Clare Barry on Life as a Copywriter
Meet Clare, Senior Conceptual Copywriter at Liquid Agency based in Liverpool, whose job it is to generate attention-grabbing brand concepts for household names, along with taglines, adverts, scripts, web copy (and whatever else is needed).
On the side, she runs ‘Copy Clare’ which is an outlet for her to “get a bit weird” she admits. Within that, Clare dabbles in everything from copy, to idea generation, to advertising, to book editing, to strategy and back again. “I think the easiest way to describe it is a creative consultancy for slightly braver brands, looking for an injection of edgy, weird and wonderful. Sometimes outright bizarre”. Not one to put a pause on things, she is also in the process of writing two books, but “the less we talk about that the better,” she says.
Clare started out training to be a journalist, and was “pretty much hell-bent” on writing for The Times or The Guardian “by the time she grew up”. At the age of 20, she managed to get a job at a small music magazine selling advertising space via telesales. “I was bloody awful at it — truly terrible— but had an ambitious notion that I could convince the magazine that they’d made a huge mistake, and that I should be a journalist instead”. She convinced them to do just that, and if you had met Clare you wouldn’t be surprised by that in the slightest. She spent the following year meeting and interviewing rock stars, which felt “very glamorous for a young-little-nobody in Liverpool”. As part of that job, she had her first foray into advertising and PR – running competitions with Reading & Leeds festival, organising brand collaborations, copywriting for adverts, putting together photoshoots etc.
For Clare, this wasn’t enough. “I still had this beautifully naive dream of news journalism… the long hours, the deadlines, the pressure, the exciting atmosphere, the feeling that you were contributing to some bigger cause. So I quit, and worked at a newspaper for a very short amount of time”.
Her first byline in a newspaper was attributed to a story about the elderly confusing post-boxes and dog-poo bins. It was the first article she had ever had published in a newspaper, “and it was literally about elderly people putting dog shit in the post,” she laughs.
“As funny as it is – it obviously wasn’t the idea of journalism I’d concocted in my head. After working in a real newsroom, I quickly discovered that my ideal was a fallacy, and journalism would never suit me. I was too messy, too creative, too bored… and too eager to break the rules. So, I quit, again. This time, I knew I needed to do something else”.
At the time, Facebook and Twitter were starting to make the jump from being strictly for personal use, to a method of promoting your business. Clare knew she was good at social media – so she put all her energy into emailing local businesses, saying:
Hey, I don’t mean to be rude but your company tweets like the town imbecile — want some help?
“Somehow, those businesses weren’t put off by my cheek, and I literally started tweeting for a living from my bedroom. I was only 22 at the time and not-at-all ready to run a business” she tells us. “Wanting the security of a proper job, I eventually emailed a creative agency (admittedly, with no idea what one actually was). Before I knew it, I was hired.”
Clare is the type of person you want to go to the pub with and talk to for hours on end, listening to her bookshelf of anecdotes and lessons learnt. Intrigued by her charisma, we wanted to understand what a typical day might look like for her. “Sadly, I’m not one of these hyper-organised, matcha-tea drinking, gym-before-work types. In fact, I’m the polar opposite. I’m a prolific insomniac, so I usually roll out of bed at 8.30AM after three hours sleep, blindly fumbling for clothes like an ageing mole, before clumsily tumbling to the studio,” she explains.
“After that, I can’t describe a ‘typical day’ because I rarely have one. Every day is a different and my job is so varied that it can be anything from typical ‘copywriting’ (taglines, adverts, branding, web copy) to idea generation (art direction, experiential, stunts and films) to consultancy, and back again. Most days, I find myself doing a peculiar straddle between all three. I consider myself the queen of organised chaos — and believe me, it can be chaos”.
We’re reminded time and time again that everybody struggles with creative blocks, particularly in a fast-paced agency environment. Sadly, there isn’t a how-to guide on how to deal with them… how one person might overcome an episode might be a dreadful approach for another.
