University of Oregon - Bachelor of Science in Journalism
Most people love their jobs, but Mandi Middlestetter loves her job. As a copywriter at Razorfish, a digital ad agency with offices on four continents, she spends her days dreaming up copy for some of their biggest brands, including Microsoft. When Mandi’s days end she comes home to her amazing husband, Mike, and an adorable but slightly chunky lab named Lily Mae. And I can’t forget to mention that Baby Middlestetter is on the way! A walking fashion plate, Mandi also is a shoe fiend with a collection that would make you want to raid her closet. And if all of this wasn’t impressive enough, she’s a word nut who will stop you mid-conversation if she likes a term you’ve used, a book lover who can’t be torn away from the pages of a juicy novel, a sentimental soul who believes family heirlooms make the best presents and someone so kind and caring that you instantly want to be her best friend. Trust me, I did! Mandi also believes in following your instincts — always. After all, she claims her intuition has yet to lead her astray.
It’s not unusual for me to have moments where I think, ‘Wow. I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do.’
Did you always know you wanted to become a copywriter? What drew you to this job?
No, I didn’t always know I wanted to become a copywriter, but I always knew I wanted to do something with words. Always.
By kindergarten, I was reading books reserved for second- and third-graders. Give me a book, and I was happy for two days. I absolutely lived for mom-and-daughter trips to the library every other week or so. Oh, that “old book” smell gets me every single time!
Okay, so this is actually a really dorky story, but I’m going to tell it anyway because it’s the truth: I set my heart on becoming a copywriter after I read my first Augusten Burroughs novel. I can’t remember which one specifically moved me enough to seriously consider the career, but I think it was either "Magical Thinking" or "Possible Side Effects". There was a short story or two that retold -- and, of course, glorified -- his work as a copywriter for an ad agency. And for some reason, after reading them, I thought, “A-ha! This is what I should be doing.”
The funny part is, most of Augusten Burroughs’ tales of working at a big, Madison Avenue-esque agency were less-than-flattering: the usual working with difficult creatives, ridiculous client requests, and several late nights involving too much alcohol. But still, amidst the dubious assignments and drinking, there was something that spoke to me. Or maybe it was just a sign?
Either way, that’s 100% where I credit “my spark” for wanting to move from marketing and PR into copywriting. Granted, it’s much more complicated and involved than what Augusten Burroughs portrayed, but, you know, there’s still plenty of dubious assignments and drinking going on.
What steps did you take to make your dream a reality?
The unabridged version: After graduating with my journalism degree, I finally found work at a small telecommunications company. For two years, I was a marketing coordinator, writing newsletters, press releases, and some website content here and there.
Following that gig, I went on to work at a credit union, which is pretty much the same thing as a bank (but better), as -- surprise, surprise! -- a marketing coordinator. I was doing similar things to my last job, although the emphasis was more on creating website content than, say, writing newsletters. I worked there for more than two years before finally convincing myself it was “now or never” that I make the transition.
So, roughly four years post-college, after reading a few Augusten Burroughs books and doing some asking around, I came to the conclusion that I really wanted to work for an agency. But how the heck was I going to showcase my creative talents? I mean, working for a telecommunications company and a credit union doesn’t exactly scream creative.
I did the only thing I could think of: I made my resume as creative as I could manage, and packaged it in a way that would be hard to ignore (with the help of my then-boyfriend, now-husband’s design skills). Then, I did what every person searching for a job does: I sent it out to as many agencies as I could find that were hiring, including a creative staffing agency that I didn’t know was a creative staffing agency. (To be fair, from their Craigslist posting, they sounded like a regular ad agency). But as fate would have it, this agency worked with ad agencies all over Portland, staffing them with creatives – writers, designers, art directors, etc. -- and that was where I got my lucky break.
Even though I didn’t have any agency experience, the creative staffing agency still brought me in for an interview. I hit it off with their recruiter, and left with her vowing to help me find an entry-level job at an ad agency. A few weeks later, the opportunity for an associate copywriter -- i.e., a junior copywriter -- came up at Razorfish. I interviewed a couple of times, did some freelance work to show them I was capable of actually doing the job, and then about two months later, was hired full-time.
