Copywriting as a discipline: Q&A with Hayden Maskell

The term ‘copywriter’ is often misunderstood.

In all fairness, the name doesn’t help. ‘Copywriter’ is similar to ‘copyright’, and for people outside of the world of writing, the term ‘copy’ is not usually associated with words.

But for many writers, copywriting is exactly what they do every day. Like New Zealand-based copywriter Hayden Maskell.

Here he explains what being a copywriter actually means, how he got started with his career and how he found a niche in wine.

Let’s start at the start. How and why did you become a freelance copywriter?

I studied copywriting at university but wasn’t able to take an unpaid internship – which was the only thing going in 2008. I meandered through a few different careers. Here and there I wrote things for different businesses – articles, web pages, that kind of thing. I started doing more in about 2017, thinking I might get into marketing somehow. Just as it was going well, I lost my day job. It was terrifying, but my partner Sarah was incredibly supportive, and I was lucky enough to have one contact who helped me land my first couple of clients. If not for other people, I wouldn’t be able to go it alone.

What are the pros and cons of being self-employed?

The biggest pro of being self-employed, for me, is integrity. I have control over my work, my career path, my day, my pay. I’m not tied up by hierarchies or structures or internal politics. I have to produce the best work I can 100 per cent of the time because I have to be honest about it with clients and myself. There’s nothing to hide behind, which is strangely liberating.

The main con of being self-employed is the other side of that coin. You have to do everything, despite not being very good at everything. You have to develop yourself, which is incredibly difficult. You are your own gatekeeper for quality. You have to manage client relationships, which can be tedious. I’d really like to start my own micro-agency because it’d be very good for professional development. I don’t think I could be freelance forever.

Sometimes people don’t understand what a copywriter does. How would you explain it?

In a literal sense, ‘copy’ means written text – journalists and writers also produce copy. In our context, ‘copywriter’ is an industry-specific term for someone who writes text to persuade a reader to take action. Some of the confusion around it may be because the term ‘content writer’ is in vogue, but it’s also meaningless. I suspect the term is a nod to content marketing and the idea that “hey man, we’re not always just trying to sell stuff”. But, from my perspective, ‘content’ is the information that must be included – the writer’s creativity is about stitching content into copy.

It’s helpful to think of copywriting as a discipline, not a genre. Copywriting is about planting an idea in a reader’s mind to persuade them to do something. No matter the format, if your job is to get someone to take action, you need to use copywriting techniques. If your brief is to “write content”, you need a better brief.

How has the pandemic impacted your business? Have you had to make any changes?

Ah, the great pandemic question. A confession: I live in a small town in New Zealand, so on a global scale, things are pretty good. I know that people elsewhere are really struggling, so I don’t want to be glib. Quite a few businesses are trying to change up and pivot; the brave ones are investing in their comms, so it’s a good time to be a copywriter.

You have a bit of a niche in wine. How did that happen?

The wine niche is part circumstance, part persistence. My partner is the business manager for Dry River Wines, a cult fine wine producer. Our brother-in-law is the chief winemaker. Dry River became one of my first freelance clients, and that helped me find more – I think niches tend to happen that way. At the same time, I wouldn’t keep doing it if I didn’t love it. Wine has a bit of everything: the luxury, super-premium fancy stuff. The down-to-earth farming, getting-excited-about-compost stuff. The pleasure and enjoyment. The nerdy, scientific stuff. The intangible magic stuff. The food. It’s brilliant.

If you weren’t a copywriter, what would you be doing with your life?

If not for copywriting, I’d still be working through a series of unfulfilling jobs – that’s the truth. I dream of being a musician, but I’m grateful I get to keep doing it as a hobby right about now.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

How about a moderately humorous fact? I started university at 17, and in the very first week, I was banned from the bar as an underage patron. Absolutely gutted.

Hayden Maskell is based in Greytown, New Zealand, and works with clients from around the world. You can find out more at