Friday, November 13, 2015
Charlie Stephan, Vice President / Creative Director

In an effort to demystify the ad agency and its various positions, our series, “What I Do Around Here” lets different employees explain their job, in their own words. So whether you’re a client wondering what you’re paying for, or an aspiring intern wondering what you’re getting yourself into, we hope this series sheds some light on just how we do what we do.


When I used to tell people I was a copywriter, the most common response I received was, “So… jingles?” Then Mad Men came along and people just started assuming I drink bourbon at work. I’m not yet sure which is correct.


At every agency, the Account Service department determines what a brand wants to say. Its counterpart, the Creative department, figures out how to say it. I’m in the second camp — specifically, the part that deals in words.

A copywriter, art director and creative director work together to find the best way to convey a project’s key message. This is “concepting,” where we seek out the elusive Big Idea. Do we do it with humor? A visual approach? Testimonials? And what canvases do we have to work with — print, digital, TV, direct mail, radio? Our job is to make the message memorable, wherever it ends up.

As a writer, I spend about half my time in this “conceptual” mode. It’s a lot of sitting around with open notebooks trying to find ways to make things people say they don’t want — ads — into interesting pieces of content that they’ll want to consume. For each project, we come up with dozens of concepts. Then we whittle down, weed out and scrutinize until a few good ideas rise to the top. We present those ideas to our clients and work with them to select the best one. That’s when the actual work starts.


Once an idea is selected, the art directors and designers refine the visual approach. The copywriter retreats to his or her den of lukewarm coffee and Ninja Turtle action figures, where they piece together the right words for the job.

We usually start with the headlines. It might be the only thing someone reads, so it better be good. For a single print ad, dozens if not hundreds of headlines are written. We try to explore every possible way to say something to ensure that, ultimately, we find the best way.

The rest of the copy — subheads, body copy, etc. — comes next. It has to support the headline and the big idea without repeating it. It has to provide necessary detail without boring the reader. It has to be interesting, even if it’s entirely product-centric.

Sometimes people ask me what my “process” is for this. I’d love to tell you I have one, like the guy in “A Beautiful Mind” writing his equations on windows overlooking scenic courtyards. The truth is, you just write. A lot. Sometimes I’ll write 50 headlines and three pages of body copy, knowing I’ll eventually have to pare it down to one headline and a few sentences. In my experience, that level of overkill is generally necessary to find the best way to say what we want to say.

Neither the art or copy processes happen in a vacuum. Art directors and writers work closely together, constantly bouncing ideas off of each other. Sometimes art directors write great headlines and sometimes copywriters have a good idea for the design of a piece. We put all of our creative minds in a room and may the best idea win.


At Swanson Russell, every writer is actually a writer / producer. If you have to go to a high school reunion, telling people you’re a producer sounds way more impressive than copywriter. Let people assume you’re a Hollywood big shot. Nobody knows what a producer does, so you won’t get caught.

But for our purposes, a producer manages radio and TV productions. Writers put on their producer hat and contract with a production company, run the casting process, help find locations for a shoot, direct audio recording sessions and more. Broadcast projects are heavy on logistics and details, so writers — once they’re done agonizing over the script — switch gears and take the lead on ironing out those details.

Swanson Russell is rare in its combining of the writer and producer roles, but I prefer it that way. I can’t imagine handing off my project at its most critical point. I like being involved in the entire process. And I’ve learned a ton about how TV and radio are made, which is interesting in its own right. 

That’s how it’s done. Or at least, how I do it. Each writer / producer approaches their job a little differently, but the end goal is the same: finding the right way to tell each client’s story. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to write a jingle.