here Steve reveals the methods behind his copywriting magic, and explains how you too can write copy that really sells. . .

Why you should pick your influences carefully

Many copywriters claim to be influenced by authors and poets, but Steve is quick to point out the potential pitfalls. He says: ‘There is a danger that by adopting the style of a writer, your copywriting becomes affected, and that it shifts your attention away from the customer.’

‘I admire the writing of Tom Wolfe,’ Steve continues, ‘but I wouldn’t say he influenced my style.  Likewise Dickens.  But what writers like these can teach you is commitment, and a dogged determination to rewrite, rewrite and rewrite. In terms of influences though, the biggest influence on my writing is the customer.’

Give your customers everything they need

Good copywriting should be invisible, Steve explains. ‘It’s about getting the customer from where they are to where you want them to be – without them noticing. You must be able to answer all of their questions, and overcome their objections. And doing this often settles the debate: “How long should a piece of copy be?”‘

How long should a piece of copy be?

If you’ve ever struggled with this question, you’re not alone. It’s given copywriters everywhere a headache, and has led to countless rows with art directors.  Fortunately, Steve’s got the answer.

‘If I wanted to get you to meet me in the pub with an offer of free beer, then a line would probably do it,’ he says. ‘But if I wanted to persuade you to take me to The Ivy for dinner, I’d probably need a lot longer – one-and-a-half or two pages, for instance. You’d expect to hear a benefit, and I’d need to overcome your (quite reasonable) objections. And this is where hard work comes in.’

Why hard work is so important

Drayton Bird once credited Steve’s early copywriting successes to his ‘camel-like ability to keep on going long after everyone else has ****** off home.’ This strong work ethic has served him well, he tells us.

‘It is hard work to persuade your customers to do something. It involves answering:

  • Who am I talking to?
  • How am I solving a problem for my customer?
  • What connection can I make with my customer, who is a stranger?

‘It’s an easy thing to say that “long copy doesn’t sell”, because it removes the need for all this hard work. And coupled with the fact that copywriting isn’t taught anymore, it’s becoming a self-perpetuating myth.’

Don’t settle for a pointer to your website

Steve has no time for lazily-written sales copy, warning: ‘You end up with copy that doesn’t attempt to tell or sell, and is just a pointer to the website.’ He considers this to be a wasted selling opportunity, saying:

‘The hardest part is getting your customers’ attention, through the thousands of messages that are being inflicted on them every day. To then just give customers a line and a URL often just isn’t good enough.’

How to use the downturn to your advantage

A true DM man, Steve sees the economic downturn as an ideal time to connect with your customers. ‘As money becomes tighter, the temptation is to stick with the brands you know – but spend less,’ he says. ‘So there’s never been a better time to lay out clearly to your customers the benefits of buying your product.’

‘Advertising is competitive persuasion – that’s the business we’re in,’ Steve continues. ‘But too often you get over-familiar, blokey-copy from brands you haven’t even heard of. And it’s often inappropriate. What I want to know is: “By what degree will my life be better if I buy your product?” Or to put it another way: “Why should I give you my money?”’

The fun starts after the first draft. . .

‘Writing really is an enjoyable process,’ Steve says. ‘The hardest part is getting to the end of the first draft. After that, the fun starts. You can start asking yourself:

  • Am I saying what I want to be saying?
  • Can I make myself any clearer, or connect better with my customer?
  • Am I writing this as well as I can?’

Why you should be proud to be a copywriter

When we spoke to Steve he was abroad – and we got the impression it wasn’t work that took him wherever he was. But although Steve has retired from agency life, his passion for copywriting is still as strong as ever, and he is clearly proud of the profession. ‘Copywriting has an honourable tradition, and in many ways it’s a very romantic job,’ he explains.

‘So when you’re burning the midnight oil, always remember that you are standing in the shadows of great writers. Personally, I’ve always preferred the title “copywriter” to that of “creative director”.’

Want to learn more?

Steve Harrison’s superb book “How to do better creative work” is one of the most practical, informative and inspiring texts you’ll ever buy. You can pick up your copy here.

Coming up next. . .

Thanks for reading.

There are more expert copywriting hits and tips coming up in Part Three of  this series. You’ll hear from D&AD winners and judges, freelance superstars and best-selling copywriting authors.

Plus you’ll learn how 70s style icons David Bowie and Bryan Ferry can shoot your copywriting to Number One. Can’t stop now though, I’m off to Studio 54. . .

Categories: Copywriting

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