What my economics teacher taught about life, marketing, and copywriting

Me, at 17.

What my economics teacher taught me about life, marketing, and copywriting
(it’s not what you think!)

What was the best advice anyone gave you at 17? You know, those snippets of wisdom that shaped your thinking, setting more ideas in motion, and perhaps shaping the person you have since become. Perhaps they even influenced the job you now do, and the way you see the world. Here is my tale.

Picture the situation: I’m 17, preparing to enter university and the world of work. I’m having one of the last conversations I’ll ever have with my economics teacher. He’s one of the oldest members of staff, a great guy, and in his own way, he wants to prepare me for the future.

I went to a single-sex state grammar school with a joint sixth form, where we were taught some subjects over on the boys’ school site. As I recall, I was the only girl in our economics class, and the boys had known the teacher and each other for some years. I guess the teacher admired my mix of perseverance and nonchalance.

We got on very well on an interpersonal level, and would often chat after the lesson. We had relatively similar views on a few things, and I’m sure at one point one of us had made the observation that I was the only female student in his classroom.

Then, one day, he decided to tell me a story. Or more accurately, he tried to teach me something, and he was using the story as a medium to do it (storytelling, as it is known to copywriters).

Here’s how it goes:

My teacher told me how he’d had this gifted female student a few years back, who he’d stayed in touch with after she graduated with a first in economics from a Russell Group university (Americans: that’s kind of like Ivy League in terms of status, although without the huge fees – at least in my day). Then it came the time to apply for a job, and she was having no luck. Her peers with lower grades were getting interviews, but she was being ignored by a lot of traditional, conservative city firms. She’d sent off more than sixty CVs and not had one interview.

Then, presumably in a similar situation to our chat at that moment, he leaned in – in a sensitive way that suggests honesty and fatherliness rather than anything untoward – and gave her a tip: put a photo on your CV.

‘You see”, he says, ‘she was a stunning, photogenic woman.’ I’m sure I frowned at this point – I have a very expressive face. ‘And while she could intellectually run rings around the other male graduates,’ he said, and I remember an apprehensiveness as he continues, ‘this is still – unfortunately – a very male-led world. If she has – or indeed, if you have – such an advantage, any advantage, you need to use that advantage to level the playing field. Use it to get noticed, and your capabilities will have them hooked.’

I paused, and with a little naivety and doubt, I asked, ‘Did it work?’. ‘Yes!’, he exclaimed: ‘She sent out another 20 applications, received twelve invitations to interview, and then four job offers! She’s now a top consultant at one of the big firms in London.

Ostensibly, my teacher was telling me, as a young and relatively photogenic woman, to put my photo on my CV when applying for work. Now, this is not the norm in the UK, but it’s not frowned upon, either. With that in mind, I asked my dad to take the picture above – which I then edited to just a head shot in black and white. Not a professional job, but it certainly did something – I started with my first temp office roles that summer before university, before going on to work every summer, earning twice minimum wage, gaining useful experience in IT, marketing, and secretarial work at major firms. Recruiters and HR managers alike commented how my CV, with its clear formatting and the photo, stood out from the pile. I’d made myself memorable.

Since then, I’ve made sure my photo is relatively prominent on any website I have. People like to see who they are dealing with – it builds trust and increases conversion rates, even more so if your face is attractive or honest-looking.

My economics teacher was the first to teach me the power of human faces in marketing. But more than that, he indirectly taught me a far more useful lesson about using what we have to our advantage.

As a copywriter, often the most useful, clever, and insightful thing I can do is look at a situation – a brand, an individual, or a product – with an eye that’s simultaneously as objective and subjective as possible. For example, if I’m looking at a highly skilled entrepreneur or freelancer, it’s about seeing the qualities they don’t see in themselves, what sets them apart from their competition, and bringing these things to the fore to appeal to the kind of clients and customers who’d be interested in them.

For example, an illustrator with an exceptional portfolio needs to put that on display. But if he’s also got an honest face and a professional persona, he needs to put that somewhere prominent, too. People, especially at the leading agencies he works with, could benefit from seeing his face. Subconsciously we think, ‘Yes, I can imagine sitting down for a drink with him – he’s nice.’ And that works. That sells. People want to work with people they like.

Or take the freshly qualified nutritionist who’s taken a career jump, previously working in various fast-paced luxury industries. He might look at those very zen new-agey types and think, ‘Shit, how am I going to appeal to anyone next to her?’, but he’s overlooking how his unique life experience is in fact his USP – he’ll be able to relate to overworked city types who are teetering on burnout, who might have recently had a real health wake-up call, on a completely different level. After all, that’s basically who he is, or was, before he successfully turned his health around …

Often people don’t see what is different about them. That’s why psychologists send patients home with questionnaires for partners and family members to fill in. The outsider often sees things we ourselves miss, even more so when we’re trying to see why others (or indeed, anyone) would want to buy what we have to offer. More than that, most of us are psychologically inclined to want to fit in – which makes this an especially challenging task for solopreneurs and freelancers.

Even big brands can have similar problems, though, getting stuck in a sort of tunnel vision and unable to see what their loyal customers really love, or what former and potential customers haven’t found and are looking for elsewhere.

This is why many people choose to work with a professional copywriter. A good copywriter observes people, social interactions and behaviour almost like a hobby. We’re often quite passionate people, but also quite cynical: all that observation means we spot the tricksters at work. (Some of us may even become the tricksters, but that’s another story.)

It’s that mix of passion and cynicism that those we work with need: we’ll spot what we and others will love, and we’ll also spot what others will mistrust, hate, or potentially be offended by. If we’re a good fit, we’ll even be able to pass on our passion to everyone who reads or hears our words.

And that’s what that teacher taught me: to think objectively about who and what we are, and what we can offer, and how people will respond to us. In a broader sense, commercial writing, copywriting, branding and PR are all about the art of helping others show their best side to the world’s photographic lens.

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