What does it take to be a Copywriter? What details are involved in the everydayness of pursuing the creative work-life, while balancing all the aspects of your life?
I remember when I first graduated from the University, I wanted to be a Copywriter at an Advertising Agency so much that it became my soul’s purpose. Eventually, when I got the chance to, it wasn’t I wanted it anymore.
Tobi Beckley Williams is a woman who walked the path true and through and is still walking the path. She’s worked in Nigeria’s advertising industry and has shaped a lot of the brands and writing we see today. She is currently the Lead Copywriter at Insight Communications and has led teams across various Advertising Agencies, she is one of our favorite mentors and a badass creative!
In this interview and conversation, you’ll see a mix of her experience as a Copywriter, advice to young creatives, candid truth about balancing her life as a woman and her career and interesting anecdotes.
The interview itself is a cocktail of straight-talk conversations, thinking aloud, Q&A, plus sneak peek into Ads that Tobi has produced/worked on.
Ladies and male allies, meet Tobi Beckley Williams
Starting out as a Copywriter.
Tobi Beckley Williams: I actually studied Law, but after I graduated I wanted to pursue a different path. So I took an advertising class at Pan Atlantic University, it was called Pan African University back then. One of my lecturers, Ita Uzaife, took to me, felt that I was really good and encouraged me. She felt strongly that I should take it up and pursue a career in Advertising, so she gave me the ABC tips for Advertising and Copywriting.
She, therefore, encouraged me to go and see Lanre Adisa of Noah’s Ark. At that time Noah’s Ark was just starting up and so I left my Law job and snuck out one day to go see Lanre Adisa of Noah’s Ark.
I got there and interestingly found that he was very welcoming. He took me in and showed me the ropes, even during my Law school period, he allowed me to come and intern at Noah’s Ark. So while I was going for my law classes I would also stop as Noah’s Ark once in a while to see what was going on, intern, and learn the ABC of advertising. And that was how I started and I enamored by it.
However as a beginner, I was really afraid because I was just starting and you know how it is initially, they don’t want to trust you with briefs. I also always questioned if I was good enough or if they would retain me. I had those worries and so much more. It all boiled down to fighting your way through for that one brief.
The first thing they ever trusted me with was Hypo. I started working on Hypo and that was how my confidence began to grow. I got the first brief, second brief, the third one and that was how I started growing. Some of my senior colleagues were ready to help me, they mentored me a lot.
Of course, not every senior colleague is willing to help. This shouldn’t deter you as a young person, my experience struggling at the beginning has made me open with younger people because I remember what it felt like. This is why a lot of younger people find me open and warm to reach out to. So when I see them struggle I still remember that I went through this a lot.
I remember back then I would be driving home and be extremely worried, wondering if they were going to fire me or replace me. I worried that I would not be retained, plus so many anxieties then.
One thing that I realized as I got my footing was that nobody’s going to hand it over to you and nobody is waiting for you to do anything else, so you have to prove your worth. You’re going to have to fight your way through.
Another major thing I had to overcome in the early days was my inhibition when it came to meetings. I noticed that when they were going for major meetings in the agency, even though I had found my footing, I was not getting called into these major meetings. Then one day one of my mentors (Yemi Arawore) spoke to me and said: “you know I think you need to start inviting yourself to these meetings, you need to show up at these meetings”. I was shocked and was asking what if I get bounced and he said “just tell them that you are here to learn. If they ask you what are you doing here, that this meeting is not for you. Just tell them that you are here to learn because if you keep waiting for that invite to come from them it might never come”
And so that’s what I did – for those major boardroom meetings and all the major client meetings I started finding my way to get into them. Initially, I got a lot of stares that people would look at me and wonder “what are you doing here” but after a while, it balanced out. I remember my mentor said to me “the first two meetings you go for just keep quiet and learn the ropes, but after that, you need to start giving opinions and give sensible opinions. The only way you can give sensible opinions is by making sure that you have done your homework. Read or watch a lot of international ads and tell them that you stand to be corrected”. So this was what I did, after a while some of my bosses started to request that I be in meetings. They’d wonder why I was not at a meeting and then ask that I be brought to the meeting.
