#3 An Hour of Advertising with… Vikki Ross

Organising an Hour of Advertising with Vikki was the hardest interview to arrange of them all. Not for any sinister reason — she’s as lovely and accommodating as they come. But every email I sent to arrange a time and location had to be written, reread, rewritten, reread, and then finally written again.

I have never agonised over the spelling of the sentence ‘that’s great, see you there’, so much.

Because Vikki is a flag-bearer for great copy in our industry. Not only is she a brilliant writer, she encourages others to be too.

That means she’s overseen copy, branding and tone of voice for the likes of Sky, The Body Shop, Hotels.com and Virgin Media. It means she’s mentored for the School of Communication Arts 2.0, D&AD, Creative Equals and SheSays. It’s why she founded Copy Cabana, Copy Capital and #copywritersunite to connect Copywriters around the world.

On Twitter, she’s a force. Calling out brands who don’t give their copy the attention it deserves, and directing her legions of followers to new copywriting roles and opportunities.

For anyone in our industry who cares about writing, she’s invaluable. So, after one final carefully worded email, we sat down to discuss what makes a good writer, how the discipline has changed, and the sheer terror of going freelance.

Part one: Biggest fuck-ups, the importance of advertising’s history and learning from the best

Let’s start with a favourite question. Do you remember the first time in your career that you really fucked up?

It’s not that exciting or a massive fuck-up, but early on I thought quantity over quality. I felt that I needed to show my creative director that I’m so brilliant, I’ve written a million options. But with a million options it means there are shit options, and clients can often choose the shit options. I did this for the front cover of The Body Shop’s mail order catalogue — they chose the shittest of all the lines, and I had to look at it for six long months.

What was the line?

It was ‘Colour, whatever the season’. It was incredibly lazy — it tells you nothing. Well, what it tells you is that the copywriter couldn’t be bothered to work out any product benefits. The lesson I learnt was that quality over quantity does prevail, and never show something you’re not proud of because if it runs, you have to live with that to your name.

The way you talk about pushing the work to be better and taking value in what you do — it always strikes me you’re a real industry champion. Is that fair to say?

Well we’re really fucking lucky to do what we do. It’s not really work is it? I mean yes, we work really hard and it can be tiring, and we all get stressed around deadlines, but that’s for us to experience and manage. None of what we do really matters in comparison to so many other jobs. That’s what I try and tell students when they’re talking about how intense and scary it all feels. You could have far, far tougher jobs than this. Here you get paid a lot of money to play and make stuff up — all day.

I worked in beauty for 8 years. That was the most creative job I ever had because you can’t actually claim that the beauty products do anything. So I was making stuff up all day. It was brilliant.

And have you always felt this way?

Well I’ve not actually told many people this, but my passion took a bit of a hit this year. And I didn’t know what to do about it — it really worried me. Because I’ve been doing this for 22 years and I bang on about how much I love it all the time and I go and do talks about what a brilliant job I have and how everyone should be a copywriter. But then I made some mistakes — I trusted people I shouldn’t have. And I seriously suffered — everything I do I do with honesty and friendship so I rarely put things in writing and I always assume that everyone will just be a good person. But they aren’t always. The things that happened made me feel really uncomfortable about some of the people I’d chosen to work with and be around. I questioned my judgement. It all felt a bit shit.

But hopefully that feeling was fleeting?

Well this week I spoke at D&AD Shift. And that’s probably one of my favourite programmes in the industry because the attendees on it want it so much, and it gives me the drive I need. You feed off the enthusiasm of others. This industry offers incredible opportunities, so you think ‘suck it up and embrace it because it will be so worth it.’

And in this industry it does feel like there are a lot of amazing people with enthusiasm to learn from…

I really do think it’s important to look up to people like Dave Trott and other legends in the industry. I met Robin Wight last night for the first time. I don’t know why but straight away I mentioned John Gillard and he interrupted me saying “I can’t believe you know who John Gillard is — no one your age knows who people from that time are”. But I think that people like Paul Arden or David Abbott did things that were new in their time and paved the way for how we work now, so we must look back at them to learn. We can’t look back and say “Oh they did that ages ago and it’s not relevant now.” It’s all very relevant now.

You teach at the School of Communications Arts 2.0. Does part of your teaching encourage people to study great advertising? Do people do it enough?

I really think they should and it really frustrates me that they don’t. I’ve heard students say things like “I don’t want to look back at what’s been done because I don’t want it to pollute my mind,” which I think is a wanky thing to say. I think you should study ads from any time, partly because you need to know what’s been done before so you can do something new, but also because if you’re just starting out, how do you know what you want to do, who you want to be or where you want to go? And if you have a particular style that you like then you can look into who makes those particular ads and where they work. Then you can find the agencies and people you want to work with and for.

