Creative Lives — Writer Harry Ashbridge on making people care about words for digital bank, Monzo
As a writer for the digital bank, Monzo, Harry Ashbridge works alongside engineers, data scientists and those in customer service to maintain the brand's famously engaging and relatable tone of voice. Harry was an impressed Monzo customer before he put himself forward to, as he describes it, “look after their words.” It was soon after that he realised that writing is more of a team effort than he’d first imagined starting out: “I do almost nothing on my own,” he says of the collaborative working culture at Monzo. We caught up with Harry, as he tells us more about his day-to-day; explains what ‘transcreation’ is; and reveals why it’s important to draw from a range of inspirations.
Writer, Monzo (January 2018–present)
Writer, Trainer, Consultant, The Writer (2012–2017)
MA History, University College London (2008–2009)
BA Philosophy and History, University of Southampton (2005–2008)
How would you describe your job?
My remit is to make sure all our words, inside and out, work really hard for customers and feel like they come from Monzo. That means working with everyone in the business, from our in-house lawyers to the folks on social media.
What does a typical working day look like?
Allegedly my hours are 9 till 6, but we’ve got very flexible working. As long as stuff gets done, everyone’s happy. On a typical day, I might spend a couple of hours working on new screens in the app; run a training session for new starters on our tone of voice; go for a walk with someone I don’t work with often; help draft a job ad or some internal process documents; or shortlist some names for a new feature.
What do you like about working in London?
I’m from London, and I’m allergic to leaving. Most interesting writing jobs seem to be here as well, so I’ve never given serious thought to going anywhere else!
“The most important part of my job isn’t really doing the writing, it’s helping other people to get better at writing stuff themselves.”
How did you land your current job?
I approached Monzo through a contact at another company. Like most people who end up working here, I’d been a customer for a couple of years and loved it. Monzo were also one of the few companies around that fit what I was looking for: a socially useful mission I believed in; a great product in an interesting industry; a reasonably small team where one person could hopefully still make a difference.
I pitched the idea that they didn’t have anyone looking after their words, but they should, and luckily they listened. So I didn’t have to go up against any other candidates, thankfully!
An extract from our tone of voice
An extract from our tone of voice
How collaborative is your role?
Completely collaborative. I work with every team in the business, and do almost nothing on my own.
There’s far too much stuff for one person or even a team of writers to work through. So the most important part of my job isn’t really doing the writing, it’s helping other people to get better and more confident at writing stuff themselves.
Everyone’s a writer nowadays: engineers write RFCs (engineering-speak for ‘proposals’), data scientists produce written reports, customer service people are chatting over instant messaging all day every day. Empowering all those people to take responsibility for making their words work hard is the most impactful thing I can do here.
That means half my time is spent running training workshops. Some on our tone of voice in general, and then some on writing skills tailored for specific teams.
“Everyone’s a writer nowadays. Empowering people to take responsibility for making their words work hard is the most impactful thing I can do.”
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable stuff is seeing the tangible difference better writing can make. A great result on an experiment, for example. But also anecdotal stuff, like the guy who said he switched to Monzo purely because he liked our app update release notes. And inside the company, it’s seeing people happier and more confident in writing stuff themselves. Gradually watching the culture of caring for words really take hold.
The least enjoyable? Maybe I’m still in the extended honeymoon phase, but none of it is really unenjoyable at the moment. Everyone here is so conscientious and caring that all the stuff which was a pain about my previous job – like disinterested clients, arbitrary deadlines, not being able to deal with real underlying problems – doesn’t exist here. (Cue people puking into the nearest bin.) Sorry! I really like it here.
A poem Harry wrote, encouraging people to upgrade from pre-paid to full current accounts
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Creating our tone of voice guidelines, and a training programme to go along with them, has been the most satisfying thing I’ve done in my time here. When I arrived, most people had an intuitive sense of what our writing style was, but no-one had ever written it down, and we were growing so fast that it was too hard to maintain informally.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started out, since I was coming into a job no-one had really asked for, and the quality of writing was already pretty high. But the process of defining the guidelines, and running a whole bunch of training sessions since, has been a real pleasure.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started out, since I was coming into a job no-one had really asked for.”
I started out by chatting to the people who’d been unofficial guardians of Monzo language in the early days: the head of people, the head of marketing, the co-founders. Then I asked the whole company what they thought our tone of voice was via a Slack poll: ‘What three words sum up our tone of voice?’ The answers were surprisingly consistent; we clearly had a strong idea of our own identity. I asked the same question of our community of users, and got a similar response.
Then it was a case of finding ways to turn fairly abstract ideas like ‘transparency’ and ‘friendliness’ into practical writing advice. That became our tone of voice guidelines, and I’ve been running a few training sessions a week ever since.
An example of Monzo's app update release notes
What skills are essential to your job?
