Episode 25: Jan Michell, Copywriter at Base Beauty Creative Agency

Meet the Base Beauty Team! This special mini series highlights members of our Base Beauty team. Listen as they discuss their career paths, and how they handle working remotely.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty, hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzI'm excited to introduce you all to Jan Mitchell, a copywriter at Base Beauty. Hello, Jan.
Jan MichellHi, Jodi. Fun to be here.
Jodi KatzYou and I started working together many years ago. Is it like six or seven years ago at this point?
Jan MichellI think it is. I think the other day when I realized how many it was, it was surprising, but it's blown by. We've worked on so many fun projects together.
Jodi KatzYeah. Why don't you tell our listeners what it means to be a copywriter?
Jan MichellI think of myself as a storyteller, really, and that takes on very many faces. I've been very lucky over my career that I've gotten to tell a range of stories. That's the fun part about being freelance, because your work is always changing. Sometimes it's describing a dress and making somebody absolutely have to, have to, have to buy the dress. Sometimes it's telling a very compelling story in the healthcare space, trying to get a message out about some new pharmaceutical product. Sometimes it's telling somebody what's going to make them feel beautiful, be healthy. I've been all over the place, and it's been really, really fun.
Jodi KatzWhen we started working together, it was for work at Calvin Klein ...
Jan MichellThat's right.
Jodi Katz... Which is a collaboration we've had with the agency and Calvin Klein for almost 10 years. I want to share it with our listeners, because it sounds like a really fun, dream copywriting experience, especially for younger writers, where we were invited to Calvin Klein's show room like once a month or a few times a month where they just put out racks and racks and racks of clothes and racks and racks and racks of shoes and handbags and gloves and hats and scarves and underwear and everything, and we were able to tell stories about each product. We as a team established the voice of Calvin Klein when it came to e-commerce.
I mention it because it's not beauty. We specialize in beauty, but we also do other things. That's the work that you and I have done together for many years.
Jan MichellI think that's how we connected.
Jodi KatzYeah. Jan, after being in front of so many Calvin Klein sweaters and skirts and whatnot, dresses, sheath dresses and A-Line dresses and Fit-and-Flare dresses, I feel like it's a good way to talk about what it's like day-to-day to be a writer, because I think a lot of our listeners can imagine what it's like to be in front of a rack of clothes. Can you just walk the listeners through a little bit about how you tell a story, what you're looking for in order to be able to do that?
Jan MichellSure. Calvin Klein is a great example, because they do have many, many similar products, but every product, every sweater, every bag, every piece of workout wear has its own little peculiarity, its own little hook, and that's what a writer tries to find. Try to find that one little thing. "This is going to be very slimming." "This is a cool knit for when you're working out and you want the sweat to evaporate." "This is a bag that will fit your laptop computer." "This is a bag that will just tuck by your side when you're out dancing at the clubs all night." Everything has its own little story and its own little raison d'être, and that's what the writer needs to find. Then you need to describe it in words that are succinct and appealing.
That's really it. It's about knowledge. It's about knowing fabrics and leathers and ingredients and the technical things that go into a copy block, but also about being able to get to that little nub, that little seed of the story that's going to resonate with a reader.
Jodi KatzYeah. I like to think of that as answering the customer's question of, "Why do I care? Why should I care about this dress versus the other dress?" Maybe she's a Fit-and-Flare girl and that's what looks best on her, so finding a way to talk to her about that shape and style. It's almost like we're helping customers edit their choices through our copy.
Jan MichellExactly.
Jodi KatzThere's so much out there.
Jan MichellWhen I was first learning about the direct marketing business and merchandising in general, the word that was always pounded into our heads was benefit, benefit, benefit. What's the benefit? That's basically what you're saying. What's the benefit of this one over that one? What is this going to do for me? Which is really what you're saying. Why should I care? We want to make them care passionately.
Jodi KatzI think working on copy like this for a brand that sells a lot of products, and I think fashion in general has a lot more product churn than beauty, I think it's a really great way for someone who is exploring being a writer in the industry to start out, because there's the management of details, the just staying organized, the facets that have nothing to do with writing, just how to administratively keep yourself together. There's a lot of that, but then there's actual thinking, like, God, it's really, really hard to write about another sheath dress after you just wrote about 47 of them. It's like a really-
Jan MichellAbsolutely. Remember, we'd get those racks of T-shirts, 40 T-shirts?
Jodi KatzRight. How many graphic print T-shirts can you sit with and find a way to keep them seeming original and having their own story? It's hard. I think as a young writer it's a really good experiment to figure out how to flex those muscles. It's not a stressful environment. You're in a nice, air-conditioned room and it's comfortable, you have a nice chair, but you're sorting through this puzzle of, how do I make this graphic print tee sound interesting versus the one that's next to it which is very similar?
Jan MichellAbsolutely. As we know, we live in a visual world, so the photograph of that graphic tee versus the one that's next to it on the website or in print or wherever it is, that's going to help you to tell the story a lot, the attitude of the model or whatever, but the writer is the one who really has to drive it home.
