Archive for September, 2008

How old is old? Are you old if you remember going to the print shop the Monday after college graduation to have your resume typeset?

I will pause as you look up the archaic terms “print shop” and “typeset.”

I came out of school equally prepared (or equally unprepared) to pursue a career in either copywriting or video production.  I felt pressure to pick one or the other. In those days, the first item on a resume was this bogus “Objective” statement, as in “Objective: to obtain a video production position that utilizes my commuter-school education and two semesters of production experience.”

Some wiseguy actually suggested that I order two different resumes, one for video production and one for copywriting, to see which one panned out.  He didn’t realize I was living off of $9 a week after rent, and was not about to pay any more than the astronomical thirty bucks I was putting out for resumes, cover sheets and envelopes. I wasn’t even sure how I was going to pay for postage.

So I chose video. Four days later I was approving the proofs at the hot, stinky print shop, trying not to notice the printer’s baby in a playpen behind the counter, stoned out of its mind on print fumes. Seven to 10 days after that my order was delivered at blistering speed. And so, armed with my resumes and bowel-shaking terror unbridled optimism for the future, I began my meteoric rise to the middle.

Thankfully, times have changed. Once we got PC’s we realized we could have as many resumes as we wished. I have tweaked mine relentlessly, emphasizing this and downplaying that for practically every position I have pursued in the past 10 years.

The point is, you damn kids have it so easy these days. So, even though there’s only one day left in National Update Your Resume Month you really don’t have an excuse for not keeping your CV current.

Besides, all the print shops are gone. And the brain-damaged kids huffing print fumes have all grown up and taken over the mortgage loan industry.

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Out of a sense of adventure…and economic necessity…you never say no to a copywriting project. This can lead you off in some interesting new directions. And you never know when a weird little one-off project will come back to be the basis of “my deep understanding of the industrial powder-coating process” on some future bid.

First Time for Everything

For every subject matter a copywriter approaches, there’s a first gig, first assignment, first Google search for every topic. I’ve said it repeatedly; it’s one of my favorite parts of the business. Convincing the client you can actually do the work is another story.

Copywriting with Curb Appeal

As they say, in real estate you’re not selling bricks and lumber…you’re selling the dream. Others would say that pumping all the romance (along with the notion that credit is a God-given right) helped bring us to the mess we are in today.  At any rate, as the stakes get ever higher, the need for effective copywriting in the real estate world increases.

Copywriting for Graphic Arts

If you’re trying to sell substrates, labeling, packaging, ink, splicing or million dollar industrial printing presses (and who isn’t these days?) then listen up. If you want your product to burst with value, and be something more than a boring commodity…get some copywriting help!

Health Care Communications

Healthcare is my bread and butter. It is also my plate, my knife and my laminate countertop.  For a time it was also my toaster, but we’re in a recession, you know? It’s an industry filled with cutthroat competition, regulations and lawsuits out the butt (I know, cut the legal-ese!)  Anyway, it’s not for everybody but, if you had to pick a copywriting specialty that will be around until the last Boomer has dropped dead, this is the one!

Copywriting for the Religious Client

It can be really intimidating to walk into a creative meeting and feel the passion and commitment of the religious client. Let’s face it, nobody ever laid down their life for the next generation of absorbent paper towels. So you have to calm down and see that, like any other “business,” there’s a message, a medium, a market and an audience. Just make sure you don’t “kill” your competition, or steal from him or covet his wife. They have rules about that.

Guns & Ammo

Speaking of Second Amendment rights they will have to pry from your cold, dead fingers…suppose you’re a snot-nosed college puke who grew up in the city and never held a gun in your life. Suddenly you get the opportunity to write a series of brochures, editorials, press releases, print ads, catalogs, web sites and trade show materials…are you ready to pull the trigger?

A Mile Wide, An Inch Deep

And that is what it boils down to. If you want to work, if you want to add value, you have to posess a diverse knowledge base. And, for the most part, wider is better than deeper. If you disagree…start your own blog!

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I’ve had a long relationship with industrial video.  In fact, during the 90’s, that was pretty much it for me.

First I worked in a production house that catered to the training, merchandising and presentational needs of corporate biggies like RCA, GE, P&G and others too cool to spell out their names.