1. Empathy. Being able to put yourself in the shoes of your audience and figure out what they’re interested in; where they’ll be when they read this thing; whether they’ll even care at all. But also empathy for the people you’re working with: everyone’s got deadlines, people they need to impress and a ton of other stuff on. The question isn’t ‘How can I make sure all these people write better?’, it’s ‘How can I make sure better writing helps all these people?’.
2. Curiosity. Digging into briefs, asking questions, not just taking what you’re told at face value. Every writing disaster I’ve ever had came from not asking ‘why?’ enough.
3. The ability to explain why. Too many people think that better writing is just a nice fluffy thing, and that only gets worse when writers can’t articulate exactly why they’re doing something and what they hope it’ll achieve.
4. I guess being able to write nicely would be good too, but it doesn’t seem to have held me back.
“Every writing disaster I’ve ever had came from not asking ‘why?’ enough.”
What tools do you use most for your work?
We do everything on Macs, so it’s Google Docs, Google Slides and Dropbox Paper most of the day. (Which is a shame, cos I much prefer Word and PowerPoint.)
I might also be the only person here who still uses pen and paper. But I find drafting on screen and editing on paper the best way to make sure I’ve really interrogated what I’m writing.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
A paleontologist. There’s still time.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I did philosophy and history at university. They teach you that you don’t know anything for sure, and anything clever you do think of someone has already thought of before – usually in Greece a couple of thousand years ago. That’s useful for humility.
They teach you to build up and tear down arguments logically too, which comes in handy every day. Unfortunately they also teach you that the more you write the more work you’ve done, and that you should always explain your thinking in detail. But out in the real world, no-one ever wants to see your thinking – they just want the conclusion, in as few words as possible.
“[Words] get pigeon-holed as a nice fluffy thing. The biggest challenge is always convincing people that better words can have a tangible impact.”
After graduating, did you find your feet quickly?
No… I was just looking for anything that paid and got a temp job as a proofreader for a company that did financial services training. Because I could spell, they kept me on as an editor, and gradually gave me a bigger role over the next couple of years. So it was pot luck that I ended up in a words-related job, really.
It wasn’t the nicest place to work though, so I jumped ship the first real chance I got. I saw an advert for a company that said they wanted to ‘rid the world of the tyranny of linguistic mediocrity’ – yes please! Sign me up. That was The Writer.
Was there a particular step that helped your development?
Getting a job at The Writer. Learning from lots of smart, lovely people doing clever things with language. Pretty much everything I know I owe to my time there.
Monzo's mascot, Hot Chip
What’s been your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is always convincing people that better words can have a tangible impact. They get pigeon-holed as a nice fluffy thing, and it’s rare for an organisation to really believe that changing the language they use can have a measurable effect on what they’re doing.
When I was first starting out as a writer I didn’t put enough effort into *proving* that my version of the letter, email, web page, whatever was better than the original. And it was harder to get clients to buy into what I was suggesting as a result.
So always find some way to measure what you’re doing! Knowing the words are nicer isn’t enough. There’s always some metric that better words will improve, you just have to track it down.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I guess writing is more of a team effort than I’d imagined when I was starting out. The idea of a scribe beavering away alone for hours on end to produce the perfect words just doesn’t fit with the reality.
If you want to be useful to the people you’re working with, and especially the people you’re writing for, you have to spend time understanding what they want and need.
The more time you spend with people the more they’ll come to trust your judgement too. Which means less soul-destroying back-and-forth on round after round of amends.
The Monzo tone of voice
What would you like to do next?
The next big interesting challenge at Monzo will be when we move into different countries. Even the nuances of American English will be fun to play around with, let alone what we do when we’re having to write in French, Mandarin and Brazilian Portuguese.
The daft-sounding industry term for that is ‘transcreation’. We can’t literally translate word-for-word what we do into French; we need to figure out what the essence of our message is, and how our values (like transparency, and friendliness) work in those other cultures. I did it a bit when I was a consultant, and it’s always an interesting process. I’m simultaneously looking forward to and dreading us getting to that point.
Could you do this job forever?
I don’t see why not! We’re growing really fast, and keeping a handle on the quality of our writing will be a never-ending process.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same kind of work?
Caveat! I’m interested in changing the way a whole organisation writes, and the impact that can have on their culture, and how people think and feel about them.
Plenty of writers make a fine living working on much more niche kinds of writing, or spend their lives moving from brand to brand. Those are noble pursuits, but they’re not my thing – so the advice below might not be the best if that’s what you’re interested in.
Never be precious about the kind of writing you’re doing. Every word a company produces can make a connection, change someone’s mind, brighten their day. And where most companies go horribly wrong is giving some words lots of attention, and some words none at all. If you really care about the people you’re writing for, then think of every word as an opportunity to make their lives better in some small way.
Don’t only learn from writers. Designers, data scientists, product people, behavioural psychologists – there’s a ton of insight to gain from anyone who’s interested in what people do and why.
Always remember who you’re writing for. That isn’t the client and it isn’t your boss. It’s the person at the other end who’ll read what you’ve written. If you always do everything you can to put them first, you won’t go far wrong.