Provoking with copy

  • Education
  • Sunday, 29 May 2005


Joel Lim Jo Han and his team wanted to come up with an attention-grabbing publicity stunt that would signal a new (now defunct) TV station with lots of action on Malaysian airwaves.  

“We tied the nozzle of these rocket balloons to the back of the pickup and emblazoned the new station’s logo on the car doors. It was a great idea, we thought,” says Lim, a copywriter with Euro RSCG.  

The judges of the international One Show competition thought it a good idea too and awarded Lim's team the silver prize for the most creative advertisement. Each year, the judges sieve through about 17,000 entries.  

After his SPM exam, Lim knew where his strengths lay and signed up to study advertising. “It was never going to be engineering or accountancy. I knew I wanted to do creative work,” says Lim, adding that he has not looked back since joining his first advertising agency four years ago.  

Eureka! Happiness is when everyone loves your idea after days of toiling and rejection, says Lim.

At the multinational agency, he continues to create imaginative advertisements for automobiles, IT products, household items and beverage.  

What does a copywriter do? 

Copywriters write the words for advertisements in magazines, books or on the radio, billboards and websites. What we produce is called “the copy”. 

But to me, a copywriter must be an ideas person first and a writer second. Essentially, you are selling your ideas. Clients buy them because they make their products or services look attractive. Copywriters highlight the benefits of such goods or services in an interesting, even entertaining way.  

People in general tend to stop and look at visuals more than they would read a bunch of words.  

As a copywriter, you need a good command of English. The key to being a good copywriter is knowing what technique to apply to what situation. Sometimes it’s best to write copy that is long and engaging, like a story. That will hold the readers’ interests and entice them to want to know more about what you're offering.  

Other times, the fewer the words or visuals in an advertisement, the better.  

Describe a typical day at work? 

I spend about nine hours a day at work but those hours can stretch to 12 if we have to meet deadlines. 

I get into the office at about 9am, I will discuss my ideas with other creative people (or creatives for short). Getting other people’s advice helps to refine your ideas and expand them. Some creatives, however, whether art directors or copywriters, can be “weird”. Some may be impatient or moody but you still have to work together to get the job done.  

There aren’t any set timetables where I work. But we have to complete whatever work that is given to us as the deadlines are always looming. A lot of brainstorming takes place, and then we stop to eat before cracking our heads again for more ideas. 

I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best creative directors in the business. People who are unceasingly passionate about their work really will influence you to be the best you can. Try and hook up with people like that.  

What qualifications do you need? 

“Never lose a holy curiosity” – those were Einstein’s words and every person who’s interested in doing creative work should always be inquisitive.  

I once saw an advertisement in a book about advertising. The visual was a screw type nail, standing on its point, dramatically blown up to a full magazine page. The copy was written like a diagram and talked about the strength and purity of steel. It set out the equations that made the screw perfect, like the millimetric precision grooves and the balance between material, weight, length, shape and design.  

The headline was: “There is no such thing as a dull product. Only dull advertising.” A nail for me was never the same again. 

Sometimes, I prefer working with people who haven’t had any formal education in advertising. They tend to approach challenges from a fresh perspective. I’ve heard of copywriters who were previously lawyers, biology graduates and even bullfighters.  

Copywriting is like carpentry, it’s a skill that must be learnt on the job. You also need to read tons of books, absorb as much information as you can. It widens your horizons, makes you a better writer all round.  

That said, I’ve been in the classrooms of some very effective copywriters who teach from the heart. A wise person learns from experience, but a wiser person learns from the experience of others, right? 

What type of personality best suits the job? 

I’d say someone who has a great sense of humour. We have to deal with a lot of pressure so laughing can keep a person sane. I tell myself to stop and smell the roses every now and then. You should never lose touch of your favourite books, music or movies. That’s how I keep myself from burning out.  

You should also have an interest in people. If you don’t think you like getting to know people, then this is not the job for you. All creative work is aimed at people, so the more people you get to know, the more an understanding you have of how to write your advertisements. 

Often, creative people are boisterous and dress in equally attention- grabbing clothes. But I’ve learnt that it is the quiet, pragmatic ones who get the work done and with good quality too. They don’t come up with imaginary mumbo-jumbo but tell the truth after seeking it out from stacks of reading materials about the client’s business.  

Basically if you cannot sum things up in less than seven words, your copy is not working.  

What are the career prospects? 

There’s a lack of really good copywriters in Malaysia. We have a high turnover though, which means people are always coming and going.  

I think most people don’t realise how exciting this line of work can be. Sure the stress is there, but unless you jump in and get your feet wet, you’ll never know for sure.  

Roughly, the hierarchy looks like this: new people come in as junior copywriters, then get promoted to copywriters, senior writers, head of copy, creative group head and then creative director. If you can stick it through and perform under pressure and meet deadlines, you are set. Copywriters can even move up into senior management positions after many years on the job.  

What is the best part of your job? 

After toiling for a whole day and having your ideas rejected, and then to come up with the perfect one that everyone loves!  

It goes to the art director who returns it with 80% of what your original vision intact – that’s already very good. The clients like what you have done and pat you on the back. Then you get to watch the advertisement run. There is nothing like it.  

What is the worst part of your job? 

When people don’t recognise your ideas and you have to keep working at them. Very frustrating.  

To me, ideas are the most expensive commodity. They are worth more than gold or petrol or diamonds. They might be intangible, but if you come up with the right one and make it work, it can bring you millions.  

What is the salary range? 

New writers start at RM2,000 and then as they go up, there aren’t any glass ceilings. You get paid as well as you perform. 

Related stories:The art of persuasionCommercial ‘scientists’What makes a good ad?Provoking with copy

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