For instance I’ve always found myself drawn to pretty much everything Adam & Eve/DDB do. And so, if I was able to start now, I’d aim for them. And I think too often you speak to young creatives and you ask them ‘Where do you want to go?’ and they don’t know. You need to do your research, you need to do your homework.

Part two: The first big break, finding a brand’s tone of voice and the rise of in-house agencies

For someone who I consider to be very synonymous with the advertising industry, you’ve actually worked for very few agencies. Was that a conscious decision?

No. Not at all. I’ve always wanted to work agency side, it just never happened. I got into the industry by accident really. After getting sacked from my receptionist job in a serviced office block, I helped out at a tiny PR agency for a few weeks as they were planning Michael Jackson’s ‘Blood on the Dance Floor’ album launch party. Once that had happened there wasn’t any more work for me but the owner asked if I wanted to work for her husband’s agency as a PA. It was a tiny direct marketing agency that doesn’t exist anymore. After a few months there trying to understand what they did I asked if I could write a reader offer, which they all thought was hilarious because I’d never written anything.

They let me do it and because they could measure it they could see that it was successful, and immediately moved me into creative! I loved it — I thought I was writing adverts when really I was writing reader offers, but I didn’t know the difference. I was writing stuff that went in magazines — I thought I was on my way up then but two-and-a-half years in, I was in a really bad car crash. It made me realise life was short, so I took 18 months off and went travelling. When I came back I tried to get work as a copywriter, but no-one had heard of the agency I’d been in, I’d been out for a year and a half and there was hardly anyone hiring. I didn’t have a book, I hadn’t been to ad school, it was impossible.

So you looked elsewhere?

I took a job as a PA at The Body Shop. And I did the same thing as before. I was there for a couple of months and I asked the product director I was working for if I could try my hand at copywriting. She gave me a piece that the copywriters in The Body Shop studio had written that she thought was rubbish, and asked me to rewrite it. I did and I was transferred to marketing where I wrote internal communications until the same thing happened again. I told the creative director I wanted to write copy, he gave me a go, I did well and I was moved to the creative studio and I was there for 8 years. I loved it, I never thought I’d leave. The studio was 120 people and we acted like an agency, but it did mean during all that time I was a copywriter who hadn’t worked for an advertising agency.

This of course was at a time when The Body Shop was pioneering in its approach, particularly in its marketing…

Yeah and it wasn’t just about their brand personality, it was what they were doing. Anita Roddick was incredible. It was a great place to work. But L’Oreal fucked it and from a job I never thought I’d leave, I wanted out.

Which took you to Virgin Media and then Sky?

Yeah I thought I’d try something completely different. I went to Virgin Media for an initial six-month contract that turned into nine, and then Sky offered me a Head of Copy role. When you love TV and film and Sky come along, then it’s the dream. They’d never hired an in-house copywriter before so I had to have seven interviews.

Part of my job was to implement a new tone of voice for Sky. So I spent a lot of time going around the Sky agencies to make sure we were all working together and on the same page. I guess that was my ‘I’m finally working with agencies’ moment. I was there for nearly two years and I left because I wasn’t writing. When you get to Head of Copy, you’re just in meetings all the time. And as much as I loved going to agencies and meeting great creatives — I wasn’t writing. So I went freelance and ended up writing for Sky in that capacity instead. Until I freaked out at being a freelancer and took the Head of Copy job at Expedia. But that was all meetings too, so I returned to freelancing for Sky again.

It’s all very well coming up with smart new tone of voice guidelines, but how do you actually get a brand to apply it?

People ask me that quite a lot. Because we do face resistance from clients all the time. But luckily I come in at a point where they’ve asked me to, so usually they’re ready to be told what to do. I think it’s important for all parties to not be precious. If something’s not working then the copywriter needs to work through it with the client rather than throw their toys out of the pram.

You need to be flexible and you need to have options. I always say to other copywriters that you can’t ever say ‘No I’m not going to do it that way’. When you put the effort in to tackle something a few ways you can then all sit together to clearly see that a certain approach is better. It’s the softly-softly approach I guess. Stamp your foot in private but be open-minded with people you’re working with.

What came first for you then — the love of writing or the love of brands?

Definitely writing. I didn’t know what a copywriter was but I thought that adverts were sexy and magazines were sexy. So for a time I thought I may have wanted to be a journalist, but I really don’t like writing long-form copy. Give me a headline to write and I’m happy.

The love of branding came later. When I was more senior at The Body Shop I started to understand it, and then at Virgin Media, though I don’t think it really works above the line, below-the-line the tone of voice is seamless. And seeing that work across an entire brand –ultimately working on projects where you’re the one who comes up with how a brand is going to talk — helped me really fall in love with the branding side of things.

You’ve not done agency life per se but you’ve done a lot of in-house work. What do you make of the current rise of in-house creative agencies?

