Joe Hannam Maggs is the Strategic Copy Writer at Live by The Words. His own business created to change perceptions and build brands. With his background in B2B creative writing, Joe has both a creative and methodical way of looking at things. Joe talks about his roles within some the leading blue chip organisations. How he ended up there, and the challenges he faces on a daily basis. His advice for young professionals and professionals at any stage in their career about practicing your passion, is spot on.  

Joe, tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you do.

So, in a nutshell, I’m a copywriter. I am also a content strategist. So, I either write for people to their brief or I help to craft those briefs. Thinking about the content that people will need, then structure it and potentially even write it as well. Mostly I do that, I would say I do it 80% b2b, 20% b2c. The b2b includes a bit of ABM as well.

…and when did you start?

I started about 11 or 12 years ago now. At the beginning of my freelance career I was a pure copywriter, but also did a bit of marketing consultancy as well. Then I moved completely into copywriting. I’ve kind of got a bit older and moved from where I was, which was a middleweight copywriter to becoming a senior then into now where I’ve moved more into strategy. So, I work now much more with brand strategists with organisations that create marketing strategies and things like that.

You just referred to ABM. Can you just expand on ABM to those people who might not fully understand what ABM is?

Account Based Marketing (ABM) is an approach to marketing that I think probably has been at the core of a lot of marketing efforts for decades. But actually has become its own part of the marketing mix, the marketing sector, if you like. Where it’s very focused on a target account, possibly even target individuals within those accounts. An organisation will seek to dive a little bit deeper into the background either of that company or that person. Leading to pitch for what it is that they’re selling directly to that person or that organisation.

So, trying to match the strategic aims of the target company with the product or service that is being sold and demonstrating how the two should be aligned or can be aligned. Quite often that is for large scale projects. I mean, I think it happens on a local and a smaller scale level, but where I’ve seen it happen the most has been in B2B technology where lots of the products are fairly similar, but potentially the approach or the service offering is the added value… and that can be quite difficult to get across in traditional marketing.

Can you share any success stories of ABM work or clients that you’ve worked with?

I worked with an agency that deliver the end-to-end ABM work. I was there to help create the value proposition. Their process began by researching the sector. So let’s take the oil and gas sector, for example. Working on behalf of a tech client that was going to be able to digitalise processes and that company wanted to get into the top 10 oil and gas companies in EMEA, for example, and so the agency began with some research, so they contracted a research company to really get to the heart of what’s going on now, what’s likely to happen in the next five years.

Whether it’s sort of sinking production levels, diversification, renewables, all of the competitive factors. And then the next step was to look at the individual companies, see what their own strategic aims were. For example, some might say, we want to become a digital business by 2030 or 2025, let’s say. Which means that they’ve obviously got a rapid push to change quite a lot of those old manual processes. Music to the ears of the tech company, obviously. Others slightly more nebulous, our strategic vision is to make more money, you know, the usual kind of thing. And that research sort of would identify some of the business drivers, some of the sort of competitive factors in play for those individual companies.

And then it was our job to come together as a strategy team, if you like, mixed up of an ABM specialist, marketing specialist, copy content specialist, and the client. We’d sit in a workshop and plan the way to map the technology company’s products to each of those companies in turn and create an individual value proposition. So quite often you create a value proposition for your business that is selling something, your digital technology, but it’s quite a broad audience. With ABM, that value proposition is deliberately designed for that individual oil and gas company. And so therefore it’s got a higher degree of success.

As you can probably tell by the amount of time it’s taken me to explain all of that, quite a lot goes into it. Which means it’s a more expensive process, involves a lot of effort, a lot of people, but hopefully, the outcome, the thin end of the wedge, is a very successful campaign. So, from our perspective, this was about taking digital technology into areas of the businesses that weren’t using it enough or weren’t really aware of this company and what it could do. I don’t often get to spend much time beyond the initial value proposition, but I know that the foot in the door, which was the initial aim, was successful. Meetings were set up and I think seven of the 10 that we originally set out to get in with pretty much welcomed an initial call, which is a big start.

How is that success measured?

I mean, I think that’s a really good question in marketing, in general, I think. Because I think there’s such a big spectrum…

Because I write words, I just need to get them down on paper. I mean a bit like an artist or a designer needs to have a sketchpad sometimes to just get out of their head and onto the page.

