Creative Lives — Copywriter Nick Asbury on the ‘internal SatNav’ that guided him from telesales to writing

Posted 10 March 2017

Cheshire-based branding and design writer Nick Asbury pens witty and charming words for an impressive list of studios including Johnson Banks, NB Studio and The Chase, all the while producing self-initiated projects with wife Sue as part of Asbury & Asbury – from corporate poems, to a prayer for the England football team. Writing for brands, blogs and books, Nick recently co-authored the new edition of A Smile in the Mind: Witty Thinking in Graphic Design. Here Nick describes his journey and his ‘internal SatNav’, which he credits for directing him away from telesales and into a trainee copywriting position.

Nick Asbury

Job Title

Copywriter, Asbury & Asbury (2002–present)

Based

Near Macclesfield, Cheshire

Previous Employment

Co-director, Other (1997–2002)

Graduate Trainee Copywriter, Bernard Hodes (1996-1997)

Classified Sales Executive, Local Government Chronicle (1995-1996)
HMV sales assistant, warehouse worker, TEFL teacher (1994-1995)

Education

BA English, Oxford University (1991–1994)

Website
Social Media

Nick Asbury

Day-to-Day

I describe myself as a writer for branding and design. My professional life has three main parts.

One is working as a freelance writer for design companies and direct clients. In the past year or two, I’ve spent most of my time working with design companies Johnson Banks, NB Studio, The Chase, Hat-trick, The Partners and Studio Sutherland, as well as direct clients including Jigsaw, a division of Google.

The second part is working on my own stuff as part of Asbury & Asbury, alongside my partner and wife Sue, who is a graphic designer. We’re not an agency – we don’t really take on paying clients, although there have been a few here and there. We produce and publish our own ideas. It could be a small, playful thing like creating a Rubik’s Cube of corporate slogans. Or it could be a semi-commercial endeavour like an A6 Notebook about the A6 road, which we sell at our online store.

Some of these projects cost little and make little, some cost a bit and eventually pay for themselves, and the odd one takes off and becomes a money-making thing. Perpetual Disappointments Diary started as a small-scale personal project that grew into an independent publishing venture, and then a publisher took it on in 2016 when we couldn’t take it any further ourselves.

“It should have been pretty obvious to do something involving writing, but it took me a long while to figure it out – I didn’t have much confidence and was stuck in a rut.”

The third part is writing and occasionally speaking about design and branding. I write for Creative Review and some other places, and in 2016 I co-authored (with Greg Quinton) the new edition of A Smile in the Mind: Witty thinking in graphic design

Those three areas overlap and interconnect in all sorts of ways. For example, I find I’m more productive on self-initiated projects if I’m busy on client work at the same time – the momentum from one feeds into the other. Equally, writing an article or blog post might lead to an unexpected connection and a new project starting. 

People sometimes ask how I have time to write articles and do all these personal projects – aren’t I busy with paid work? But I see it as all part of one thing. It’s all paid work – you just don’t always know exactly how and when you’ll get paid. I think of it like a big writing ecosystem. You have to keep it lively and diverse. All the stuff you’re doing around the edges is the stuff that could be central in a few years’ time.

‘A Smile in the Mind’, work created with agency The Partners, 2016

Perpetual Disappointments Diary, Asbury & Asbury, 2013-17

Corpoetics, Asbury & Asbury, 2008

Pentone Mug Set, Asbury & Asbury, 2007-2016

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How I Got Here

English was always my best subject at school and I did an English degree, so it should have been pretty obvious to do something involving writing. But it took me a long while to figure it out – I didn’t have much confidence and was stuck in a rut. I had a crappy telesales job selling ad space in a magazine – which I now post-rationalise as good training in old-school sales techniques (which is sort of true). 

At some point my boss put an open call out for someone to write an ad promoting the magazine. I came up with something and everyone liked it – it even had an idea behind it – but even then I was too feckless to see it as an opportunity. My boss pushed me to finish writing it, it got published in the magazine, and a few weeks later I saw an ad for a Graduate Trainee Copywriter at an unglamorous London agency called Bernard Hodes. I applied and had an edge as I’d already done a ‘real’ ad. So I got the job and life started falling into place. I remember feeling this was something I could do.