I know they are frowned upon, but that’s bullshit. Of the people I know who have gone from an agency to working in-house, most have said ‘I can’t believe I didn’t do this sooner’. It’s a different and often more respectful way of working. I remember one person who made the move telling me how excited they were that they went home and actually saw their family of a night now. And I’ve spoken to agencies that have been reluctant to hire copywriters without agency experience but do and it all works out. Funny that. There should be no issue either way as far as I’m concerned.

The accusation people make about ‘in-house agencies’ is that you don’t get the diversity of working, as you’re writing for the same brand every day…

I think that’s a good point. When I was hoping to agency hop, I was looking forward to working on lots of different brands. Maybe I’ve just been lucky that I’ve worked on lots of big, amazing brands and worked across lots of different channels, so it still feels diverse.So, with Sky for instance, I’d be writing one day about a new TV show coming out and then the next day about an amazing new piece of technology. It means I’ve never been bored of the brands I’m working on.

Part three: The terror of going freelance, the secret to working from home, and the birth of #copywritersunite…

Was freelancing always the ultimate plan?

Not at all. I’ve always been really hard working, so the idea or possibility of not working five days a week scared the hell out of me. I didn’t ‘get’ the not working Monday to Friday. My husband had been freelancing for 7 or 8 years before I started doing it, and he was trying to counsel me, but I just couldn’t get a grip on it. Then he said something really important which I now pass on to others going freelance too: you have to value the downtime.

Initially when I had downtime I was thinking ‘Where’s the next pay check coming from?’ and ‘Am I ever going to get work again?’ but as time goes on you learn to love the downtime. As a freelancer you’re not in the number of meetings you are when you’re working for a company, so I’m writing more. Once I realised that, I learned to love it and I really value the downtime.

How else did going freelance change things?

This is going to make me sound like an arrogant dick but I struggled because I went from being in meetings all day at Sky with some of the most senior people in the company, to turning up at agencies where they’d ask “Have you brought your own laptop because we’ve not got you anything?”, “We haven’t got you a desk so could you sit in the communal area?” and “We haven’t got you a pass so if you need to go to the toilet you’ll just have to let us know.” I kept thinking ‘Fuck you’ — and not because I had an ego, but because I was thinking, ‘Do you really treat people like this?’. And you hear stories about freelancers being treated like that all the time, and it’s wrong.

How do you work as a freelancer? Is it coffee shops and noise or in a study in silence?

I’m more a consultant than a freelancer now and I work from home in absolute silence. It’s hardly ever at my desk — it’s at the kitchen table or the couch or on my bed. But it depends on the work — if it’s something serious I sit at my desk, but if it’s something quite fun I’ll go and relax somewhere.

A lot of people ask three things about working for myself. One is ‘Don’t you get lonely?’, to which the answer is ‘No’, I like my own company and prefer to work in silence. The second question is ‘What’s your motivation if you’re mainly working at home? I’d just put the TV on’, well my motivation is that if I don’t do the work then I don’t get paid. It’s quite simple. And the third thing is ‘You’re on Twitter a lot aren’t you?’, and my response to that is ‘How often at work do you turn around to someone and have a chat?’ I go on Twitter to do the same thing.

Let’s talk about #copywritersunite — how important is it to have a community of copywriters, and has it grown in the way you expected it to?

I started #copywritersunite because I was pissed off. And I think that’s when you start most good things. I was pissed off because copywriters are not valued as much in our industry as other disciplines. And it’s crazy when the industry greats we celebrate are very often copywriters. That appreciation has not trickled through for some reason.

Often, we’re the last people to be briefed — or we’re not included at all because the marketer will write the copy instead. It’s getting better but there’s not been enough copywriting categories in awards and the copywriters don’t get credited as often as they should. There was a whole long list of things that just annoyed me. Partly because I loved my job and what we do but also because you fucking need great words to make great communications.

So I started #copywritersunite for us to connect with each other. I just went looking for other copywriters really. Because I knew so many people were passionate about what they do in the same way. Not everyone — there’s a lot of copywriters who aren’t and just say ‘My work’s my work and I want a different life outside of it’ and I totally get that. But there were a lot of people out there who wanted to share work. To celebrate what we do, and to commiserate with each other when someone has had a bad day.

Was it an immediate success?

Andy Maslen and I arranged the first ‘meet-up’ because lots of people kept saying they wanted to meet. There were five of us. Despite loads of people pushing for a meet-up only five turned up. But it was fun and I arranged a second — and there were 30 people. And now it’s grown to four a year in London, and there were probably 70 people at the last one plus other nights across the UK and Europe. I keep them going because there are simply no other events for copywriters. You can go to a photography event or an art talk etc, but there’s nothing for copywriters and it baffles me.

