So, You Want to Be a Copywriter?

I was fired from my first real job.

Well…I guess technically it was an internship. And I guess technically I was “let go.” But semantics don’t make it feel any different.

It was my senior year of college. I was working as a copywriter for a start-up advertising agency — one that had promised me a job after I graduated. That is…until they went out of business.

Everyone was “let go.” All 10 of us.

But I was one of the lucky ones. Lucky in a lot of ways. Lucky that I didn’t have a family or mortgage that was now in jeopardy. Lucky that the owner, despite mismanaging the agency’s finances, was a good enough guy to make some phone calls and find me a new job. A real, big boy copywriter job.

Above all else, though, I was lucky to have gotten the internship in the first place. Because a lot of people want to break into advertising. A lot of people spend 4 years at school (and then some more years in portfolio school) trying to earn a title I didn’t know existed the day before I got it.

I showed up to my first internship interview with a shameful “portfolio.” I put “portfolio” in quotes because it didn’t display any sort of skill in (or basic understanding of) advertising or marketing. It consisted of a school paper that had been published in the university’s history journal, a short story, and grant I’d written at a previous internship. That’s it.

I happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people.

Once I got that internship, and from there a job, I became part of the system. And now, that I’m on the inside, people have started asking me for advice about how to break into the industry.

My first piece of advice — do not, under any circumstances, try to do what I did. I was an accident.

Get Clear About the Copywriter’s Role

The actual job function of a copywriter is a bit nebulous. Although I’ve had the title for four years, I still struggle to describe my 9–5 during the course of casual conversation.

At its core, copywriter is a fancy title for someone whose job it is to engage (potential) customers through writing and drive them to take action — whether that’s buying a hamburger, signing up for a life insurance plan, or attending a rock concert.

Depending on where you’re employed and what kind of work your client(s) do, you may be writing everything from TV commercials and radio spots to website copy or social media posts. That means there’s no “typical day” at the office, but the basic building blocks include:

  • Brainstorming ideas for a new campaign, product launch, or ad.
  • Writing up those ideas, in whatever form they take.
  • Working with art directors, designers, producers, and others to bring the idea to life.
  • Creating or delivering a client presentation.
  • And occasionally, going to the comic book store, checking Facebook, taking a walk, or bringing your dog to work — all under the guise of “getting inspired.”

The Skills You’ll Need

If that sounds like something you can see yourself doing every week, then be sure to hone these skills before applying:

Writing

Kind of a no-brainer here. You don’t need to be the next Shakespeare or Hemingway, but you do need to have a decent command of the language.

Collaborating

Advertising is a team sport.

You may write your copy alone, but from brainstorming the idea, to creating the art, to presenting work, you’ll be collaborating with a group of designers, account managers, production partners, and creative directors.

When evaluating a new hire, personality can often trump other attributes (even writing ability). Anyone can learn to write. Not everyone can learn to be a great creative partner.

Explaining and Defending Your Work

Anyone can say, “I don’t like that color” or “I don’t like that headline” (and they will), but you can overcome those comments by tying your decision back to the strategic brief/objectives.

You should be able to explain why the headline makes sense or why you chose that color. If you can’t explain to your decisions to your internal team, how will you ever explain them to the client? How will you be able to assure the client that this will work?

Art is subject. Advertising is not.

Taking Feedback with Grace

Sometimes, you have all the answers and win. Sometimes, you have all the answers and lose. Even if you can defend your work and your choices, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your way. Rather than getting upset, learn how to take feedback with grace, kill your darlings, and revise your work.

Know that you are not your work. That’s what separates the amateurs from the pros.

How To Get Your First Copywriting Job

Unfortunately, showing up to the interview with skills, your resume, and a story about a time you overcame a challenge is not enough. There are a few insider tips no one will tell you, unless you get a degree in ad school. I certainly didn’t know them when I went into that first interview — hopefully I can spare you the same embarrassment.

Have a Portfolio

Agency employers want to know you have some writing potential before they offer you a position. They want to see samples of your past work.

But what if you don’t have any past work?

Well, it’s time to get some. And thankfully, it’s easier than ever to build a mini-portfolio. Start by asking friends if you can do some copywriting for free. I guarantee you have a buddy who needs a gig poster or a relative whose website needs an overhaul. You can also check freelancer sites like Fiverr (check out Lewis Parrott’s mega-guide) or Upwork to get some experience working for real clients (and even earn a bit of cash on the side).

Know that you’ll be going up against students who just graduated from an advertising program. They’ve spent four years in classes doing fake work to build up their portfolios. You can’t compete if you walk into the interview with a few blog posts and a sketch you wrote. You can compete with realwork.

Have a Passion

Although your fashion blog or sketch writing won’t get you in the door, pursuing some sort of creative hobby outside of work can put you ahead of your competition. The lessons you learn off the job will positively impact your work on the clock, which makes you a much more attractive candidate than someone who spends their free time Netflix-bingeing.

I can say with complete confidence that I got my latest job off the back of the book I published and my passion for improv comedy.

Accept the Internship

It sucks to be 28 and take a position traditionally reserved for college students, but the world is a cruel and unfair place. Advertising agencies loveto “try before they buy” and often ask new writers (of any age) to take an internship before hiring them full time.

I was fortunate to do my internship in college, while my parents were still helping to pay for food and housing. But if you are serious about getting into copywriting, you may just have to suck it up for three months. It’ll make you a much more attractive candidate and serve as proof of your skills to any future agency. And in many cases, they are paid positions.


Most of the time, copywriting is the best job in the world — there’s nothing quite like seeing a commercial you wrote play on TV. But, like any job, it has it’s downsides too. It’s heartbreaking to watch your creative director blow up a week’s worth of work because it’s not on strategy.

The good comes with the bad. Your milage will definitely vary.

But if you think you’ve got what it takes, then I wish you the best of luck. Soon enough, you might be the one at your partner’s high school reunion, like me, desperately trying to explain you don’t know anything about copyright law.


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