Getting the Copy Right

Mat - New York, New York
Entered on June 12, 2010

I believe in second, and even third, chances. My first boss gave me many, and how he did it shaped my career as a copywriter in advertising — and later as a manager myself.

I landed my first job during the last recession as a secretary at a New York ad agency, answering phones, handling expense reports, making travel arrangements and fetching low-cal lunches for six senior creative directors.  One was Dennis.

Dennis knew I desperately wanted to become a full-fledged copywriter and promised me assignments to prove myself. Within weeks, he gave my first shot — a magazine campaign for Fleischmann’s EggBeaters, an egg substitute. Each ad, Dennis proposed, would be a mouth-watering photo of chocolate chip cookies, French Toast or an omelette, all made with EggBeaters instead of regular eggs. Each ad had to be written as a convincing recipe so that you’d rush out and buy EggBeaters for food you planned to make anyway. I stayed up until 3 a.m. the first night crafting the ads. This would be easy, I thought. Sitting down with him in the morning, I watched Dennis read my first-ever attempt at ad copy. He frowned.

“Mat, they’re just not… delicious. Take another crack at it.”

And I did. The result later that day also wasn’t good enough.

Rather than yank the assignment from me, Dennis did something that I never forgot. he asked me a question:

“Do you cook?”

“Um, no.”

“Ah, I see.” It was clear, at least to him. And what he did next changed how I would direct copywriters for years. Dennis sent me to the bookstore to buy as many cookbooks as I could carry and instructed me to read them all before I tried another version.

Once I got the hang of how people described food and the process making it, I sat down and wrote three delicious ads which, with minor revisions, were my first printed advertisements in magazines.

I didn’t need to learn how to cook. I needed to find the voice of people who cook. Eighteen years later, I can romance any product —  a new line of cookies or auto insurance. I’m also a better manager because of what I picked up about teaching from bosses like Dennis. He let me try again but also helped me unlock possibility so I’d get a different result.

Just months ago, I was reviewing copy for a financial services website. While the writing about account benefits was technically accurate, it lacked nuance about why people trade stocks or save money, feeling like an outsider wrote it. Just as Dennis had me read cookbooks for recipes, I left the copywriter a stack of business magazines to comb through and set up a phone interview for her with an analyst from the financial industry. The expert would talk like the industry talks. And then my writer could convincingly write.