Karen Zaskolny: Copywriter
We caught up with Karen to find out more about her story.
Why did you choose to become a copywriter and how did you get started?
I didn’t actually choose to become a copywriter, I chose to become a graphic designer. It was halfway through the first year of my graphic design course, when one of my lecturers asked me “have you thought about being a copywriter?”
The whole class had spent the lesson presenting our rough visuals for KESAB posters. We were all very excited because this was a ‘real’ job and the winning student’s work would actually be printed and sent to primary schools all over SA. The lesson was run as a brainstorming session and feedback was welcome, so I merrily suggested new poster headlines for every one of the 16 students, on the spot, without realising what I was doing. That’s when the lecturer asked the question. I’d never heard of a copywriter, so I ignored it. Until the following week, when another lecturer in another lesson asked “have you thought about being a copywriter.” OK. What’s a copywriter?
I did a bit of research, realised I was meant to be a copywriter not a graphic designer and suddenly it all made sense! This was why I loved coming up with concepts and rough visuals, brainstorming, and writing up rationales for myself (and most of the student in my class). It also explained why I wasn’t so great at the actual rendering of the graphic design.
My first job was at The Advertiser, in their Creative Services Department. They wanted a writer with visual skills. Perfect.
How has the industry changed for you over the years?Drastically, but luckily, I am the Queen of Reinvention! When I began copywriting, there was no internet. I started in print — press advertising and brochures. I then accidentally got into direct marketing, then was lured into websites. I still love print, but today, almost all of my work is about helping people create better copy for their website.
I’ve worked at the local Adelaide paper, for a multi-national advertising agency in Singapore and Hong Kong, then as a freelancer in my own business, Copy with Cream.
As a freelancer in Adelaide, I’ve worked with agencies, government, business enterprise centres, web developers, graphic designers and business owners. I’ve run copywriting workshops and one-on-one ‘ad coaching’ sessions for over 800 small business owners. I’ve written an eBook and done podcasts.
Do you think advertising is inclusive to female creatives, how so?
It definitely wasn’t when I started out nearly 30 years ago. Surely, it’s gotta be better now.
What challenges have you faced during your career?
I had to leave the country to get a job in an ad agency
The newspaper gave me the break I needed to get into copywriting, but after a year I wanted to get into an advertising agency. Back in the 90s it was very male dominated. After 4 years of trying, I still couldn’t get a foot in the door of an Adelaide agency, but J Walter Thompson in Singapore welcomed me with open arms. Between my fabulous Welsh art director and a genius British creative director, I learnt the ropes of direct marketing and we bagged a heap of international awards.
Bad timing coming back to Adelaide
I came back from overseas armed with a strong portfolio of award-winning work and going “yay, websites!!!” There was just one problem. It was 1996. Nobody in Adelaide seemed to know what a website was. I remember going for a revolving door series of interviews with agencies who were still immersed in TV, billboards and full page press ads. I was 10 years too early. Looking back, the best career move for me would have been to go to London or New York but it was time to come home.
From 6 figures to the dole
I couldn’t believe that I had seemingly gone around the world and back again, won a stack of awards and I still couldn’t get a job in an advertising agency in my home town. So I decided to freelance and gradually built up my business, Copy with Cream.
The loneliness of freelancing
I do love the freedom to pick and choose my clients and to say ‘no’ to things that don’t resonate with me but freelancing can be very lonely when you don’t have a regular team to work with. My happiest times freelancing have been when I have had a regular client who I went to work with in-house. Other times, I work from home or a café. And if I have no work, I do more beach walks. I have to say that it has taken me a long time to relax about the slow times.
About 10 years ago, I applied for 8 copywriting jobs in 6 months. Despite being one of the best freelance writers in Adelaide, no luck. Being interviewed by people half your age doesn’t bode well, however, my ‘boss’ at the regular client I work with right now is 27 and we are totally on the same page, despite me being old enough to be her mum.
People not understanding or appreciating what you do
I think this is not as much an issue these days, as it used to be. Because of programs like Gruen there is more of an understanding of what a copywriter is and what we can do. However, I never refer to myself as a copywriter outside my industry. Instead, at networking functions, I would refer to myself as ‘a writer who helps people with the words on their websites’. Otherwise, the second people hear the word ‘copywriting’ they see this symbol, ©, think ‘copyright’, and stop listening.
This was one I nearly didn’t write down, because it’s not an issue for me these days. But it used to be. Until a few years ago, when a graphic designer friend of mine sat me down and gave me a really good talking to. He told me that he gets a deposit up front, and he didn’t care if the advertising agencies around didn’t work that way. He worked that way. So now I work that way, too. Bad debts? Not any more.
What do you think of the industry in Adelaide particularly?
Because I am on page 1 of Google, and I get contacted by clients directly, I tend not to work with ad agencies much anymore so I have to say that I don’t really know. I suspect that Adelaide is still quite behind the 8-ball when it comes to the industry here. But a lot of that is the client mentality of taking months to make a decision.
I remember the 90s when ad agencies were shutting up shop in Adelaide and retreating to the eastern states. That was the time I was starting my business. Oh joy. However, based on the copywriting jobs I don’t get these days because my rates are higher than the new kids on the block, I believe that there are a lot more opportunities today to promote yourself, especially with the internet and social media. Which didn’t exist when I started out.
What advice would you give a young writer starting out now?
I didn’t have one shred of formal training for copywriting when I started out. Maybe not ideal, but the only copywriting course I knew about back then was the AADC’s Copy School and I wasn’t accepted. So I did it my way.
Get out there and get experience. An internship or work experience. Find a mentor. One of the young writers I mentored is now living and working in New York City.
Find your niche. Specialise. Write about what you love.
Be adaptable. Be prepared to do a bit of zigging and zagging to get to your destination but never lose sight of your goal. Be prepared to pay your dues but walk away if it’s stealing your soul.
And, above all, write! If you’re really a writer, you will write even if you don’t have writing work. Personally, I never intend to retire. Luckily, the good thing about being a writer is that we get better with age.