In the course of a year, I was promoted from associate copywriter to copywriter, and that’s pretty much where I’m at today. I’ve been here three years and counting, and I don’t plan on going anywhere soon.
What is your typical day like? How does that change from week to week?
A typical day for me depends on the client-slash-account I’m working on. Basically, I get paid to write clever -- or not so clever -- headlines and supporting copy, brainstorm new and different ways to present information online, and surf the Internet. I credit the ‘surfing the Internet’ part largely to the fact that I work for a digital agency, meaning that 95% or more of our work consists of creating and building websites, online campaigns, microsites (i.e., secondary sites), and banner ads. So, you know, I’ve got to stay current on what’s out there.
I get to write pretty much every single day, but my day is punctuated by different projects. For example, I’ll spend four hours writing a slew of headlines and subheads for a specific campaign landing page, then I’ll spend a couple of hours copyediting a presentation someone else has put together for XYZ client. Then, I might finish up the day brainstorming a few different concepts for a series of banner ads. (Yes, people do actually put thought into these.) Some days I work on only one of these kinds of projects; other days I juggle multiple types. It just depends on how busy I am and how much time I’ve been given to work on a project.
Oh, and when I say I’m coming up with landing pages or banner ads, it’s not like I’m writing the copy and sketching it out on paper or in a design program. Luckily, I work almost exclusively in Word, so when I brainstorm or come up with ideas for a project, it’s always copy-driven. I’ll hand over whatever I’ve composed to a designer or an art director, and they’ll infuse their vision with my copy. But sometimes, ideas happen in the reverse, meaning that a landing page or a banner ad is already designed and I drop copy in after the fact. For the record, I tend to prefer to start with the copy, and then see if anything I’ve written inspires something in the designer or art director.
Our account roster changes regularly, so while I might work exclusively for one account for say, four months, after those four months are up, I’m then assigned to a different account or job. It’s kinda like a built-in “refresh” button for my job, which I have to admit is pretty fabulous.
All in all, I love almost everything about my job. I really do. Because I wanted to be a copywriter for quite some time before I actually became one, it’s not unusual for me to have moments where I think, “Wow. I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do.” And I feel so lucky. That doesn’t mean that it’s a totally glamorous gig or constantly full of exciting work, though -- just like any job, it has it’s ups and downs. But the biggest perk, really, is that the environment I work in is expected to be creative. After coming from two smaller, more conservative companies, it was like walking into my own little slice of heaven.
Where does your inspiration come from? What do you do when you feel like you’re in a creative rut?
Well, like any other copywriter, I totally geek out when I read or see something that’s well-written. I’ve been known to rip ads out of magazines when I see a headline or some body copy I think is genius, or even rubberneck when I’m driving because of an awesome billboard. (Sometimes, I think copywriters and ad creatives are more interested in advertising than the intended audience.)
As for getting stuck in a creative rut, oh boy -- I feel like that happens at least once a week. Typically, I turn on some music -- usually Pandora Radio -- and pick a station that gets my creative juices flowing. I Google things that I think might inspire me, like blogs, images, and product design. And this is my “kind of” secret, but I’ll search for idioms that I might be able to parlay into something else. (Thank goodness for online dictionaries!) And usually, one or all three of those things will get me going.
If all else fails, I simply walk away. Step back from the computer and give myself a chance to recharge and refresh. Writer’s block is inevitable in almost any career, and for me, the thing that always works is stopping whatever I’m writing, saving my latest work, and walking away so I can come back to whatever I’m working on with a fresh take and a clear head. Inevitably, things will come together on their own.
Who has been the biggest inspiration in your life?
You know, this is always a hard question for me. I tend to draw inspiration from people, rather than things. And they’re not really people that drive me to be super competitive, or even bigger, better versions of myself -- they’re simply people who make me want to do the right thing and just be a good person. Call me cheesy, but I think that if you have a good heart, that really will shine through in the work you do.