“I just let them happen, to be honest. If I’m a bit stuck, I find that a decent playlist and a walk at lunchtime will help me get out of it. If it’s a real creative block, and I’ve got nothing, I tend to just let it happen. Somewhere along the line I’ll see something, or find something — a puzzle-piece that I didn’t have before — that suddenly makes everything click.” Above everything else, however, she finds an impending deadline will remove a creative block like nothing else. There’s nothing more motivational than “the threat of getting bollocked” she says, laughing.
Being in the writing business for several years now, banking a lot of successful projects both of her own and through the agency she works for, we ask Clare what some of her highlights have been throughout her career. “Every time you manage to get something over-the-line for a client, and it works, it’s a highlight” she muses. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of work creatives do behind the scenes that never see the light of day, whether it’s due to budgets, timescales, fear… whatever. Sometimes simply getting something over the line can be an accomplishment in itself.”
On a more personal level, she wrote a controversial, tongue-in-cheek article about copywriting (called ‘Everyone’s a copywriter. Right?’) that went viral. “Considering it’s targeted at a very niche audience (i.e. people in advertising), I somehow managed to make the public at large become interested in copywriting for the 10 minutes or so it took them to read the article and it trended for two days,” she tells us. It can now be found floating around Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit having amassed 60,000 shares and, so far, 25,000 claps on Medium. It was endorsed by some of the most well-known copywriters in the UK and has landed her a significant amount of new business.
Modestly, Clare believes she got where she is today out of “pure luck and other people.” Believing she has a “curious knack” for being in the right place at the right time, “I’d hold that up as the sole reason I’m able to do any of the stuff I do today. I didn’t go to advertising school, I didn’t do graphic design and I had absolutely no idea what a copywriter was when I became one… so I’m in complete debt to the people around me, who were willing to take a chance on some clueless, scrappy kid that was ‘good at words’.”
She has found herself crossing paths with some incredibly wise people in the industry and has picked up advice that has left a profound impact on her and her work because of it. “I’ve had so much good advice it’d require a separate interview. I suppose rather than advice – I’d argue good advisors can have the most impact on you. Karen Fraser (Credos, Advertising Association) has been a fairy godmother to me, and instrumental in pointing me in the right direction”. Karen has also introduced her to the incredible movements happening for women in the industry today — the 3% movement, WACL, SheSays to name a few.
The singular piece of advice that had the most impact on her, however, and could leave an impact on many others, came from Dave Trott: “Fear of what might go wrong will stop you doing anything great. Fear of embarrassment, fear of getting in trouble. You’ll try to make everything safe and criticism-proof, which means dull, which means invisible, which means you aren’t being creative. If you’re not scaring yourself, you’re not scaring anyone else. And that’s a very dull place to be. That’s not creative.”
Of course, time spent crafting your skills, seeking out inspiration and understanding the evolution of the industry is equally just as important, she notes. A place for this which Clare continues to come back to is Twitter, “I can’t recommend it enough if you’re a copywriter” she tells us, “when following the right people, you can learn something on that platform every single day. I’d recommend checking out the #copywritersunite hashtag, created by the wonderful Vikki Ross. Ryan Wallman (@Dr_Draper on Twitter) is basically a masterclass in copywriting and satire at the same time.”
In terms of books and blogs, she would recommend reading everything Dave Trott has ever written, also highly rating Dave Dye, “especially if you’re going into art direction,” she says. “His blog is a masterpiece in advertising and creativity regardless of your speciality.”
Success is almost as subjective as art and for creatives, in particular, there seems to be something that drives their creativity and need to express themselves, far beyond traditional ideas of what success looks like; whether that’s financial or status.
For Clare, she’s open to the fact she has no idea on what success looks like for her and see’s it to be something that is evolving constantly. “I’m really annoying. I basically create a new goal every time I reach one, so sadly I have no idea” she reflects. “What I think ‘success’ is today will change by tomorrow, and again the following week. I think the ultimate goal is to always be excited by what you’re doing… I’m a terrible miser when I get bored.”
“Overall… as long as you still get a little thrill out of whatever the hell it is you’re pursuing, and you’re having fun (while scaring yourself a bit), then you’re doing okay. If you can make money out of it too — well, you’re living the dream.”