The story of a freelance copywriter

Thursday, June 27, 2013
Peter Barry interviewed by John Back

headshot of Peter Barry
Peter Barry

Peter Barry has had a very successful career in advertising beginning in the seventies, and now works as a freelance copywriter in Melbourne. Peter spoke with Writers Victoria intern John about writing for advertising in the modern day and the need for creative passion to write really good copy.

You have had a fairly extensive and successful career in copywriting. Tell us a little of your story.

At school, I remember seeing Doyle Dane’s ads for Lufthansa, Avis and Volkswagen and thinking how good they were – so different to everything else around at the time. So I decided to be either a copywriter or journalist, and a copywriting job came up first – it was offered to me by Don Chipperfield, the man who wrote, 'a Mars a day helps you work rest and play'. I’ve worked in some great agencies, but the best was undoubtedly Saatchi & Saatchi in London in the eighties. It was then recognised as being amongst the most creative agencies in the world, and I was fortunate enough to report directly to the legendary Paul Arden.

AMC’s Mad Men is certainly a compelling representation of advertising in mid-20th century America. Does it reflect much of what the modern advertising industry is like?

Yes, things haven’t changed that much (although we don’t smoke and drink quite as much now!). The biggest change has probably been on the client side. Today, they’re more educated, knowledgeable and generally switched on than they were then – but also, sadly, much less respectful of agencies.

Really interesting work is being done in advertising and copywriting, but there are many ads that seem to fail. What do you think are the three most important aspects?

You have to have a client who wants great work. Work in an agency that wants great work. And be part of a team that can both create great work and also fight for it.

Certainly working in advertising takes a lot of creativity. Do you consider it to be a different kind of creativity to what is generally referred to as creative writing (novel writing, poetry, short stories, etc.)?

I think the similarities are remarkable. You not only have to have a great idea (plot or advertising concept), but you have to communicate it in such a way that people are spurred into action (to think about life or to purchase your product). But the dissimilarities are also significant: you have 30 seconds to tell your story rather than 400 pages. Your short story has 3,000 words, while a poster just five or six.

Your freelance copywriting work is based in Melbourne. What does a normal day look like for you?

Lonely! Whether you’re writing a novel or a brochure, a short story or a press ad, an article or a web banner, a freelancer tends to sit at home, alone, in front of their computer screen and wish they could communicate with people face-to-face. Now and again you’ll break the monotony of your day by getting on the phone and begging people for work.

How can a new copywriter get started in freelancing? What is your advice?

It’s not easy. Today, you have to be as good at selling yourself as you are at selling a product. You have to persevere and put yourself out there. There are many avenues open to you if you have talent.

About Peter Barry

Peter Barry has worked as a copywriter for some of the best agencies in the UK (Saatchi & Saatchi and J Walter Thompson) and Australia (The Campaign Palace and George Patterson Bates), on an enormous range of products and services, and won many prestigious international awards. He is now a freelance copywriter, published novelist and short story writer.

About John Back

John Back is a Program Intern (Theatre) at Writers Victoria. He is on Facebook and tweets at @mrjohnaback.

About the business of writing

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