Roseanna Donovan has won many national and international awards, worked at senior creative levels for multinational advertising agencies in Toronto, London, Paris, Sydney and Melbourne, and ran her own successful advertising agency in Sydney from 1989 to 2004. She now freelances for her own clients, and teaches at UTS Sydney and The Communication Council’s Adschool.
1. What lead led you to a career in copywriting?
When I started in advertising, the only roles for women were as secretaries. In just such a humble capacity I saw copy that I thought wasn’t all that good so in the process of typing it, I ‘fixed’ it. Of course that led to my being fired but by then I was determined to use my writing skills in what seemed like a truly exciting, ‘Mad Men’ world. I’d heard that women were working in the creative departments of agencies in North America and the U.K. so I left Australia and headed to Canada, then on to London. I took any job in any agency that would allow me to work in the creative department and absorbed every bit of knowledge I could. Eventually I got my first real chance as a writer in one of London’s major agencies that allowed me to learn on the job and even sent me to Paris to work. I was hooked. After returning to Sydney I worked my way up in the big agencies before setting up my own agency in 1989. Our positioning as an all-women agency was focused on the positive portrayal of women in the media; a courageous step in a profession that was, and still is, dominated by men. However, we attracted a seriously blue-chip list of clients and were successful in winning awards and recognition internationally and nationally. We paid ourselves a pittance and ran the business on the proverbial smell of an oily rag but we had great fun and worked with some wonderful clients. I was very sad when my business and creative partner decided to retire in 2004. Since then I’ve been working as a freelance copy writer as well as teaching copy writing and running workshops for the likes of Fairfax Media, Foxtel’s XYZ Network, TV New Zealand, BBC Worldwide and The Communication Council’s “Adschool”. I have won some prestigious national and international awards in this time: an unexpected and gratifying achievement and a poke in the eye for all those agencies in Australia who won’t employ creative people over the age of 30, much less 40, 50 or 60.
2. In addition to copywriting, you’ve authored a creative non-fiction book. What parallels did you discover between the two writing processes?
Well, I’ve actually written three books: A biography of textile magnate Joseph Gazal, a History of ceramics in the Middle East (both commissioned) and my own ‘creative non-fiction’ book. The parallels with the first two lie in the need for extensive research and a profound understanding of the audience. Both have deadlines and budget constraints that shape the outcomes and the speed at which you have to work. It’s only when you turn the microscope onto yourself and your own life that you find a lack of commercial constraint can be both liberating and terrifying. In fact, when there are no limits in any direction, you can become creatively paralysed. I’m still wrestling with that demon. As David Ogilvy once remarked, “give me the freedom of a tight brief”.
3. Is there an achievement you’re particularly proud of in your copywriting career?
A great success story? Oh, many! To have survived and achieved in such a male-dominated profession, to have set up Australia’s first all-women advertising agency and run it successfully for 15 years, to have won awards, to have earned the respect of my peers, to have kept on keeping on in a profession that is notoriously tough, to have worked with some of the most talented creative people in the world. It’s quite a list. Strangely, though, it’s the teaching that I’ve come to love and enjoy in recent years. Seeing and engaging raw talent and pointing the way to an appreciation of great writing and writing for a living is an extraordinary thrill. Unexpectedly, surprisingly rewarding. Meanwhile, I just have to finish that damned book, or try something new. That’s the joy of cutting your teeth by writing in the toughest commercial environment there is: you know there are always more ideas where that one came from and you’ve proved it.
Learn how to copywrite like a pro with Roseanna in Introduction to Copywriting, Saturday 27 August 10am-4pm at the NSW Writers’ Centre.