And then you started Copy Capital…

Yeah, I started Copy Capital with Andy — which was originally Copy Cabana — because again there were no events like it. I thought ‘I want a day where we celebrate what we do and where everyone feels good about their job’. I wanted to hear from people who I think are fucking incredible, and who have a job that I wish I had or the success I wish I had. So the first year we had 12 speakers including Drayton Bird and Innocent’s lead writer, Hayley Redman. The second year we had another 12 speakers including Steve Harrison — these are people you want to see on stage. And it’s turned into a big day. We had Fay Weldon this year, who wrote for Ogilvy in the 50s, is now 87 but still got in a cab for 3-and-a-half hours to come and speak. She was incredible.

And it’s a hugely proud moment to see people from around the world turn up to a day like this because they believe in what I believe in.

Part four: How copywriting has changed, what makes a great copywriter and the decline of the ‘advertising celebrity’

How has copywriting changed then?

Well I’m going to draw on something Fay said at Copy Capital. I set her up with Aimee Lewis, a senior copywriter at Ogilvy who interviewed her. Aimee asked Fay “When you write as part of a team, how does that work for you?” and Fay just looked at her like she was mad. “Write as a team, why would you do that?” and the whole audience laughed because we all know it’s a totally ridiculous thing to do.

I still think that a lot of marketers don’t get the art of copywriting. And so it’s hugely noticeable when you get a client that does. It feels very special when you work for someone who values what you do and lets you do it. But for most people it seems it’s not a consideration. It’s why copywriters get brought in at the last minute. That still happens too regularly.

Has the role of the copywriter changed too?

Well you get people now who say ‘Oh I do both copywriting and art directing’. That troubles me. I’m not saying that it’s not possible to do both. But I think it’s important to distinguish because the best way to progress in your career is if you focus. The more you focus the more you excel. If you’re not defending one thing but both things, each becomes blurred. I know that’s old fashioned, but I have old fashioned views. If you just rock up and casually or hopefully say ‘Oh I do a bit of both’, then why should I believe in your commitment to either?

What do you look for when you meet a young copywriter?

Hunger. If they don’t want it then I don’t want them. I don’t know if that’s fair, but I know in advertising that the people who do a good job are the people who fucking love what they do. As fun as it is, you have to work at it. But the work is fun.

Where do good copywriters come from? Do they have to have studied English or advertising for years, or can they come from anywhere?

Well I came from nowhere, so I’d like to think they can come from anywhere. There’s a current trend in the whole ‘spoken word’ thing right now and that’s not something you study — or it wasn’t. That style of writing won the only D&AD New Blood Black Pencil last year. There are always opportunities for young copywriters but we have to get better at respecting and welcoming them and letting them do their job. There are also opportunities for them to do new things and that’s really interesting.

Which copywriters do you look up to today?

Well you know what I was saying earlier rings true in that I still mainly tend to look up to those from years’ past. But I do see the students I teach glaze over when you talk about them. The creatives who get them excited now are Stu at Creature — he’s universally loved — and Ian Wharton at AKQA. Most of them haven’t actually heard of Nils, which just goes to show, they aren’t doing their research.

So does that mean there’s no such thing as a ‘celebrity’ in advertising now?

I don’t think there is in the way someone like Dave Trott was. There is still an element of celebrity in some cases and I like in many ways the fact that people are holding others in some regard. People for others to look up to. That’s why I always talk about the amazing copywriters we’ve had, because people need to see that others value the craft. If you’re a young copywriter and no-one’s talking about it as a craft, why should you bother?

Let’s finish with three quickfire questions. Favourite line of all time?

I don’t know about ‘of all time’ but of very recent times, ‘But I was deaf, so I didn’t listen.’ The ad’s script is beautiful, but I warn you now, whenever I show it, people cringe at the brand. Never mind that, it’s a great line — full of emotion and impact.

Favourite ad?

I really like Adam & Eve’s TV ad for John Lewis home insurance. And I like it because if I was given a brief for home insurance I would turn it down because I’d think it’d be boring. But Adam & Eve took it and turned it into something that’s not just brilliant in a John Lewis way but also an Adam & Eve way. And it’s not something I’d have ever thought of doing — and that annoys me because it shows I’m not thinking hard and far enough. They took something really dry and turned it into something so warm and beautiful — amusing too. It’s got nothing to do with great copy, but the way they approached the ad is amazing.

The piece of work you’re most proud of?

It’s cliched but I am proud of everything because I just love seeing my work out there — I’m doing the thing I always wanted to do. But what I’m most proud of would be the brand book I wrote for Sky. It was a hell of a lot of work and it looks gorgeous — Venture Three are incredible and they made this sexy, glossy, colourful book. I have about 12 of them at home. I have no idea why I thought I needed to keep 12. Even after all this time I get so excited when I see a piece go live — I pause the TV if I see one of my ads so I can watch it again and I stop and take a photo if I see an ad on a billboard.

Illustrations by Guy Sexty