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10 copywriting lessons from Copy Cabana 2016

Ruth Hartnoll   —   4 October 2016   —   Content & Social

Lessons from Copy Cabana

FYI: This post contains strong language, because bad language is good language.

170 notebooks, iPads and laptops are poised on 170 copywriters’ laps.

It’s the first ever Copy Cabana in Bournemouth.

After waiting for five months, taking a five hour train journey and finally finding a seat I’m here.

We’re all pretty excited: there aren’t festivals or conferences just for copywriting.

Until we open our goodie bags and discover there’s something called Writers Crawl happening in November!

Thanks Copy Cabana - we’re off to great start.

I want to share with you 10 of the lessons I learnt from some of the best minds on the written and spoken word.

These tasty morsels will sustain you when you’re in a writing drought.

Read on and eat up.

LESSON 1: Do you feel anything?

Teacher: Miles Carter, writer for the John Lewis Christmas campaign ‘Man on the Moon’. Copywriter at adam&eveDDB.

Miles has been copywriting for six years - and he wrote that John Lewis advert.


His work is proof that storytelling is one of the most powerful tools we have as copywriters.

If you’re going to sit there and pretend that John Lewis didn’t evoke an emotional reaction when you watched it, then you’re a big fat liar. It may not have been the reaction they were after - but you felt something.

And that’s a big ask; making your customer feel something.

Miles, like any good copywriter, put this concept into one clear sentence:

Slide 3. - "Is it in yet?"

Well, is it? No feeling? Then it’s garbage.

LESSON 2: Your words need to have conviction.

Teacher: Deanna Rodger, Spoken Word Poet.

Deanna’s performance left the room speechless.

And that’s a room full of copywriters, who tend to be quite gobby.

The thing I took away from Deanna’s performance was this:

If you deliver your idea with enough conviction your words do the work for you. No need to talk around the idea. Just perform it well.

Watch this and you’ll understand why all we could was clap (with a few whoops).

LESSON 3: Adverts are like gags - find your punch line.

Teacher: Pete Cain, Copywriter, Stand-up Comedian and Lecturer.

Now is a good time to mention that Pete is a stand up - and it’s written all over his work.

His straplines are punchlines.

“Study jokes and you’ll be a better copywriter.” Pete shouted from the stage.

Comedy finds the root of the idea and makes people take notice. If you’re funny, chances are you’ll be a good copywriter.

Here’s Pete’s most famous work - it’s also the one that made him leave advertising. As he said; “He was sick of people F***ing his ideas.”

LESSON 4: Don’t sell features before benefits.

Teacher: Drayton Bird, legendary copywriter.

Drayton Bird is a name that’s synonymous with great copywriting. He worked alongside David Ogilvy during advertising’s ‘golden era’. Drayton is a man who knows onions.

Out of all the speeches I attended, it was his that I took the most actionable points away from. One of which was; don’t sell features before benefits.

I think we’re all guilty of this from time to time. But I have to give context! People need to know what the product actually does!

No, no they don’t.

First you need their attention, then you can tell them how it works.

LESSON 5: Repeat history’s successes.

Teacher: Caitlin Breeze, Copywriter at Satchi and Satchi, D&AD’s youngest ever board member.

"Writing is seduction" - Caitlin Breeze

Caitlin is perhaps one of the best public speakers I have ever seen; engaging, energetic and intelligent. She is everything I love about copywriters - we’re bloody smart and we know it.

Her talk looked to some of the famous figures from history and taught us what we can learn from them.

Turns out Julius Caesar knew how to write a speech and Dickens was the master of talking in plain English.

And she’s right - history is one of the best places to look for inspiration. Look left instead of right.

LESSON 6: Make your employees your PR machine.

Teacher: Nicole Dempster, Director of Internal Communications, ITV.

Nicole has a job I didn’t know even existed; her job is to get employees excited about the work they’re producing. What a great job.

There were lots of great ideas from her team, including a tweet activated drinks machine, a wall of doughnuts and team ambassadors across every department.

But the biggest takeaway was this: your employees need to be on board with what you’re making, if they’re not then you’ve lost a great PR opportunity. They’re advocates of your brand - just make sure you give them reason to be.

LESSON 7: Women are your most under utilised asset.

Teachers: Kathryn Jacob (CEO Pearl & Dean) & Sue Unerman (Chief Strategy Officer, Mediacom).

The glass wall - Kathryn Jacob at Copy Cabana

Kathryn Jacob and Sue Unerman have just finished writing a book called The Glass Wall. And no, it’s not like Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Their book addresses the real issue women face in the workplace about getting into senior positions - and what it is that’s stopping them getting there.

Needless to say, a copy is winging it’s way to my desk soon.

Perhaps the most startling statistic from this talk was this:

We’re currently missing out on $28 trillion dollars of potential business because women aren’t in charge.

That figure is staggering. If money drives you more than gender equality - then hire more women. Right now.

LESSON 8: Observe and absorb your audience.

Teacher: Pete Cain.

To truly understand your audience you need to get under their skin.

Go to where they hang out, go down the pub, listen to them on the bus, take notes of how they move, what they talk about. You have a responsibility to your audience to understand their motives - it’s only then that you’ll be able to sell to them.

There might have been a couple of swear words in there too.

LESSON 9: “Most people know the square root of Fuck all.”

Teacher: Drayton Bird.

Drayton Bird

Image via Marketing Mag AU.

Drayton’s speech took in the highlights of a career spanning over 40 years, and if there’s one thing that Drayton has learnt it’s this;

“Most people know the square root of fuck all.”

And it’s true. Working in advertising or marketing means you’re going to come up against some bullshitters. Content Wizards, Heads of Fun & Frolics, Chief Officers of Bollocks All - but don’t let it get you down. Work on your craft so you’re not another person in a long line of hacks.

LESSON 10: If you can put you C***s on the end of it, your strap line works.

Teacher: Pete Cain.

I think this one speaks for itself.

Just do it, you C***s.

Yes we can, you C***s.

I have a dream, you C***s.

Think different, you C***s.

You get the idea, you C***s.

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