Our Under the Spotlight series aims to cast a light on industry peers we love, envy and respect so that more people can understand the work that goes into The Work.
For over 25 years, Vikki Ross has been writing copy for some major global brands. Specialising in branding and tone of voice, Vikki has worked on the voices of brands across the beauty, entertainment and travel sectors, helping them through big brand launches including Sky Atlantic, Sky TV and NOW TV.
Alongside her impressive copy catalogue, she runs a series of masterclasses and sessions, and regularly speaks at industry-wide events. She’s even helped to build a copywriter community from the ground up across social media, through the hashtag #CopywritersUnite. We sat down with Vikki to learn more about her career, from her beginnings at The Body Shop to building her own copywriting community.
1. You refer to your time at The Body Shop as the place where you learnt the “real beauty of copywriting”. What was it about your work there that aided your learning around copywriting?
Before I started working at The Body Shop, I was mostly selling products through direct marketing. It wasn’t particularly creative or persuasive – it was just plain descriptive writing. But, when I started writing about makeup and fragrances, everything just got a bit more playful and romantic. I had more fun with my way with words, and I got to come up with all sorts of phrases for makeup shades like “perfect parfait” for purple eyeshadow.
I was also in a big creative studio. Before then, I’d only ever been in a tiny agency where there were three or four of us. At The Body Shop, I was surrounded by people doing other creative things – it just felt more exciting and engaging.
2. How would you describe ‘beautiful copywriting’?
It’s copy that’s written in a way that evokes an emotion or an experience. It creates an image in the mind that’s descriptive and true. I think it’s easy to stick meaningless adjectives into your writing, like “amazing this” or “incredibly that”, but they just get in the way. The job of a beautiful piece of copywriting is to make people feel warm and comfortable and helps them buy into what we’re telling them – especially if you’re writing for something that’s a bit more premium.
3. After The Body Shop, you moved to Virgin Media before heading over to Sky. What led you towards moving into entertainment copywriting? How did the experience differ from your time at The Body Shop?
I’d been at The Body Shop for eight years and, while I thought I’d never leave (or never want to write about anything other than beauty), I left to do something completely different. I was put forward for maternity cover at Virgin Media, which is where I learnt about branding and tone of voice. Of course, The Body Shop had a brand identity and tone of voice, but we didn’t place a huge focus on those sorts of things. We just wrote instinctively for the brand.
At Virgin Media, personality and voice are cherished and respected. The organisation is always evolving to keep it feeling fresh, and I hadn’t written in that way before. Their voice is light, fun, playful and sometimes a bit cheeky. What’s really impressive, however, is that, even though the Virgin group has lots of sub-brands, everything looks and feels like one brand. I got to appreciate the extent of tone of voice and what it could do for each individual brand at Virgin Media.
Was it more challenging?
It was more fun than challenging. At first, the only challenge was having to write about broadband. I’m not someone who’s very technically minded. To be stereotypical, as a woman, writing about makeup at The Body Shop was something that I could do instinctively compared to the more technical copy at Virgin Media. I knew how to sell in a skincare regime because it’s something I do myself. I can barely turn on my laptop and I can only use a Word document, so, writing about gigabytes and bandwidth was the challenging bit!
4. Travelling with Expedia must’ve been a great experience. Could you tell us more about writing copy whilst travelling around the world? Did the surroundings impact your work at all?
The short answer is no. I was so lucky, and I love to travel, so working for a travel brand was a real treat. I didn’t write about destinations, though. There was no lounging by the pool writing about palm trees above me, I’m afraid! The trips were for focus groups to see how people used the site and what they considered when making a booking. It was more UX (User Experience) writing than travel writing.
I’m someone who loves travelling so, often, people have said to me “why aren’t you a travel writer?”. I think there are two reasons why:
- I like to travel for the experience and adventure and love the element of being on holiday. But, if I have to write about it, then it becomes work.
- Copywriters earn more than travel writers, and I love writing copy!
How did UX writing differ from the other copy you were used to writing?
It wasn’t hugely creative or in a playful tone of voice, it was interesting in a technical sense. I preferred to be more creative with my words rather than creative in finding an alternative way to say “book now”. Although, Virgin Holidays used to do brilliant copy on their website for booking holidays. Where you’d usually see “book now” they’d write “I’m out of here!” or “take me there” or “save me a spot”.
5. You’ve created various different groups, hashtags and communities to connect like-minded writers. We’d love to know more about what led you to create those groups.
It was definitely out of necessity. I created #CopywritersUnite on Twitter to connect copywriters from all around the world. Often, copywriters work on our own. Whether we’re in a team, freelance or something else, we’re still usually by ourselves. We also often need each other for support and advice because a lot of people think that they can write copy, which means that our work can be devalued or ignored.
Now, copywriters use that hashtag all day, every day on all the social media platforms. It’s evolved into meeting in real life. I usually host quarterly nights in a pub in London, but other copywriters host nights in all different cities across the world. I sit on Twitter when I know that nights are happening because I love seeing people tweet saying that they’ve had a great time.
It was easy to build the community because there wasn’t one. I’m in London, in the advertising industry, and there are so many events for people to go to if you’re a photographer or a graphic designer, or a networking event, exhibition etc. There’s nothing for copywriters. So, I really wanted there to be somewhere for copywriters to go. But also, I didn’t want to profit out of people. I just wanted them to have something to do and somewhere to feel comfortable. That’s why my nights are just in a pub. No one is selling you anything, you don’t have to sit through a speaker – there’s no agenda, it’s just copywriters getting to know each other. Through the hashtag, people have found jobs, partners, colleagues and have become really great friends. Even non-copywriters come along.
6. Speaking of community, you’ve hosted various sell-out events through Copy Cabana and Copy Capital, with a fantastic array of guests. What was the experience of running those events like?