After a while, I started going for pitches. I remember this particular pitch that I went for that I was told that to presented and I had a serious major fear of presenting at that time. My seniors encouraged me and told me that they would be there with me even if I forgot anything and they would then help me. This is something that seniors in the industry should learn to do – help bring up the younger ones that are coming up.
I keep talking about Noah’s Ark because that was where I spent the first four years of my career. It was the birthing point for me. We were young, we were growing and we had our eyes set on getting a lot of international recognition. So we did a lot of work, we looked at a lot of things are happening internationally. We had eyes set on making sure that our Ads were the standard, and it worked, people started to notice I remember the first time I saw my name on Lurzer’s archive as a top writer, I was so ecstatic.
We often get a lot of questions about getting started in the industry. Often times, people are overwhelmed by their own lack of knowledge. For people who want to be Copywriters, what should they do?
Tobi Beckley Williams: The first thing you need to do is to be very brutal with your work, and that’s very difficult when you are young because you’re still very emotional about your work and you’ve not yet mastered your emotions. For example, when you write a script, you want to take a look at it again and be brutal enough to say to yourself that this script is not working.
A lot of younger ones in the first agency I worked at – Noah’s Ark, didn’t like coming to me with their scripts because they were still very emotional about their work. You need to be brutal, you need to master your craft and by mastering your craft I don’t mean that I’m expecting you to be perfect, but I’m expecting to see that spark, that different thinking. I want to see that you’re not following the bandwagon. Usually, what I find is that a lot of people follow the bandwagon, especially your Nigerian radio Ads. You know the really basic Ads that you keep hearing on the radio – somebody tells the other person about the product and that other person starts running to go buy the product…so basic.
So if you’re going to be a good copywriter you need to look at the things that you have in your house presently your meal or your cereal or the TV – everything that you have, that you see around you and start to write scripts for them, write Ads for them. You think differently as you write. Look at the cereal that you are eating and write Ads that you want to see. Also, make sure that you put your thoughts on Facebook, make sure that you are sharing the things you’ve done on social media.
Never give up on creating and sharing even if the seniors in the Advertising Industry think your work isn’t up to par (because sometimes we assume people should just automatically be on our level of thinking, forgetting that we started somewhere too)
The very first script I wrote for Hypo, I think the floor became a mirror because it was so clean that the woman was doing her makeup while looking at the floor.
I remember when I met Lanre Adisa, he asked me what my favorite Ads were, Nigerian and Internationally. He also asked me about my favorite brands, then he said I should go back and write Ads on those brands and come back. I kept doing that over and over.
So, it’s very critical for whoever wants to be a Copywriter to start like that, thinking like that and practicing like that.
Growing as a Creative.
These are very crucial tips for starting out and I just want to hover on a point you touched, 2 points actually – embracing being criticized and embarrassed as a Creative and a Copywriter and the part where you said the older ones need to give the upcoming younger creatives a chance to grow. How do we solve these? How do you balance these two as a young creative?
Tobi Beckley Williams: The thing is, the day you start to see the older, more experienced creatives as human beings too just like you. Human beings with their frailties and insecurities, you’ll stop to fidget so much around them – you’ll start to realize that even they aren’t 100% sure of all the Ads that they put out.
I was working on a couple of scripts yesterday, last night I thought they were really good, but when I woke up this morning I was embarrassed by my work. So, I killed them myself and I learned early to kill my ideas when I see that they are not working.
For the younger ones, it’s nice if you have a mentor, some people are lucky. I was lucky I had someone like Yemi Arawore, who was putting me through. I’ll share a shocking story – there was a time we had a major pitch to shoot some of the Barcelona players, and the client picked my script upon presentation over my Mentor’s script and he didn’t stop me. He was so happy and excited saying “that means I taught you well”. I was so surprised! When it was time to travel, he fought for me making sure that I went. If you are lucky and privileged enough to find/have bosses who are like that, it’s amazing.
