Copywriters on the rack #26: Ben McKinney
Hello and welcome to Copywriters on the Rack. Stop your blubbering and get blabbering.
Who are you and what do you do to pay the bills?
My name is Ben McKinney and I work for myself. Half the week I write copy for business owners who want more personality on their websites and in their marketing, and the other half I run a commercial cleaning business that cleans windows for businesses that want clean windows.
Great. If you survive this, those iron bars could do with a polish. Now, what was your career path to get to where you are now?
I knew that if I went to university I’d spend my time avoiding lectures and talking about or playing sport. I got a couple of pass-the-time jobs locally and eventually convinced a friend in Florida, who ran his own business, to let me visit and work for him for a few months. We talked about sports A LOT and while I was there I got to see what it was like to run your own business, and be your own boss.
When I got home, I got a job as a trainee sports reporter with a small publishing company that ran two local newspapers. This was pretty much the dream, watching and writing about sport. It was a good opportunity, and I dreamed of becoming the next Henry Winter or Paul Hayward. But the pay was abysmal and the hours were long and, aged 21, I found myself feeling stuck wanting to work less, see my friends and travel the world.
After another couple more pass-the-time jobs (including one particularly enjoyable stint at a plant and tool hire depot where I learned to drive a digger), I decided that being my own boss was the way forward. So I bought a car, some ladders and a bucket and a mop and a squeegee, called myself a window cleaner and began to pick up customers. My plan was to work for 2 months, save up enough cash to go travelling for a few weeks then come back and do it all over again. I’ll do it for a couple of years, I thought, then I’ll get a real job.
18 years later, I’m still doing it, albeit with fewer holidays. When my son Baird was born in 2016, I decided it was time for a change but I still didn’t want to go and get that real job. I retrained as a copywriter with the idea of combining those now ancient journalistic writing skills with my experience of running and growing a business.
What’s the best thing about your job(s)?
Flexibility. Running your own business means having the freedom to decide to drop everything and take the kids to the beach.
What’s the worst?
Sometimes I’m a bit too flexible with work and end up slammed against deadlines.
How do you fill the gaps when you’re not doing the day job?
My wife Odette and I are renovating our house. That’s the next 5 years accounted for, then. Other than that, family stuff I suppose. Two kids, 1 and 5. It’s hard to think of much really, pandemic life with kids hasn’t been particularly exciting.
Now we’ve got the formalities out of the way, let’s go rogue:
What’s the stupidest thing you did as a teenager?
Across the road from the house in which I grew up, lay a massive piece of spare land belonging to one of the properties on the main road. Spare land makes it sound junky and abandoned but it was more like a wild meadow in the centre of town, cool and peaceful and tightly lined with tall, swaying fir trees. I discovered it one day when either I or my brother Alex booted our football over the fence. Being the younger brother it never really mattered who the culprit actually was, I was always sent to fetch one of our wild shots.
On this particular day, the ball, an old tatty Adidas Tango, was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t on our verge. It wasn’t rolling down our street towards the junction. Cars on the main road weren’t swerving to avoid it. I tried to imagine the line the ball had taken as it sailed over our fence. Could it have snuck through a gap in the trees? I looked around anxiously. We knew most of our neighbours and none of them minded if I popped into their garden occasionally to collect an errant football or cricket ball. But I had no idea who this land belonged to and the houses on the main road were massive.
“Get a move on!” yelled Alex impatiently. Anxiously, I began to pick my way through the sharp, grabby branches and squeeze into the world beyond. Just as I thought I was through, a vindictive final twig tripped me up but my fall was broken by soft moss and leaves and I was far too interested in where I was, to worry about my hands and knees.
The first thing I noticed was the quiet. It was like the traffic had paused on the busy main road and the world all around was taking a long, deep breath. The trees were so tall, but if I craned my neck I could see birds flying overhead, lovely against the blue sky. The ball was just a few feet in front of me. I left it where it was and called Alex, wanting to share this new secret place with him.
