Creative Lives — From comedy to copywriting, Olivia Downing lets us in on her journey through advertising
As traditional routes go, Olivia Downing’s foray into advertising was far from conventional. Starting out as a comedian in Paris, she slowly made her way back to Manchester, where she completed a degree not long before, to pursue a job in advertising. Some words of advice from a fellow comedian led her to take up a full-time gig as an account executive. We caught up with Olivia, now a successful creative copywriter at TBWA\MCR agency, to find out about her transition and how she launched the successful Chicks in Advertising alongside her unique day job.
Copywriter, TBWA\MCR (2018–present)
Alton Towers, Chessington World of Adventures, Pizza Hut, JDWilliams, BP, Wild Bean Café, Michelin, David Lloyd Clubs
BA English Literature and French, University of Manchester (2010–2014)
Littérature Anglaise et Française, Sorbonne-Paris IV (2012–2013)
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a copywriter – my job is to come up with a number of creative solutions to client briefs. I could be working on a Christmas cup for Wild Bean Café, a radio ad for David Lloyd Clubs or a full-blown TV campaign, like with Chessington World of Adventures. I actually think the ‘writer’ bit of being a copywriter in advertising is somewhat misleading. The bulk of my job is coming up with interesting ideas for our clients.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I get into the office just after 9am and finish at around 5:30pm. Sure, sometimes we have to work late, say, if a pitch is in, but this isn’t all the time. There’s just no typical day at TBWA/MCR. I could be working on ideas with my creative partner, Gary, or working solo on scripts and social media copy.
What are the least and most enjoyable aspects of your job?
I love seeing my work out in the world. I recently saw a couple of kids chuckling at the Veganuary work I did for Pizza Hut: it’s so fun to see your work have a visceral reaction from the public like that. The least enjoyable part? Probably when you feel you have nothing – no ideas, or anything good to say. This crisis of confidence is really common among creatives, mainly because it’s difficult to come up with good ideas on demand. But over time, you learn that if you just keep working through the insecurity, you will come to something in the end.
“Crisis of confidence is common among creatives, mainly because it’s difficult and high-pressure to come up with good ideas on demand.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I loved filming the TV ad for Chessington World of Adventures – I got to feed some giraffes and I’ve never been that close to wild animals before! Also, the expansion of my event Chicks in Advertising (CIA) to other major cities has been really exciting, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it might lead to next.
You moved from comedy to copywriting. What influenced you to make this shift and how did you go about it?
It was actually because of comedy that I got into advertising. Comedy was brilliant, and I loved writing jokes and making people laugh, but it’s quite tough hours and doesn’t really pay the bills. A fellow comedian of mine was also a creative director by day, and he advised me to consider a job in advertising. I was 22 at the time and didn’t even know it was a job before then. As a result, I binge watched a lot of Mad Men, read a lot of books and then frantically started applying for internships in all sorts of different advertising agencies. I got a three week placement at AMV BBDO in London – and the rest was history.
Chicks in Advertising event
You’ve set up your own event, Chicks in Advertising. What inspired you to do so and how do you manage your time alongside full-time work?
I set up CIA three years ago now, because I was tired of going to industry events and never really hearing from the women who work in it. I was the only female creative in my department at the time, and felt like it surely couldn’t just be me out there on my own. What I desperately wanted was an informal networking event for both men and women to hear stories from female industry talent, but such an event didn’t exist. Fast forward from 2017, and now we’re 800 members strong, and counting. It can be tough managing time, and I couldn’t do it without my amazing partner in crime Laura Tipping, who helps me organise, plan and promote.
In July, you were honoured as one of The Drum’s 50 Under 30: Outstanding women in creative and digital. How has this influenced the work you do now?
This was such an important recognition for me, probably more so than anything else I’ve achieved so far. I was told by many people at the start of my career as a creative that it was too late for me to change careers, and that because I’d started as an account person, I’d never make it as a copywriter. Not only has being listed by The Drum given CIA a global platform, but standing amongst other talented women has given me a lot of validation.
“I was told by many people at the start of my career as a creative that it was too late for me to change careers, and that because I’d started as an account person, I’d never make it as a copywriter.”
Work for TBWA\MCR with the Biscuiteers
What skills and tools would you say are essential to your job?
Being a good copywriter is less about software, and more about what’s going on in your thought process. The best creative ideas come from lateral thinking, so it’s good to work on that skill. As a writer, obviously a good command of Word and general grammar and language nuance is essential. I also can’t stress enough how important it is to read – widely and often. This will allow you to observe different writing styles, and pull on them more easily. However, as an advertising copywriter, you really have to have a natural interest in the world around you, an understanding and appreciation of culture, and maybe a natural inclination to be a bit naughty and do things that people haven’t tried before.
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
I’d recommend Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. It is the most helpful book you can have as a new creative, as it covers everything, from how to have ideas, how to write them and how to put a portfolio together. I still refer to mine all the time.
Work for BP
How I Got Here
After graduating what were your initial steps?
I went back to Paris to teach for a while, as I had loved being there as a student. Once I knew I really wanted to work in advertising, I thought it would be easier to do that in the UK, so I came back home. Oh boy, was I wrong. Advertising, particularly creative is such a hard industry to get into. For starters, most agencies only hire creative teams, so you need to find a likeminded person you can work with. I was lucky, in that I changed roles in my first agency to become a copywriter, and then I was paired up wherever I’ve worked since. But that’s why I always say one of the best attributes a creative can have is very thick skin. It’s a tough industry to break into, but when you do, it’s well worth it.
Work for Refinery agency
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
I was so fortunate that my creative director Nick Burton and account director Joe Bowler at my first agency decided I would be a better fit as a creative than a suit. They took a chance on me moving from account handling to creative, and it was genuinely controversial at the time. Another turning point was when I won School of Thought 2017, a creative competition where the winner goes to Cannes Lions. Winning this not only made my creative peers take me more seriously, but I was able to see the very best work in the world. This made me aspire to create some of the same.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
I think the biggest challenge I’ve faced has been coming to this job through a bit of an alternative route. Whenever you do things differently, there are people that will challenge you or try to bring you down. I’ve had a lot of people try and tell me I can’t. The lesson I’ve learnt is separating the helpful critics from those who just want to poke you to make themselves feel better.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
First of all, think about the adverts you like, and try to understand and analyse why you like them. Read books on advertising and then start to think about what brands you might have a good idea for. Then, create your portfolio. It doesn’t have to be perfect at this stage. You want to explain the idea clearly, without getting caught up in the design. Then ask everyone you know who works in advertising if you can have a book crit (an opportunity to share your creative ideas and receive feedback, as well as see how the industry works.) Don’t send emails. Knock on doors. Send postcards. Annoy everyone, and get creative with it. Lots of people won’t get back to you – but at the end of the day, all you need is one person to give you a chance.