Qasim Makkani spills the beans on the ad world’s best kept secret.
Imagine for a second that you are the HR Director… or Creative Director… or even Managing Director of a respectable ad agency in Pakistan, and you just lost one of your best copywriters to a rival agency… or a career change… or, God forbid, a fatal illness! What do you do? What do you do?!?
Well, panic for starters.
Believe it or not, this is a recurring agency dilemma – without a solution. Because let’s face it, where do good copywriters come from?
It is not an easy question to answer. Ask 10 people and you are bound to get 10 different answers (trust me). Perhaps the better question to ask is: ‘Why is it so hard to find good copywriters?’ Like the earlier question, this one also has a multitude of answers.
Difference is, I’m about to give you some of those answers.
Schools don’t teach copywriting.
Now, before I start getting angry letters from university deans and professors, let me just say that this answer is only half-true.
There are actually many courses that teach copywriting. Well, maybe not many. Iqra University has a Master’s programme in advertising with over 40 different courses and two specialised English copywriting courses. Szabist has a similar Bachelor’s programme, with one copywriting course. Karachi University also has one copywriting course available to visual studies students. Indus Valley has no copywriting courses, but they do teach copywriting within their other courses. So yes, schools do teach copywriting, but not the way they teach other career subjects like accounting or engineering or more to the point – graphic design.
Whether you call them visualisers or art directors or anything else, graphic designers are graphic designers before they are hired as graphic designers (wow, that’s a mouthful). After all, they go to specialised schools, take a wide variety of specialised courses where they learn to use specialised tools and study their craft for years until they can finally say that they have a degree in... yes, graphic design.
And while there are thousands of accounting and engineering and graphic design degrees out there, I have yet to meet one person holding a copywriting degree. So what I would like to know is, if the copywriter’s creative counterpart requires so much training and certification before he/she can be hired by an ad agency, should not the copywriter require the same?
Yes, schools teach copywriting – as an afterthought. Not that I blame them though. After all… nobody wants to be a copywriter.
Ever seen a little girl run up to her parents with a wondrous look in her eye and say: “Mommy! Daddy! When I grow up, I want to be a copywriter!”
Alright, maybe that’s asking too much, but is it too much for copywriters to actually choose this field? The majority of copywriters I know stumbled into it. I have spoken to several professors and department heads at the above schools regarding the lack of copywriting instruction. They all seemed to say the same thing: students are not interested in copywriting.
Allow me to make up some facts. Nine out of 10 people would rather watch a movie than read the book on which the movie was based. Nine out of 10 people would rather admire a beautiful vista than read a poem describing that vista. Made-up facts aside though, it’s easy to see why visual art is simply more appealing than literary art to the average student.
And here is a fact I am not making up. Nine out of 10 people have absolutely no idea what a copywriter does. Copywriting is not only an obscure profession, it is a misunderstood one. I can’t tell you how many times I have had the following exchange with a design student:
“So how come you chose design over copy?”
“Because I wanted to come up with concepts.”
How can we expect young people to want to become copywriters when they don’t know what a copywriter is? It is at times like these that I remember a friend of mine saying:
“I used to be a polychemical engineer. Nobody knew what I did for a living. Now I am a copywriter. They still don’t.”
Are copywriters really the misfits of the advertising world? If so, there isn’t any shortage of misfits. Because whilst nobody wants to be a copywriter, anybody can become one.
Hiring criteria? What hiring criteria?
I once attended a conference on creativity in advertising where a panel of industry leaders was taking questions from a room full of mostly ad agency creatives and design school representatives. It was an endless debate about the hiring criteria of fresh design graduates and how they are thrown into the advertising world without a safety net. Then, one person stood up and asked why there are no any hiring criteria or specialised degrees for prospective copywriters. A room filled with incredibly opinionated industry professionals suddenly, for a moment, went dead silent. It was as if someone had just uttered a dirty word or let out a terrible secret.
The secret is this. Agencies will hire anyone, literally anyone, as a copywriter. As one senior agency professional told me: “If you can spell, you have hope [of being hired]!”
While I keep their identity a secret, it’s no secret that all agencies have little to no hiring criteria when it comes to copywriters – including my own. We do our best to screen out the aimless wanderers, the think-they-know-it-alls, the alongwith’s and the upto’s, but when it comes down to it, all we can really do is give potential candidates a mock brief and hope for the best. There are many agencies that use even fewer filters, bringing the hiring process down to a basic trial-and-error approach. No wonder then that freshmen copywriters are often treated like VIPs – Very Important Proofreaders.
When you come down to it, hiring practices for copywriters go one of two ways. One, you can search and search for raw talent and spend years grooming them into experienced professional wordsmiths. Or two, you can steal someone else’s wordsmith. Spectrum Y&R is proud to be among those agencies who have groomed some of the industry’s top copywriting talent. Unfortunately, we have also seen some of them move on to ‘greener pastures’ (i.e. snatched by agencies that double their salary). It is the reality of working in a high-turnover industry where every year, media budgets grow, media channels grow, advertisers grow, agencies grow, but the number of (truly) qualified copywriters simply doesn’t. The irony of it is that even with all this money changing hands, students are still barely aware of copywriting as a lucrative career.
So, back to the original question…
“Where do (good) copywriters come from?” My answer: Nowhere.
Not in our industry at least. Here, you are not a real copywriter until you are hired and trained as one, and that is not true of most careers. A plumber is a plumber because he already knows how to fix pipes, not because someone hired him to do so. The same goes for you whether you are an accountant or an engineer… or even a graphic designer. Hopefully one day, it will be the same for copywriters.
Until then, agencies will simply continue to look for ‘Mr Write’ and continue to settle for
‘Mr Write Now’.
Qasim M akkani is Associate Creative Director, Spectrum Y&R. email@example.com
First published in the May-June 2010 issue of Aurora.