How An Old Dog Learned Some New Tricks From a Young Pup

As my son completes his advertising studies at university – I look back at just how much I have learned from him over the past three years.

Since September 2011, my son Connor, has been studying Advertising & Brand Communication (ABC) at UCA, Farnham; this summer, he leaves with a BA degree, hoping to get a place with an ad agency and begin gaining wider experience and carving out a career within a fascinating industry. As his time at UCA comes to an end, I’ve taken a look back at what he’s learned over his 3 years, and realised just how much I’ve learned from him, over the same period.

UCA, Farnham campus

University for the Creative Arts (UCA), Farnham

PeopIe buy from people, but why?

I read with interest all his essays; from: A Study of Habitus; symbolic forms of social distinction – the sense of place one has and the how social groups prefer to interact with and aspire to others with similar outlooks and situations, to: Consumer Culture: what it is that makes people buy into a style, trend or movement. Delving deeper into these subjects has given me a better insight into identifying audiences and how to attract specific targets within them, to truly appeal to their desires and compel them to react and respond the way that the clients for whom I write digital sales content, want them to.

A picture paints a thousand words

I’ve also learned about Symbiotics – the power of the message behind an image. A couple of Connor’s studies took a close look at (of all things for a student) beer labels, and how they are commonly designed to suggest a heritage that spans hundreds of years, when this is often NOT the case. This suggestion of heritage (and tradition) is designed to build trust in the brand – hey, if it’s been around for a couple of hundred years, it must be good stuff, right? I have often said that the power of suggestion is underestimated; judging by the 2,000 words he wrote on the subject, it seems I’m wrong – at least as far as advertisers are concerned. It’s certainly a lesson I have taken on board and have practiced this in some of the web projects I have been involved with recently. Although I’m a copywriter and I don’t get so involved with the aesthetic design of the websites I write for, the creative teams I work with have come to better understand from me the importance of the association between images and messages; communicating this to our clients during project reviews often gets them pretty excited and their perception of the value we bring has really increased.

Never be ordinary

Throughout the course, students are taught to be outrageous and to think “differently”. This was one of the very first things they were told, designed to prevent convention; it has proven to be extremely valuable for them, but also for me. Having been a copywriter for 8 years, I have been in something of a comfort zone, believing that 25 years sales experience combined with excellent writing abilities was enough to produce compelling copy. However, simply conveying key messages succinctly and adding a call to action at the end isn’t quite enough. Taking a different view of a subject and highlighting a point that makes readers pay just a little more attention, is a skill that doesn’t just come with experience; it is taught; engaging an audience by being a little edgy or alternative, but without offending is a talent that advertisers look for in “this year’s new crop of graduates” and I have taken this on board myself, (albeit a diluted version), with some success. I’ve always been able to produce attention-grabbing headline for blogs, case studies and project reviews, but thinking just a little differently has helped in winning new technology copy writing business; reaching audiences in a more engaging way.

A little something for the ladies

I have also learned that there is another sex. I must admit that before I read Connor’s essay; Genders in Advertising, I hadn’t really thought of who I was composing copy for; I simply regarded the target audience of every client to be an asexual consumer. So learning that there is a need to write content that appeals to each gender in turn, was something of an eye opener for me. As I look back, it now strikes me as obvious, and being ignorant of this for so long is pretty embarrassing; I’m yet to have an opportunity to apply what I’ve learned here, but I’ll be sure to adapt a writing style pour les dames when appropriate.

Ask why? a lot!

A friend once told me that it’s better to appear a fool for a few moments by asking why, than it is to be considered a fool for assuming, only to produce something that doesn’t fulfill a particular requirement; I took this on board but I didn’t realise the true power of the question before now. Why does my client want to reach a certain audience? Why does my client prefer one social media platform over another? Why doesn’t my client think about a new approach to….? Why is certainly the most evocative question we can ask and one that almost always generates the most telling response. Children ask why? more than any other question; it helps all of us to learn more about the world and the motivations of others; in the case of my clients, it helps me to understand their objectives far more clearly, enabling me to produce far more compelling content for a much more targeted audience.

Make a note of that.

inspiring things you see or overhear can come in useful at any time

Keep a note-book handy at all times – you never know when something may inspire you. John Lennon once told George Harrison “Always make a note of every piece of music that goes through your head, you never know when you may want to use it” He was right to give such advice. A couple of years ago, I began to keep a note-book close by and I’m always making notes of things I see that inspire me, or conversations that I overhear, or phrases, puns and ideas for headlines that come to mind; just in case. As I look through my scribbles, I remember the context and often use these musings in the digital content I produce – perhaps in a headline, or as inspiration for an entire blog, or perhaps just a phrase that adds some weight to a sentence. These notes can come from anywhere (often the last place you’d think of) like a Viennese in-store display.

So, I’m a proud dad, but not too proud to admit that the young pup has taught this old dog a few new tricks; and certainly not too proud to benefit from using them in my work as a copywriter.

A final note to all 2014 graduates; good luck in your endeavours, whatever they may be. And remember: NEVER stop learning!

Peter Stephen is a Surrey based freelance creative copywriter to hire, call 07917 36 01 01 or email


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