Copywriter of the week : James

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For simplicity say I’m based in Cincinnati, Ohio, a middle-sized city in a middle-sized state in the American Midwest. But Loveland, a small river town outside Cincinnati’s beltway, is where I’m writing from. The Miami River is a hundred yards from my door; my window looks out on pines.


It wasn’t always so. For ten years I worked in downtown agencies, where I learned the agency process of building inventive, often fun solutions to business problems. I developed a focus on strategy-driven creativity. So now I raise a flag when something drifts, because my goal is copy that moves customers, and for that, you need to stay on strategy.

Strategy can be fun. Roto-Rooter, a national drain cleaning and plumbing service, is a great example. Funny is fundamental to their brand: water, toilets and funny. You can see a couple of TV spots I did for them on my page: a fizzled romantic evening, and a rubber ducky riding the wave—into the living room. Radio too: check my page for wacky Mr. Fixit.

I’ve also done a lot of healthcare. True story: a regional hospital system, with a stable of female freelancers, asked me to revise their birthing centre guide. Not one of their many mother/writers. Me. Proof you don’t have to be in the demo to have the voice.

As the go-to for two hospital systems, I’ve done much more than women’s healthcare. One of the highlights has been interviewing dozens of medical specialists to develop content for hospital websites. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it’s a sweet spot.

  • Most writers—okay, all writers—are hungry to learn. Me too. What do you want to know about communicable diseases? How about dental exams? Hospice? Bariatric surgery? Diabetes? How much time do you have?
  • I’m very good at interviewing, getting people comfortable, letting them talk, and getting the story. Apart from genuine interest, my most powerful tool is the expressive nod—eyes wide open, a little smile, that look of “wow tell me more.” In addition to doctors, I’ve interviewed what the trade calls“real people”—schmoes like you and me—and I’ve interviewed a Hollywood star. And all sorts of people in between.
  • To write healthcare web content for consumers I draw on another strength: teaching. I teach at university, where I break down hard concepts for easy understanding. Same thing for my clients: complex ideas made simple.

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I’m bad at cocktail parties. Folks think they want to know about the ad world. They don’t. Start in on RTBs, SEO, CPM, and AVID and most people quickly remember they left something in the next room. Or their phones mysteriously ring. But I’ve been in the business for twenty years now; I don’t have much else to talk about. Instead of boring people I’ve learned to zip it so I can listen to—and learn from—other people’s stories. I never know when someone will out with a juicy turn of phrase or a curious fact I might use to spice a page of copy.

Where I live: it’s not a travel destination. Many people on the American coasts think Ohio is an alternate spelling for Iowa. It’s not. Midwestern states kind of mush together because, well, there’s not a lot to tell them apart. I’ve never driven across the Mississippi River to Des Moines, the capital of the state of Iowa, but I can assure you it would be nine hours of endless flat sameness, and the end not so different from where you began. In the same nine hours you could drive across the Alps from Rome to Paris, the more interesting drive by far.

But here in the American Midwest, we’re not about being the most interesting. We leave that to New York, still the capital of the world, and Hollywood, capital of the imagination. Here in the cornfields, we’re okay with slow. We’re about making things grow, and that takes focus. We’re okay taking the time to listen and think about it and do the job right.