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Jonathan Wilcock Freelance Copywriter – Thick Skin, Self-belief

A copywriter needs thick skin and self-belief

Are you setting sail as a Copywriter / Graphic Designer / Art Director / Illustrator?

Or do you already have years under your belt, furrows on your forehead and awards on the shelf?

Whatever your creative bent and whatever stage you’re at in your career:

First rule: get your head down and work hard.
Second Rule: keep your head down and work harder.
Third rule: get tooled up.

Besides developing your craft, there are two weapons you’ll need, and without them you probably won’t survive life on the creative hard shoulder, never mind the fast lane.

You’re gonna need a thick skin
People are going to slag your work off.

There’s a battalion of grammar bullies out there looking for the one typo in the middle of your 1,500-word blog post. There are a million creative wannabes who only get out of bed to stick your lovingly crafted bits and bobs through the Twitter mill, telling the world they could have done better.

Being in a creative industry leaves you vulnerable to the lazily tossed rotten cabbages of armchair critics. But that’s a good thing. It toughens you up.

It’s never too early to take a beating
Turn the clocks back 30 something years to my first year of college, studying Graphic Design. This was a period of huge change for me. The year before, I’d been a schoolboy flailing around trying to pass GCSEs. Now I was expected to set my own timetables, make choices and work things out for myself.

This was a fab course with great lecturers and a fun bunch of misfit classmates. We threw paint around, watched movies and learned about colour theory, typography and art. But besides all the arty-farty-designery good times, there were two particular not-so-pleasant incidents that stick in my mind.

The mermaid with 10 tits
We’d been set a project to do a self-portrait as we saw ourselves.

I was a long-haired hippy. Kaftans, flares, afghan waistcoats… the whole unwashed freaky kit and caboodle. So I drew myself as a flower. Yes, you read correctly, a flower. My head was the stigma, my body the stem and petals grew out from where my neck joined my shoulders. I thought it was cool.

We stuck our drawings up for the group crit and when it came to mine, the tutor vomited out the immortal words:

“It looks like a mermaid with 10 tits”.

Everyone laughed while I died a little inside. This hippy was going to have to grow something else other than tits.

The second episode, another group crit, was following a life drawing session.

We stuck our work all over the walls. Rolling hills of flesh in charcoal, pastels and paint. The lecturer slowly worked her way around the collected masterpieces pulling out all the positives. “Love the use of light and shade”, “Great composition”, “The head is out of proportion, but it just works”…

We were all bathing in the glory of our collective genius; then she ripped into us.

“Look at you all nodding your ****ing heads like ****ing nodding dogs. It’s all a load of ***t. Don’t just agree with everything I say like a bunch of brainless ****ers. Now take this ***p off my walls and ***k off home”.

That told us, but most importantly it got our attention. And all these years later I realise what a huge favour her beasting had done us. It didn’t really matter how good or bad the work was, what mattered was that we learned how to take negative feedback and developed our own opinions.

Jonathan Wilcock Freelance Copywriter – Thick Skin, Self-belief Rocky-Ripped

Once you’re Rocky-ripped, all you need is self-belief
From personal experience, I’ve found that self-belief is a very fragile thing. Unlike a thick skin, which once developed is yours for life; self-belief can do a runner as soon as you turn your back on it.

While the negative opinions of others can hurt, there’s nothing more debilitating than you telling yourself how rubbish you are.

Having been a Copywriter since the mid ’80s, you’d think that self-belief would be a given by now.

Halfway through my career I spent a couple of years as a Creative Director in someone else’s agency, then several running my own (concentrating on everything other than being a Copywriter 75% of the time). But surely, going fulltime again as a freelance copywriter would be like stepping back into a familiar and comforting warm pool of rose-scented water.

Not one bit. I felt exposed, underqualified and smeared in rancid self-doubt jam from the sticky fingers of the imposter syndrome mind monster.

A couple of years freelancing later, dozens of very happy clients and a raft of new work, I’m well and truly back in the saddle of the self-belief pony.

Now that I’m out of the quagmire of non-worthiness, it’s weird to think that I was ever less than head-swellingly sure of myself. But when you’re up to your chinny-chin-chin in the muck of self-doubt you feel like everyone else is brilliantly creative and you’re a big fat dud.

It happens to the best of us
Yesterday I had a chat with an old friend of mine, a Graphic Designer (turned Creative Director, turned Managing Director, turned out-on-his-ear redundancy casualty).

This guy is very talented. Not only is he a very decent designer, he has the gift of the gab. He can hold the attention of a room. People like him; they hang on his every word, they believe in him; he has gravitas. Besides that, he’s just a bloody nice geezer. In short, anyone who snaps him up now would be getting a real gem on their team.

So with all this going for him, I was gobsmacked to hear him say that he reckoned he couldn’t cut it as a Creative Director anymore. To put this into perspective, he’s been CD at two agencies for a combined twenty odd years. Since hanging up his CD hat, he’s been MD of a high profile design agency for a mere six years, yet now he’s convinced he wouldn’t cut the mustard in his old Creative Director role.

Nonsense. The only thing stopping him is self-belief and I told him as much.

Knowing him, I’m sure the next time we meet up, he’ll be telling me the same thing as he breaks-in his £500 brogues, pacing the reclaimed oak floorboards of his Shoreditch Creative Director’s office. But that’s him, not everyone will find it so easy to find their lost confidence.

If your self-belief has taken a kicking, now what?
Let’s assume you already have skin that makes a rhino’s look like wet rice paper. If self-doubt has come knocking, what can you do to get on top again?

1) Work your socks off
You’ve seen your portfolio so much, even if it’s full of D&AD winners, it probably feels as stale as a budget airline donut. Do some new stuff to get excited about, even if it means making up your own creative briefs.

2) Collaborate
Without the wind of fresh input, self-doubt grows like mould . Get yourself out there and work with people you know and respect. If they’re not up for it, get in touch with new creative buddies via LinkedIn or platforms like singlecreatives.com The Dots or Freelance Heroes. Headhunters can also be a great source of potential creative partners to buddy up with.

3) Expose yourself
Old Creative Directors, creative colleagues from previous agencies, college mates… get in touch with anyone who knows your business. Get them to look at your portfolio, especially new stuff that you’re not sure about. They’ll sort the wheat from the chaff more easily than you can. However, ultimately, you have to be comfortable with your own work; you’ll be the one defending it when the time comes.

4) Start a blog
Get all your self-doubting stupid ideas down. Write about what you know and what you’re learning as you make up new stuff. Publish it and get feedback. If it’s rubbish you can always unpublish it, but it’s good to get whatever self-doubts are holding you back, out of your head. Committing them to the public domain tends to pull your thinking into focus.

5) Do something new
Only using one muscle makes you lopsided. If you’re a Digital Illustrator, do a series of large-scale abstract pieces with real paint and canvas. If you’re a Graphic Designer, sign up for a life drawing class. If you’re a Copywriter, write a short story or two.

6) Spend time with the masters
Who inspired you in the first place? Get your old Graphis Annuals, Creative Reviews and Lürzer’s Archives out. Surround yourself with work that gets you excited.

7) Spread the love
Once you’ve found the old you, do your little bit to help others on their way. Take the time to give honest, constructive criticism to newbies and oldies alike. Just one word of encouragement can make all the difference.

Thick-skinned and pumped up; now my friend, it’s time to don your creative cape and fly. Have fun.

If you’re a freelance copywriter (thick-skinned or otherwise), you’ll also find these 40 survival tips handy.

Jonathan Wilcock (that’s me) is a Senior Freelance Copywriter.
You can drop me line here, or email jonathan@sowhatif.co.uk