Here comes the judge. An interview with #copywritersunite creator and copy maven Vikki RossApril 14, 2015
Now and again I meet someone who, it seems to me, really gets copywriting. Not only that, but they have a refreshing perspective on the business itself, rather than merely a rehash of 50-year-old ideas about headlines.
Vikki Ross is one of those people. I met her first on Twitter and we now co-host the #copywritersunite nights in London.
Vikki began her career agency-side in 1996, writing ad campaigns for new movie releases from studios like Sony, Warner Bros and Viacom, before falling for the beauty industry and working in The Body Shop creative studio for eight years. She then moved into broadcasting communications, writing for Virgin Media and Sky before her passion for travel took her around the world with Hotels.com.
Now she helps major brands find their personality and tone of voice, and writes for direct clients ITV, Sky, NOW TV and Vue. She also works with agencies Venture Three, Table 19, Sapient Nitro and Kitcatt Nohr, and tutors future copywriters at London’s School of Communication Arts.
Last year, Vikki wrote and judged the D&AD New Blood Copywriting Brief, and this year she’s on the Professional Writing for Advertising judging panel. Which is pretty cool, IMHO.
I started by asking Vikki about how she got into copywriting in the first place…
Andy Maslen: Can you tell us a little about your background. Lots of copywriters trace their current career to an early love of poetry or winning a school story-writing competition. How did you get into writing first, and copywriting second?
Vikki Ross: I fit the stereotype then! My childhood hobby was reading, and I wrote and illustrated my own mini books (they’re probably covered in dust in a loft somewhere). Later, I represented my school in poetry reading and spelling competitions.
When thinking about a career (and after I changed my mind about hairdressing), I wanted to be an author, then a journalist, and then I wanted to get into advertising. I don’t think I really knew what a copywriter was until I landed a job as a PA at an agency where I was quick to tell my employer that I didn’t want to be a PA, and that I could actually write ads. He put me to the test with a print ad in Caravanning & Camping magazine. Thankfully things got more glamorous after that. And I still managed to be a published author too.
AM: What kind of clients do you work with and on what kind of projects?
VR: Most of my clients are in the entertainment industry, and I also work with branding and advertising agencies. As well as writing copy for everything above, below and through the line, I create a brand’s tone of voice and help them understand where it comes from and how to use it with guidelines and workshops.
AM: It seems to me that many copywriters are fixated on a false dichotomy where the only two forms of copywriting are print and digital. I know you write TV commercial scripts, so what’s your view on how copywriting for TV advertising is evolving?
VR: Is that true? I don’t think anyone thinks the only two forms of copywriting are print and digital. I’m thrilled to say that copy is alive and very well in TV ads. Yes, we still have singing cats and dancing ponies, but excellent long copy scripts are hitting our ad breaks, and even ads that make copy the hero. Plus more and more big Hollywood names are starring in TV ads so copywriting for scripts needs to be of a high quality to attract them.
AM: You’re on D&AD’s Writing for Advertising jury this year. What do you look for in a winning entry?
VR: Quite simply, an idea that I wish I’d had but probably never would. There are a couple of outstanding entries this year, and I’m confident they’re going to get the recognition they deserve.
AM: You spend part of your time tutoring young copywriters. Tell us about that. Where do you do it and what do you see?
VR: I am a Copywriting Tutor at London’s School of Communication Arts in Brixton. They run an intensive one-year course that covers all aspects of advertising, and demand for a place is high. The school is supported by worldwide advertising agencies, with industry leaders visiting everyday to mentor, give masterclasses and review portfolios.
This year, the school has its highest intake of copywriters at an almost 50/50 split. I’m dedicated to helping them develop their craft, stand out in awards entries, and succeed in their careers.
What do I see? In previous years, I’ve seen students call themselves creatives, which made me think about the future of my own career. If students enter the industry telling employers they can do both art and copy; where does that leave copywriters like me? The reality is that we still need art directors and copywriters – sure, do a bit of both, and definitely understand and respect the skills of both, but give each craft the dedication it deserves, too. After all, “creative” used to only be an adjective, not a noun.
Apart from a few ideapreneurs, this year’s students are confidently following a single path to art director or copywriter success. A couple of students even worked in the industry as art directors or planners, but have come to SCA to become copywriters.
AM: What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing the next generation of copywriters?
Being able to spell. I’m serious! If I’m hiring copywriters, they need to know the basics of the English language, and how to spell. I can’t take them seriously otherwise. I once had a Head of Copy who told me she didn’t need to know how to spell because Word has Spellcheck! Copywriters, please respect what you do. I’m not trying to take work away from proofreaders but writers should be able to write well anyway – not every agency has a proofreader.
Another challenge is simply being recognised. I look at publications like The Drum that showcases new campaigns, and often there’s no mention of the copywriter because the agency submitting the work didn’t supply that information. Instead, they mention the creative team as a whole. I’m not discouraging teamwork or collaborative successes at all, but I do want to celebrate individual skills too – that way, everyone stands out.
The main challenge is the same as it’s always been – clients need to respect copywriting. It’s the same for everyone, not just the next generation. A copywriter submits copy and the client reads it; ready to edit or amend themselves, so often what you see go live isn’t what you supplied. And if you’re really unlucky, the client can’t spell or doesn’t know good grammar so it’s not just your work they’ve ruined, but their own message. And I’m not saying this doesn’t happen to art directors because it does. I’ve seen a client send feedback to their agency in a Powerpoint slide – it was like art direction by numbers.
AM: Do we need, as David Ogilvy termed it, a renaissance in advertising copywriting? How would you go about it?
I think we might be having one, but there is still a lot more work to do.
DMA is doing a fantastic job in raising the profile of copywriting in the UK. They started a great conversation last year with their Mad Men vs Mavens film (link to: and with it, released a census for British copywriters to enter. The results of this will be announced at Google at the end of this month – book free tickets here.
They also launched an exciting copywriting competition where entrants were asked to rewrite VW’s famous Lemon ad for today’s audience. The prize? A masterclass and lunch with Tony Brignull!
But this is just one organisation. Sadly, D&AD didn’t release a copywriting brief for this year’s New Blood competition. Thankfully, all the entries needed a video and with a video comes a script, plus most briefs required some form of copywriting to accompany the visuals, but there’s still a need for a focused copywriting brief so everyone understands the importance of copy. I’m hoping we can get a copywriting brief back in the New Blood line-up for next year.
AM: Social media has brought copywriters greater prominence, at least in each others’ lives, thanks in no small degree to your creation of the #copywritersunite hashtag. But is it all good? Do you have any concerns about how we all use it?
No, I don’t have any concerns about how we all use it. People use social media for different things. I connect with people in advertising and I tweet about copywriting. If others want to use it to share what they’re watching on TV or how their kids are doing at school, that’s up to them, but I’m unlikely to follow them.
I created the #copywritersunite hashtag to unite copywriters around the world. I love how copywriters use it to connect with each other, celebrate copywriting, ask questions, and share support. That hashtag has also enabled many of us to meet in person too. In fact the third #copywritersunite night out is on 16 June at Jack’s Bar in London.
AM: Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience with us Vikki. I’ve really enjoyed hearing how you see the current and future state of our industry.