When I was in college, a copywriter came to my school to talk about his career. Not many people showed up. All I remember is him sitting back in his chair and saying, “At the end of the day, people are paying me for my ideas. And that’s pretty cool.”
People have been paying Mike Fleming for his ideas since 1991. He’s done work (just to name a few) for Vodafone, ESPN and the United Nations, and currently works as a consultant writer for clients in the UK and Ireland.
Yup, that’s pretty cool.
BR: What kind of writer are you?
MF: The worst kind – an advertising and branding copywriter.
BR: How did you get wherever you are now?
MF: During my final year at university I spent most of my free time gaining experience in the creative departments of ad agencies. When I graduated I was lucky enough to get offered a job by one of them. After moving through the ranks of agencies in the UK and Ireland I ended up as a Creative Director. In 2007, after 16 years as a full time employee, I decided that agency life wasn’t my ideal scenario, so I went freelance. These days I’m mostly based at home in Ireland, but my work comes predominantly from agencies and direct clients in London. I still do quite a bit of advertising work, but much of my time is now spent writing verbal identity for brands.
BR: What advice would you give to someone trying to improve their writing?
MF: I can only comment on copywriting, not proper writing.
Read the classics. David Ogilvy. David Abbot. Bill Bernbach. Barbara Nokes. John Webster. Jeff Goodby. Neil French. Tim Delaney. These copywriters use charm, wit and laser-guided insight to connect with their audience. Although they are from a different era, the fundamentals of persuasion remain the same today.
Take an interest in everything and everyone. The wider your general knowledge and the sharper your insights about the human condition, the more likely your writing will resonate. Be curious.
Ask why? Being a cynic and a sarcastic naysayer is easy, not to mention a guaranteed way to gain a pain-in-the-ass reputation. But there is a right time to challenge the brief you’ve been given. It’s every time. Poke it. Prod it. Try to find holes in its logic because that’s what your audience will do instinctively. The fewer the holes, the better your chance of writing something really compelling.
Edit ruthlessly. Good writing doesn’t just happen. Elegant pace and well-reasoned arguments don’t fall easily onto the page even for the most gifted writers. (So I’m told.) It takes time to craft, but if you can be your own worst critic you probably won’t hear too much from any others.
BR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve worked on?
MF: A brand that shall remain nameless, purporting to be the elixir of youth. It doesn’t work. I know this to be a fact as I have a mirror in my house.
BR: What’s something you’d like to work on in the future?
MF: It’d be nice to write something that made a difference to someone’s life. Improved it or even saved it. Just one person would be enough. I’m not greedy.