Jonathan Wilcox desk


by | The Writing Desk

Jonathan Wilcock, freelance copywriter and bringer of joy


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…

Jonathan Wilcock, freelance copywriter and bringer of joy.

Headshot of Jonathan Wilcox


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…)

I don’t really do business books as such. My job is more about gorging on the stuff of life in general and spewing it back out with a creative twist. Most business books endeavour to define formulas. My brain rebels against that sort of thing, unless it comes from a topnotch voice of authority, such as Dave Trott or Bill Bernbach. The closest thing I have to a business book on my desk right now is Mark Denton’s ‘Unleash the Power of Puerility’. I’m sure he’d be the first to admit it isn’t a business book in the accepted sense of the word, but I find it uplifting and inspiring. I love his drive and the fun he pours into his work.

What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?

It has to be the one that first got me excited about ads as a kid – Heineken. I fell head over heels for the Refreshes the Parts… posters of the 70s. Beyond being on brief and well crafted, advertising needs to get noticed and be memorable. The Heineken posters did all of this for me. They were so simple and they made me smile. Making people smile is very underrated I reckon.

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

Keep ‘em wanting more. Surprise and delight. Help the reader to picture the scene, better still, get them to feel like they’re in there with you.

When it comes to commercial writing, the principals are pretty much the same, but getting to the point as quickly as possible whips everything else into shape. Flying in the face of that advice, I may ramble a bit here as I’m enjoying myself – feel free to get your machete out.

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

“Work harder, you lazy sod.”

“Spend less time in the pub.”

“Read a bit of everything, in any order you fancy.”

“Read stuff that gets you thinking or gets your creative bits tingling.”

“Don’t copy what you read, use it to help you make up your own rules.”

Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?

Silence or ambient chillout music. Anything with lyrics throws me right off the scent.

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

Dr. No by Ian Fleming. It’s all about the details. He’ll expand on a scene at the dinner table; the crystalware they’re drinking from, the way the crab is dressed… you get sucked right in and you’re sitting next to Bond, soaking up the atmosphere.

The Shining by Stephen King. Scared the heck out of me. No exaggeration, I had nightmares about room 237 for a couple of months.

Not a novel, but The Bhagavad Gita, A Walkthrough for Westerners by Jack Hawley has everything. An incredible story brilliantly written and it provides a blueprint that I’m trying to apply to my life. You mentioned pencil marks and turned down corners earlier. This little beauty has so much annotation in it, I’ve had to buy a new copy.

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

Hmmm… I’m a bit like a child. The best thing is nearly always the latest thing. So, if I look back over the last few months, I’m pretty chuffed with a tone of voice project I’ve done with a West London estate agency. I got them to inject a lot more fun and personality into their words. This included a new website and lots of other comms:

Rummaging a bit deeper into the archives, the campaign I wrote and art directed for Côtes du Rhône years ago worked a treat. It didn’t look anything like conventional wine advertising, sales increased dramatically and it ran for 10 years, so I’d call that a success:

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

Three plantains from our local Asian/Caribbean food store – It’s called Spicy Buddha.

Who was your teenage crush?

A toss up between Lieutenant Uhura (poised, elegant and super-smart) and Velma from Scooby Doo (geeky, hidden depths and solves mysteries).

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

Jaipur, 2016 – it was my wife’s birthday. I’d sprung one of those grand gesture things that you only get to do once in blue moon. There we were, thousands of miles from home. Me back in my beloved India, Mrs. W. out of her depth once again, but loving every minute of it.

The sun had dipped below the horizon and the temperature had dipped, ever so slightly, with it. An auto-rickshaw ride through the gloriously ramshackle streets cooled the sweat on our brows. She, floating in a light and airy summer dress and sparkly flip flops; me in shorts, sandals and a lurid Bermuda shirt.

We arrived at The Peacock Restaurant and were led to our rooftop table. Fairy lights, a cool breeze and a twinkling view across the city. What more could you ask for? How about the best thali’s we’d ever had in our lives (and we’ve had a few). I went for veg; Mrs. W. had the meat option. If you’ve never had a thali, it’s a bit like being a five year old at a pick and mix counter. Each steel serving platter held nine or ten smaller steel dishes containing tasters of different Rajasthani delights: curries, rice, dhal, raita and pickles, plus rotis, puris and a few sweet treats. Food heaven.

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

I started my career in advertising in the mid-80s, which was a dangerous place for anyone who liked the grain or the grape. Having learned the hard way, my favourite tipple these days is a humble cup of tea.

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?

“Come on Sir David, we’re going looking for tigers. You bring the pith helmets, I’ll bring a sketchbook.”

I’d write about the fear and excitement of trying to get our first glimpse of what to me is one of nature’s most stunning beasties. We’d have dinner around a campfire every night and I’d grill my new mate Dave about his off-screen adventures.

He’d ask me to write his secret memoirs, so I’d be scribbling away furiously. Of course, the writer’s fee would be obscene, so I’d decide to stay on in India for the next year, as I wrote the first draft.

What’s in your pockets?

A twenty-pound note. Hankie. Front door key on a rainbow shoelace from Notting Hill carnival. Some fluff. Faith, hope and charity.

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

Ideas: pencil and a notebook. Wordy writing: MacBook.

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?)

