Copywriters are Sherpas. Their service to brands is both a bold adventure and a grueling test of endurance. There’s compensation, but all glory goes to the client (who would never see such elevated heights without a dedicated support team).
Jim Mitchem and Jason Fox are copywriters who have been to the mountaintop and back. Both men have distinct voices and unique points of view, along with portfolios full of sharp work. Both continue to advance their careers as freelancers, and both write more than advertising.
I am grateful that they agreed to participate in this freewheeling exchange.
What keeps you motivated day-to-day to stay in the ad business?
Jim: For me, it’s using my powers for good. To help companies/organizations I like and believe in. I know how effective the right advertising/comms is on a company or organization. It’s kinda cool to get others to believe in that. And watching their reaction when the needle moves in the right direction never gets old.
Jason: I wish I had some elevated, artistically-focused reason for strapping my brain in every day, but the reality is that I do it for my family. My kids aren’t terribly concerned about how creatively fulfilled I am, and my mortgage company is even less so. Not that I don’t still enjoy what I do. It’s just that the parts of advertising that I enjoy are the parts I seem to do less frequently. But I still like seeing my work out the wild or having someone say, “You wrote that? Cool!” Having a client see results, both financial and otherwise, from the work is always rewarding. If only I could get some residuals. And there’s always a chance that today’s the day someone pulls out an old, red, 60s Batman-style phone and says, “It’s time to bring in the Beard.”
How is the ad business different now than when you entered?
Jason: Obviously, digital rose up from the primordial bitstream and changed everything. And not necessarily in a good way. We’re just now getting back to being strategic first and tactical second. I’m not a digital naysayer – I’ve had a personal website since 1996 – but “digital” (a vague sobriquet if there ever was one) was sold as a panacea that could be all things to all marketers. Which, of course, should have been a giant warning flag to all, but it’s always hard for people to see the yellow caution sign when they’re focused on the green of a new revenue stream. From an agency life standpoint, agencies continue to be run by people and, therefore, continue to vary widely in their quality. Both creatively and, unfortunately, otherwise.
Jim: I have no idea. I mean yes, the digital stuff, as Jason mentioned, but advertising is about solving problems. And we solve problems by presenting audiences with new ways to think about things. I’m pretty sure that’s the same as its ever been. Too often our industry gets caught up in the latest shiny thing. Flash websites were one of those things. Social media too. But it’s been my experience that we sometimes tend to focus more on the delivery vehicles than the ideas. That’s no good. Ideas still rule. And that’s been the case forever.
If you had to find another career, where would you look?
Jim: Something with animals. Being outside. With animals. But I don’t think I could ever not be a writer.
Jason: Almost anything else that I would consider is tangential to what I do now. Comms director for a non-profit/parachurch organization. Screenwriter/director. Songwriter/rock god. If the Prize Patrol ever knocks on my door, I’ll retire from advertising and start a philanthropic, missions-focused foundation. Or own a ranch for rescue dogs.
How important is it to have creative interests outside of work?
Jason: It is very important and very difficult to maintain, at least for me. The difficulty lies in having anything left to give creatively outside of work. That can be offset somewhat by doing non-word-based creative projects, but let’s face it – I’m a writer and use words as the foundation for almost everything I do. Even visual pursuits like photography and video come with stories attached in my head. But if I did nothing creative outside of advertising, I would be useless to pretty much everyone all the time.
Jim: I preach to my daughters that they have to spend time creating. Creating is good. Natural. We live in a consumer-driven society with strict rules and regimens on how to best spend our time—in service of revenue. At the end of our work day we just want to relax with a beer and Netflix. And so it’s easy to fall into the trap of consumption. When they were little, my daughters spent most of their time creating. But now that they’re teenagers, they no longer listen to me. Sigh. Yeah, being creative outside of work is pretty important to me.
How is writing literature more or less satisfying compared to copywriting?
Jason: Jim’s the novelist here, but I have done a fair amount of screenwriting, so I’ll go with that. Anything you create that achieves the goal you initially set out for it is satisfying. But certain forms have a higher base level of satisfaction than others. Every form of writing comes with inherent compromises – whether due to form, audience expectations, limitations of one’s own skills, etc. – but copywriting too often has additional compromises thrust upon it that lower the satisfaction level.
Jim: Writing my novel Minor King was the best experience of my professional life. No, I didn’t make enough on it to do it full time, but man what an experience—letting go and letting the muses guide me. I don’t know whether writing that book helped make me a better copywriter, but I know damn well that copywriting has helped make me a better writer. I also write a lot of poetry and see parallels between poetry and copywriting. In fact, I often refer to branding (taglines, narration, etc.) as corporate poetry.
Is living in a small market an added complexity or an advantage for managing a creative career?
Jim: I had the chance to move back to NYC after college (as an adult, because my story isn’t traditional.) Had a couple of offers in the city, one in Richmond, and one in Charlotte. The lure to work on Madison Avenue was strong. But me and my wife had grown accustomed to the warmth of Florida and were in no rush to return to those NYC winters. After one visit to Charlotte, I knew this was the place we were moving to launch my career. It’s been a great move as we’ve raised a family here and have a tight village (a perk of a smaller town.) Charlotte has grown exponentially since 2000, but I knew that moving here meant not doing high profile/budget work. It’s been fine. It’s a choice you make. The work I’ve done in this region has positively affected a lot of businesses. I’m proud of that.