Data metrics for success measurement?

So, with copy and content I think, in particular, there are the more straightforward data metrics such as open rates, click-through rates of emails, engagement with social posts. You know, that’s, if you’re doing these things. When it starts to get a little bit more, lets say, opaque, is when you’re trying to measure a piece of content that’s just sitting on a website, for example. Obviously, you can see how many people have downloaded it, but does it really do the thing that you want them to do? So, has it led to the phone call? Now, if the company is set up, if it’s digital set up is correct, then each of those stages will be linked.

So you will be able to tell how a marketing qualified lead has become a sales lead because they’ve read a particular piece of content, they’ve gone to the website, they’ve got a particular contact detail, they’ve phone that person. Whether that’s then filtered into a Salesforce type program, you know, all of that integration. Plus, there are all of the marketing automation tools and all of those that are measuring how content is used by the target audiences.

Quite often though, from my own personal perspective, the sort of the performance indicator, if you like, the KPI for me is client approval. What happens with that piece of content after it leaves my hands is it goes to a graphic designer? It goes to the marketing team. It is scheduled for release or not, depending on what is happening internally. So quite often from a copywriter’s point of view, it’s actually a really interesting question because from a copywriter’s point of view, you’re several steps away from the process of necessarily seeing what success looks like. And it can be hard to get that information and that’s one of the biggest struggles I think for the producers of content.

I think if you’re in marketing strategy and maybe brand strategy, then you’re looking at the overall campaign and someone is going to judge you on a number of sort of KPIs in the same way that an it department is judged on its service level agreements, it’s SLS. Whereas I think for the producers of that content, you’re a couple of steps away sometimes from the metrics.

What are your KPIs?

One of them I just touched on there is, I mean, this is probably, if you asked anybody, they’d hopefully say the same thing, but I want to do a good job for my clients. I’m a freelancer, I sometimes bring in other people, but essentially, I’m working for myself. So, I’m kind of only really as good as my last job, for all intents and purposes.

And that means that you do have to be kind of on top of your game, you can’t afford to do five emails and three of them be great and two of them be a bit rubbish because your job is to make them all good. And going back to your idea, I think actually linking the two things is quite important because the marketing team that you might be working on behalf of probably does have very particular KPIs and data metrics and will be monitoring how its content is used.

On my side, that filters down into, do we want to use Joe again? And so, the simplest way of looking at it is, have I it on time? So, they give me a deadline, did I get it there on time? And then secondly, do they like it? And have they signed it off? Now, you could say within that, you could have three rounds of amends to get it to where it needs to be, or you could have no rounds of amends. So, you can say you nailed it the first time. I think comparing it to what we were talking about before, sort of specific data metrics, I would say I don’t use my own metrics in that sense.

How do you feel about automated copy/content creation? Would you agree copywriting is an industry where it’s completely non-automated? Due to that seed idea and the growth of that seed idea through functional content can’t be automated.

One thing to be said is that it is possible to write copy in an automated fashion. I believe that there’s quite a lot of journalism that is written, particularly the kind of more standard reporting type journalism. I think in America, there’s quite a big industry of automated sports reporting.

For example, but there is a big difference between relaying facts, feeding information into a machine and it structuring it in a few sentences that makes sense because the English language or whatever language they’re writing it makes sense. And you’ll know this as well, it’s the spark of creativity, it’s the idea and being able to see that through.

That is where a copywriter is employed, where a designer is employed, where even, a brand strategist or even a marketing strategist is employed because they just have the ability to join the dots which computers can do technically, but creatively, not necessarily. And I think computers are still at the stage where the intelligence is intelligence based on real-world information. But how do you create that McDonald Dunford right now where the kids inside the kids and the mum feels like she’s losing her son and losing that emotional connection, what computer is ever going to write that advert? Certainly, none at the moment, not really.

And who knows, I mean, maybe a sort of teenage boy, he could’ve come up with it, and maybe a 40-year-old mother could have come up with it. Maybe a 30-year-old man could have come up with it. Lots of different ways in, but you still have to have come up with it. And I think you’re absolutely right, it’s feeling. Which sounds a bit weird when we’re talking or when I’m talking about, you know, predominantly working in B2B technology, but ultimately, and this is one of the things that has become more apparent more recently is that it is still people buy from people. In the same way that people contract copywriters because they like them, they like working with them, they deliver on time, they do good work. My job is also to make some kind of human connection with the person who’s reading the content.