My favourite blog by far is Dave Dye’s ‘Stuff from the Loft’. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of great advertising thinking. You will not be disappointed.

Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?

Tea, preferably chai. Want the recipe? Oh go on then:

A dozen or so green and four or five black cardamom pods – split.
A rugby player’s thumb’s-worth of sliced up fresh ginger.
Three or four star anise.

Three cloves.

A half non-rugby player’s-fistful of cinnamon sticks.
A twist or two of black pepper.

Two tea bags.

Bring to the boil in a pan with two or three mugs of water and simmer for five minutes to get all the oils out.

Add a good mug or two of milk (preferably full fat).

Bring back up to the boil and simmer for another five minutes.

Add granulated sugar to taste. I go for about nine teaspoons (I know).

Strain into mugs (should make two or three depending on how much has evaporated).

It’s a faff, but oh my goodness, it’s delicious.

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

I like my ‘No.1’ mug. It’s a leftover from when I ran a creative agency. We all had our own number. Seems weirdly hierarchical looking back at it now, but it worked.

My new favourite mug is my ‘J’ mug. It was a birthday present. It’s bold and simple and as far as I can tell, no one else in the house uses it. Every other mug (including No.1) is a free-for-all.

Jonathan Wilcox favourite mug

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

Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel. The eponymous hero of the tale has an incredible full name: Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo.

His name means ‘the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world’. His brother was simply called Chang, which means ‘little or nothing’.

The repetition of Tikki Tikki Tembo’s full name, creates a poetic rhythm that’s stayed with me all these years.

Your favourite word?

It may be different tomorrow, but my favourite word at the moment is ‘patience’. Without it, especially as a freelancer, we’re stuffed.
However, for its sound, it’s hard to beat ‘plop’.

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

I’m not a big fan of the F word. I know it’s unfashionable not to use it all the time, but it feels lazy and makes smart people sound stupid.

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

Online, but I do like a good forage through the books and DVDs of charity shops. Otherwise you’ll find me idly browsing through my subconscious mind on the beach.

Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?

All of Bohemian Rhapsody. Don’t you just love it when someone breaks all the rules, yet still comes out a rip-roaring success.

Although I’m not a Catholic and I don’t speak Latin, Ave Maria will usually make me cry. Any lyric that can do that must be pretty special.

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

Me? On a dance floor? Are you mad? I’ll tell you who might get my toe tapping or my bum wiggling though: Burning Spear, Leftfield, De La Soul or Black Sabbath, depending on the mood.

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

I go through the brief, pick out the bits that sing out at me and write them down longhand in my notebook.

If I’m writing headline ideas or straplines, I write (again, longhand) at breakneck speed. No editing or filtering. I just keep going until my brain starts to cramp up.

Then I highlight anything that seems to have merit, order ideas under themes and beat the hell out of them until I have a manageable list to work with.

This is the point I look for a diversion and forget what I’ve done for as long as possible.

After a break (preferably overnight), the gems seem to be a lot easier to spot.

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

Right now, I’m working with a brilliant firm of architects on brand language guidelines and their website. If it continues the way it’s going at the moment, it could be my new favourite bit of writing.

As I write this, we’re into week six of the Covid Zombie Apocalypse, so the old pipeline is a bit on the dry side to be honest.

Can you describe the last photograph you took?

Other than my favourite mugs, it was my muddy boots. My granddaughter and I went onto the beach to catch the sunrise at about 5.30. The tide was out. After clambering over rock pools in the twilight, I stepped into a squidgy sinkhole, right up to my ankles. No pain, no gain.

Muddy boots

What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?

David Abbott’s practice of writing dozens of variations of a headline until he got it just right. Not one superfluous word or comma out of place. It’s that willingness to keep pushing until you can’t push any further that sorts the great from the rest of us humans. And if it was good enough for him, who am I to argue?

Also, right at the start of my career I was told never to write to win awards. Always write for the audience (and the client).

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

Last week I wrote a letter of thanks to an elderly friend who’d sent me a beautiful poem.

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

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” ­– Terry Pratchett

“If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic” – Bill Bernbach

Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?

In the real world I have a soft spot for Paul Arden. Having started out as an Art Director, I was always drawn to the way he could distil an idea down to its bear essentials without seeming to miss anything out.

I like Don Draper’s chin.

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

I love a good movie. So much so, I wrote a couple of blog posts trying to work out the ultimate peoples’ all-time greatest top 10. The criteria I came up with to judge any contenders by was:

– Does it hook me and pull me in?

– Do I care about the characters?

– Does it entertain me?

– Does it stand the test of time?

– Do I get lost in the story?

– Would I happily watch it again and again?

So, although I could choose many more than just one, I’d struggle to narrow it down to any less than:

If you twisted my arm to choose just one of the above, I’d probably have to go for Gremlins (can I keep Pulp Fiction too please).

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

Sai Baba Avatar – Howard Murphet

A Smile In The Mind – Beryl McAlhone/David Stuart/Greg Quinton/Nick Asbury

Who was or is your greatest teacher?

My conscience.

Who is your favourite artist?

David Shrigley.

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?

My best work usually starts off on a walk by the sea. It then, more often than not, hits the page back at home.

Sea and sky

Jonathan Wilcox desk

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



Written By Katherine

Katherine Wildman is a copywriter for creative agencies and multinational brands – and the Creative Director of Haydn Grey.

Related Posts