Jodi KatzYeah. I can think of so many times where I've been shopping online and I see the picture, the picture looks great, and I need more information. I need to understand where the zipper is or I need to understand how long the skirt is or the inseam, and these details are just missing and I can't make a purchase. I can't know that this is right for me because the writer missed stuff. It happens time and time again.
Jan MichellIt does. I remember-
Jodi Katz[crosstalk 00:07:53]
Jan MichellGo ahead.
Jodi KatzGo ahead.
Jan MichellIt's just that we always, we're told that copy got second shrift. It was always about the visuals and the photography and it had to be as big as possible. But as you just said, you can't sell anything without copy. It's really what makes the sale.
Jodi KatzYeah. I've been on some sites with $2,000 dresses and whatnot, and there's no information about any of the details that you would need to know about, like, how do I get it on? How do I get it off? Is that really beading or is that just some sort of foil stamping? The real details about the product are missing. Typically, when those are missing, the storytelling's missing also. It's like a brand just thought, "We're going to build the garment, we're going to build the product, and we're just going to assume that people will trust us without giving any information."
That's the thought process we always had with our copy with Calvin Klein, and we've done this type of work with some other fashion companies as well, which is really trying to make it so crystal clear to the customer to let them know if this product is for them or not without them having to guess and get frustrated, because when I get frustrated with something online I just leave the site. I'm gone. [crosstalk 00:09:18]
Jan MichellThere's always somebody else. There's always another site to go to.
Jodi KatzIt's interesting that we talk about fashion, because we're always talking about beauty, but they do go hand in hand. While our focus is really always on beauty and personal care, we do have a lot of fun in the fashion industry and we do get to do some interesting work in that business. Let's switch gears a little bit. We have our agency slogan, Where Brains Meet Beauty. You were the writer, Jan, that led us to this tagline. This was probably about three years ago, two years ago at this point. Do you remember that project?
Jan MichellI do. That was a really terrific project. I think that stretched us all in a lot of new directions, because when you ... It's interesting. I've worked on websites for agencies, and it was worked on the agency's website as opposed to a product or a project for a client of theirs. It is so hard when you have to sit down and write about yourself, whether your own business or yourself or whatever. This was a really interesting exercise for us to say, "All right, what is Base Beauty really about? Who are we?" I think we came up with something that really says what we are.
Jodi KatzYeah. I love it. We trademarked it, and thank goodness because we love it so much. Of course, now it's the name of our podcast series as well. We get such incredible feedback on it. I can piggyback on what you said that this is a really hard process. This is a process we do for our clients every day. What makes them different? How do they articulate it in a new way? How do they make their customer care about their brand or their service or whatever it is? We don't have any kind of internal challenges with doing that as a team for our clients. It's one of the main services we offer, which is helping brands position and articulate that positioning. But, gosh, to do it for ourselves was so painful.
Jan MichellDefinitely. It was hard. Remember?
Jodi KatzSo hard.
Jan MichellWe had a lot of brainstorming sessions.
Jodi KatzRight. As a creative agency, we are in many ways only as good as our work, so the products we put out there speak to who we are, and we've let ourselves operate that way for a long time by not even really talking about ourselves, just doing cool work for Clinique or doing cool work for L'Oréal or whatever. But we got to this point in the business where we really needed to start talking about ourselves and our worldview and our approach.
I think it took us like four months to really move through it and get to a place where we really all believed in it and thought that we were in a place where not only was it ringing true and authentic, but that was a great way to tell our story and a story that has legs. I'm so grateful that we took that time. I actually think during those few months we didn't do very much client work. We were totally focused on this. We had no income coming into the business. It was all Base Beauty all the time. [crosstalk 00:12:43]
Jan MichellThat was a real luxury to have that time to do that, actually, because to do that in the midst of doing other projects would've been much harder.
Jodi KatzYeah. I think that's the old saying, something like the cobbler's children don't have any shoes or something like that ...
Jan MichellRight, exactly.
Jodi Katz... Because they're so focused on doing the paid work. But I really do believe in universal forces, and I think that the universe gave us not a lot of client work so that we would be able to have this focus, because it was time. It was time to really think about it. I remember [crosstalk 00:13:16]
Jan MichellAll the other pieces of that campaign were pretty cool too.
Jodi KatzYeah, stuff that we still live with and use today. But I can remember being in a conference room with the team, and I think some of the team was on a Skype or a conference call because we couldn't be there, and we're all debating, is it Where Beauty Meets Brains? Is it Brains Meets Beauty? Is it this? Is it that? Reorganizing basically three or four words 100 different ways to figure out where the meaning was right. That's just so fun. It's just so cool that we got to do that for ourselves.
Jan MichellIt is. Boy, do you realize the importance of every word and every placement of every word when you go through that. You really do. The subtleties are enormous.
Jodi KatzYeah. I think in my career of being a writer, I think the hardest and most emotionally challenging writing to do is to write a company tagline. We name products and we name brands all the time, and that's fun. It's hard because a lot of things are already trademarked, but there's always room for creativity. We obviously do a ton of marketing copywriting and product copywriting and headline writing, body copywriting and writing commercials and video scripts and all that stuff, but the hardest I think is taglines. It can destroy a writer. It's so challenging.
