MD Anna Gunning was interviewed by Creative Director Katherine Wildman for The Writing Desk Blog. Here’s what she said:

Hello Anna,

Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk Blog.

Imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say?

“Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce…

Anna Gunning, copywriter and content strategist.

Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…

Digital marketing copywriter Anna Gunning

Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)

I’m embarrassed at how many books fit that description. I have a little bookcase right next to my computer because I got too lazy to walk to the other side of the office. I’m also a huge underliner, highlighter and post-it-note applier. I don’t even think the charity shop would take business books from me.

The most dog-eared…It’s probably a toss-up between:

  • Drayton Bird, Commonsense Direct and Digital Marketing
  • Andy Maslen, Persuasive Copywriting (I just bought the second edition as well, which is how helpful I find this book)
  • Eugene Schwartz, Breakthrough Advertising
  • Michael Masterson and John Forde, Great Leads

What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?

The Wall Street Journal billion-dollar sales letter. I get hooked into the story every time I read it. The Economist management trainee aged 42 one is also great, and of the same family as the WSJ letter.

“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?

Envisioning who you’re writing to – and then staying relevant. I love the old Fairfax Cone quote:

“Good advertising is written from one person to another. When it’s aimed at millions, it rarely moves anyone.”

I don’t care what you’re writing – if it’s a sales letter, a poem, a novel, a report, a normal business email…If you forget that maxim, the reader senses it.

And I don’t mean having a buyer persona or avatar in the back of your head. I mean feeling like every word you write or type is meant for an actual person. When you read a book or an article or a tweet or an advert – you need the person to think, “That writer gets me.”

In practical terms, this means using your audience’s language, focusing on the most meaningful benefits and that sort of thing. But that all flows from knowing your audience.

If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?

Keep reading. And don’t just read books on copywriting and marketing. Read the whole newspaper (including the Sports section). Read those random trade journal e-newsletters you file but never get round to. The more knowledge you cram into your brain, the easier it is to get into the head of the person you’re writing to.

Also, get out from behind the computer. Write stuff out long-hand. Copy out sales letters. Get that muscle memory for how good copy flows.

Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?

Silence. I need to hear my voice in my head as I write. Plus, I read stuff out loud a lot, and having music or the radio leads to sensory overload.

What are your top three novels of all time – and why?

  • The Great Gatsby – There’s something about the combination of style, imagery and simplicity that gets me every time.
  • A Tale of Two Cities – I always cry at the last line: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” And the combined repetition/juxtaposition frames the book so poignantly with the famous opening line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
  • Pride and Prejudice – It’s an easy read, a feel-good story and surprises me with the laugh-out-loud bits.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?

I get particularly proud of projects where I’m able to distill lots of complex information into sharp, compelling copy.

One that always comes to mind is a campaign I did for a manufacturer years ago. There were lots of interviews, a big factory tour, lots of technical stuff to get my head around. And we ended up with 688 words of brilliant, focused copy that helped the company land a big order.

What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.

Allergy medicine. Damn you, hayfever.

Who was your teenage crush?

All my friends and I had crushes on Leonardo DiCaprio after Romeo + Juliet and Titanic.

Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?

Last year, we had a company dinner at Opus in Birmingham. Not only were there great people round the table, but my mouth is watering remembering the food. I had a red pepper soup to start that was overflowing with flavour. And scallops, which I love and are a real treat for me.

What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?

Cider, which used to be embarrassing but now has gone all artisan and popular. I’m coeliac so can’t drink beer, which means cider is my pub staple.

If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?

Australia. I’d love a private jet to go all that way, and everyone raves about the people, culture and wildlife (koalas, Great Barrier Reef, and all that).

What’s in your pockets?

Nothing, actually!

Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?

Pen and ink and keyboard and screen. I always take notes longhand with pen and paper. Then I draft with keyboard and screen.

Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your desk and recycle?)

Bernadette Jiwa’s The Story of Telling blog, Ann Handley’s fortnightly newsletter and Roy Furr’s daily email. I’ve been doing more podcasts recently. I like the Hot Copy Podcast and Radix’s Good Copy, Bad Copy. I’ve also started listening to Glenn Fisher’s new podcast, All Good Copy.

Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?

A latte in the morning, tea after that.

Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?

I like a big mug you can wrap your hands round to absorb the warmth.

What was your most adored children’s book? And character?

As a really little kid – Harold and the Purple Crayon. Such clever simplicity. I still love reading it with my kids. As an older kid – The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Check it out if you haven’t read it. It is a word-lover’s dream.

Your favourite word?

Squeamish. That single word evokes so much.

Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?

Can it be a phrase? When you hear someone say ‘Let me be clear’ it’s an immediate sign they’re going to obfuscate.

Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?

Both, depending on what day it is.

Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?

Basically, the whole of Why Can’t the English from My Fair Lady. My mum has been in love with that musical her whole life, and we watched it on stage and screen I don’t know how many times growing up. It has the cleverest lyrics of any song I’ve ever heard.

Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.

Queen – Don’t Stop Me Now. Spice Girls’ Wannabe is another.

Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?

I always get words on the page as quickly as possible. The more material I give myself to work with, the better the flow (and the better the result).

What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?

An annual report, a press release, a couple of blog posts – I have lots on the go at the moment. In the next few weeks there’s more annual report work, more blog posts, some email marketing, tone of voice development and some internal comms materials.

Can you describe the last photograph you took?

My son cheering while watching the rugby.

What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?

Learn grammar. You have to learn and understand the rules before you can break them.

What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?

An email to the local rowing club.

What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?

“Enter the product conversation already going on in your prospect’s mind.” It’s Claude Hopkins. It’s a reminder to (a) be relevant, and (b) not to get hung up on the opening – just to get stuck in. I often write best when I start in the middle, in fact.

Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?

I got really frustrated with Mad Men. I probably have to be cliched and say Peggy. I love that ‘basket full of kisses’ bit when they’re testing the lipstick and she starts to discover her copywriting mojo.

Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?

All the President’s Men is high up there. I love the intrigue and the dogged determination to unravel the Watergate mystery. It ends with the camera on a typewriter as an unseen person keys in headlines about Nixon’s resignation and the fall of his collaborators. I think it’s such a powerful ending.

Also, In the Loop. We say “difficult, difficult, lemon difficult” all the time at home.

Which book or books is/are by your bed today?

The D&AD Copy Book. I’m working my way through it. Plus, it’s so big it’s a good alarm clock stand. Also, Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday.

Who was or is your greatest teacher?

They were a team when I was 14 – Mr Doud and Mrs Berardi. Mr Doud taught world history and Mrs Berardi taught English. I still remember so much of what I learned that year.

Who is your favourite artist?

At the moment, my favourite is Alexander Edwards, AKA Brumhaus. I have 2 framed prints – one in the office and one at home in my kitchen. He does beautiful, geometric pictures of Birmingham.

Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens?

At a desk in an office.


And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?

I’m @agunning on Twitter.

Thanks to Katherine for the feature. This interview originally appeared here.