Then I went “in-house,” and became part of a two-dude production team at a major medical manufacturer. The best thing about being part of a two-dude team  was having the opportunity to use all of your skills, and develop new ones. On a typical project I might be the producer, researcher, interviewer, director and editor. The other guy would run the camera on shoot day. And then, on the next project, we would swap. So, it was intense pressure followed by no pressure at all.

There were drawbacks, as you would expect. Sure, we could afford to buy an AfterEffects package for the non-linear edit system. But I’m no designer. I can tinker with it, import a logo, fly it in, create a shimmer effect…if you give me a few hours to play with it. I may only ever gain enough skill to make it work…never enough to make it sing, you know?

And, sadly, the only thing there wasn’t room for in this skill-development scheme was scriptwriting.  The marketing and merchandising folks did an almost-good-enough job at it and, with our limitations, almost was good enough.  However, as it became more obvious to me that scriptwriting was where I wanted to specialize, I started moving slowly toward the door.

Overall, for the most part, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed being part of…something, as opposed to the freelance isolation you often hear me whining about. I enjoyed digging deeply into a product line, an industry and a company culture. I also enjoyed the seemingly limitless supply of capital equipment money (which led to another unexpected skill…writing investment justifications!)

Like any type of job, there were pluses and minuses. For the most part, though, I remember it fondly. Those jobs are tough to come by, but I wouldn’t turn one down if the opportunity arose…as much as I like the independence of freelancing.

So, if you’ve got any spare in-house jobs laying around, hep a brotha out!

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Time for the always somewhat-popular and easy-to-produce…

“Previously on Lively Exchange”!

Productivity: Gone with the Wind

Business is slow because, believe it or not, it’s been five days since the windstorm and 200,000 people in southwest Ohio still don’t have power.  Interesting illustration of the the way operations get more fragile the further they stretch out. Just like Hitler at Stalingrad! Sorta.

Humor in Business Communication

The preceding Hitler joke is an illustration of why humor in business communication is such a rare commodity.  It’s tricky, always being concerned that someone, somewhere MIGHT take offense to a genocide joke. Babies! Anyway, somebody at Hallmark cared enough to name September Humor in Business month, so who are YOU to resist?


Some wounds don’t heal, and we shouldn’t allow them to. My own humble reflections on 9/11.

Copywriting and Time(waste) Management

The cure for the freelance copywriter’s sense of isolation? Inflicting it upon everyone else! Suckers.

Web Works in Progress

Another example of the way the freelance copywriter’s mind will play tricks on him. Getting antsy, feeling like I wasn’t doing anything, I decided to make a list. Turns out I was doing plenty, and it was a nice, diversified list of projects. Which then became a neato advertisement for my services. Yay Mikey…Mikey wins!!

In Appreciation: The VO Artist

A talented voiceover artist can make a bad script sound good, and a good script sound great. Yeah, let’s do the second one.

Copywriting with Curb Appeal

Some copywriting specialties you pursue, some just happen. And sometimes you find that special specialty, and you realize you should have been pursuing it all along. It’s the romantic hit of the summer!

Corporate Newsletters: Let’s Review

Remember how I said I would give the art and science of corporate newsletters a rest? Well, this was the post where I said that, so it doesn’t count.

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I’ve posted a lot of pixels on the topic of long-distance copywriting relationships, and how teh intarwebs have changed our perception of market reach.  A phone conference, some online research, a compressed .zip file of your collateral materials, and we’re good to go. It seems there is little reason for us to be in the same room, city or state anymore. At times, however, it would be nice.

This past Monday, I was getting pretty antsy.  My IN box was too quiet. I had copy deadlines brewing in Cincinnati, Dayton and southeast Indiana, and I was getting nothing.  The guys at the places with the things were all silent.  One writing gig in particular was the classic hair-on-fire, cancel-everything emergency…and I had nothing.

So I began to compose the indignant-but-subtle “I thought you said this was an EMERGENCY” letter. I was just about to hit SEND when I received a text message from an old friend in Ohio: “storm over. everybody OK.”

Apparently, the remnants of Hurricane Ike traveled up the Mississippi Valley and pounded the crap out of the OH-KY-IN region. Like, eight solid hours of sustained 75mph winds. Everyone I know there has trees down, roof damage, windows out, no electricity, no internet. Many schools and businesses are closed, gas shortages, and a quarter-million people without power until next weekend. Worst of all–my blog hits are down by half!!!!

