Here’s Why You May Not Be A Copywriter After All…

Here’s a question for you…

Are you really a copywriter?

Now, this isn’t some existential, navel-gazing question. No, instead my intent in asking is related strictly to clarifying the definition of the word…

…a definition which has become tangled up in the whole “web-content-writing-inbound-marketing-social-media-manager” thing that’s trendy and hot right now in the world of business writers.

Before getting into this any further, let me provide some back story for you – if only to frame the question I’m about to ask.

what does a copywriter do

Do Copywriters Sell?

Do copywriters sell? It’s an innocent enough question, but for those who write web content for a living, apparently it’s a loaded one.

Now, for those of you who are veteran copywriters, don’t label me clueless just yet. There’s a controversy in the industry.

So what was all the controversy about? In essence, whether or not a copywriter “is a salesperson behind a typewriter”, as per the Judith Charles quote that opens Bob Bly’s excellent Copywriter’s Handbook.

There seemed to be some rather pointed disagreement on the topic, as some commenters staunchly resisted the idea that they should be considered salespeople. For the most part, this seemed to stem from the overall negative connotation that salespeople have been saddled with in the popular culture (and if you’re in sales, don’t blame me, blame the media – I’m perfectly okay with selling stuff for a living).

But what I found to be most interesting about the whole discussion, was how few of the copywriters involved were aware of just what Judith Charles’ quote was in reference to… a story that in great part forms the foundational lore of the entire field of copywriting.

In Search of a Definition for Copywriters

Now, obviously I think copywriters ARE sales people, but that’s not just an opinion – it’s an assertion based on a historical precedent.

In fact, the idea of “copywriter as salesperson” can be traced back to the famous story of how a formerly unknown copywriter named John E. Kennedy got the attention of Albert Lasker, junior partner in the Lord and Thomas Advertising Agency:

It was 6pm on a May evening in 1905 when Kennedy, then a relatively unknown copywriter, sent a note to A.L. Thomas, the head of the Lord & Thomas advertising agency.

The note read:

I am in the saloon downstairs. I can tell you what advertising is. I know you don’t know. It will mean much to me to have you know what it is and it will mean much to you. If you wish to know what advertising is, send the word “yes” down by the bell boy. Signed – John E. Kennedy

That note would have ended up in the trash if Albert Lasker, the firm’s junior partner, had not been in the office. Unknown to Kennedy, Lasker had been searching for the answer to that question for 7 years.

Lasker, starving for the answer, quickly summoned Kennedy to his office. What Kennedy told him that night was simple. Just three words that ultimately changed advertising forever:

“Advertising is salesmanship in print.”


I think most working copywriters would agree with that definition, substituting “advertising” with “copywriting”. And, I would further assert that the writer who refuses to be seen as a salesperson, but who still carries the job title of copywriter…

…may not actually be a copywriter at all. Here’s why.

In Search of a Definition for Copywriters

For a definition of the term “copywriter”, I didn’t go to Wikipedia. Oh, hell no. Those of you who think Wikipedia is the post-industrial age font of all dependable knowledge, you are sadly mistaken. That site is about as reliable as a crêpe paper umbrella in a car wash (incidentally, if you want to know what it takes to be a Wikipedia editor, here’s an answer from the Wiki-Oz itself).

Instead, I actually went to a reliable and well-respected source, that being Successful Direct Marketing Methods by Stone and Jacobs. On page 519, the authors describe and define copywriters thusly:

“Unlike general advertising, which seeks to create awareness (often through clever, creative ads) direct response advertising must sell. The copywriter must have a thorough knowledge of the target audience… what it wants, what it buys, how it reacts.

Direct marketing copywriters are really salespeople who must have a thorough knowledge of the product or service. They must tell what the product or service will do (benefits) for the customer, rather than what it is (features). The copy, along with the proper offer and media, is what does the selling.– Successful Direct Marketing Methods, 7th ed., Stone and Jacobs, McGraw- Hill (emphasis mine)

I don’t think it gets any clearer than that. Copywriters sell.

Copywriters, Content Writers, and Technical Writers – The Difference

However, the question remains:

  • If you’re being paid to write web content, but neither you nor your employer consider your job to involve selling, then what are you?

Well, if you’re not selling, but your job is writing for the web, then your job title falls into one of two categories – you’re either a content writer or a technical writer. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with holding either of those two job titles.

But, if you’re not writing words to sell, you are definitely not a copywriter. So, don’t use the title if your job isn’t to sell with words.

Why You’re Not Serving Anyone By Using That Title, When You Have No Interest In Selling…

“And why not?” you may ask?

Let me give you two good reasons why.

For one, when a business owner seeks to hire a professional copywriter, they are looking for a solution to a problem. Namely, they need to sell more stuff. Therefore, ambiguity about what you do doesn’t serve your clients needs.

(By the way, I’m not just spouting what I think business owners want from copywriters – I know this to be true. After 20 years in business, I’d say I know a thing or two about what business owners are looking for when they hire marketing professionals.)

So, throwing a bunch of people into the mix who call themselves copywriters, but who are at best indifferent to selling and at worst are offended by the idea of using words to sell, only serves to confuse the people who are looking to hire great copywriters who can and will help them sell their stuff.

Moreover, it’s not fair to all the marketing copywriters out there who take great pride in their ability to write words that sell stuff. We have no problem whatsoever shouting from the rooftops that we will write words that sell your stuff. If you’re embarrassed by that, then choose another profession, or at the very least have the decency to use the proper job title.

If You Still Want To Call Yourself A Copywriter, Knock Yourself Out

So if you’re hanging out your shingle as a copywriter, but you don’t want to define yourself as an icky old salesperson – go ahead, knock yourself out.

But, eventually, I can guarantee you one thing –

That is, either myself or some other low-down dirty “salesperson behind a keyboard” is going to end up stealing your clients… because we get results.

Not by lying, cheating, or tricking the customer – but by revealing and amplifying the truth about the client’s product or service, in all its capitalistic free-market glory… and using those truths to help the client make more sales.

See, that’s my job as a web copywriter – I’m a salesman behind a keyboard. Proudly persuasive. Candidly capitalistic. And eminently effective at using words to sell.

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