We love the opportunity to get to know our DA friends better, so were happy to get the chance to speak with Designworks Sam O’Flaherty about his career, language as design, favourite (and least favourite) turns of phrase, the power of messaging, work that he is proud of and ‘being a chameleon without becoming invisible’.
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Kia ora Sam, can you tell us about your career background and what lead you toward Copywriting?
I’ve always written. Odd doggerel as a kid, awful emotional ramblings as a teen, and hopefully more thoughtful scribbles and scratchings since then.
I always figured, or assumed, writing would play some part in my career – whatever that turned out to be. It took a fair bit of wandering, but eventually I settled on copywriting. I think I was attracted by the promised balance of creativity and logic and language. Three of my four favourite things.
It wasn’t until I got to London that I actually started copywriting for a living. My first gig involved punching out copy for car and clothing websites. That’s why I know what a gusset is and can still describe the 2013 Kia Cerato in incredible detail.
Thankfully, before I lost my mind, I was picked up by a copywriting agency. Basically, we were contract copywriters, hired by design and advertising agencies to handle their more dedicated word work. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was working with some pretty impressive people in these industries.
I learned loads and I loved it. And then I came back to NZ, where I got a job in marketing.
I quit after two days and came to Designworks.
What does a typical work day involve for you?
It sounds rather shit and totally clichéd, but I like that a ‘typical’ doesn’t really exist for me. Sometimes I write about ideas, sometimes scripts, sometimes stories, sometimes straplines.
And sometimes I don’t write anything at all. I just sit around with designers and strategists and, like, get creative, you know?
Seriously though, I do enjoy and appreciate working in a place and with people where writing is a part of the design process. Where it’s not just about filling in a text frame at the end of the project, but working alongside everyone on everything from idea to activation.
Because language is design, too. It’s how we create and articulate ideas. It’s important not just for describing them – but for standing up for them. Words are all at once the catalyst and the constant and the finishing touch.
Do you have a favourite turn of phrase or piece of copy?
It’s a doggy-dogg-world.
Some old guy once wrote “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” I like this because I think the value of simplicity is often underappreciated – as is what it takes to achieve it.
I do have a least favourite turn of phrase: “That’s just semantics.” I don’t think semantics is something that should be trivialised. Meaning is always important. Interpretation is too.
Can you give an example of where Designworks has delivered an unexpected return on investment for your client?
It would have to be Tiaki – Care for New Zealand.
What was initially briefed as a campaign to promote safe and conscientious tourism quickly gained momentum as a movement, and eventually became a brand all of its own. I think we hit 490 international media stories and $12.6 million in equivalent advertising value within the first two months – without spending a cent on media or advertising. The partners simply pushed it through their own channels and people resonated with it.
Of course, the cursed Covid has put a temporary pause on things, but Tiaki – Care for New Zealand is still ticking along, ready for when the tourist hordes return.
Messaging has perhaps never been more important than right now! Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself through the work you do?
If by ‘something bigger’ we’re talking about some sort of cultural, social or environmental betterment, then sure, I feel a responsibility to contribute to it. I want to contribute to it.
That’s why I like design that does something. That works, that moves, that makes a difference. That does as it says and says as it does. Of course, it’d be naïve to say it doesn’t always come down to client satisfaction and sales. But sometimes it’s nice to aim for something more than that, too.
That said, I do believe there is always a place for useless beauty. We don’t all have to join every fight. Helping people simply feel good counts for something, right?
Is there a notable project you’re especially proud of?
It’s hard to call out one particular project. But anything where I’ve helped dig out the truth and tell a nice story makes me proud. It can sometimes feel like you’ve asked someone for their watch to tell them the time, but I do believe it makes a big difference to how the project proceeds.
I think every person or brand or project has a truth hidden inside, somewhere. We don’t need to invent too much, we just need to find what’s worthwhile, what’s true, and light a fire under it. Put it in a fancy dress and put a spotlight on it. That’s what I do, or try to do.
Is there a project you have undertaken at Designworks that is memorable because it challenged you? If so, what did you learn from it?
I’m not trying to be non-committal, but again, different projects challenge me in different ways. I think the thing about being a wordsperson – and the same applies to designers and strategists and all creatives working in a commercial environment – is that you have to be a chameleon. You have to change colours to create what the client wants (needs). And that’s always a challenge.
But that’s not the whole challenge. The whole challenge, at least for me, is being a chameleon without becoming invisible. I think there should always be an element of who we are in what we do – something unique or new or weird, however subtle. Otherwise anyone else could do it.
Do you feel creatively satisfied with your copywriting work? And or do you pursue other creative outlets outside of work hours?
Always satisfied. Sometimes drained. Regardless of how I’m feeling, though, I do try to save a little bit of juice for myself. It’s just a matter of finding the time. I play around with short fiction, poetry, children’s stories. I’m working on a novel, too. Aren’t we all?
Finally, where can we see more of your work and connect with you?
That’s the thing about being a creative, particularly in the design industry – our work is everywhere but our names aren’t on it.
I also went through a phase recently of trying to erase every aspect of my online presence. Now I’m trying to find a better balance.
So, if you really want to, you can probably find some of my work on the DW website, the Best Awards website, or connect with me on LinkedIn.