Copywriters on the rack #6: Sarah Townsend
Hello and welcome to Copywriters on the Rack.
If you’re nice and uncomfortable, I’ll just turn this handle, and…
Who are you and what do you do to pay the bills?
Hello – I’m Sarah Townsend, OG freelance copywriter and bestselling author of Survival Skills for Freelancers.
What was your career path to get where you are now?
You want the long version or the short version?! I’ll go with the latter.
I fell into marketing when I was in my early 20s, working for a financial services company. Having worked my way up to run their publications team – nicknamed The Coloured Pencils – I found myself in the middle of a cost-cutting exercise that meant the end of a third of marketing jobs.
I applied for voluntary redundancy, left with an 11-grand payoff and started work with one of my suppliers – a magazine publisher in Clifton, in Bristol – as an editor and account manager. I enjoyed agency life for three years then became pregnant. I knew I wanted a job I could fit around family life and didn’t want the commute from Gloucester to Bristol, so when my managing editor suggested I went freelance I jumped at the chance.
What’s the best thing about your job?
Oh, so much – even after 20+ years! I love having the chance to help inspiring business owners, particularly those who have a purpose greater than profit. Those that are trying to change the world with their idea, in some small way. Getting goosebumps during our discovery call is a sure sign that we’re a good fit. (I’m all about fit – there’s a whole chapter about it in the book).
And I never get tired of the variety, and the learning that comes with it. One day I might be writing a website and taking part in an online Q&A about freelance life, the next, writing tone of voice guidelines and chatting to someone interesting in a podcast interview… Oh! And meeting interesting and inspiring people. All. The. Time. (God, you really have caught me on a good day ????)
What’s the worst?
I guess the flip side of the positivity in that last answer. The down days that we all experience from time to time. Technology is conspiring against me, I’m hitting my head against a brick wall and getting nowhere, the imposter syndrome is creeping in and I’m struggling with overwhelm (usually generated by the pressure I put on myself from all the things I want to achieve). Those days can be relentless and desperate.
How do you fill the gaps when you’re not doing the day job?
I’ve been a single mum for 13 years so I have a pretty close relationship with my kids, even though they’re now 21 and 18, and my daughter now lives in Bristol, where she’s studying sociology at uni.
I love geeking out about movies with my son (I keep a list and rate every film I watch out of 10), going for long walks in the countryside with my partner (getting outdoors in the fresh air, surrounded by nature is super important for my mental health), discovering new places, capturing them on my iPhone and sharing my photography on Instagram.
Now we’ve got the formalities out of the way, let’s go rogue:
The Queen is coming to tea. What are you serving?
Beans on toast. She must get tired of silver service day in, day out, right?! I’ll bet she craves some good old comfort food from time to time.
Too many to list. How about the smell of anything cooking that I haven’t had to make myself ????
What’s the best gig you’ve ever been to?
This is such a tough question – I love live music and I’ve been to so many great gigs! One of the most memorable was when I saw Coldplay at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester in 2012. Security were giving out wristbands on the way in – they looked a little like Apple Watches… I’ve still got mine somewhere.
I was there with a friend and we wriggled our way as close to the stage as we could – we ended up about 10 rows back. My wristband was faulty and was already lit up, so we drew a crowd of people wanting to know how to turn theirs on – I hadn’t a clue!
It was an amazing gig, but the highlight was halfway through the song Charlie Brown, when everyone’s wristband lit up and the stadium erupted with twinkling coloured lights and the roar of singing. Absolutely magical. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.
What’s the worst?
I had high hopes for Massive Attack at Steel Yard in Bristol early last year but ended up leaving early. Not the band’s fault, mind. I was underdressed, got soaked in the pouring rain, and even though the gig was indoors – in a huge warehouse – I was the chilled to the bone. Even dancing like an idiot didn’t warm me up. Not a great memory.
What’s your first childhood memory?
Not the first but certainly one of the clearest. I stayed the night in my grandparents’ cottage while my mum was in hospital giving birth to my sister. I remember my dad coming round to tell me I had a little sister – Lucy – and bringing me a bumper book of 365 bedtime stories, and a box of Fruit Gums. (They used to come in little boxes with a flip-up lid – like a cigarette pack – with fruit-shaped sweets inside. Little orange segments, blackcurrants and strawberries…) I distinctly remember the wood pigeons cooing in the trees outside. I love that sound to this day.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’m not sure I ever really knew. I certainly didn’t feel like I’d found my niche until a few years into my career when I discovered marketing, and realised I could actually get paid for writing – that seemed bizarre and brilliant.
I guess I was always business minded. When I started secondary school I used to make jewellery and sell it to my friends, and I did a couple of paid typing jobs for teachers (that’s a random memory!).
I worked behind the record counter in Woolworths while I was studying for my A Levels and I remember wanting to be a make-up rep – it seemed so glamorous, even though I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy, and all they were doing was visiting once a week to restock the Maybelline!