So that’s a good job. You’re friendly then Joe.

Yes, I mean, although to be honest, yeah, I could just sort of spirit myself away in a cupboard or something and never speak to anyone, but actually, that’s not the nature of doing all of this sort of stuff. And I think it’s another good point, being personable to a certain degree, you’ve got to interview people, you’ve got to get information from people. You’ve got to be able to ask questions. You’ve got to have a conversation and not everyone can do that. Not everyone wants to do that.

What tools and skills do you use day in, day out for your job?

See, this is a really interesting one because even though Word is essential, there was a time when I switched over to Google docs. So technically, I should really just say a word processing tool. The thing about that is the actually then you realize what the difference is between them and this speaks to my kind of, what I do on a daily basis, trying to sell people new stuff. Is like Google docs are based in the cloud so that’s great, but also it can be a bit of a pain.

There’s a number of reasons why, I mean, if you put a document in the cloud and it’s shared with lots of people to make it easy to share with lots of people, then that means they’re also watching what you’re doing, If they want to, it means that they can jump in and comment, not at the end of the process, but halfway in between. It means that some people can’t access it in the way that you want them to. But then you could argue that, if you don’t have word on your computer, then you can’t open a word document that someone sends you.

So, I think a lot of these tools have just got these tiny little things that either make people want to work with them or not. Because I write words, I just need to get them down on paper. I mean a bit like an artist or a designer needs to have a sketchpad sometimes to just get out of their head and onto the page because sometimes it’s too complicated to set something up and get all the right digital tools in place.

You just want to quickly create a scamp. And quite often though the ideas, going back to that point about the spark of ideas, those ideas need to be scrolled down quickly, and something like words or a notebook is basically all you need for that. I’ve been asked to use various tools by other people, sometimes some sort of content tools. I find them really clunky and they’re not really designed for just smooth writing. So yeah, in a nutshell, it’s Word. I’ve dabbled a little bit with some of the creative cloud stuff from Adobe. So Adobe creative cloud and a bit like in design and things like that, but I don’t need it cause I don’t produce the things and there are better people in the world to do that. That’s not my job.

The brief not only tells you what it is that you need to be doing, but it also gives you a signpost as to whether there’s anything that’s gone before.

content marketing Content Data Blogging Media Publication Information Vision Concept

Have you got a favorite type of project to work on, when that email comes in, what puts a smile on your face for money and what doesn’t put a smile on your face for money.

Do you know what, it’s time, If someone could offer you the biggest amount of money in the world for the simplest job, but if they need it when you can’t do it or if they need it too soon, don’t give you enough time to think. You have confidence that you can create an idea that you can draft an email that you can write an eight-page PDF that you can create that booklet that’s really going to speak to the audience.

If you’re not given enough time, then every single thing, every element of producing that becomes stressful. Now that’s not to say someone should just cut, like no client is going to come along and go, at some point in the near future we’d like you to produce this thing for us. Take your time, get back to us whenever, because that can be a killer as well because if you’ve got too much time, the ideas start competing with each other.

So, a perfect example, before I spoke to you, got an email from someone who said, I need to do a content audit and a go-to-market strategy for a business. And we need you for two days tomorrow and Friday. Well, it’s Wednesday, I’ve got other stuff that I’m booked out to do so as much as I’d love that work, I can’t do it. And it’s going to go elsewhere as a result, which is a disappointment. But if they’d said, I need that next week, then the answer would have been different. And I think any brief that gives you enough time to think enough time to produce and is relatively well-paid is the thing that puts a smile on your face and rarely do you get all those three things together.

I think using the umbrella of the marketing industry, I think everybody who comes under that umbrella would give a very similar answer. It’s being allowed to have time. Obviously, you can hit gold and that first idea comes together easily. And the delivery of that can come together easily. But if everybody in our industry is completely honest with themselves, how often does that really happen?

Yeah. I think time is underrated in our industry.

What makes a good copywriter, Joe?

Well, I think making a good copywriter is quite an interesting one because I think that’s down to lots of different personalities. So, I follow quite a lot of copywriters on Twitter (@kennardbrown and @thatchristinaG), for example, and they’re all very, very different and they’re all quite different to me as well. So, I don’t think there’s a set personality.

