15 years, still dreaming
In 2009, our founder Rob Self-Pierson became a freelance writer. He had little experience and no network. Fifteen years later, Rob’s worked with some of the world’s most recognisable brands, published three books, and spoken at language events around the globe. We asked Rob to reflect on his 'dream life' in writing, and to share what he's learned.
I went freelance as a copywriter at the age of 24. Shockingly, I’ve just turned 39. Where on earth did those 15 years go?
I’ll tell you where – in trying to up my writing game every day, searching for clients, winning projects, losing clients and projects, standing up for brand language, falling in love with design, starting a studio, running a studio, getting into legal hot water with that studio and quickly rebranding that studio.
Being thrilled by every creative moment of some jobs and wishing for a handful to end, drinking wine with founders and directors and beer with call centre staff, flying to Malta to train, getting the train to Slough to be told off, creating a brilliant workshop with a smart man and taking it around Australia, hearing advice I still follow today, sharing advice I hope serves others just as well.
In making mistakes, editing others’ mistakes, mentoring young writers, being mentored, dealing with loss and heartbreak while trying to earn a living, having crushes on colleagues and clients, invoicing, paying VAT, almost losing everything, learning when to let go, studying courses in faraway places, becoming aware, reading about writing and life, making best friends, creating ways to motivate myself during the high highs and low lows, struggling and thriving, doubting and winning, and trying to learn to simply be.
While, with any spare hour I could find, writing travel memoirs, magazine articles, brand language books, short stories, poetry, scripts and anything else that sounded like a challenge.
I’ve learned lots since that day in 2009 I gave up a job that was making me doubt myself to try a thing called ‘freelance’. Plenty about the craft of writing. But more about the ups, downs, gentle lefts and violent rights of turning a love of language into a career. Here’s what comes to mind today as I sit down to write:
It pays to be nice
You need to think well and write well to make a living from writing. To sustain that living, you need to be nice to people. Not judge those who don’t write as well as you. Nor blame others if things go wrong. Early on, I heard a project manager say, ‘stupid client doesn’t get it’. I soon learned it was rarely the client’s fault. Being nice wins projects, eases tensions, and grows relationships that last.
You’re never too young to learn
Once, a successful creative director, who an industry legend had asked to mentor me, took me to one side. ‘Rob. Pin your ears back.’ Young Rob was being obnoxious, confusing enthusiasm for talent. That day, he learned it was ok to not know stuff. Fifteen years later, I love the excitement of realising how much I stand to learn from a project. My ears remain pinned. My ego sits quietly in the corner.
White labels are for folders, not writers
You learn a lot of new language when you start running your own business. Within a couple of years of being freelance, I discovered I hated being ‘white-labelled’. It got tiresome working with agencies who wouldn’t credit me, or their other freelance writers, for our work – even if writing wasn’t something they publicised. Writing is a craft, and can be hard work. Writers deserve recognition.
Going it alone takes certain personal skills
Over the years, I’ve assembled and joined teams to get that buzz of collaboration I know sparks me. But I’ve always returned to being me. I like the solo life, but it can be hard – especially when ideas don’t come, or writing won’t flow. You need to be your motivator, editor, deadline-setter and milestone-marker. Discipline is critical. So is the ability to see when you’re down and gee yourself up.
Everyone’s feedback has a level of merit
Some of the most valuable feedback I get comes from people who’d never call themselves a writer – designers, illustrators, strategists, my mum. I once read we engage two different parts of our brain when we use words: a writing part and reading part. When you’re writing, it’s impossible to be a critical reader too. That’s why writers must invite feedback – and treat all views as worthy of your time.
Writing for a living is often its own reward
I’ve travelled the world thanks to my writing career, for meetings and workshops. Writing has introduced me to the most fascinating people. Writing has developed my personal skills as I’ve understood my role in the world. And writing has taught me about awareness, humility and compassion. As a writer, these rewards come to you – if you remain open to them. The writing life really can be a dream.
Inspiration is all around us
The blank page can strike at any moment. We have little control over that. What we can control is how we define inspiration, and where we go looking for it. I used to think I needed starry nights or mountain views to feel inspired. I was wrong. Inspiration exists all around us, always. It’s in the everyday stuff of life. With experience comes the ability to refocus your eyes, and reframe all you see.
You need a thick skin (but soft belly)
Thickening your skin takes time, but you’ll need to in this business. Most days, you’re inviting people you hardly know to tell you what’s wrong with the thing you’ve worked so hard to get right. When they do, you need to thank them and often edit that work – whether you agree with their verdict or not. The thick skin stops criticism from hurting you. The soft belly keeps your writing good and true.
Great strategy can inspire great writing
When I started, emerging writers called themselves ‘copywriters’. Today, many say ‘writer/strategist’. I’ve been lucky to work with great strategists, who dedicate their career to thinking clearly, defining a strategic approach to business and brand, and guiding clients. From each, I picked up skills to improve my own approach to brand language. Great strategy can inspire great writing, and vice versa. But they shouldn't be confused.
Nothing is so urgent it should compromise quality
Any time I’ve rushed a piece of work, it’s been worse than if I’d spent the time required to do it well. That’s stating the obvious but worth keeping in mind when responding to unrealistic briefs. As a young copywriter, I rushed too much writing. Today, I have lots of honest conversations with clients, discussing timings and budgets. I work hard to guide expectations. Or I say sorry that I can’t help.
I have an eye for design, but the wrong hands
Back in 2009, when I didn’t know any designers, I did a lot of design. I created logos, produced marketing materials, designed business cards, built websites. I think I mistook my love of art and design for a visual craft. Today, I love commissioning designers to design for me. I’ve learned where my talent and my limits are, as well as the thrill of collaborating with exceptional people.
Personal projects focus your skills
Lean times are part of being self-employed. When they come, you can hang out with Doubt and Fear, or try a personal project. When I started, I had little paid work – so I co-created 26 Treasures. When my studio struggled to win new clients, I wrote Moonwalking. When the pandemic came, I drafted the A-Z of better brand language. Each project kept me sharp, and reminded me why words matter.
If nobody wants to do it with you, do it yourself
No creative agency wanted me in 2009. No publisher wanted to publish Moonwalking. No creative director wanted to launch a new studio with me. So I did each myself. At least once a year for 15 years now, I’ve written and produced things that felt right. Often just because. Some ideas have soared, others plummeted. I’ve learned something about my character with each attempt.
Working hard is essential, burnout isn’t
Early on, I felt heroic working until my eyes begged me to go to bed. I said yes to every meeting, every project. I worked weekends and evenings and holidays. It thrilled me – until it almost killed me. No amount of sleep could cure my fatigue when I burned out. Nobody’s positive motivation could make me want to write. Since burning out over a decade ago, I’ve learned when to touch the brakes.
Brand language has the biggest heart
I’ve met so few rotters in the last 15 years, and been part of so few horrid projects. Instead, through organisations like 26 and Dark Angels, I’ve met properly good folk who not only collaborate with me, but who I meet for drinks and meals, invite to celebrations, go on holidays with. People who sprinkle a little happiness over my writing days. I’m lucky to work with humanity’s finest.
Thanks, Rob. A dream life indeed. Much learned, and many friends made. And with new TBLS projects soon to start, here’s to the next 15 years. We’re excited to see where it leads us.
Check out Rob’s own website for more of his story.