Horrible! I don’t think I’ve ever done anything so stressful. I was so concerned with speakers being respected and valued and attendees having the best time that I drove myself mad with all the organising. Then I had to run the event too! I do a lot of public speaking, but it’s not easy, and I’m not really that comfortable doing it because it’s so nerve-wracking. It was so worth it though because I really do believe that the events should exist, and they were amazing.
I couldn’t believe the people that came to speak at the event. We had legendary speakers like Fay Weldon, Steve Harrison, Drayton Bird and industry leaders like Miles Carter (who wrote one of the John Lewis Christmas ads). Basically, my agenda for booking the speakers was that they’d either had a career that we could all look up to, or they had jobs that we all wish we had, or they did things that we wish we’d done. It had to be someone who had written a John Lewis ad, and I had to get the head of copy at Innocent because everyone talks about Innocent when they’re talking about copy and tone of voice. We also had James Cross, Director of BBC Creative, Jo Wallace from Wunderman Thompson and Kerry Thorpe, Comms Lead at Ben & Jerry’s. But I also wanted to do things differently, so I invited poets to speak at the event, like Deanna Rodger and Rishi Dastidar. We even had an army bomb disposal team in to talk about working under pressure.
7. The idea of taking brands and agencies out to help them to understand how their words look to consumers is brilliant. Could you talk us through the process of #CopySafari? How did the idea come about?
For anyone who doesn’t know, #CopySafari is a couple of hours walking around town looking at copy on billboards, shop windows and signs. I take my industry friends and clients out with me to review the copy that we see, just like how our audience sees it. It’s just not good enough to review copy on a screen if it’s meant to be received on the high street or in a shop. We should take the time to go out and take a good look around and see what people are doing in and amongst our messaging. That’s why I started it.
In some creative studios, I know that they print off their work and put it on the walls to help them visualise what it’ll look like. That definitely does help you to see things differently.
When I was at The Body Shop, we had a full shop set up in our creative studio so that we could see what our copy looked like just by putting the actual posters up in the windows, and signs on the shelves and at the till. You could walk around the shop and see how the customer would experience it.
What impact does #CopySafari have on the way that your clients see their content?
Clients appreciate getting out and about. Usually, I’ll set them a brief of looking at what they see and judging what they think e.g. does it feel on-brand for that shop? Who do they think they’re talking to? I’ve also taken my students out to do #CopySafari, as it’s a great way for them to experience the copy rather than just putting it on a screen for them to look at in the classroom.
8. You worked with Steve Harrison to create the copywriting course for 42 courses. What was the process of putting together the course like?
Working with Steve to put together the course was easy because:
- It’s based on Steve’s brilliant book “How To Write Better Copy”
- The people at 42 courses are so passionate about what they do
Even though it was a lot of work, I was very supported by Steve and the team.
I specialise in branding and tone of voice, so I contributed a lot to that part of the course. But my main responsibility was curating the contributors. Each part of the course has someone from the industry either in the video, in a blog or a quote. So, it’s not just Steve’s voice teaching throughout, there are lots of people involved.
When I was curating the list of contributors, I was so adamant that they couldn’t be the usual faces that we see all the time. Not that there’s anything wrong with those familiar faces – I’m a huge fan of people like Rory Sutherland and John Hegarty – but we need to make more room for others so that people of different genders, races and backgrounds can have the opportunity as well.
9. As well as the 42 courses course, you also deliver masterclasses as part of D&AD. We’d love to know more about how your copy and delivery of content differs between each platform – from course to masterclass.
The 42 courses course is online so I guess you have the more “measured me” on there as I’m a far better writer than I am a speaker. Whereas, the D&AD classes are live, in-person. In the classes, I guess you get the more waffly, overexcited me but overall, whoever I’m talking to, and whatever I’m talking about, I always want people to feel comfortable with me and as though what I’m saying is easy to action. I am not a teacher, I’m just someone who loves their job. I want other people to love their job as well.
10. What is your writing process like? How would you tackle a new copywriting challenge from the beginning?
Like most people, I get excited by a new brief. Then I think: “there’s no way I can do it! How did I become a copywriter? Why did I say yes to the job?”. I have to tell myself to take a deep breath, calm down and see what happens. After that, I really enjoy the whole process. I love writing, but whenever I send anything that I’ve written off to a client, I either come up with something far better, or I just deal with the nerves that come while I’m waiting for feedback. It’s a weird way to work, but I think it’s quite common for a lot of creatives.
Even though you’re writing to a brief, and you’ve got the information and done the research, there’s still no black or white, right or wrong. You’re tapping into a sensitivity that comes with being a creative. There’s a lot of emotion, thought and feeling that goes into it. Having that judged can be quite scary.
Is there a difference between how you’d approach short, snappy bits of copy to how you’d approach longer-form content?
It depends on the brand and the tone of voice. Generally speaking, the headline has to attract people’s attention and say something interesting. It has to talk to them or about them. Then, once you’ve got the headline, that dictates how the follow-up copy looks.
11. What advice would you give to copywriters at the beginning of their careers? Is there a specific resource that you’d recommend they check out?
As creatives, we have to be interested in everything. That makes us interesting too. But, the one piece of advice I’d give is to read.
Read anything. I don’t mean read Shakespeare or specifically books on copywriting (although they’re very helpful), I mean just anything – trashy fiction, magazines, pizza menus, posters at the dentist. Anything that gets words going around in your head. You won’t get words out if you don’t get words in.
Keep the discovery going
Want to see who else we’ve put under the spotlight? Check out our interview with Andrew Boulton, author of “Copywriting Is…”. To keep up to date with the latest news from Under the Spotlight, make sure to follow us on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.