I have 30+ years copywriting experience. Not one year repeated 30 times. I use words and pictures, logic and emotion, to create stories that make my clients more noticeable, more attractive and more memorable - because the only clicks that count are in the heart and mind.
Copywriter with 30+ year experience, not one year repeated 30+ times. I've worked in big ad agencies (Saatchi & Saatchi, Young & Rubicam) on big brands (Colgate Palmolive, Heinz, Dairy Crest, Xerox, Air Canada, Carlsberg, Yeo Valley...). I've helped small businesses with tiny budgets. I've worked across all sectors (except tobacco and arms) and across all media. I've been employed as a salesman, so I understand how things work "at the sharp end".
My skill is using words and pictures, logic and emotion, to create stories that make my clients more noticeable, more attractive and more memorable.
Writing the first ever Oxfam Unwrapped Gift Catalogue
I was asked to write the first ever Oxfam Unwrapped Christmas catalogue.
The way the catalogue worked was not to buy a gift for your friend or relative, but to send one from them to a needy person in the developing world.
The idea was to tap into that old “what do you buy the person who has everything?” scenario. If you take Maslow’s view that each of us is positioned on a hierarchy of needs, and that the people on the top rung have satisfied all their lower level practical and emotional needs and now just seek self-actualization, the idea of not giving them anything at all, other than a nice warm feeling that the money is going to a good cause, is pretty smart.
My job was to tell 32 pages of engaging and moving stories about how little things make a big difference in the lives of those who don’t have much. These had to be bright, positive and informative but without belittling the challenges faced by those in the third world.
Writing all marketing collateral for Ultimate Finance
Ultimate Finance provide funding to small and medium sized businesses in the UK. Their products include invoice finance, asset finance, recruitment finance, construction finance, trade finance and short term loans.
The company has grown very rapidly over the last few years, changing ownership twice, and rebranding on both occasions. For almost a decade I have provided them with outsourced copywriting services. I’ve written numerous web pages, product sheets and other sales literature, consumer and trade ads, press releases, case studies, magazine articles, blog posts, Powerpoint presentations, online ads and more.
Stubbs White Rum – the dream project
In the early 90’s I was a copywriter at Young & Rubicam, in their London office, working with Art Director Paul Pickersgill. We had started on the agency’s least sexy accounts (narrowly escaping the ultimate indignity of working on Preparation H, the haemorrhoid cream) but gradually made our way onto some of the better brands (Heinz, Air Canada, Xerox, Colgate Palmolive, Croft Port, TWA, Ford, Suchard).
Allied Distillers & Vintners (IDV) were thinking of introducing a quirky rum from Queensland into the UK to try and take a tiny slice of Bacardi’s market share (at that time the world’s largest selling alcoholic brand). Paul and I were selected for the task of developing the entire brand story and advertising campaign from scratch (it was a completely new product, not even on sale down under).
Hard thinking and drinking required
It was the dream job for me (someone who loved to travel and drink) as it required a two week fact finding trip to Queensland – you can’t think up great ideas about Aussie rum without going there and getting gloriously pissed, obviously. The brief put it in more prosaic terms: go and immerse (I liked the sound of that word!) yourself in the local culture, recce possible locations for a 60 second cinema commercial and research the “Queensland attitude to life, with special reference to drinking”.
I’ll have a Stubbs – because I’m sooo sophisticated
The brief also explained the general idea behind the brand development. In those days (pre Red Bull and Jägermeister) people’s drinking tastes developed along fairly predictable lines from those with no taste (vodka) or a sweet taste (Bacardi and Coke) to stuff that’s a bit drier and with a stronger flavour (ending up with real ales, whisky and brandy). What’s more, you are what you drink, so once you turn 19 (18, 17?) it’s no longer cool to drink Bacardi and Coke. So our rum, called Stubbs, was a white rum like Bacardi, but distilled from cane juice, rather than molasses (the heavy sludge that’s left when the sugar has been extracted). This meant it was drier and stronger than Bacardi, with a very powerful “spirit” flavour. The other differentiator was that (unlike ever other rum in the UK) it wasn’t from the Caribbean. The intention was to position it as a distinctive, characterful drink for the more discerning consumer – the one who has grown out of Bacardi and was looking for something that made them look more worldly and mature.
