A copywriter usually works as part of a creative team. Agencies and advertising departments partner copywriters with art directors. The copywriter has ultimate responsibility for the advertisement’s verbal or textual content, which often includes receiving the copy information from the client. (Where this formally extends into the role of account executive, the job may be described as “copy/contact.”) The art director has ultimate responsibility for visual communication and, particularly in the case of print work, may oversee production. Either person may come up with the overall idea for the advertisement or commercial (typically referred to as the concept or “big idea”), and the process of collaboration often improves the work.
Copywriters are similar to technical writers and the careers may overlap. Broadly speaking, however, technical writing is dedicated to informing readers rather than persuading them. For example, a copywriter writes an ad to sell a car, while a technical writer writes the operator’s manual explaining how to use it.
Because the words sound alike, copywriters are sometimes confused with people who work in copyright law. These careers are unrelated.
Famous copywriters include David Ogilvy, William Bernbach and Leo Burnett. Many creative artists spent some of their career as copywriters before becoming famous for other things, including Peter Carey, Dorothy L. Sayers, Viktor Pelevin, Eric Ambler, Joseph Heller, Terry Gilliam, William S. Burroughs, Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, Lawrence Kasdan, Fay Weldon, Philip Kerr and Shigesato Itoi. (Herschell Gordon Lewis, on the other hand, became famous for directing violent exploitation films, then became a very successful copywriter.)
The Internet has expanded the range of copywriting opportunities to include web content, ads, commercial emails and other online media. It has also brought new opportunities for copywriters to learn their craft, conduct research and view others’ work. And the Internet has made it easier for employers, copywriters and art directors to find each other.
As a result of these factors, along with increased use of independent contractors and virtual commuting generally, freelancing has become a more viable job option, particularly in certain copywriting specialties and markets. A generation ago, professional freelance copywriters (except those between full-time jobs) were rare.
While schooling may be a good start or supplement in a budding copywriter’s professional education, working as part of an advertising team arguably remains the best way for novices to gain the experience and business sense required by many employers, and expands the range of career opportunities.