There are a few people recently who’ve released copywriting books and one of them is writing about his point of view is copywriting for introverts. So, he’s talking from the perspective of, he doesn’t want to go to loads of client meetings. He’s not very good in big groups of people. He doesn’t like roving interviews at an exhibition hall or to get those nuggets of information that are going to make that copy seen. He just wants to sit at his desk and put his head down and just write his words. And actually, quite a lot of copywriters are similar, we do shut ourselves away. I rarely leave the house, partly because of the time thing that we just talked about and partly because my desk is where I do my work.

But in terms of what makes good copywriting, I think there are probably two things really that all good copywriting should do and that’s the art and the science of it, a bit like I’m sure, with design and other aspects of the creative world. It’s creativity, the art if you like, and its clarity, which is the science. So, you can be creative, you can come up with a weird and wonderful idea that’s going to grab people’s attention. But then if you’re not really saying anything off the back of it, then it’s just there for its own sake.

So, my role is to kind of marry the two things and this is where we get into sort of true kind of marketing speak when we talk about the AIDA model of attention, interest, decision, action. I think that’s it, but you might want to double-check on that one. But the attention is that sort of creativity, maybe even the interest, you know, it’s that top line, it’s the headline, it’s the picture, it’s maybe even the qualifying line that just really speaks to you, Rich as an individual, tells you that this is the thing that you want or need in your life.

But what is it and what does it do and how much does it cost or where can I go for more information? That’s the clarity bit, and more often than not, clients will come to you for the creativity because they think in their brief that they’ve got the clarity sorted because they’ve sort of set out what it is they’re trying to sell.

More often than not though, there are too many of those messages in there. And so it’s also your job as a copywriter to filter the information and to prioritize it and to tell people whether that’s the message or that’s the message, where that information should go. And that’s where the role of copywriters sort of spills into the copy content sort of strategists, it’s to say, hold on, Rich, you said you wanted to talk about how great your red chair is, but now you also want to talk about how great the black desk is and the white walls behind it.

Well, only one of those is going to be relevant to what we’re really talking about today, the rest can come later. So where do we put it, where should we put it? And that’s where you start expanding beyond the initial piece of work, which is what the copywriter does through to the, like, how does it fit in the journey if you like.

I think a client site marketeer would answer that question differently. I think that they would probably be a bit more succinct in answering the brief. As in what makes a good copywriter. What makes a good designer, is to answer the brief, but then we would always go back, how do we know the brief correct? How can you create that content? Or how can you do the piece of creative if the brief is not where it needs to be, but the client thinks it is. And so then, what often happens is we’re the ones who get the blame.

And sometimes it’s hard to know that right at the very beginning because if you can have that discussion at the beginning and say, well, what is the challenge that we’re trying to solve? So, what is the problem that we’re trying to solve here with this brief, not necessarily, what do you want to say? That’s a big challenge and a lot of that comes down to people understanding what it is that’s required to create a true brief, I guess. And not everyone knows.

Can you describe your research and writing process and potentially discuss how this has helped you in the past?

It’s interesting cause we were just talking about the brief, I mean, the brief is everything. The brief not only tells you what it is that you need to be doing. It also gives you a signpost as to whether there’s anything that’s gone before. What other information is out there. Why the client already knows about that? A lot of the time my clients tend to give me what they have.

So, I still, as a copywriter, I’m at that point in the process, whereby someone’s already decided what it is that they’re trying to achieve. They’ve kind of have a look, they’ve mapped what’s going on in the industry a bit, they’ve shown a bit of competitor, examples of something similar that providing the information on what they want to talk about, or they’re setting me up to talk to the subject matter experts within that organization. So those are my sort of three areas of research.

It could be, I go off and do it myself and its generally desk-based and it will be searches using Google. Sometimes it’s Google trends, see what people are searching for, depending on which way round the brief is. And sometimes it’s client information and sometimes it’s firsthand. So, it’s workshops, it’s subject matter expert meetings and calls.

In those instances, that’s then on me to create a list of questions a little bit like today, where I’m trying to extract that information and the information that I need, not necessarily what they’re used to talking about, I’ve got this great product and it goes really fast. Great. But what’s it going do for me? How’s it going change the world? Those other types of questions that they’re not used to answering.