I liked the idea of doing something in design, too. I used to have notebooks filled with (terrible, frankly) drawings of outlandish outfits – all named – and I remember designing logos and sending them to big companies – I can’t have been older than 13 or 14. I remember designing one for OXO that was basically a face made from the name… I can still picture it now.
What would you like to come back as, if there’s a next time?
I was going to say a cat, because they’re great at lazing around – something I have trouble doing – but perhaps a bird so I could get an aerial view of things without owning a drone.
Draw me a picture of a rabbit on a motorbike (yes I know you’re a writer, but do it anyway).
Excellent. Now you’ve made me smile, what was the last thing that made you cry?
I’m a big crier – I even cry at ads! Last significant time was a couple of weekends back: my son had turned 18 on the Friday, my daughter was home from uni for a couple of days and, as part of a day of birthday treats, we went to watch Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at the Everyman cinema in Stratford.
My kids were obsessed with Harry Potter for years but when this came out they were too young to see it. (If you know the films, you’ll know this one is pretty dark.) Being back in the cinema with my kids and my partner watching this for the first time was both special and bittersweet. They’re both so grown up now and don’t need me in the same way as they did. That’s a good thing, but it’s also a happy–sad realisation as a parent.
What are the top three things on your bucket list?
They change all the time! I’d love to travel to Japan and visit the Ghibli museum in Tokyo (I’ve been a fan of animé since I first discovered Spirited Away and the creations of Hayao Miyazaki.) I’ve seen Hamilton twice in the West End and four times on Disney Plus, but I’d love to see it on Broadway – New York is one of my favourite cities in the world. And though I’ve never ridden a horse in my life, I’d love to ride along a huge sweeping beach, like Freshwater West, in Pembrokeshire. Blame the Lloyd’s bank ads for that one!
What is love?
Love is a powerful state of mind – state of being? I’m not sure – that can achieve incredible things. The world would be a better place if love was more abundant, I think.
Pick a random pic from your camera roll and tell us about it.
This is one of more than 22,000 photos on my iPhone. I had the opportunity to go on a trip – sorry, voyage, dahling! – on Queen Mary 2 with a client, Pamela Chen, who had been invited on as one of the guest speakers. Though she was a copywriting client, she wanted someone who could take photos of her on the trip and capture her talks and cookery demonstrations. She already worked with a photographer but part of the deal was that her guest shared her cabin; she didn’t feel she could ask him along!
Long story short, I got to tick three big things off my bucket list in one trip: flying alone for the first time ever, flying to the Far East, and going on a cruise. We started the trip in Singapore, travelled to Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh and ended up in Hong Kong. I was due to fly home from Hong Kong late at night on the last day and Pamela was transferring to another ship so I had the whole day to myself.
This photo of me was taken by a stranger after I’d caught a public bus to Stanley to explore. It felt like the biggest adventure imaginable, and I was feeling proud of myself for navigating such a crazy city alone. I’m still wearing the QM2 lanyard!
Is there anyone you’d like to say thank you to?
Absolutely everyone who’s helped me to spread the word about Survival Skills for Freelancers, so that I can reach and support more people. I’m not sure there’s ever been a tougher time for the small business community, and I’m determined to help as many freelancers and business owners as I can with my advice.
People have been incredible – from the amazing reviews it’s had (150+ in three months since launch) to all the sharing on social. The freelance community is amazing.
Anyone you’d like to say sorry to?
I can be very direct and I’m not always sensitive enough to recognise when I’ve upset someone – I sometimes have to be told. That aside, I think I’m pretty good at saying sorry if I mess up. I’m not one to sulk or hold a grudge.
Let’s play word association:
Lard – the smell of school home ec lessons – yuk!
Favourite comic character?
Thor’s brother, Loki, from the Marvel comics. I have a Pop Vinyl figure of him on my mantelpiece (and not just because he’s played by Tom Hiddleston ????).
Make up your own question and tell us whatever you want to get off your chest.
Why do so many freelancers use WE and US when they’re writing about their business?
There are four main reasons why I recommend admitting that YOU are your business. I describe these in detail in the book, but in a nutshell they are confidence, consistency, continuity and cost. So stand proud, adopt the mindset of a business owner and recognise the many benefits to your clients that come with dealing direct with an expert.
Where would you rather be and why?
Sitting on the end of a wooden jetty off a pebbled beach in Croatia, sipping a caipirinha, dipping my toes in the crystal clear water and looking out to sea as the setting sun casts a pink glow on everything it touches. Bliss.
And before I remove the shackles, tell us where we can find you online.
You can find me on social *adopts cabin crew stance*
…and here: https://instagram.com/thecopywritersday
You can buy Survival Skills for Freelancers on Amazon here: https://amzn.to/2Y1z1cw
…and find my copywriting website at https://sarahtownsendeditorial.co.uk
If you enjoyed that, here’s Freelance Copywriter, André Spiteri on my rack.