Saturday, November 29, 2003

Do you copy?

What’s the toughest part about being a copywriter?

Is it churning out fresh, original ideas day after day? Is it deadlines called ‘yesterday’? Is it defending your ideas from cretins sometimes masquerading as clients?

None of that. In my experience, the toughest part has been answering the question: What do you do?

Sample conversation:

Neighbour: So what do you do?

Me: I’m a copywriter

Neighbour: ???

Me: I work in an advertising agency. You see the ads on TV, in the paper…. I do stuff like that.

Neighbour: Ohhhhhh….. you’re a model!!!

And that’s one of the flattering interpretations. Over the years, I’ve been mistaken for a journalist, a billboard painter, even an obituary writer. Some have a low opinion about my abilities, obviously misled by the ‘copy’ bit in Copywriter. A friend’s grandmother thought she finally understood what I did when she commented, ‘Ah, so you have a good handwriting.’

My parents too took a while getting used to my vocation. “My ad’s in the paper”, I yelled one morning, proudly displaying my first creation in print. My parents avidly pored over it, taking in every line. I waited breathlessly.

Dad looked up, nonplussed, ‘But where’s your name on it?”

Always practical, Mom wanted to know, “Will they pay you more for this?’

Plumbers don’t have this problem. Neither do politicians nor palm readers nor software programmers. Everyone’s professions are self-explanatory, making it easy to slot them into neat, little boxes. Copywriters, in comparison, are a slippery lot. They don’t copy (at least they’re not supposed to!) and they don’t just write.

‘So what do you DO then?’ people ask curiously, even suspiciously. I point out ads they might have seen on TV or in the newspapers. They struggle with that for a while and then launch the dreaded question, ‘But how do you come up with ideas?’

Recently I quit mainstream advertising and joined a media house as the in-house copywriter. My job is to create advertising for the different publications in the Group. Now, more than ever, I shrink from occupation related questions.

A gist from a recent conversation:

Aunt: Where do you work?

Me: ‘I’m with XYZ (Newspaper name)

Aunt: ‘You’re a journalist?’

Me: No, I’m a copywriter. I do ads to promote the newspaper.

Aunt (frowning): ‘You mean you write those matrimonial ads?’

Me: ‘Er.. aunty, actually I’m a journalist.’

I know when it's time to give up.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Alison goes to the movies

Last week I decided to take Alison for her first movie. Alison is the precocious 3-year old niece who cutely lisps that I’m her ‘bess friend’. That kind of a compliment can be quite heady and enslaving. So when ‘Finding Nemo’ came to town, I offered to take her for it.

The excitement was unbelievable. The wait seemed interminable. The anticipation almost unbearable. And that was just her grandparents!

“Have you got the tickets?,” my mother asked on Monday. A full 5 days before the promised movie.

I’m an ardent movie lover, but I’ve always treated advance booking with disdain. The last-minute dash to the theatre, bagging the last two available seats, feeling one’s way into the darkened auditorium, reading the opening credits while stumbling into one’s seat – are to me a part of the complete movie experience. But when there are 4 excitable grandparents to contend with, advance booking is the lesser evil.

Wednesday onwards, a flurry of mails congested my inbox. Surprisingly, they were from my usually phlegmatic sister. “Should I tell Alison or will you?” “Are you booking tickets today?” “Let me know as soon as you get tickets. I have to tell them to prepare her at home…”

A fun outing was beginning to take on the solemnity of a ceremony. I was beginning to get nervous. Egged on by the excitement around, even Alison had begun asking, ‘When we are going for de movee?’ This even before she knew what a movie was.

Tickets were bought. All concerned parties were informed.


Then began the second part. “What time are you coming to pick her up?’ “Should I pack something for her?” “How long is the movie?” Movie, what movie?! This was a rite of passage.

Before I set out, I got the final instructions. “Carry her waterbottle and some biscuits.” “Bring her out during the interval for fresh air.” “If she starts crying take her home.”

Was Alison on pins, waiting for her introduction to the marquee? When I reached, she was sound asleep with her little bottom in the air. A quick change of clothes and a swig of milk later, we were off. “What we are going to do?,” she asked me naively. How wonderful to be blessed with short-term memory!

Armed with popcorn and chips and with me as interpreter, she serenely watched the movie. Occasionally asking loudly, the way only children can, “Why are the lights off?” and “Where’s the big TV?” The only time she got animated was when she saw the Happy Meal toy at McDonald’s. ‘Hee-mo, Hee-mo,’ she chirruped, ‘I want Hee-mo’.

That’s what it came down to for her. A stuffed toy. All that animation wizardry and cutesy story ultimately meant an addition to her toy collection.

‘So how was the movie,” everyone began asking her. And she spun off some fanciful tale while they listened enthralled.

Alison starts school next year. I can’t wait to watch the drama unfold then.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

There's no such thing as a free lance

It’s been a while since the last instalment in the blog, and there’s a reason for that – freelance.

In a copywriter’s expansive vocabulary, few words elicit such unadulterated pleasure as ‘freelance’. It’s the advertising term for moonlighting, converting clever words into numbers (with rupee signs in front of them!) Why, with the right client and the right fee, one could end up making a month’s salary for just a few days work.

But like all things which sound too good to be true, freelance has its downsides. The most perilous being the name itself. FREE-lance. Somehow, that bit misleads clients into thinking they don’t really have to pay. Or rather, that there’s no hurry to pay up.

So here I wait to be paid for the URGENT job I did in January. I’ve spent more in phone calls following up on that cheque. Each month I’m haranguing a new person, because the previous bloke has quit the company. Sometimes I wonder if I should quit too. But then the galling thought of being cheated makes me lunge for the phone once again.

Another cheque-in-the-mail is due from my ex-agency. If I had an ounce of sense I would have refused the job, because I knew their haphazard functioning. Still the thought of being indispensable to one’s ex-agency was flattering. Now I listen to the same excuses every week ‘We’ve sent the estimate for approval’… ‘Cash crunch in the agency’… ‘Will look into the matter’. Maybe I should invest in a few voodoo dolls.

Recently, I did a job for a friend. That sounds like it has disaster written all over it, right? But hang on; he actually paid me an advance. The job’s been completed a few months now, but not the payment issues. The last time I tentatively brought up the subject, he mumbled something about checking his bank balance.
For a while I began refusing freelance work. Offers came up but I referred other copywriters. Nothing was worth the hassle, I told myself virtuously.

But the filthy love of lucre can’t be quashed and I accepted not one, but three assignments. I’ve just sent my bills yesterday. Now, I’m keeping my fingers crossed and my voodoo dolls poised.