Jan MichellRight. It's the essence. It's getting an entire business, an entire brand down to, I don't know, maybe four or five words at the most. Every word has to pull its weight many times over.
Jodi KatzWhat does Where Brains Meet Beauty mean to you? Why did that resonate with you when you were thinking about that idea?
Jan MichellI think what is unique about Base Beauty, and if I may brag a little bit because it's our team — your baby, our team — is, and I think this means a lot to our clients, is that we're specialists. I think many agencies like to say, "Oh, yes, we'll do everything. We can do this. We'll write about auto parts. We'll write about tree pruning services. We'll write about whatever you want." If you have very talented people, you can do that, but to have an agency that is really focused on one area, and such a huge area, and knows it so well, I started with that idea. We started with that idea.
All right, we have the beauty part, so what is unique about Base Beauty's approach to the beauty industry? What's unique about us is how smart we are, if I do say so myself. We take a really smart, thoughtful, introspective approach to every product, and that of course playing off of the cliché of brains and beauty, the idea of the dumb blonde. If you're beautiful, you're not smart, and vice versa, if you're smart you have glasses and you're a little mousy librarian type who isn't beautiful. We said, "Well, we're both, so why not tell the world that we're both?" That's where it came from. That's what it means to me.
Jodi KatzI love it, because I don't think we articulated a lot about our process. Our process is just who we are and how we move through the world. I don't know that a lot of us ever thought we needed to write it down. Why would we need to write that down? It's just an automatic for us. But over time I realized that our natural space where we land and our worldview in the beauty industry and communications is unique and different, so we started to write it down.
What I think is so cool about "Where Brains Meet Beauty" is it reflects our worldview in so many ways. For example, when we do casting for client videos and photo shoots, many times we're not hiring a typical model look. In most of our work, we have a lot of different body types represented, shapes, heights, whatnot, a lot of different ages, a lot of different ethnicities and skin tones, a lot of different hair textures and hair types. This isn't something that the clients usually ask for. We're guiding them because it's what feels right. Clearly we live in a culture where that's not the image that's put out there most often, but it's just so natural to us, it's just so normal.
I think that "Where Brains Meet Beauty" means that also. It's how we look at the world. We want our customers to see themselves in that brand's work, and one of those ways to do that is to show her herself, show her someone that looks like her.
Jan MichellThe idea of, it probably goes pretty far back, I don't think it's a more recent idea, but that the whole beauty industry, and if somebody was into beauty and they're caring, from a consumer point of view, if they're caring about their makeup and they're caring about what they look like, they couldn't possibly have anything going on inside their head. We're basically refuting that, saying that it's a very smart industry, it's a very sophisticated industry. The customers are very smart. They know what they want, and we can give it to them. It's fun in that way. It makes a joke out of that old-fashioned attitude.
Jodi KatzYeah. I'm so glad that we are at a place where we can poke fun of old-fashioned attitudes and that's not something that we need to embrace.
Jan MichellRight.
Jodi KatzMy last question for you, Jan, is a little off-topic, but if you weren't a writer and you weren't working in beauty and fashion, what do you think you'd be doing?
Jan MichellIf you had asked me that a couple of years ago, I might've fumbled a little bit for an answer, but now it is very clear to me. I've become really, really interested in food and cooking. I would love to have a little more time, and I hope I will sometime, to do something with cooking, but that also applies to feeding people who need to be fed. That's a little tricky, because if you ... Well, there's a philanthropic aspect to it, and then there's just the idea of just cooking and becoming a better cook and cooking for friends and having people over for dinner, which I love to do.
I think food is just a fascinating, endless, multicultural, around-the-world unifier. I love it. I think I probably will do something with food. I don't know if it'll be another career. I don't think so, but I want it to be more and more a part of my life, because it's just really fun. I love living in a time where food is really ... We're living in a time of food, I guess.
Jodi KatzRight, for sure.
Jan MichellWith restaurants and new foods and cooking and people are cooking at home a lot more than they used to and there are more suggestions and training and guides and aids for doing that. That's my other passion.
Jodi KatzI think I read or heard somewhere that more millennials are interested in going to food and food truck festivals and things like that than they are to going to a music festival, that food is-
Jan MichellThat's quite a [crosstalk 00:21:35]
Jodi KatzRight? It's entertainment. It's socializing. It's experiencing different cultures and tastes, so it's an exploration and an adventure. You are a great cook. I can say that you owe me the vinaigrette recipe, so please [inaudible 00:21:51]
Jan MichellThank you. I do, and I know that, and I'm sorry. You shall have it soon.
Jodi KatzThank you, Jan, for being on our Where Brains Meet Beauty podcast.
Jan MichellThank you for having me, Jodi. This was fun. It's not often that we get to sit and really talk like this. We're always in the middle of something. This was great.
Jodi KatzYeah. Thank you, Jan.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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