“Yeah, I’ve been in here loads of times,” he said, deflating me in a way that only older brothers can. “Let’s go, it’s still your turn in goal.” He barged back through the gap in the trees and stomped back over the road but I stayed for a few more minutes and explored. There was no stuff, no garden furniture or anything but there was a gate, in the far corner away from my road, which led to the garden of one of the huge houses on the main road. It was securely locked with a rusty chain and a padlock.
From then on I’d sneak through the trees regularly. I never saw anyone in there and the gate never looked like it had been unlocked and opened. The land became my sort of secret haven. I’d pop in there for a think or a private game of keepy-ups and it was the absolute best place to disappear to if I was playing hide and seek with my friends.
Then one day, two of the trees opposite my house were chopped down. A temporary entrance was made in the treeline right opposite our house and a building company turned up a day later, bringing with them loud machines and earth moving equipment. My wild paradise was flattened and three concrete slabs appeared, like the enormous footprints of a malevolent intruder.
I was furious. I mean, it wasn’t my garden, but I felt like I at least owned an unlimited visitor’s pass.
Throughout the week, the workmen kept to their regular schedule which seemed to be something along the lines of 11am to 2pm with approx three hours for lunch. The idyllic purity of my secret garden was replaced by the constant grind of a cement mixer, gravelly blue-collar swear words, and the strains of mid-90s Elton John or other radio-friendly unit shifters playing on the site transistor.
One summer evening, after the builders’ rusty transit van had chugged noisily away, I popped over to have a look at what was going on. The new entranceway in the trees was gated and locked shut, but the old gap I used to sneak through was still there a few metres away.
In I went. All these years later, having occasionally worked on building projects, I now know that this site would be described as “messy”. Materials and equipment lay haphazardly on the concrete slabs and stuff was just generally everywhere. Bricks were unevenly stacked to about my height in seemingly random piles. Nowadays, with some basic health and safety training behind me, I’d see trip and toppling hazards, but back then I just saw the most marvellous obstacle course.
I spent a happy hour there hopping from brick pile to wood stack to concrete slab to generator. I wondered if the generator worked. It took about six goes and the recoil on the pull cord nearly took my puny 13-year-old arm off, but it finally fired and as soon as it was running, the cement mixer groaned into life. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I hadn’t expected it to come on and I simply gawped at it, frozen to the spot. Despite the fact the big burly builders had been gone for about half an hour, I was convinced they’d hear the noise from wherever they were and come rushing back. But the battered Transit didn’t come rushing up to the gate, and no one from the houses on the main road came to see what was happening either. My heartbeat slowed and my head, which felt like it had been spinning at the same speed as the mixer, began to come up with an idea.
On the floor next to the generator were a cement-stained tray-type-thingy-with-a-handle, a few trowels of different sizes, a pallet holding half a dozen bags of cement, a bucket of dirty water, and a big mound of sand. I gingerly climbed up one of the wobbly piles of bricks so that I could see inside the still running mixer. I’d seen my Uncle Mick do lots of mixes earlier that year when he built our conservatory. It didn’t look too hard. One of the bags of cement was open so I scooped up a load with my hands and lobbed it into the mixer. Half of it immediately puffed back out into my face and I nearly fell backwards off my brick tower. I hopped down and found a shovel on the other side of the foundations. As Uncle Mick had shown me, I used it to add four scoops of sand to the mix. Then I splashed in some of the water.
And now, this is how things stood: the generator chugged and grunted away while the ancient cement mixer protested with every turn. I was balancing on a stack of bricks, dusty cement-white war-painted face, stolen spade in hand, and one foot planted higher than the other. Like some conquering marauder, while the late summer sun poured gold over the treetops and onto my back.
Jumping down, I poured the sloppy mixture (I don’t think I put in enough sand) onto the nearby cement-stained tray-type-thingy-with-a-handle and thought about what to do next. One of the slabs was completely bare. ‘A house needs walls’, I thought. So I began to try and build one. It took me a long time and it was very messy and I did a very good job. Standing back to admire my work, I was surprised at how easy this building lark was. Sure, my wall wasn’t on the edge of the concrete slab, nor was it completely straight, but I reckoned it was in keeping with the overall look and feel of the site.