Would you say that you’ve got a writing style, is that easy to adjust to different demographics?

That’s interesting. So, going back to the idea about key performance, indicators, metrics. I mean, one of the things that I always tend to use is, what Word is good for, again, linking to that is it’s got a readability tool in it, so you can scan your copy for readability. Now there are sort of industry standards if you like that sort of say, web copy should be no lower than 40 on the scale.

Ideally, you want to get it above 50 towards 60. And there are some companies that have that kind of built-in baked in if you like to their tone of voice guidelines to their editorial style. O2 is a good example, they kind of write very short, punchy sentences, even if it means breaking up a traditional sentence. So rather than two commas and three parts of the sentence, they will make three sentences out of it.

I would say I earn more towards that style of writing anyway, trying to make it more readable, trying to make it, conversational is probably a bad way of describing it, but it’s as though you are listening to someone just talk. Now that doesn’t always suit a B2B tech style audience, and sometimes you’re asked to get those buzzwords in, get the specific stuff. Or just the nature of the products or service is that you have to talk about, some very sort of long, long words and technical language.

So, I think part of being a copywriter is understanding, really understanding the audience and you can simplify things for people. And sometimes simple is much better because it shows that you know what you’re talking about and you’re confident enough to talk about it, simply. But sometimes it’s a technical white paper, so it’s going to be technical and it’s got to talk about the functions and the way bits work together. And you can’t write short, punchy sentences for that. And it’s the style of writing as well.

It also goes back to a creative style of keeping it simple and is easy to understand. And do you walk away confused or knowledgeable that you can take that information and put it to some use? Has copywriting changed during your career, how long have you been a copywriter?

I’ve been writing for organizations since 2001, but eight years of that was kind of in-house in different roles in kind of communications roles. So as a freelance copywriter, it’s been 11 or 12 years. And in that time, I would say the biggest thing that has changed is demand… Content.

There’s a bit of an internal argument amongst the copywriting kind of community about what is content and what is copy. I think copy comes from the more traditional sort of advertising, it’s headlines, it’s that zingy stuff that kind of makes you feel something. Content quite often feels like it’s being produced in order to fill a gap. Now, in some cases, that’s entirely justified.

People need things to read about those products and services. One thing that has changed is the proliferation of channels means that there’s been a proliferation of content and copywriting. I’m always pleasantly surprised at the number of people who do what I do. Technically my competitors, but also, part of a community. So, it was a funny one.

…part of being a copywriter is understanding, really understanding the audience and you can simplify things for people.

Current trends in B2B content at the moment?

I think the biggest one is simply learning from B2C, just acknowledging the fact that you’re talking to people. That’s the biggest one.

Any future trends that you can predict?

Copywriters, being brought into the process of creating things a lot sooner. They are there in the first briefing sessions. When the client’s talking to the experts. Then when people come up with the idea of what they want to do The copywriter needs to be in the room to just understand whether it’s the right thing, what the direction is, the strategy behind doing the piece of work? Rather than simply being, here’s a piece of work, get on and write it.

Fresh out of university. What would you tell a young Joe about the industry he’s starting out in?

Build up a network. I think if fresh out of university trying to become a freelance copywriter, you’ve got quite a hard job. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not impossible. But I think where I have benefited is. I’ve worked in lots of different places and I’ve not burned any bridges. I’ve tried to maintain good relationships with the people that I’ve worked. Then when you do turn freelance, when you do decide to go it alone, you can pick up the phone or drop people an email and do it directly and just tell them what you’re doing.

It might take six months for them to come back to you with a job. But there’s no reason why they wouldn’t if they like you and they’ve worked with you before. I think 21 years old; I would say build up that experience. One thing that I didn’t do is I didn’t go to work in an agency when I was young.

That kind of came a little bit later and I was a bit more freelance than anyway. That’s an invaluable experience. It’s not the best-paid experience, but it’s invaluable because it’s fast-paced. You get to work on lots of things. People will ask you to do multiple jobs and you will learn on the job. Whereas if you go to work in big organisations half your time is spent doing what big organisations do. Sitting in meetings and all the rest and you don’t come on at quite the same pace.

BrandAsylum is a brand communication and design agency in Oxford, Oxfordshire.