Apart from that we had pretty much a blank sheet of paper and an unlimited expenses allowance. However, everyone else in the entire agency hated our guts – how come they got the job and not us?! So if we didn’t come up with something totally brilliant the knives were already out and sharpened. No pressure then.
Three men in search of an idea
Paul, myself and the brand manager had a ball. We went to the distillery, just outside Brisbane, picked up a couple of cases of Stubbs then hit the road, the beaches, the Barrier Reef, the Outback, the rainforest in the far north and all the bars we could find. I managed to stay fairly inebriated for the full fourteen days, but took lots of notes (honest).
Back in London we came up with idea after idea after idea. For 12 whole months. God know what it cost, but Young & Rubicam had several other IDV brands (Smirnoff, Baileys, Croft Sherry and Croft Port) so the agency was probably making enough out of the client to write off a lot of that time (I didn’t like to ask).
At last – a ripper script
In the end we came up with a cinema commercial storyboard they liked. We had quick cuts of images, interspersed with a sequence of single words (which you later realise are on the label of a bottle of Stubbs).
So there’s the word STRONG, followed by quick cuts of burly sheep shearers, a tornado sweeping across the outback, a fisherman hauling in a marlin. At each cut there was the sound effect of a “drip” and occasionally a quick shot of a droplet of clear liquid splashing onto a clear surface to make it clear what the sound is.
Next, the word DRY, followed by parched earth, close up of mouth and lips being licked, images of a bush fire and a desert. The word WHITE, white shark, white cockatoo, white sand. The word EXCEPTIONAL, cane toad, road sign warning of bandicoots ahead, Platypus. The word CHARACTER, followed by a variety of faces of slightly quirky local characters. The word RUM, followed by shot of rum being poured into tall glass, close up on bottle to show that all the words are actually on the label.
Then the end line builds up from the bottom of the frame (like a glass filling), a new word with every drip sound. QUEENSLAND, followed by PURE, on top of which comes OF, followed by DROP, and finally A – A DROP OF PURE QUEENSLAND.
To accompany the commercial we produced 48 sheet posters and double page magazine ads, each with a word that describes the taste of the rum and the nature of the environment it came from.
Sex, drugs, rock & roll for Welsh government
Wales is well known for many of things – rugby, sheep, unpronounceable place names, Tom Jones, the Millennium Stadium, Dylan Thomas, coal mining, wet weather, Charlotte Church. But it doesn’t exactly spring to mind as a thriving hotbed of biotech innovation.
That, however, was the brief. Create a series of ads celebrating the recent success of local startups to run in scientific journals around the world. Put Wales on the map as a fertile life sciences hub. Attract foreign firms and investment.
I was given a handful of very sketchy case studies to work from and told by the designer, Martyn Davies, that the word count couldn’t exceed 100. Thanks…
The science involved was complex so wrapping up the story this tightly, whilst still communicating the key points, was tricky. On top of which I had to spin the unpromising material into something truly attention grabbing.
Here’s what we came up with. And the client loved it.
We created a whole series of ads but there’s only room to feature one here – if the copy is too small for you to read it tells the story of a process developed in Wales to test for sexually transmitted diseases and illnesses passed when drug users share needles. The scientist who developed the test is now Managing Director of the spin out – and he plays in a rock band. The company has also won an award from the Queen for innovation. Try getting all that into a headline!
Red Carnation Hotels – various projects over many years
I had been writing the brochures for von Essen Hotels when I got a call from Red Carnation Hotels. Red Carnation were in the habit of poaching star managers, chefs and sommeliers from von Essen. One of the family who owned Red Carnation liked their brochures so much she suggested recruiting the writer.
