How a bad birthday present taught me a valuable copywriting lesson

What’s the most baffling birthday gift you’ve ever received?

Ask my mum the same question and I suspect I know what she’ll tell you.

To explain, I need to take you back to December 2000.

Bob the Builder is no. 2 in the charts. I’m 14 years old. And I’m about to start my Saturday shift at the local farm shop.

“Dad,” I say in the car on the way. “I want to get Mum something nice for her birthday. Any ideas?”

Dad thinks for a minute.

“How about some of that really posh olive oil?” he says. “I know she’d like that.”

Posh olive oil. Got it.

A couple of hours later, I’m on my tea break.

I go to the little condiment section to check out the olive oil situation.

There’s a cheap one in a plastic bottle. A middling one in glass. And a more expensive one, packaged in material that seems incredibly exotic* to teenage me.

(*This is semi-rural West Sussex in 2000, to give you an idea where the bar is set.)

I take the swanky one and put it through the till. Job done.

Fast-forward a few days. It’s Mum’s birthday and we’re all at the table giving her our presents.

“Oh darling, that’s so thoughtful of you,” she says as she unwraps some gardening gloves from one of my sisters.

“Oooh lovely!” she says, holding up a jumper from my nan.

My turn now.

I hand her the gift, give her a big hug, and feel a rush of nervous anticipation as she starts unwrapping.

“Oh,” she says.

“That’s … thanks, love.”

And she leans in her chair.

And she gently places her £4.99 tin of Filippo Berio down by the table.


I later found out what Dad had meant by ‘really posh olive oil’.

He was talking about those ones in decorative glass dispensers, with fancy wooden plinths and chilli peppers and garlic cloves and sprigs of rosemary and stuff.


Now, I don’t want to be too harsh on my well-meaning pa or my uncultured younger self.

But he made the mistake of thinking a spotty teen like me would know what posh olive oil looks like.

And I made the even bigger error of getting out of the car before I’d fully grasped what he meant.

There’s a creakingly tenuous lesson here.

If you hire freelance copywriters as part of your job, never assume they can see what’s in your head.

Tell them what you need in the clearest possible terms. And remember that what you think is obvious may not be to them.

And if you’re the copywriter?

Always, always get a brief. A proper one. And never be scared to ask your clients: What do you *actually* mean?

Keep asking it, if you have to, until you’re in no doubt what they want from you.

The work will be better for it. And it’ll save everyone from greasy disappointment. Sorry, Mum.