Creative Lives — “When you’re writing for a charity you’re selling hope” – meet Oxfam wordsmith Vicky McGarvey
After a hairy few months following redundancy from London adland, copywriter Vicky McGarvey discovered her “dream job” at Oxfam’s creative and content team in Oxford. There she could still flex her linguistic muscle but make a difference rather than just selling more stuff, with a far healthier work-life balance to boot. Every day she must get inside the brains of a diverse range of audiences – from shoppers to activists to policy makers – to pen highly persuasive copy for long-term campaigns and emergency appeals alike. When a humanitarian crisis hits, she’ll have just a day to produce emotive copy to drum up donations – the quantity of cash depends squarely on Vicky’s ability to inspire empathy. We met Vicky to chat about advertising with a social mission and channelling Beyoncé to overcome imposter syndrome.
Copywriter, Oxfam (March 2016–present)
Junior Copywriter, Pepper Corp, (2013–2015)
Intern, Pink Squid (2011)
Intern, Big Communications (2011)
Intern, IPC Media (2011)
BA Advertising, University of Gloucestershire (2008–2011)
How would you describe your job?
Creative, fun, varied and frustrating. I work in the creative and content team at Oxfam, which is made up of graphic designers, copywriters, filmmakers and producers. It’s a very similar set-up to an ad agency, except our clients are different teams within Oxfam. We could have a brief come in to develop ideas for campaigning for rights for refugees, at the same as one for attracting new volunteers to Oxfam shops. It’s always varied.
What does a typical working day look like?
I’m not a morning person so I get into the office around 9.30am. A good perk of Oxfam is it’s flexible working. We have to be in between 10am and 4pm and then around that we have the freedom to make up our hours in whichever way suits us best. The office shuts at 7pm so there are no late nights, and Oxfam is really accommodating if people need to work from home or work part-time. My commute is just a 10-minute walk – a dream compared to the hour-long slog across London for my previous job.
“We could be developing ideas for campaigning for rights for refugees, or attracting new volunteers to Oxfam shops.”
How did you land your current job?
I got pretty lucky off the back of an unlucky situation. I’d been made redundant at the agency I was working for in London, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The long hours coupled with the commute had ground me down. Questioning whether I still wanted to work in advertising and live in London, I went back to my parents’ place to start the job search.
After a few pretty miserable months of going through career options from midwifery to counselling to physiotherapy – I saw the Oxfam job. I wanted to do something that helped people in some way and I still loved writing, so as far as copywriting jobs went, this was my dream job.
I applied and got an interview. I was sent a brief and asked to come up with ideas for a fundraising campaign to present to a whole panel of interviewers. The reality couldn’t have been further from the Apprentice-style situation I had imagined. I walked in and instantly had a good feeling about it.
Some of Vicky's work for Oxfam
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I spend almost all of my time in the office. The location is something a lot of people find difficult. The business park can be pretty difficult to get to, plus if you’re in a bit of a creative rut and need to get away from your desk, your options are the always-inspirational Tesco or Beefeater. Luckily, the team makes up for it. We’re like a little family and also really collaborative, which is my favourite thing about my job.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
It doesn’t happen very often, but I love it when I’m working on a project that lets me get out of the office and work with a filmmaker or photographer. I got to go to Bestival with Clare Hewitt (a really talented portrait photographer) to meet and interview festival-goers about their thoughts on the refugee crisis.
More recently I worked on a volunteer drive. With photographer Kalpesh Lathigra and filmmaker Andy Oxley, we took slow-moving portraits of volunteers from shops across the UK to form the basis of the digital campaign. I interviewed each of them and then wrote the headlines based on what they told me. My favourite person was 93-year-old volunteer Pat. The campaign went live in January and the ads will hopefully be on bus shelters later on in the year too.
The most mundane task would have to be proofreading or project management. Excel schedules are my nemesis.
“I wanted to do something that helped people, and I loved writing so as far as copywriting jobs went, this was my dream job.”
Where do you feel you get to shine as a writer?
A lot of my time is spent working on amends from clients and going round in a few circles until everyone is happy – much like a copywriter anywhere. But when there’s an emergency (earthquake or tsunami, for example) everything we’re working on gets dropped and that’s where I think the writers get a chance to shine. The last one was the Indonesian tsunami back in October.
A copywriter and a designer will have one day to produce an email, letter for direct mail, a press ad and shop posters too, and then get it all signed off. The copy has to feel urgent and emotive, and it’s really rewarding when you find out a few days later how much money it raised for the emergency – normally hundreds of thousands of pounds.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with a big project I’ve been working on and off for the last year or so, Behind the Barcodes. It’s an Oxfam campaign targeting six major supermarkets – Aldi in particular – asking it to do more to protect food producers from suffering horrible living and working conditions.