I was invited to a meeting in their hotel next to Buckingham Palace and offered a monthly retainer for helping their marketing department. For the past few years I have been writing web pages, eshots, brochures, headlines, blog posts and a wide variety of other marketing materials for them.
The collection currently comprises six hotels in London, one in Dorset, two in Guernsey, two in Ireland, one in Geneva, three in South Africa and one in Palm Beach. There’s also a gastro pub in Dorset and a bar/restaurant in London.
Each property is very different, but the main thing they all have in common is world class service – the ethos is “No request is too large, no detail too small”. This service promise is delivered in a way that the guests love. It’s not an empty platitude trotted out by the company but something they invest in heavily The ratio of staff to guests is extremely high, often two to one, they only accept the most exceptional calibre of people employed and training is intensive.
As a result the hotels regularly win more than their fair share of the most prestigious awards and dominate the top slots of the Tripadvisor rankings.
The world is full of luxurious boutique hotels so my job is to help them stand out and win customers in a fiercely competitive marketplace by capturing the essence of the guest experience – a combination of superb locations, gorgeous interiors, fabulous atmosphere, brilliant service along with outstanding food and wine.
Essentially I have to differentiate, motivate and exaggerate by painting vivid word pictures that stimulate the senses, whet the appetite and appeal to the heart. These have to be as refreshingly welcoming, elegantly understated and discreetly tempting as every other aspect of the guest experience.
Visit www.redcarnationhotels.com and from here you can access the sites for all their individual properties. Much of the text here has been written by myself, in collaboration with the in-house marketing team.
It has been a pleasure and a privilege working with this team for so many years. Lots of companies talk about their passion, their attention to detail and the satisfaction they get from exceeding expectations – but few, if any, come close to delivering it with such dedication, warmth and panache as Red Carnation. It’s no surprise that the hotels consistently top the TripAdvisor rankings for London, that their Bushmans Kloof property has been voted “No 1 Hotel in the world” by Travel + Leisure and that they were voted Number 2 in the Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For 2015.
Petruth Paddocks campsite – copywriting for website
Petruth Paddocks is a campsite on the edge of Cheddar. In 2013 they decided to improve their website and I was asked to write the text. Jules, the owner, asked me to express what made his site so different from the hundreds of other sites in Somerset. Then I had to find a way to make that attractive and motivating for a variety of different campers and caravanners.
What came out in the various discussions, was that the thing that made the experience different, and so attractive, was actually what was missing! People loved it because it was so basic, because it was closer to nature, because it was less regimented, because there were fewer rules, because it was so laid back, because kids could run wild, because you could light fires, because sing-songs were encouraged and you were pretty much free to do as you liked.
After a few tinnies the FREE RANGE CAMPING line came about (team effort, not my line, from what I recall, but I love it). I then set about writing copy to support this notion. The trick was to capture the spirit, the attitude and the slightly nostalgic sense of “the camping good old days” and hark back to a time when life’s simplest pleasures were not spoilt by a depressing over-insistence on regulations and political correctness.
A delighted Jules explains that “The result has been just what we’d hoped for and the team has produced a website that people constantly remark upon as having captured the essence of everything we strive to deliver for our guests.”
The figures are good too. When the new site went live in June 2014 things went mad. “In 2014 we welcomed over 10,000 guests – a 500% increase on the previous year and a truly wonderful return on investment – thank you all!”
What’s more, leading booking site pitch-up.com, confirmed that Petruth Paddocks suddenly came from nowhere to become their best-selling UK campsite in the UK over 2014, beating over 1,000 sites across the country by a very healthy margin indeed. There were a whopping 1,388 bookings through pitch-up.com between January and September 2014 exceeding the nearest competitor by a massive 23%. The success continued throughout 2015. There were 3311 bookings, up around 225% on the same period in 2024.
