An Interview with Freelance Copywriter Laura DerringtonPosted: February 6, 2008
Recently I had the privilege of interviewing award-winning freelance copywriter Laura Derrington about her work and her profession. The timing was perfect: She is just now celebrating 15 years as a freelancer. Laura didn’t set out to be self-employed, or even a copywriter, but she has excelled in both roles and enjoys wide respect for her abilities and the work she produces. That’s why I was so pleased when she agreed to share her knowledge and expertise in this interview.
(Note: Although Laura lived and worked in Memphis for years, her heart was in Colorado. She spent vacations exploring Colorado, hiking in the mountains and dreaming of one day living there. Laura’s dream came true in 2007 when she sold her house, packed her belongings, and with “Sky,” her Australian Shepherd, beside her, drove off into the sunset toward their new Colorado hometown.)
LDaley: How did you come to be a copywriter, what education was needed and how did you get your first copywriting job?
LAURA: I don’t know that I followed the “conventional” route to being a copywriter, whatever that is. My degree was in magazine journalism and when that did not lead to a job, I started my career in public relations for a university and later a bank, until I realized that my heart did not lie in corporate PR and my interest was in advertising. I began freelancing for a new advertising agency and a few months later was hired as their first full-time copywriter. It was a bit scary as I had no real training in copywriting.
After working for two agencies for nine years, I went freelance. I would love to say it was a heroic decision, but the truth is the agency I had sweated blood for over many years unceremoniously terminated my employment — it’s a ruthless business. So I decided to give freelancing a shot. I just started calling people I knew and slowly built up a list of clients.
LDaley:: What do copywriters write? Do you develop a concept or theme for campaigns or do you work with creative directors implementing their ideas?
LAURA: Copywriters write just about everything—print ads, direct mail, sales sheets, sales letters, brochures, presentations, postcards, billboards, web sites, radio & television commercials, PSA’s, videos, packaging, in-store displays — you name it. I sometimes develop a concept on my own, and sometimes work with a graphic designer. That’s why I have always loved it, because it is so varied and new each day.
LDaley: How can someone break into freelance copywriting?
LAURA: I would think an internship at an agency would be invaluable, so that you can see how the creative team works, how the process flows, and all the considerations that go into a campaign. Not only could this possibly lead to employment, but also it will expose you to others working in the same field. If you can’t find an internship, get some experience writing on a college publication — anything to show you understand how to write. Exposing yourself to a tough editor is the best education.
I strongly suggest spending several years working at an agency or design firm prior to attempting to freelance — you’ll learn so much more. But if you’ve been doing that and now want to freelance, start taking on some assignments (while still employed if possible) and see how it goes. At some point, you just have to make the jump.
LDaley: Master Copywriter David Ogilvy has said that a good copywriter should have a “well-furnished mind.” How does one go about acquiring a well-furnished mind? What is your way of staying current despite almost constant changes in technology, science and industry?
LAURA: I think David is right on. While I’m sure a degree in advertising wouldn’t hurt, I confess I had little formal training in it. You should have interests in many areas. Pay attention to what is going on in the world, read equal amounts of fiction and non-fiction, watch enough television to stay abreast of trends, get out of your box somewhat. This is a very young profession, and in many ways, I am a dinosaur! I try to pay attention to what’s new and what’s out of style, but it gets tougher every year. As for all the new technology, it’s a challenge — which is why I think you should work full-time at an agency or design firm prior to freelancing, so you have firsthand exposure to it all.
LDaley:: What qualities does one need to be a copywriter? What kind of pay range should copywriters expect — beginners and experienced?
LAURA: Insanity! The ability to think fast, to think differently, to stay open-minded and relaxed when the deadlines are ridiculous, which they always are. The ability to work with others. The ability to work alone, locked up in an office, and come up with four different campaigns. Good listening skills, so that you can unearth what a client is really trying to tell you. Flexibility and humor when asked to make countless revisions. Perhaps most important of all, the ability to start and stop and switch gears 10 times a day and smile about it. As for pay, it depends on where you are located, how long you’ve been at it, and what the project is. I really can’t begin to guess at an “average” salary. Just ask copywriters in your area what they charge.
LDaley:: How do you get new clients…should someone advertise or depend on referrals?
LAURA: A wise woman I once told me, “The best way to get new business is to do good business for the clients you have now.” She was right. So much is word of mouth, and when you’re pleasing your clients, they’ll refer you to others. When I first ventured out, I called creative directors and senior writers every Monday to see if they had any work for me. I hated the process, and it was very frustrating for quite a while, but then things began to change. You want to be sure your name is out there in case they suddenly need someone. I occasionally sent out some fun letters, as there was no email then. But again, doing good work leads to good referrals.
LDaley:: It must have been quite a challenge to move your business across country. How did that work out for you?
LAURA: Thanks to the Internet, I was able to move across the country in June, keeping my main client, as well as a few smaller ones. It’s worked fine, and I have made a few quick trips back to my previous home for meetings. As far as getting new clients, I’ve used emails, letters and phone calls. Actually, one of my previous long-standing clients gave me a great referral in my new city — and that referral in turn introduced me to several new contacts. (Again, do good business and your business will grow). I also now have a web site, which I just never took the time to do before, but I have discovered it’s a must when approaching clients who have no idea who I am. I am, of course, doing some old-fashioned beating-of-the-bushes to stir up new business. I hope to do some pro-bono in my new city to make more contacts as well.
LDaley:: Have you additional advice that can help us become successful copywriters?
LAURA: Having said all this, I think the key to being a successful freelance copywriter is being easy to work with—cheerful, positive, flexible. They’re sure to come back for more!
Again, many thanks to Laura for this interview. I’ve known Laura for years and can attest to the fact that she is indeed easy to work with, and cheerful, positive, and flexible. She can also be quite witty — visit her website and see how she presents lively, clear copy in a sharp, amusing way. I love the Groucho Marx quote!
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