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When I tell people I’m a copywriter, I’m often met by blank faces. Either that, or people assume that I photocopy stuff all day (kind of insulting) or am involved in legal copyright (not the end of the world). Occasionally I start boring people with the origins of the phrase “copywriter” (that advertising texts were meant to be “copied”/reproduced in print and the name “copy” stuck). But as I know not everyone shares my enthusiasm for etymology, my point of reference is usually: “You know, like Peggy from Mad Men?”
Peggy Olson, one of the main characters of the hit American TV show Mad Men, is one of the most famous copywriters out there. Although she is of course fictitious. But she’s also badass, so I’m happy to have her represent us.
However, I always feel like the comparison is a little misleading. Sure, we share the same job title, but what I do day-to-day is a bit different to Peggy’s endeavours. I should probably add here that officially I am a “Digital Copywriter”.
Mad Men is set in a Madison Avenue advertising agency in 1960’s New York. I imagine that for copywriters writing for print and TV adverts, the role has stayed largely similar whilst moving with the times. Generally, however, the role of the copywriter has diversified a lot. I’ve been having a think about the role of the copywriter has changed from the advertising boom of the 1960’s to the digital revolution of the 21st century. And what aspects of copywriting remain timeless and constant.
According to Oxford Dictionaries, a copywriter is:
“A person who writes the text of advertisements or publicity material.”
So your brand slogans, your billboard text, your leaflets and brochures, your website text – all the work of a copywriter.
But hang on, we never saw Peggy slaving away over a brochure! She was always brainstorming and creating cool concepts and ideas!
Although the broad definition of a “copywriter” is someone who generally writes for commercial purposes, there seem to be varying opinions on the type of thing a “true” copywriter writes.
While researching for this article, I found lots of articles with the headlines “The Difference Between Copywriting and Content Writing”, “Why Copywriting and Content Writing Aren’t the Same Thing”, etc. etc.
These articles purported that a true copywriter writes text exclusively to sell, persuade and convince people to buy. Think slogans, short sentences, taglines.
Apparently, people like me who write for websites are actually “Content Writers”.
Ok, I’m going to have to go back to etymology here for a sec. But bear with me – I’ll get back onto Mad Men in a minute.
As I mentioned at the start, “copy” originally referred to a text to be reproduced in print. The word comes from Latin “copia”, meaning “abundance” or “plenty” and came to refer to a text for reproduction after the printing press was invented (please refer to the wonderful Online Etymology Dictionary for more detail).
Copy-editors were people who checked edited the copy before it was printed, while copywriters were people who wrote copy (unless they were journalists, novelistss etc. I guess copywriters thus became “the people who write all the other stuff”).
Originally, copywriting for marketing purposes, around the start of the 20th century, tended to just state the facts. It was the 1960’s – the Mad Men era – when copywriting really became glamorous.
And we’re back onto Peggy – yay!
The copywriters of the prestigious Madison Avenue advertising agency were creative types who thought of exciting concepts to connect with consumers and persuade them to buy a product. They played with language to tap into people’s feelings, emotions and desires. This is what many people still associate with the term “Copywriter”. And in fairness, that’s what lots of copywriters do.
But the evolution of the copywriter didn’t stop there.
The term “content writing” came about with the rise of the internet and search engine marketing (also known as search engine optimisation, or SEO, for short).
Websites, as you will know, are populated with written content, including product descriptions, general information and blog posts. And all of this needs writing by someone.
This written content has become especially important to marketing strategy as marketers have realised the importance of showing up in search engines. Search engines need there to be plenty of written content on a site so that they can tell what it’s about and display it when people search for relevant keywords. (There’s a bit more to SEO content writing than that, but that’s a whole other blog post).
As a development of that, we also have content marketing. Again, content marketing means different things depending on who you ask. But for SEO it’s about writing content that people genuinely find interesting and will want to read and link to.
So what I do falls under the aforementioned scope of “content writing”.
But if we go back to the origins of the term copy, what I’m writing still falls under the category of “commercial texts” or “publicity material”. It’s just that what constitutes these things has now changed. A blog post still has the ultimate aim of promoting a company or selling a product – just not as overtly. I read an interesting article pointing out that content writing is lower down the sales funnel – getting customers familiar with your brand, while copywriting is higher up – trying to get people to make a purchase.
The way I see it, a “content writer” is sort of like a sub-category of “copywriter”. I can see the value of differentiating between the two, especially when it comes to thinking about why you’re writing what you’re writing. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to call yourself a copywriter if you write website content.
I started this post wondering how the role of the copywriter has changed. I’ve now concluded the following:
Now that people have a lot more media to choose from, it’s harder to hold their attention. This has had an effect on all types of copywriting. Whether you’re writing out-and-out ads or pieces of thought-leadership content, engaging our modern, fast-paced audience is key.
We still need Peggy’s creativity. We’re just serving ours to a whole different audience.