Cotswold Outdoor – writing wide range of marketing campaigns
Cotswold Outdoor is the UK’s largest outdoor clothing and equipment retailer. They currently have more than 70 stores nationwide, with more opening all the time. The company also sells over 50,000 items at www.cotswoldoutdoor.com.
Over the last five years I’ve worked with their in-house marketing team on a wide variety of projects. It’s a surprisingly complex business and a very fast moving environment. For a copywriter it’s pretty challenging – you have to do a lot of very different things within some fairly tight deadlines.
Lots of ways to shop
First of all they sell through a number of different channels – online via their website, on the high street through their network of over 70 stores and from their printed summer and winter catalogues. These channels are supported by a range of different advertising and sales promotion campaigns. That means their messages have to be adapted to work across a variety of very diverse environments, from web banners to catalogue pages, shop windows to press ads, in store displays to flyers and emails to social media. This asks a lot of the writer – you must have a good grasp of the practicalities and limitations of each medium, as well as being equally adept at crafting attention grabbing headlines or compelling sales copy.
Huge range of products
Then there’s the fact they sell over 70,000 different items. That’s a lot of product descriptions which need writing, with very different features and benefits. With a North Face jacket you need to understand the technology that goes into fabrics which are water repellent yet breathable. But with a Vango Kirro folding chair the story is about comfort and lightweight engineering. The writer has to be very flexible because the sales story is totally different from one item to the next.
Lots of different brands
Next you have to realise that each of the 300+ brands they stock has their own story to tell. And they want it telling in a particular way. What’s more, they have clout, because they pay to have particular products featured in windows, promotions, banners and campaigns. So if you’re talking about a new range from Berghaus, for instance, you have to present it in ways that they approve of. And when you’re writing about Craghoppers, or Jack Wolfskin or Marmot they’ll expect you to adopt their chosen tone of voice.
Then there are the customers
The term “outdoor enthusiast” covers a huge variety of very different consumers. They can be any age from toddler to octogenarian, ranging from the avid alpinist to the family camper and the couple on a weekend break to serious fell runners. Each group has its own particular needs, aspirations and buying behaviours.
In a bid to segment their target audience, and develop a better understanding of all the different types, Cotswold Outdoor has identified around 30 different groups of customer. Low Level Walkers are those who enjoy moderate hikes on well-trodden footpaths and shop occasionally for functional, low-tech but good quality gear. Outdoor Geeks love challenging outdoor adventure and are constantly buying the very latest high-tech kit as soon as it’s available. Other categories include Time for Life (retired but active), Playground Snug Mum(practical and comfortable fashion), Cold Weather Adventurer (climbers, skiers, snowboarders)…you get the picture.
Each group has to be addressed quite differently. One minute you’ll be writing for an adrenaline junkie that loves pushing themselves to the limit, the next for a nervous parent whose child is going on their Duke of Edinburgh expedition. The language has to be adapted accordingly and when you have around 30 different groups to engage with this takes a surprising amount of skill.
Getting the brand story straight
With all these diverse factors in play at the same time Cotswold Outdoor realised they needed a strong and coherent brand story to pull them all together. They decided that this had to be built around three ‘brand pillars’ – Quality/Value, Range and Service. Much of my job over the last few years has involved finding compelling ways to express these core messages. Here are some examples of how I worked with their in-house team to achieve this.
One line to rule them all
As well as helping them express the core brand pillars of Quality/Value, Range and Service they wanted one line that would embrace them all – something that would sell the “joy of the outdoors” but also make it clear why Cotswold should be their retailer of choice. Something that was flexible enough to work across all media, from instore to press ads and web banners to shop windows. And which could also appeal to all their different customers, from the casual walker to the adrenalin junkie and the runners to the mountain bikers.
