So You Want to Be a Copywriter…

I was digging through some old P/O/N folders today and found this ad for copywriting positions with the agency:


We’re Penny/Ohlmann/Neiman (PON), a fast-paced, full-service agency, and we’re looking for a creative who can wear many hats and still keep their head. Ideally, we’d like the next “PONer” to be a seasoned copywriter with production experience in both radio and television. A typical day? There isn’t one. You should be prepared to write anything – from an annual report for hospice to a back-to-school ad for a shopping mall to a video script for an online information provider to an RFP for a public transit authority. In exchange for your ability to persuade and persevere, we’ll give you all the work you can handle, a fair salary with full benefits, and a bottomless bottle of antacid.

This pretty much sums up the job of writing copy at P/O/N a decade ago… though I think I’d soften the antacid bit a little. You don’t want to scare people off first thing. Maybe: “All you can eat popcorn.” That’s more accurate anyway.

For the most part, writing copy at P/O/N is just like that. I could be asked to do any of those things…. and a whole lot more. Because some things have changed.

These days, it’s actually tough to find somebody outside the industry who even knows what a “copywriter” is. I had somebody ask me once if I was one of those people who gives “copyrights” to books. Because who else would do that but… a copyrighter. Right?

I tell people I’m a writer at an ad agency, and that gets a little more play. Mad Men has done wonders for public perception of ad agencies, both good and bad (I know of at least one designer who doesn’t want to watch this show with his wife for fear that she’d think that every day at the office was “just like Mad Men.”.  Sadly, life at an agency is less 3-hour Don Draper lunch, and more tweaking-copy-til-dawn Peggy Olsen).

For me, much of agency work is just keeping ahead of the piles on the desk, and translating client requests from “we’d like” into “we have!” That could be anything from a bare bones press release to a billboard slogan to a newsletter, just like the old days. But,  increasingly, it also means creating, managing, and maintaining engaging client presences on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.  It’s social media strategy. Crisis communications (online and off. Because these days, what shows up online actually leads the way to stories appearing in “traditional” media). It means writing Google, Facebook, and other website ads. It means identifying new and emerging communication platforms and figuring out what types of messages should go there… and how to write them… all while the digital landscape, technologies, and tools are rapidly evolving – quite literally every day.

Today, a copywriter’s job at a smaller agency can be ¼ print media writing, ¼ web/online ad writing ¼ radio and television, and ¼ online community management, with those ratios fluctuating depending on the needs of your client.

Basic literacy (if not intermediate technical skill) in social platforms, blogging software, and even basic html are not unheard of as copywriter requirements. I see this a lot with designers today, too. It’s not just design that folks are looking for, but somebody who can design and build the web pages they design.

You name it, I write it.  And as the platforms change, you also have to change the way you communicate with people. That’s just something you have to do if you want to write for a living. The world isn’t stagnant. Neither are words. How we talk today will sound just as archaic in 100 years as a 19th century novel. Yes, lovely writing, all, but not something the general public is going to wade through. And in advertising, we’re generally speaking to large and/or very targeted audiences. The way you speak to each one of those will be very different today from what it is tomorrow.

If you want to know what sets apart somebody who writes from a copywriter, well, it’s… work.  And writing. And working at writing. And then scrapping everything and starting again on a new platform. Because voices will change, and your voice will need to change with them.

At least, at P/O/N, you’ll get all the free popcorn you can eat.

Penny Ohlmann Neimann

The Ohlmann Group has a rich history that began in Dayton, Ohio in 1949, where the agency was founded as Penny and Penny by Bob Penny and his wife Jean. In 1964, Walter Ohlmann joined the firm. Ralph Neiman came on in 1969 and the firm became Penny/Ohlmann/Neiman. In 2011, P/O/N was renamed The Ohlmann Group to better reflect the agency's ongoing evolution and collaborative nature.

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