So, yes the younger ones will face a lot of challenges and they have to brace up. You have to be dogged, the top shots that you see today, they got there by not giving up. You have to keep presenting your scripts, some of the critics will be nasty. A former group head told me back then, “do you think you will make it in this industry? do you think you have the talent at all?” I remember I told him trembling internally but putting up a front “I’m not going to answer that, because it is biased.”
See the thing is, you can’t grow while cowering or going into a shell. Creative people tend to withdraw into their shell – you are creating all by yourself, from your computer. If you do that, refuse to go for meetings, keep hiding, promotions will start flying over your head, nobody will notice you. I speak from experience. You need to be bold enough to step up, go for those meetings, go for those presentations, sit in front of those clients – the tough ones, the nice ones, the loony ones – because that’s the only way you’re going to build a brand for yourself. If you don’t show up, if you don’t engage, nobody will know that you are doing the work. You don’t want to be the guy who has no radar of what is going on in the office. You need to position yourself at every opportunity.
You started at Noah’s Ark and now you’re at Insight. How did you move through your career path? How did you steer your way through to this point?
Tobi Beckley Williams: After about 4 years as a Copywriter at Noah’s Ark, I moved from there to Insight. And then I moved from Insight to 141, from 141 I worked with Prima Garnett as a Copywriter and I worked with Ladybird as a Consultant, not full time. Mrs. Bunmi Oke was the COO at 141 at that time and she needed a Creative Strategist that would work as a Consultant.
And I must say that experience helped me when you work with the big Agencies, sometimes its also nice to gain experience working with the smaller ones. Because with the smaller agencies you get your hands in almost every single thing, you should be able to go high or go low per time for your career whatever that means to you – to abase and abound.
At that time, what it meant for me as a woman was that I needed more time for my kid and this job was flexible enough for me, so I took it and I was happy.
It is not so easy for females in the industry – getting pregnant you’ll need to take some time off and you’ll battle with the fear that it may affect your career. Some agencies will bluntly tell you they don’t hire women. So many funny things going on. But at the end of the day, you need to know what your priorities are, every single time of your life.
Anyway from 141 (Prima Garnett, Ladybird) I moved and came back to Insight and that’s where I am now. I’m a Lead Writer at Insight currently.
One major thing that I have learned is this – its not about working for big brands, its about becoming a brand yourself, such that when you move to a new place, its a brand meeting another brand and it becomes an interesting case of “Tobi has moved to Insight, that means great things will come out of there.” It’s not enough to hide under a big brand name and refuse to step out of your comfort zone, you to build your personal brand.
When you worked at Prima Garnett and Ladybird, your role was that of a Creative Consultant. What was that like?
Tobi Beckley Williams: It was awesome, I won’t lie to you. At that time I had just had a new baby and I needed time to juggle everything.
I walked up to the CEO of the company, Lolu Akinwumni and I explained my situation to him and he was really helpful. He gave me flexible hours, as long as my work gets done. One thing I must say for women and younger ones in the industry is, don’t mess up. Don’t use female issues as an excuse to mess up your work – every time I show up, I show up, I come correct, because you already have so many biases against you. So, when you come in, come in with your brain fully charged and up to par.
I remember one day I came into the office with my son and my nanny, and Lolu Akinwunmi gave me the office of their former Creative Director to put my baby and nanny while working. Some of my colleagues saw me and said “this woman, you are strong” but I honestly didn’t see it as being strong, I saw it as a matter of survival. I had a lot of things to do and I had to get them done. So when I showed up, I got things done and people knew me for that because the thing is some guys were sleeping in the office to get work done, and I was going home every day to my baby, to breastfeed while the briefs are there with work that needs to be done. It sometimes feels like everything is working against you, but you won’t say I am a woman when you want to collect a salary, you’ll collect your salary.
For me, when I was breastfeeding in the middle of the night, I would also sketch out ideas, write scripts and multitask. For any woman out there, young female creative, if you want to make it in this industry, you’ve got to work double hard.
For you as a Copywriter and in your own life personally, how do you define Creativity?
Tobi Beckley Williams: For me, I always look for ‘different’. I’m not quick to put down the work of the younger ones in the industry. Amid all the things you consider jargon, you’ll be surprised to find that one line that conveys what they are trying to say. It’s always about being different, I look at a work and I see what’s different. It has to be weird (with an objective), it has to be different. You don’t go on a tangent of being weird, just for the sake of being weird.