Clover Low Fat Spread – ad campaign in women’s magazines
I did this campaign when I was at Young & Rubicam in London, working with art director Paul Pickersgill. The brief asked us to create a “tastes buttery” story. And insisted that it had to have “taste value” (ie make it look yummy).
This was a tough ask because all products in this category were making the same claim (show me one that doesn’t!). And none of them tasted any different from each other. So, getting anyone interested, let alone to believe us, as well as doing it in a way that grabbed the attention, was going to be super difficult – harder than pushing a big glob of the stuff up a steep hill, with a pointy stick, on a hot day (it “spreads straight from the fridge” remember!).
We realised the only way to differentiate and motivate was to park the product and stop looking for things that genuinely distinguished it from the rest – there weren’t any.
Instead we decided to approach the problem from another angle, one that made consumers feel different about the product.
Putting words in their mouths
We asked ourselves “what does the customer make of all this buttery stuff?” and we decided they were probably pretty sceptical. So that’s where we started, by acknowledging their feelings – we figured that was a good way to create engagement.
Writing their thoughts in the spread, on the bread, enabled us to empathise with them. It also gave the client the yummy “taste values” they wanted. What’s more, it made a surprising image.
Then, keen tell the story in an unusual way, we came up with the “before” and “after” idea, with the bite changing the message. It was a neat way to say “tasting is believing”, without actually using those words. Spelling that message out ourselves would be crass and clumsy – better to credit the consumer with some intelligence and let them arrive at the thought themselves. If they come up with the words then they’re less likely to argue with them!
Curiouser and curiouser
Next, to give a further twist, instead of taking the traditional route and running the ads as a double page spreads, we split them into two separate pages that we ran consecutively – you saw one, thought “I wonder what that’s all about?” then turned the page to reveal the rest of the story.
Finally we had some further fun with the copy, writing it as a commentary from the person eating the product, further articulating their surprise and delight.
So, a series of ads that acknowledged the readers scepticism, challenged them to try the product and left them with a smile on their face. And a story that sells – because it neatly combines the elements of differentiation, motivation and exaggeration that we always strive to achieve with our process.
These press ads appeared in quality women’s magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Woman and Elle. They were also made into four 10 second TV slots.
Ad campaign for Palmolive Soap in women’s lifestyle magazines
In the 1980s The Body Shop appeared on the scene and shook up the soap market with products that sounded nice enough to eat– mango, coconut, honey, strawberry. It was timely, as the green movement was gaining traction. And women were quick to embrace the idea that such soaps were kinder to their skin. Colgate Palmolive, by comparison, looked dull and dated. Worse still, it was easy to imagine it coming off an industrial production line in Indiana, whereas you could picture Body Shop soap being made by hand in the third world using fruit grown by local farmers.
Along with my art director I was briefed to create double page spreads in quality women’s magazines that would “establish Colgate Palmolive’s green credentials” and suggest “a skincare benefit”.
In search of Palm Nuts
We were given surprisingly little information on how the product was made, but we figured there was a clue in the name. This was before the days of the internet so we couldn’t just rely on Google and Wikipedia. I took the tube to Charing Cross Road (where the biggest bookshops were) and bought everything I could find on soap, from chemistry to skincare.
We discovered that one of the main ingredients in Palmolive was Palm Oil (hence the name, duh!). This was an extract from the Palm Nut. A fruit a bit like an avocado or a mango, it has a fleshy outer layer enclosing a rough kernel, both of which can be crushed to extract two different oils. Although these can be grown in the UK (Kew Gardens) it’s pretty hard to ripen them – so we tried to swing a trip to West Africa for research purposes. We nearly pulled it off, but not quite.
Doing it differently
We then looked at the ads being run by the main competitors (not Body Shop – what little advertising they did tended to be for the whole range of products and their shops). Rival brands liked to feature a woman in a bath covered in bubbles, with precious little reference to what went into the product. So we decided to differentiate Colgate Palmolive by taking the opposite approach – no bathing beauties and ads that, although attractive, told stories about the soap.