Haris: Hi Chris, thanks a lot for agreeing to share your best tips copywriting and your background. Let’s start with how you got started in copywriting? Please, tell us more about your story.
Chris: I’m from a very, very small place, and wanted to live my life in a much, much bigger one. So I dropped out of school early and travelled a lot – ended up in Tokyo completing cargo documents for import and exports, what these days you’d call “microcontent”!
I learned about international trade and technology products – real down-and-dirty stuff, battery packs and adapter plugs – which led to a job in Hong Kong with a large technology trade publisher. Another couple of years later I joined the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather in Singapore. Yet more years on I won WPP’s “Atticus” award, which took me to Paris! In those years I wrote something like 200 campaigns, many of which ran in multiple markets in different languages.
I’m not a corporate guy, but those years in the corporate world taught me how it worked and what I needed to do to make a living from it. So what I’d planned as a three-month working holiday turned into a ten-year overseas odyssey that still brings me clients and contacts today.
These two themes – travel and technology – still define a lot of what I do. I’ve just written a campaign for datacentre hardware, and have another this week for chip architectures. And I’ve just published a book that shares what I’ve learned: “100 Days, 100 Grand”, a workbook teaching freelancers how to earn a six-figure income.
No opportunities for creatives over 40? That’s bullshit.
Haris: How did you transition to freelance copywriting from your previous job? What’s your best piece of advice to someone who is employed and wants to become a freelance copywriter?
Chris: Wow, where to start? I could talk about this stuff for hours. OK, here goes…
… I landed in London with a bump after a decade of employment overseas. The freelance decision was easy – London is a very bad place to be unemployed, I’d always preferred working solo, and my years as a big-agency copywriter had given me a fat address book. So I spent a week on phones and trains, and soon booked in my first clients, one of them my previous employer. Several remain on my roster to this day.
As for advice: here are five snippets.
First I’d say “do what you love”, but of course you’ve got to know what that is – and it takes time. So don’t start freelancing too early – do your time in the cube farm, learn how business works. Build your address book and understand the motivations of real people in real companies. Writing ability alone WON’T CUT IT! There’s no substitute for hard-won experience. (I often find people who started young lack any understanding of basic business motivations, however brilliant their craft.)
Second, learn the most important question in freelancing by heart: “What does success look like from the client’s perspective?” The copywriter who answers the brief will earn a project fee. The copywriter who understands his client’s hopes, fears, and dreams can turn a project fee into a longterm retainer agreement. Retainers – where a client pays you a set fee, for a set scope, every month – are the difference between a struggling freelancer and a sustainable business.
Third, know when it’s time to go back to school! I took a year off for an MBA in my 30s, and it defined what I’ve done since – “the hard stuff”, copy and content that needs research and insights. Ten years later my professional development is still MBA-based; last week I was at London’s Shard skyscraper for a talk by a director of Bain & Co. There’s a whole section in my book about the importance of Continuing Professional Development, or CPD.
Fourth, know what you don’t like. Never do anything just for the money. If you take work from clients you don’t enjoy, you’ll feel unfulfilled and your client won’t get great work; everybody loses. For example, I won’t work for the public sector – I’m deeply capitalist and just don’t like it. It doesn’t matter whether you spend a month on a mountaintop or an afternoon in Starbucks, but take time to understand your personal philosophy and don’t do work that isn’t consistent with it.
Get this right, and you’ll feel “whole”.
Copywriting has given me freedom and affluence, but more than that I’m the happiest person I know, by far.
And fifth, to avoid burnout, do other stuff! When you set your own hours, you’ve no excuse. I’m a trained skydiver and SCUBA diver – in fact, I’m diving in Taiwan next month – and I’ve recently qualified as an instructor in calisthenics and kettlebells. Not to teach, but simply because the subjects interest me. I also train in Krav Maga – a close-combat art from Israel – because I’ve got delusions of being Jason Bourne.
Haris: Getting clients is one of the greatest challenges for freelance copywriters. Could you tell us more about how you get clients?
Chris: Ironically for a technology writer, I use good old-fashioned direct marketing!
Every two years or so, when I need a new client or two, I build a list of companies I’m genuinely interested in. (This is why it’s important to spend those years learning what you love and how to be the best at it.) Then I search for people whose job descriptions may need me, and build a spreadsheet of those names. Some years that list is 100 lines long, sometimes just 20 or so.
Google and LinkedIn are the greatest freelance tools imaginable, and both are free! Use them.
Then I write deeply personalized letters to those people, introducing myself and setting out what I can do for them. Here’s an example. Note I use a lot of humour – I’m a bit of a joker, and a overly serious person isn’t the ideal client for me. When selling yourself to prospects, be yourself.
Response rates to my letters average over 20%, about ten times what most marketers can expect. Many of those people become friends; I’ve been taken to Vegas, entertained in Paris, invited to birthday bashes!
In sum: focus on starting the relationship, not getting the money. Money should be a side effect of good freelancing, not an objective.
Haris: How do you prepare for a writing session?
Chris: I’m lucky enough to work from an inspiring place: London in summer is the greatest place on Earth, and I live near the Thames, where the bright new buildings of financial giants sit side-by-side with ancient docks and parks. It’s buzzy. I get up at 7am, but start work late – workouts and thinking time come first. If you want to improve your service to clients, buy yourself a pullup bar! Health, mental and physical, is far more important than timesheets.
