5 Tips for Copywriters who Want to Stay Relevant

Copywriters have been telling brand stories to engage and persuade customers since the 1800s when the first ad agencies and full-time copywriters emerged. And ever since that protozoic age, marketing content was written by folks on the business side while editorial content has been by journalists. The church-and-state divide between the two sought to preserve the notion that editorial was uncorrupted by business interests.

How times have changed. Today’s content industry, valued at $44 billion by the Custom Content Council in April, has embraced a 360-newsroom approach to 24/7 content and social. As such, it has produced a rising demand for a new kind of creative writing talent: the copywriter as journalist.

The content in question may be created on behalf of brands, but increasingly former reporters are the people being sought out by publishers, agencies and marketers.  Simply Googling “journalists and content” provides interesting insight into the current market situation. The phrase returns a whopping 167 million results, whereas “copywriters and content” nets a mere 2 million.

Kate Silver, a Chicago freelance journalist, has experienced the brand journalism boom firsthand. More than half of her 2013 income came from writing branded content. “It’s been a natural transition for me. The brands that I work with recognize and value my experience as a professional journalist,” said Silver. “They know they can count on me for solid narrative, clean copy, deadline dedication and newsworthy angles.”

To avoid conflicts of interest, Silver keeps her journalism and brand work completely separate and never writes about her brands in publications where her byline as a journalist appears.

Here’s what else Digiday learned about what copywriters can do to stay relevant (and employable) during the brand journalism boom.

Portfolio school doesn’t cut it anymore.
Yes, it’s a great way to build a book and learn how to concept, but the new breed of copywriter can’t rely solely on portfolio school training anymore. If you haven’t gone to journalism school, developing editorial writing skills is now a must. “As we move toward writing more native types of advertising, copywriters will need to understand how to place their copy within the context of news feeds and make that copy more journalistic, ” said Alan Schulman, vp global digital marketing & brand content at SapientNitro. “Hiring copywriters out of portfolio school who don’t have a journalistic background would give us pause.”

Craft matters.
Thinking conceptually on behalf of brands is the core craft of a copywriter. But even concept rock stars need to know how to write. “There seems to be a dearth of copywriters who take pride in well-sculpted sentences and paragraphs,” said Shira Bogart, group creative director at AKQA, San Francisco. “This is a real prevalent problem.” Bogart also told Digiday that while millennials are fantastic at concept, writing basics, such as grammar, are getting lost. Copywriters who master writing fundamentals will be standouts. Good 4 U 2 no.

Agencies want long-form skills.
Copywriters know bite-size writing, but expository writing is what makes journalists so desirable in the content world. “Copywriters have to expand their role, and that’s why learning to write longer-form copy is essential,” Bogart said. Many agencies will pay for classes that teach short-story techniques, character development and editorial writing. AKQA does so. and they’ve even developed several internal initiatives to help copywriters with long-form mastery, including monthly workshops led by outside experts, a mentoring program and collaborative writing exercises.

Generalists are out.
At content agency Meredith Xcelerated Marketing, the key to getting a writing gig is subject specialty. “Generalists have a smaller and smaller role to play,” said Dan Davenport, content director at MXM, Des Moines. Davenport, who primarily hires former journalists, said an advertising copywriter’s best bet for breaking in lies in having a specialty or area of expertise. “I need a subject matter expertise from my content writers that I can, in turn, sell to my clients and prospective clients,” said Davenport. “It’s all about salability.”

Change means creative growth.
Thanks to the increased demand for content, writers are now being given opportunities to work in and experiment with an array of different mediums and genres. Bogart hopes these new digital bells and whistles will result in greater creativity in the work copywriters do. “I really look to my fellow CDs and ACDs to help the next generation of copywriters come up in a positive way,” she said. “It’s up to us to help them become the future stars.”