I think a few of my constants have been:
My Aunt Cathi. She was a raven-haired head turner with a penchant for the ocean, a passion for the arts, and a love for all animals. She wore lots of bright colors and big jewelry, made birthday cards from scratch, and painted watercolors of her family and the Oregon coast. She’s someone I wish time and again I had the chance to get to know as an adult (unfortunately, she passed away from breast cancer when I was in my early teens). But in my mind, she’s the epitome of a beautiful, creative, and impassioned woman. It’s the ultimate compliment when someone in my family tells me that I remind them of her.
My husband. Call it cliché, but I think it’s an incredible thing when the person you marry inspires you in the most unexpected ways. My husband is insanely creative and resourceful, often coming up with ideas that lead me to believe he’ll be doing something crazy big in five to 10 years. He’s my litmus test -- I know an idea is good when I bounce it by him and he reacts. Plus, he’s my go-to guy when I can’t seem to get out of a rut.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing women today?
Half of me wants to go the naïve, goody-two-shoes route and say, “Gee, I’m not sure.” But then the other half of me thinks the biggest challenge facing women today, especially in a creative field, is not being taken seriously enough.
Advertising is very much an “old boys club,” an industry dominated by male thinkers and doers for, well, decades. Exhibit A: "Mad Men". And even though it’s close to a century later, and there are all types of agencies around the world -- traditional, digital, analytical -- I would guess that this theme still resonates.
I can only speak from my personal experience, however. While I’m extremely lucky to have a boss who favors ideas, not sexes, I’m still aware that there are two to three males to every female in my office. Out of four creative directors and two executive creative directors, only one is a woman. In fact, I’m the only female writer here in Portland – there are five of us total, and every other writer is male. Part of me really digs this, because I like to think that gives me a certain edge, but the other part of me wonders, “Why am I the only one?” (For the record, I will say that all of our writers are extremely talented, and we do use freelance writers to supplement our full-time writers. But even then, only one female freelance writer comes to mind.)
Anyway, all this is to say that the advertising world still seems to be very male-centric. I’m not sure what the solution is, other than to lead by example and be good at whatever you do, regardless of gender. Also, women should fight for being taken seriously when they have a legitimate idea. I like to think that if, as a woman, you fight for and raise your voice over the right things, the important things, someone somewhere down the line is going to say, “Wait a minute. Let’s listen to what she has to say.”
What motivates you? Is there a quote you live by?
I think the thing that motivates me isn’t a real, tangible thing. It’s the feeling that, as a writer, you’ve finally written (and re-written) something that really resonates with you.
It’s the feeling that, after you’ve spent five to 10 to even 20 hours looking for the perfect way to say something, you finally find that perfect way. It’s hard to describe, but it’s definitely a feeling of satisfaction. Like you’ve scratched that word itch in just the right spot.
That feeling right there is what I try to get to every time.
What are five words that describe you?
Loyal. Trusting. Instinctual. Confident. Bookworm.
What advice do you have for other girls who want to become a copywriter?
I’m not sure I’m the ultimate authority on telling other people how they should break into the field, since I’m pretty sure my reckoning came from a book, but I can give some advice based on my experience.
1. Don’t be afraid to do something really creative, especially if you’re applying for a position in a creative field. Turn your resume into something that stands out, digital or not. Prove to your prospective employer that while you may not have much (if any) agency experience, you have the makings of a creative genius.
2. Look for creative staffing agencies in the cities where you’d like to work. If you’re open to relocating, seek out creative staffing agencies in LA, NY, and Chicago. There are even quite a few creative staffing agencies in the Pacific Northwest, like Portland and Seattle.
3. Put together a portfolio of some of your best work. Portfolios are pretty standard in the industry, but since most newcomers won’t have any agency experience, you have to do the best you can with work you’ve already done. Try fusing your portfolio with samples of your best work, but weight it equally with personal stuff. Like to write poetry? Then throw in some of your favorite poems. Have a story that relates to your desire to write? Tell that and put it in your portfolio. The more range you can show, the better.
4. If copywriting is where your heart is, look for agencies that need a junior or associate copywriter. That’s the perfect entry-level job to get your feet wet without having to start as an intern. And while you’re at it, keep your eyes peeled for non-junior or associate copywriter positions. While most agencies will want to see three to five years of experience for your average copywriter, some might only ask for one to two. And while it could be a bigger risk for the agency, if this is something you’re passionate about, the return will be in their favor.