Back in October we spoofed Aldi’s ‘Everyday Amazing’ campaign, questioning how amazing they really are. It meant lots of conversations with our legal and policy teams to make sure we weren’t saying or doing anything that we could get sued for. But the campaign really worked and got Aldi’s attention – it quickly published a new human rights policy and is working closely with Oxfam.
I’m also about to start working on what Oxfam is going to do at Glastonbury this year, which will be really cool project.
“Back in October we spoofed Aldi’s ‘Everyday Amazing’ campaign, questioning how amazing they really are.”
What skills are essential to your job?
You need to be able to problem-solve, think creatively, adapt your writing for different audiences and possess a good knowledge of current affairs.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Unsurprisingly, Microsoft Word. We’ve recently got Slack, which is great for sharing work, ideas and cool things we’ve found. People come from all over to work here (two travel from Brighton) so it keeps us all in touch – a bit like professional WhatsApp. I also always have a sketchpad to hand for scamping ideas.
If you could recommend one resource what would it be?
The Copy Book by D&AD. I’ve got it on my desk and it’s good to open it up whenever you feel a bit stuck. I once missed a meeting because I was so engrossed in some long copy about olives that I lost track of time.
A spoof of Aldi’s ‘Everyday Amazing’ campaign
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
A paramedic. I actually spent around a year working on ambulances when I was job hunting after uni and it was both emotionally and physically difficult. I have so much respect for people who do those sorts of jobs.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
My advertising BA taught me to think in a certain way and how to tackle briefs but, just like advertising, it was very subjective. We’d be in creative teams and have to develop concepts but our marks came from whether our tutors thought it was good or not.
If I had a time machine I don’t know that I would go back and do it again. There are so many opportunities now and mentorship schemes, like Who’s Yr Momma, that if you want the job enough, you can get it without spending thousands on a degree.
“My very first job was working at an American diner (in England) and it was the hardest job I’ve ever had.”
What were your first jobs?
My very first job was working at an American diner (in England) and it was the hardest job I’ve ever had. But advertising-wise I did a couple of internships before getting my first permanent job. They’re great for getting a feel for how agencies work and understanding what kind of areas you’re interested in. You might realise you love digital and want to focus on getting a job at a digital or tech-focused agency, for example. Just make sure they’re paid. I wouldn’t accept less than £200 a week as a minimum in London.
Who in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
It would have to be Andy Bolter, creative director at Pepper (now Yes&Pepper). I didn’t realise it until after I left, but he was the best mentor I could have had at the time. Every time we showed him ideas we’d have to pitch it as if he were a client. I hated it at the time but that skill ended up being what gave me the edge in my Oxfam interview. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got this job without Andy.
Behind the Barcodes campaign
What skills have you learnt along the way?
When you’re writing for a charity you’re selling hope, rather than a Sky Box or a new shampoo. You’re asking people to give their money and get nothing in return other than the knowledge they’ve made a difference to someone somewhere. It took me a long time – at least a year – to feel like I had a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
Oxfam has so many audiences – each has different motivations and varying levels of connection to the cause so writing styles need adapting. Plus we’re at a crucial point where trust in charities is at an all-time low, particularly in Oxfam after the Haiti scandal last year. A big part of my job at the moment is working to rebuild that across the communications we put out.
“When I realised everyone is winging it I stopped worrying so much about not being good enough.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Feeling confident in my ability has always been my biggest hurdle, ever since school. I think when I realised everyone is winging it I stopped worrying so much about not being good enough.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
The biggest misconception was that all copywriter jobs are in agencies and you had to be in a team. Although they are a great place to start to learn the ropes and build up a portfolio, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Almost every big business needs copywriters, so if you don’t think you’re suited to agency life, think about what you’re passionate about and go from there.
The Oxfam newspaper, a free takeaway to help connect Oxfam shop customers with Oxfam's work
The Oxfam newspaper, a free takeaway to help connect Oxfam shop customers with Oxfam's work
What would you like to do next?
I’d love to do more interviewing and get better at it. I love telling people’s stories. We writers are starting to get the opportunity to travel with producers and filmmakers to interview people involved in Oxfam programmes for projects or mail packs, which is really exciting. One day I’d love to do photography professionally but that’s a long-term plan.
Could you do this job forever?
It’s difficult to progress at Oxfam, so no. But whenever the time comes it’s going to be really hard to leave.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
There are lots of opportunities with charities to volunteer your time. Small ones in particular would be really grateful for someone offering to help with their communications in some way. It’ll help you build up your portfolio for when that dream job comes up.
And when you get the interview, here’s an embarrassing top tip: I was nervous before mine so a friend told me to sing Beyoncé’s Run the world in my head but replacing ‘girls’ with ‘Vicky’. Ridiculous but… it worked! Never a bad idea to channel your inner Bey.