I had quite a lot of cement mixture left over and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. And here is where teenage Ben did his stupidest thing.
One of the slabs was a bit more developed than the others. There were some walls, almost as straight as the one I’d just built, and a series of pipes coming up from the ground that were stuffed with insulation and covered with plastic sheets presumably to stop anything going down them. Wanting to hide the evidence (I’m not really sure what I was thinking here, as I’d just built a massive wall) I scraped the now hardening concrete mixture into two or three of these pipes and re-covered them.
A quarter of a century later, as someone who now owns a home and has recently had to remove and refit a blocked and improperly fitted toilet pipe, I now know exactly what I did. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the people who moved into that particular plot, whether their toilets ever flushed properly, and how long it took them to work out what the problem was.
The next day there was a big hullabaloo at the site. I could hear the raised voices from my back garden. By the evening, a huge message had been scrawled in spray paint on the single fence panel that acted as an entrance gate:
“TO THE BOYS THAT DID ALL THE DAMAGE. YOU ARE ON VIDEO THANKS TO A KIND NEIGHBOUR. IT WILL COST YOUR PARENTS!”
At first, I was a bit spooked about the message and my anxiety went into overdrive when a mysterious female figure walked up to our front door that afternoon and popped an envelope through. It had “Mr and Mrs McKinney” handwritten on the front. Surely this was it. I’d been caught red-handed. Bang to rights. I knew I had to open that letter and find out what it said.
I was alone in the house so I took it to the kitchen and switched the kettle on. As it boiled, I held the stuck-down bit of the envelope over the steam. I’d read plenty of The Hardy Boys stories as a youngster. It worked a treat. I didn’t burn myself and soon had the letter in my hands. Turns out that it wasn’t an arrest warrant after all. It was a letter from my French teacher Mrs Clayton telling my mum and dad about a school trip we’d be going on that upcoming term.
When my mum came home that evening she was shocked about the message. “Vandals! Over the road!” she said gravely. I just nodded silently. By that point, I was pretty confident the builders were bluffing. Within a couple of days, a new row of fence panels, stretching the whole length of the treeline, was erected and my access to the garden was blocked off forever. I vowed never to talk about what happened there that night. And that is a vow I have kept until now.
Naughty. I like it. Now write me a poem about HICCUPS
Like little burps but not as nice
Sometimes come on after spice
Leave you patting on your chest
Spilling water on your vest
They’re just there and then they’re not
Leave you feeling rather hot
Who would win in a fight, Michael Caine or Michael McIntyre?
This is a joke, right? Even at age 88, Caine would win easily. Afterwards, he’d strut off muttering to himself over and over that immortal line from Get Carter. “You’re a big guy but you’re in bad shape. With me, it’s a full time job. Now, behave yourself.”
Write me three straplines for:
1) International Day of Grumpiness
The one day you can truly be yourself
2) Low fat cat milk
Purrrfect with tea
3) Norman’s Naughty Nose Cosies
Rosy noseys need Norman’s cosies. (The only nosegay infused with a real intimate musk)
Explain the smell of Camembert to an alien who has no sense of smell.
“You know that feeling where you zoom over one asteroid and then under another, yeah? You know how the first of your three tummies feels? Yeah? No, not the middle one, the top one. Yeah, there. You know it feels a bit gross but in a good way? Well, that’s what this cheese smells like.”
Draw me a picture of a prawn weight lifting (yes I know you’re a writer, but do it anyway).
Copywriting is like removing verucas, discuss.
You sharpen your scalpel, dust off your file, take out your tweezers and very carefully start to pare away at the offender. You’re meticulous. Scrape scrape scrape. Gently does it. You leave it for a bit. Starting again, progress is slow. After a while you get fed up and think stuff it and bazooka that veruca. 20 minutes of manic jabbing later, problem solved.
You’re feeling down in the dumps. What do you need to perk you up again?
No chance. What is love?
“People fall in love without reason, without even wanting to. You can’t predict it. That’s love.” From ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ by Haruki Murakami which is the last book I read.