Be different, but still go in line with the strategies, in line with the target audience. You must have your creative strategy – what is the strategy you feel will be the best to get the attention of the target audience.
What does every day look like for you as the Lead Writer?
Tobi Beckley Williams: On paper, I’m supposed to help the young copywriters shape their work. In addition to that, I am responsible for a couple of brands, so I make sure that their work is done. When we have major pitches and those briefs are sent to me, I handle them.
On the challenges that Women face.
Tobi Beckley Williams: Mahn! They are many.
One of the things I struggled with was taking time off to give birth. I put myself under this anxiety that the whole world was moving ahead and it seemed like I was stagnant. I remember the first time I saw that some of my friends had become Creative Directors in Agencies and even though I was happy for them, I was worried that I was on bed rest while the industry and my mates were moving ahead.
They are men and they don’t have those hindrances, some of them can just pack their bags and say they are going for a 2-year course. For me, most of my courses have to be short, I have to be back on time, max, 6 months because I have a lot to deal with.
To be honest, we women have a lot to deal with. I’m sure men have their issues, but I’m not a man so I can’t speak for them. Men are lucky in a lot of regards, but that doesn’t stop us from being and putting our work in.
You pointed out something that is so significant – on how working with a smaller agency makes you see all the parts that come together to make the agency run as a whole because you’ll have your fingers in different pies. This makes me think about what people say about Creatives not being good business people. What has been your experience in this regard?
Tobi Beckley Williams: To be honest, it is true, Creatives struggle when it comes to business – you’ll find that a lot of Creatives don’t even want to go for meetings. They want to be behind their systems. I can assure you that 90% of the Creatives we have want to just stay in the office, in front of their screens and not go out.
Then how will you own and run a business if you don’t go out? The major thing about owning businesses is networking, people won’t come to you because you have a fantastic building. No, people will follow you when they trust you when they’ve related to you and they know that their work will get done. If they have that kind of relationship with you, they will give you their #50 and that will increase to 1Million over time. Yes, we all know a lot of other things go into running a business but this is the first and major obstacle for creatives. It’s not easy, but you have to put off your arrogance, your introversion.
I learned a lot about managing clients from Bunmi Oke, knowing how to relate with clients. There were many things I thought I knew, but working with her turned what I knew upside down. She taught me that when making presentations, you have to be detailed and you have to make it dumb-proof, don’t assume that they know all the details of Advertising. Explain the concept and mindset behind the idea. She understands the business side of Advertising.
I had a ride with her recently and I asked her how she grew as a Woman in the industry to being AAAN president. She said “as a woman, there’s already a bias to fight against, you need to get all the qualifications needed to not be disqualified for the positions and places you want to get to. So that when they are looking for certain people to fill some roles, you would be qualified. She got all the qualifications she needed. The second thing is that you don’t shut up.” She said for her because she was not a club/party person, she went for meetings like Wimbiz, etc. That was what worked for her.
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Asides from work, what does the day typically look like for you, family and all?
Tobi Beckley Williams: I usually sleep at 12.00 am and I get up at 4.00 am to help with getting the kids ready for the day – I have two sons. My husband takes charge of the first, I take charge of the second and we all work together to get ourselves out of the house for the day. Once we get out of the house, I take a long walk first, before hailing a ride to the office and the hustle begins.
You can’t really predict when you close at Ad agencies, depends on how the work flows during the day. Sometimes you close early and sometimes you don’t. And then you are back to shopping for the family and wondering if you are a good enough mom because you are working late into the night.
You are constantly trying to balance being a good mother with being good at your career, and being a good wife. It’s a lot.
To immerse yourself in more Copywriting works by Tobi Beckley Williams, check out her Behance page.
Gbemi Lolade Adekanmbi is the cultivator of For Creative Girls. She is a firm believer in the fact that there is no division between the ability for science and the ability for Art. Her goal is to cultivate this ability with as many people as possible and make creatives a living, breathing part of how the world, organisations, and societies run.