“I remember being proud when I came up with the headline ‘Expand your horizons’, which I later discovered was one of the biggest clichés in recruitment copywriting.”

My early days involved writing recruitment ads – the kind of ads you see in the appointments section of The Sunday Times. Someone has to write those. My first brief was to write a copy-only ad for Systems Engineers to work at Siemens. You get given a massive pile of background about the company, the role, the rewards, the application process. And you have to get it down to three or four paragraphs, ideally with a half-interesting headline. I remember being proud when I came up with the headline ‘Expand your horizons’, which I later discovered was one of the biggest clichés in recruitment copywriting.

The next break was meeting two writers who were starting their own company, as a way to escape recruitment advertising and do other things. I joined them, became a co-director of the company (called Other), and it grew into this interesting collective that had writers, designers and account managers in the same room. One of the founders was Mike Reed, who now runs Reed Words and does lots of good things. 

“As long as you have something else going on, it gives you a different frame of reference to everyone else.”

Sideways Dictionary, 2017, Site design: Hello Monday, Films and animations: Google Creative Lab, London

During my five years there, I became a bit of a charity direct response specialist, because we had accounts for a few interesting charities. Like recruitment copywriting, it comes with its own intricate set of rules – and it’s one of the most quantifiable and scientific forms of writing. You get detailed feedback showing how one envelope line increased response by 0.75% compared to the control version. It’s good training for a writer, mixing sales with tough storytelling (one of our clients was the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture). 

We also did other things – branding stuff, tone of voice stuff (before it was called tone of voice stuff), radio, TV. And then I left in 2002 and have been freelance ever since, and part of Asbury & Asbury since 2008.  

‘Dear World… Yours, Cambridge’ 2016 – Words: Nick Asbury, Design: johnson banks
, Creative Direction: Michael Johnson

‘Dear World… Yours, Cambridge’ 2016 – Words: Nick Asbury, Design: johnson banks
, Creative Direction: Michael Johnson

‘Dear World… Yours, Cambridge’ 2016 – Words: Nick Asbury, Design: johnson banks
, Creative Direction: Michael Johnson

‘Dear World… Yours, Cambridge’ 2016 – Words: Nick Asbury, Design: johnson banks
, Creative Direction: Michael Johnson

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Tools of the Trade

I use Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Keynote, MacBook Air, FreeAgent (for accounts). I have lots of notebooks but usually end up using the notes app on my phone. The internet provides so many tools for writers these days – word association, anagram generators, voice-to-text transcribers, and endless desk-based research.

Thinking Ahead

I’m interested in how technology is changing writing – not that the principles of good writing change, but new playing fields open up and it’s fun to explore them. There are already technologies that could probably take those old recruitment briefs I used to get and turn them into workable ads. You’d still need a writer to filter and finesse them, but it could help with a lot of the heavy lifting. 

In terms of my career, I’ve never had a plan as such, more a vague internal SatNav – I try to follow interesting people and interesting projects and trust it will lead to good places. But I may end up driving into a lake.

Words of Wisdom

It’s tougher in the early days, because you haven’t built your reputation to a point where people listen to you. So it can be disheartening when you’re the copy monkey who is forced to nod politely and turn good jobs bad. I’ve done lots of that. But it’s a long game. And there are probably more shortcuts these days – social media means one good project can make your name overnight. But that’s also a risk because you want to become known for the right stuff. Branding and design is quite a small world, so you have to be careful not to burn through it too fast. 

I’d also say do copywriting and at least one other thing – not just as a hobby, but as an extra focal point in your life. It could be stand-up comedy, songwriting, poetry, journalism, fly-fishing, extreme urban parkour. But as long as you have something else going on, it gives you a different frame of reference to everyone else – and at some point the streams will cross, and interesting things will happen.

Posted 10 March 2017 Writing: Nick Asbury
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Advertising, Design
Mentions: Asbury & Asbury
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