Anyway, I’d like to send a hearty “WTF?” to our 24-hour, information-overload, flood-the-zone, saturation-coverage cable news providers for telling me absolutely nothing about any of this.  And to my friends, family and clients in the great Midwest, thank the Lord that everyone is OK. I wish you all a speedy recovery, free of insurance hassles.

And to answer the burning question on every copywriter’s mind: no, the deadlines haven’t moved a bit!

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I just glanced at my official NBC “The Office” calendar and learned that September is Humor in Business Month. Intrigued, I did my usual exhaustive research (first three Google hits) and found absolutely no background information on this fact. Three other bloggers asking “did you know September is Humor in Business Month?” doesn’t count.

So, I guess HIBM (no, I’m not going to keep typing it) is open to interpretation, not unlike humor itself. This is why humor in copywriting is used so sparingly in corporate web, print or video…everywhere outside of advertising. Frankly, I think it should be used MORE sparingly IN advertising, with that weird Seinfeld Windows commercial being prime evidence.

Workplace humor always has the smell of desperation to it. Cartoons like Dilbert have taken some heat over the years for being something of an opiate for the downtrodden office worker.  Some theorists say that laughing at Dilbert’s idiot boss takes the sting out of the fact that your own boss is an even bigger idiot. You let off steam and never gather the courage to actually change your circumstances.  Others say, “Lighten up, Francis. It’s a cartoon.”  Still others say, “As a member of the county road crew shoveling hot asphalt in the middle of August in South Carolina, I do SO identify with the miseries of the modern office worker.”

Sociology moment over.

I grew up on George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, early SNL, SCTV, MAD Magazine and National Lampoon.  I was the weird kid with no friends writing monologues and sketches, performing them into my tape recorder for absolutely no one to hear. I always knew that copywriting was in my future.

Naturally, I pursued a career path where I get to express that talent almost never. Business copywriting is often pretty straightforward. This is a business where the new, 20-percent-more-absorbent paper towel is treated like the cure for cancer… so lose the laughs, funnyman!

Despite this, I have had more than my share of fun, funny projects. In the course of getting to know people, clients, future clients, etc., my offbeat sensibility peeks out. Eventually, every client needs a funny script…usually something internal like a merchandising, promotional or motivational video script.  And I usually get the call. Check out some samples on my Video page.

Humor in business communication has its place. It’s a rarity, but that’s not a bad thing. Not being able to automatically utilize my strong suit has forced me to develop my more serious side. When I do get to use humor, it’s refreshing.

So, if you get the opportunity, try a little levity in your corporate communications. But you’d better get busy…Humor in Business Month is half over!

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beamsI spent the morning of 9/11 on the loading dock of the medical supply company where I worked at the time.  All regular business had ceased. Trailers packed with that week’s shipments were unloaded and refilled with stretchers, gurneys, IV accessories…anything from our stock that might be of use in an emergency room. By the end of the morning a convoy had blasted off for Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan.

In the end, none of it was needed. As we now know, there weren’t thousands and thousands of injured to attend to. You either made it out or you didn’t.

There is so much to recall about that day, and the days after. And a lot of nostalgia about the way things used to be…most of it misplaced. I’m convinced now that the time before seems so idyllic because we simply weren’t paying attention.

I am thankful that, seven years on, it hasn’t happened again. I’m thankful for the people, from the president to the soldiers to the lowest-paid airport security people, who have made that possible.

And I am thankful for the insight, wisdom and comfort God gave me in those following weeks. I came to a lot of conclusions about life…what and where I wanted to be, and with whom. It took time to make all of that happen, and I had to break a lot of eggs. But I made it.

So, this my unbidden advice for 9/11/08: take a moment to say a prayer for the families. Then take the rest of the day to appreciate what you have, and the One who made it possible.

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Are freelance copywriters the sort of social defectives that can’t function in groups? I wonder.  Most of the time, I thrive in the freelance copywriter’s social vacuum. Okay, maybe not thrive. Let’s say I function reasonably well. And the thought of returning to a full-time job at an advertising or MarComm agency really doesn’t have much appeal–though I have made that particular transition at least twice.