Pick a random pic from your camera roll and tell us about it.
It’s funny (sometimes) what you find on the bathroom floor after one of your kids has been in there. Here, Policeyman*, wearing combat boots, hi-vis traffic uniform and riot gear helmet, is climbing to the top of the famous Bogroll Volcano, searching for the crater at the summit.
*What Baird has called them since he could talk. I dread the day he pronounces it properly.
Write me a very short story featuring: A massive ant, a tiny elephant and Jennifer Aniston with peanuts in her nostrils
It was an overcast October morning and a lick of hard wet rain fell between the slate grey buildings of central London. I stood under an umbrella wearing my powder-blue suit, white shirt with dark blue woven silk tie and display handkerchief, oxblood Red Wings, and black wool day-of-the-week socks with yesterday embroidered on them. Despite the circumstances, I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed advertising copywriter ought to be.
It was early, the sun was soon to rise, but for me, the day had already begun. I’d just got home when I received the call, had barely enough time to loosen my tie before tightening it again and making my way to a grim back alley and the rear entrance of the club that had been the location for an ad shoot late the previous night.
The advertising agency for which I work manufactures stories – each its own daylit drama, or moonlit dream.
I knew the nightmare that awaited me inside. A group of 4 pigeons on the balcony above the entrance did too, apparently. They shuffled awkwardly back and forth like a sombre mourning family.
The owner opened the door before I could knock. She’s in there, was the only greeting he could offer. A coarse, whisky voice. A voice from the night.
She lay on the floor, alone. It was as if the graceful beauty that attracted so many people in her life was now repellent as she slipped towards her death. She wasn’t as instantly recognisable as usual, her hair had been cut to a practical brevity for the ad.
She was still alive when I got to her. She opened her eyes and looked at me and gave me that smile, the famous one. I’m glad you’re here, she whispered in a voice as thin as gossamer. Promise me you’ll stay, she said. So I promised her, as we promise anything in love.
As I bent over her body, I noticed the note crumpled in her hand. I recognised it immediately, it was torn from the script I had written for the ad. One part of it was circled in red ballpoint. It will make no sense now, but it was the part I’d written as direction, the part which came directly from the client’s brief. It was haiku and it said:
Aniston snorts nuts
As tiny elephants grin
The huge ant dissolves
I broke my promise and left her where she lay. I returned to the back alley to get some air and make the call. The building opposite was tall and grey and all around it the sky was gushing and glistening as the sun rose.
A clock away in the city struck 6am.
What’s the last thing that made you laugh?
My son recently made an approx one metre long straight marble run and asked me to look in one end, like I was looking through a telescope. He then put the other end to his mouth and yelled up it as loudly as he could. As his hot breath hit my eyeball, his mouth looked like a very angry cat’s bum and it made me laugh.
What’s the last thing that made you cry?
The birth of my daughter.
Write me dictionary definition entries for ‘Wilcock’s Lexicofantabulous Compendium of Oddities and Soddities’:
[poos-enñ-deeeeee-uhm] noun – The last dying breath of the mythic magical wildcats of East Asia. Said to transpose the gift of eternal life to anyone who breathes it in.
2) Milky Piffles
The jabberings of a baby.
The sound one makes when softly bopping someone on the nose in an affectionate manner.
If you were alone on a desert island for a month, what 6 items would you take with you? (they have to fit in a Morrison’s bag for life and yes, you can keep the bag)
Good strong pair of brogues
Make up your own question and tell me whatever you want to get off your chest.
Why are Copywriters always talking about biscuits?
Cake is much better.
(I realise this is going to be an unpopular opinion, writing gang. I’m ready for the backlash #CopywritersUnunite)
Give me three reasons why I should let you go.
I’m wanted for alleged building site vandalism.
I’ve had these questions so long it feels like I’m holding you hostage.
There’s a gang of angry freelancers at my door holding digestives.
And before I remove the shackles, tell us where we can find you online.
Right! Skidaddle before I grass you up to those buiders!
Fancy another ding-dong in the dungeon? Copywriters on the rack #25: Vikki Ross