Jason: It’s helped from a family budget standpoint, but has been quite challenging creatively. Regardless of what folks say vis-à-vis working anywhere thanks to the internet, the truth is that a lot of agencies – especially in the bigger markets – still prefer local folks who can show up for meetings or make the department look fuller during client office tours. And even when you do get a bigger, juicier project, you’re still often just a cog in the process. Even if you were a very important part of the process and everyone digs what you did, you still don’t end up on the shoot or in the edit bay. I miss the production side of things – you can create a lot of extra magic during that stage. Not “fixing it in post,” mind you. Just doing the best production possible. I see I have gone off the rails.
What work are you most proud of?
Jason: For paying clients, I’d say my work on Interstate Batteries as it solved a real branding problem, and they were just a great bunch of people to work with. For pro bono work, the campaign films I worked on for the United Way of Kansas City were a highlight of my early career. A little more recently, I once filled in on an organ donation client – Taylor’s Gift in Dallas – and wrote a two-word billboard that went on to become their tagline/mission: Outlive yourself.
Jim: Tough call. I spent 5+ years helping a guy turn a single shipping container into the fastest growing company in Charlotte, and #120 fastest growing in the US. But I did everything there. All the marketing, strategy, branding, storytelling, social engagement, etc. It’s a great case study. But in terms of “high creative” I’d have to say a Lexus campaign I worked on in 2001 that ended up selling every car allotted to the client and won a ton of awards. It was good stuff. However, I’m most proud of the work I did for the Charlotte Police Department’s Animal Control division. It was a 2-year campaign aimed at reducing our ridiculously high euthanasia rate. By the time the campaign ended, and it included every medium imaginable including a benefit concert, the euthanasia rate dropped 30% and adoptions rose 60%. Also, the messages were pretty powerful. Yeah, I’m proud of that.
9) Do you have any client-taming tips?
Jim: Look them in the eyes and tell them that efficiency is your foundation. That you need to know that they are capable of making decisions so as not to hold up the process. Holding up the process leads to inefficiency and lost revenue. For everyone. Additionally, I try to ensure that a client understands that whatever I do creatively is only a byproduct of being tactical. Too often people think creatives are aloof creatures who come up with ideas by daydreaming. No. It’s from a meticulous process of deconstruction that allows us to “see” solutions differently. I’m more a tactician than a creative. (And yes, most solutions do come while daydreaming—only after deconstructing the problem to its core. But don’t tell my clients that.)
Jason: I couch everything in terms of strategy: We’re just trying to create something that solves a problem. Craft and creativity and boldness lead to more effective solutions, so if you want to play it safe, you have to accept a lower return on your advertising investment.
What’s the ideal preparation for a career in advertising?
Jason: Don’t just be an observer of people’s behavior or a consumer of pop culture – learn how things are connected and influence the whole. Learn your craft. Study the greats. Embrace caffeine. I’ve also heard good things about lobotomies, but I forget what, exactly.
Jim: Oh man I have no idea. Be curious, I guess. And grow rhino skin.
What’s the best ad campaign you’ve seen from anyone in the last five years?
Jim: The Tide Super Bowl spots were a pretty damn smart 3-hour campaign. In terms of long-term campaigns, Southwest has always seemed to have clever, memorable creative. This is one of my favorite ads of theirs. Great concept. Great talent. Great direction. Great comedic timing.
Jason: I don’t actually look at advertising lest I subconsciously copy someone else’s work and taint the purity of my creations. Are the Geico cavemen still a thing? In reality, I do remain amazed at the quality of work coming from the consumer insurance sector. It took others a while to catch up with Geico (and if you haven’t seen “Tiny House,” get thee to YouTube), but Allstate’s “Mayhem” and Farmers’ “Hall of Claims (We are Farmers!)” campaigns have been great for an extended period, as well. But maybe that’s just 45-year-old in me talking. By the way, I’m only 30, so hire me.
Can you share one thing that you learned from a mentor?
Jim: It’s easier to run in on a fly ball than run back on one. Granted, this advice is from my dad when I was a boy, but it’s as relevant to baseball as it is to creative thinking. I preach about building a box in the creative process (screw that thinking outside of the box blather). When you build a box that frames a problem, the next thing is to go out and explore every nook and cranny of that box in its farthest reaches. Once you do that, start working your way back toward the center. By the time you reach the center, you should have a range of potential solutions to think about, develop, and present.
One other great bit of advice given to me early on was “Never marry your work.” When you’re not married to your work, it’s easier to let go of your ideas. Now I’m not saying you should never defend your ideas. On the contrary. Rather, don’t hold on to them when everything is moving in a different direction. Gotta accept that sometimes good ideas don’t get used. Save the battle for another day.
Jason: “Calm down, Beavis.” That one took a while to click.
Why do clients love working with you?
Jason: I treat clients as if they know what they’re talking about, and understand what I’m talking about. Amazing what a lack of condescension can do for a relationship. Of course, I also hold up my end of the bargain when it comes to the work, which helps.
Jim: I never roll my eyes.
If you could go back in time and work with one ad legend, which one would you choose?
Jim: Bernbach. To work with someone like him who could eek out the very best in you, and to encourage fearlessness and simplicity, that would really be something. A close second for me would be David Oakley, but he doesn’t return my calls.
Jason: I think it’s time Lee Clow’s Beard actually worked with Lee Clow.