However, when the sense of isolation hits, it hits hard. I check my inbox obsessively. I write to people for no reason, just to get them to reply.  You know the conversations you would have at the water cooler, e.g., last night’s episode of Mad Men? I have those via email with my sister 700 miles away. And I begin hanging out in talkbacks too much, starting flamewars on vital topics like, “Is that cable news host (rhymes with Meeth Schmolbermann) mentally ill or just a total ass? Discuss.”

There are treatments that show promise, however.  I try to turn a time waster into something five percent more productive…diversion therapy, if you will. Instead of bothering e-mailing someone who has real work to do, I do a bunch of email cold calls to web designers and MarComm agencies in the region. Instead of waging flame wars on inane topics, I try to cruise other copywriting blogs and make intelligent comments (or at least try to crib future topics for my own blog.)

Finally, the oldest trick in the OCD handbook: lists. Nothing says “productive” like a big old list of activities neatly crossed off.  If you like a tight, concise list, only put REAL activities on it. However, if you crave a completely exxagerated sense of achievement, try Retroactive List Management (or RLM.)  Whatever you “accomplish” during the day…rinsing your lunch dishes, remembering to put down the toilet seat, etc…immediately run back to your desk, write on the list, and then cross it off.

Just some helpful tips to ponder. As always, consult with a mental health professional before attempting these therapies. Do not attempt if you are pregnant, may become pregnant, or you are just fat.

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No, it’s not the title of my master’s thesis (though, I will have to remember it for later!)  It’s just the thread that’s been running through my fevered consciousness lately.

Weighing the pros and cons, freelance copywriting is not something a rational person would choose to do for a living. I certainly can’t see your school guidance counselor seriously recommending it, unless she’s a commie like mine was.

It’s a tenuous business, and so much depends on external conditions. As I have said previously, I began my freelance career right after 9/11. So, right off the bat, let me advise you youngsters out there: don’t do that.  I would say it was really rough going, but in actuality, it wasn’t going at all.

I held on as things gradually improved. And eventually, everything was bubbling along steadily. But I think it’s safe to say that things peaked a while back. Gas prices, the mortgage mess, and the uncertainty of the election have put such a crimp in things that many, many of my clients have cut back sharply on their communication spending.

All I can say to that is this: When your competitors have pulled back, you need to charge ahead. The time is right to break from the pack. Be the one garage door installer, or office cleaning service or sporting goods retailer who is actually making some noise.  When things improve, and they will, you’ll be lengths ahead of the other guys.

All it takes is the right message, and the right guy to help you craft it. So give me call. As soon as I’m done with my paper route and selling my plasma, my whole day is wide open 😉

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A lot of ad agencies, MarComm firms and web design shops have blogs, for the same reason I do: to keep a constantly fresh supply of keywords flowing in order to draw the search engines to my professional copywriting services. That is the point, right? I’m not making this up?

Anyway, the topics range from the mildly interesting to the numbingly arcane. New hires; industry trends; commentaries on some article they read in the “American Journal of 4-color Offset Printing”; the awesome studio they leased in the historic beef-murdering district, and so on.

One of the more interesting topics is Current Projects, because it’s always fascinating to read about jobs that you didn’t get, right?

In that vein, I thought I would share some of my latest endeavors that, with a few exceptions, have been mostly web related.  So check out this list of…

Lively’s Latest

  • Ongoing corporate intranet newsletter for a medical manufacturer in Indiana
  • A website for a non-denominational church in Moncks Corner SC
  • A website and brochures for an architecture firm in Virginia
  • SEO Articles for a home improvement company in Charlotte NC
  • Web copy for a realty company in upstate South Carolina
  • A merchandising video script for a large grocery chain in Cincinnati
  • A website for a home security systems installer in York County SC
  • A website for a hydraulic cylinder manufacturer in Ohio
  • Web copy for the York County SC school district
  • Web copy for a commercial realty company in Charleston SC
  • Web copy for a document services firm with offices all over the South

That’s a stack of words, yo! Not that the casual reader cares, of course. But if you are a realtor/church/home improvement/school district/hydraulic cylinder manufacturer…or you would LIKE to be…and you need a fancy word-saying guy, give me a holler!

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