That said, time management matters. Many clients use me over other writers simply because I’m good at deadlines. After waking, I may fool around for hours – but when I sit down to write at 10am, I have a precise target: “this piece will be 1,000 words long, include these parts, and will be complete by 1pm today.” Most days, I’ll write in two shifts of three hours. “Deep work” by Cal Newport and “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi are my instructional texts.
I also do a lot of prep on old-fashioned pen and paper. I write To-Do lists obsessively, and sketch ideas on big sheets of A3. Find a pen you like. I used to be Sharpie-only, but I’ve recently discovered Frixions – amazing erasable inkpens that come in many colours. They’re great! I’m a big fan of good old pencils, but rarely use them.
With the day’s first piece written (I average two a day) I take a long lunch break. If I’m feeling decadent, I might grab a second coffee or muffin from the Italian deli next door. Most days I finish around 6. Quality of hours, not quantity.
Haris: How did you learn to write copy? Are there teachers, books or resources you can recommend?
Chris: The way all writers should: by doing it. I remember producing boxfuls of writing on Mum’s manual typewriter as a kid. When I started getting paid for it, I spent hours reading technical specifications and engineering manuals to really, really get inside the product I was writing about; there’s ALWAYS an interesting fact to anchor your copy on if you look hard enough. I still write the odd terrible novel or sci-fi short story to practice longer prose, especially if I’ve spent a month writing short pieces.
The lifesaver when I started out was “The Copy Book” by Britain’s D&AD. You can often find it secondhand. Also “The Advertising Concept Book” by Pete Barry, who brilliantly traces every ad in pencil so you can see the idea without the art direction. Read The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway for a masterclass in vivid communication. And the best book ever written on advertising is “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!” by Luke Sullivan.
Haris: Who’s your favorite copywriter or piece of copywriting?
Chris: I don’t have any idols or mentors, but without question, my favourite writer is Luke Sullivan. A copywriter who took the time to write about how he does it – see above. My favourite ad isn’t by Luke – I’m not sure who wrote it – but it’s the one below, for a beer brand. It’s decades old but demonstrates the perfect blend of copy, art, and idea. It has humour and trusts the reader’s intelligence, which can’t be said for most ads today.
My particular bugbear today is the number of ads that show people dancing as a substitute for any real idea. I once mentioned to the legendary copywriter Neil French that we should start an agency called “Dancey Ads” that simply produced dance-themed campaigns, because there’d be a huge market for it.
Haris: In your opinion, what are the greatest advantages of being a freelance copywriter? What makes this lifestyle so special?
Chris: The empowerment of self-actualisation – not just being it, but feeling it. Living life on your own terms and answerable to no-one, without expectations of anyone else. The philosopher Ayn Rand called it “the virtue of selfishness”, and while it may sound self-centred, remember it’s the pursuit of private gain that leads to economic growth and opportunities across society. I’m selfish in my pursuit of personal gain, but as a VAT registered Ltd company, that means I contribute more to Britain’s tax revenues than most! Also, while some don’t like admitting it, happiness – the successful state of life – comes from working in your own interest. Have you ever seen a happy socialist? Nope, me neither.
Someone commented the other day how scary it must be to not have a “proper job”.
In my mind, there’s nothing riskier than fulltime employment! If I lose my “employer”, I’ve got several others. Just remember: if you’re on someone’s payroll, you’re in someone’s pocket.
Haris: What one daily habit has contributed to your success more than any other?
Chris: Being “in the moment”, deliberately trying to notice things and not sleepwalking through the day. Too many people are effectively dead and just haven’t stopped moving yet, including some under 30!
Haris: You’ve written a book called “100 Days, 100 Grand”. Who is it for and what makes it special?
Chris: It’s for freelancers – not just freelance copywriters, but anyone who has a special skill they can market as their “signature move”. (And EVERYONE has one of those, believe me.)
Around 2015 I lost the plot and had a bad year – losing three big clients in a single month – and wondered what I’d done wrong. So I started writing down what I’d done differently in my good years.
That pile of notes became a pamphlet, then a short book … then, er, a longer book (1,200 pages!) with professional typography and illustration.
It’s a 100-day course that assumes you have no income on Day 1…. And takes you to a £100,000 income by Day 100, with precise actions and checklists to complete each day.
I know it works, because I had to do it myself. It’s at www.100days100grand.com.
I must give a shout-out here to the book that gave me an idea for its structure. “Convict Conditioning” by Paul Wade is a fitness programme based on simple repeated moves that get harder over time. That book changed my life – in fact, last weekend I was with the Brooklyn trainers who appear in it (Al and Danny Kavadlo), superstars of functional fitness! I also passed their progressive calisthenics instructor course last year, which ends with a killer 100-move workout ending in ten pullups you have to complete within eight minutes.
Haris: Are there areas you focus on as a copywriter and if someone wants to hire you, what is the best way to get in touch?
Chris: I’m at www.chrisdoescontent.com – Chris does Content has been my business name for years. The Contact page gives my details and what I do best – plus what I DON’T do best, so I don’t waste anyone’s time!
If you’re interested in becoming my client, it all starts with a call or visit. (I bring the Krispy Kremes.) Generally you’ll need a defined objective you want your marketing to achieve, a written brief we can scribble on, and an understanding of the business case for using me as a resource (I can help you write this). Generally you’ll need a budget of at least £2,750 a month, although I sometimes do one-offs. I’m active across Europe, Asia, and North America. I also take credit cards!