Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk Blog.
Now, 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…
Mel Henson, specialist in sales-boosting copy for multichannel retail
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…
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…)
A hardback copy of Commonsense Direct Marketing by Drayton Bird – one of the early editions, signed by Drayton, when I worked with him at Ogilvy. It’s a fairly slim volume, not like the huge doorsteps that later editions became.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
Benson & Hedges Gold, back in the days when you could advertise cigarettes. At the time, new, tougher regulations had just come in which meant you could no longer have long copy on cigarette ads.
It was supposed to be a restriction but in fact had the opposite effect, creative by producing some stunning photographic images. I was at school at the time, but I thought they were amazing and cut them out and put them on my wall. I guess I’ve always been drawn to the ad industry, but it’s ironic because now I wouldn’t consider working on a cigarette account.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
Write for one person. On TV and radio, the best broadcasters make each listener feel like they’re having a private one-to-one conversation. The best writers do the same.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
Lighten up. How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
Mainly silence, but if I really need to crack on with something, then Mozart piano concertos. Scientists have measured people’s brainwaves found it has an effect on creativity that is completely different from any other type of noise. It certainly works for me. After just a few bars, I’m totally in the zone, writing effortlessly and time stands still.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
A client launched a new type of baby changing mat with a harness to stop the infant rolling off and getting hurt. I wrote a headline “No bumps-a-daisy after a whoopsie”. I liked that it was the language of the nursery, and unusual so it drew you in but wasn’t just clever for the sake of being clever. It fully told the story and expressed the benefit.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for search engines (those spiders have no sense of humour!!!). For longevity I’m proud that some of my lines for Donald Russell are still being used twenty years later, including Real Food, Real Flavour, Every Day and ‘You’ve never tasted better’.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
A gift box of Kiehl’s facial products for my son for Christmas. These millennial boys really care about their skin.
Who was your teenage crush?
Way, waaaaay too embarrassing to reveal.
Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
A walnut tart in a little town in France called Sarlat. They grow a lot of walnuts in the area and this was from a stall at the annual walnut festival in the town square. The sun was shining and the taste was magical.
What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?
I’m loving all the new launches of different gins and mixers. Currently trying to decide which is the perfect combination. Cucumber, Hendricks and Fevertree? Ciroc with Fentimans Rose Lemonade? Hmmmm, think I need to taste a few more before I can give an opinion.
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?
Whatever David suggests. If you have an expert on your team, then make the most of it.
What’s in your pockets?
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
Keyboard – I can type so much faster than I write. And read it afterwards too because my handwriting’s terrible. But if I’m on a tube or train, I prefer pen and paper, then type it up later. I’m surprised how often the change gives me some fresh ideas.
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?)
Drayton Bird. Andy Bounds, Behave! (from OgilvyChange), Ted talks…. I’m not very organised about it, just whatever looks interesting.
Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?
Tea. By the gallon.
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
Current favourite mug is one a friend bought me when we visited Nantucket in 2014. I remember the year because it has the date on it. When we were there, one of our group lost her Cartier watch in the sand. We went back to the beach without much hope, because it was just a huge stretch of sand. By a total fluke, we managed to find the exact spot by a little heap of shells I’d collected earlier that day
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
Timmy in any of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books. I devoured every one in our local library.
Your favourite word?
Organoleptic. I first came across it when I worked on Carte D’Or ice cream. I thought it was wonderful to have a word that combined the senses of both taste and feel in the mouth, and the word itself is so satisfying to say.
A close second is ‘mafted’ which my Yorkshire grandmother used to say. So much more evocative than saying “I’m exhausted by the heat”.
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?
Advised. As in ‘Please be advised….’ when what they really mean is ‘Please note…’ , ‘Please remember…’, ‘ Please be aware…’.
Railway companies are particularly bad at this, with horrible announcements like ‘Customers are advised to take all their belongings with them when leaving the train’, when what they mean is “Customers are requested to take etc”, and what they should really say is ‘Please remember to take all your belongings with you when you leave the train’.
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
All that is now
All that is gone
All that’s to come
and everything under
the sun is in tune
It’s from Eclipse by Pink Floyd which was played at the finale of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony while fireworks exploded all around. I was singing at the top of my voice, completely drowned out by thousands of others in the stadium doing the same. It still gives me goosebumps to think about it.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
Mr Blue Sky by Electric Light Orchestra. Always on our playlist at Ascot… lots of great memories dancing in the car park after the last race.
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
No, but thanks for asking.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
This morning I finished a 16-page catalogue for what are euphemistically called ‘Independent Living Aids’ – things like incontinence pads and slippers for swollen feet.
It may sound a little odd, but I really enjoy those kinds of products, because you have some proper functional benefits to convey, but it’s also very emotional and delicate.
Getting that balance right is really interesting. Print (or offline media as we say nowadays) is also challenging because space is tight and the word count has to be spot on.
Then I’ll be looking at a wireframe for a new web page for a ferry company. Analytics and research have pinpointed a particular point in the customer journey where people drop out. We’re investigating why and trying to address the problems. It’s very finickity. I may spend 15 minutes changing just five words. Everything is split tested, so we always find out what really works.
Can you describe the last photograph you took?
A photograph of a faulty loft hatch catch to send to a handyman. The roof is being re-done, and we have no tiles, so the wind keeps howling into the attic and blowing the hatch door down – along with rubble from the retiling work. Ah, the glamorous life of a copywriter.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
I hope I never stop changing. Last year I read ‘The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth and it really made me think about rhythm and flow.
Years ago the novel ‘A Widow for One Year’ had a huge influence, because it’s all about writers and writing.
But if I had to give you one quote it would be ‘Put your best strawberry on top of the basket’” by Lord Beaverbrook.
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
A birthday card to my amazing daughter.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
“Writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
Oh, Don D of course. Who else?
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
No, because I use it as a banking password,
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
Turtles All the Way Down, the new novel by John Green. I loved his bestseller The Fault in our Stars, but didn’t know all the other amazing things he’s done, like his History Crash Course videos for Khan Academy. He makes a vlog a week with his brother Hank which has millions of followers. Little wonder he was named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine.
Who is your favourite artist?
Picasso. It’s such a cliché to cite Picasso, but his paintings set off fireworks in my head in the way that no other artist does. It’s like he’s there with you saying, ‘You can do anything’.
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?
And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?
Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mel-Henson/e/B004WF4C4O