People often ask me, “Hey! How do you get all your creative work?” and “Why are you always in demand for copywriting?” and even, “Can you get me a job?”
The answers are simple, if not overly useful. Ideally, you have to be very good at copywriting. Then, you should be really, really nice work with. These two things together will help you build a trusted reputation that gets you the next job, and the next, and the next.
Or is it? How about some thoughts on getting better work (which equals better feedback, better reputation, more jobs etc, etc) and avoiding copy hell? I have a few to share. They help to keep me (mostly) sane and (relatively) happy as a freelancing/independent copywriter.
Just say ‘No’
I must’ve turned down around 2 out of 5 projects/contracts I’ve been offered over the last year. Yes, the money is always tempting. Yes, I suppose I could always do with another yacht or Lamborghini. But when I look back, I am very glad I didn’t take on certain projects.
Sometimes the time and effort and sheer emotional stress involved isn’t worth any amount of money. How much would you charge for laboriously editing 2,000 pages of Terms & Conditions? In 8-point type. Using a sausage for a pen. While wearing woollen mittens. In the dark.
Whatever you quote, it’s never going to be enough to do the impossible.
It’s this kind of job you should briefly consider (because, hey — it’s WORK, right?) and then reject.
Saying ‘No’ to work can keep you happy. And it can also keep you free, ready to take on the nice jobs that you do like, working with lovely people who pay you promptly.
For your own health and sanity, you have to learn when to say ‘No’.
My Top 4 Copy Klaxons
ENTER THE WAR ZONE
Any creative who has worked at a top ad agency will smirk at me when I say it’s best to avoid conflict. And it’s true that battles over briefs and creative strategies happen because people feel immense passion for The Idea.
Some interpersonal clashes can spark off great creativity. But when you’ve been brought in as an expert adviser — the copywriting voice of reason who will lead a complex campaign story or new brand, conflict can mean a world of pain.
Example: I was invited to meet two top marketing and product execs at a huge multinational company, with a view to helping them create a new suite of communications. This was a serious, corporate giant and I arrived as instructed to be met at their impressively glossy reception.
I underwent iris recognition scan at the front desk.
I had to sign an industrial secrecy document.
It was all very James Bond-esque and exciting. So I assumed this was going to be a very clinical and clear-headed meeting.
I’d been communicating by both email and phone with one of the execs, and now I was going to meet both heads of department, to outline their copy needs for the project. However, as soon as Exec 2 entered the room, it became obvious that these two powerhouses had never spoken to each other about the project, or how it was to be approached.
Every point made to me by Exec 1 was openly and violently disagreed with by Exec 2. It was really quite unprofessional and uncomfortable, rather like being in the boardroom section of The Apprentice.
But I had to sit there in the cold, shiny meeting room, listening to their vicious war of words over the glass table. I was very glad when I could finally get out.
Once I was back at my desk I sent a polite email thanking them for the meeting, and then I gracefully suggested I was not the writer they were looking for. This was perhaps a £10k+ job for me, but I knew it would be a world of pain if I tried to work with these people.
MEET THE JELLYFISH
“Hello …we don’t know what we want … but can you please help us? PLEASE? What do we want? To do a website. We want. Oh Help. Oh christ. Please god please help us mend this shitting awful website that we commissioned. We think it was done abroad? Oh god. Oh christ. I’ve been lumbered with it and we haven’t got a clue what to do with it. Malcolm says we can’t update it at the moment (‘Is it abroad? Is it? Can you go in and find out?’) We’ve heard a lot about you and your writing could save us!! Yes. Yes it could. No — don’t leave us … Please! HELP!!! Help! Help us please we’re drowning …”
Example:Two established businesses over the past year have approached me with the above ‘challenge’. Experienced businesses who should know better, who have given away their professionalism to get a website done ‘cheaply’.
After about three months, they’ve realised they’ve gone about creating their online presence in the wrong way, and now they expect a humble (ha!) copywriter to come in and be able to mend it all.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a massive Jesus complex about good copywriting being able to Shine the Light and Show the Way, and save the silly clients from a doom of their own making. But really, you won’t be able to ‘mend’ this for them.
They will go all wibbly with the website content. The copy won’t get updated. The job will drag on. Everyone will grow increasingly unhappy with ‘your’ lack of progress. Then they’ll start to lose faith in you, even if it’s out of your control.
In both the above cases I said I could help them … once they’d put together a full copy brief with internal sign-off (knowing they would never get this done). ESCAPE!
CHAMPAGNE IDEAS – LEMONADE POCKETS
These are familiar to all who freelance. ‘We want a big beautiful idea. But we’ve got thruppence ‘apenny and half a bag of Werthers.’
Example: So a (seemingly) nice guy called me up. He had a new company, nice new products, and he said he had set aside a budget for the launch and marketing. Virtually straight away on the phone he asked me if I could do their website and marketing collateral, and how much I would charge for it all.
As a professional, I was thinking about a piece of string at this point. So I politely asked if he would ever quote over the phone for his expensive bespoke service? Wouldn’t he first meet his client and survey the project before even putting together a quote? He agreed a meeting would be good, and we’d have a proper discussion about everything he wanted and how we’d go about it.
The meeting went really well … although my senses were prickling a bit as he got very excited when we chatted through various creative approaches, as if we were starting work that moment, that day, without first agreeing on the costs.
After the meeting I put together a quote and timescale for all the work he wanted, and sent this over. I was quite shocked when he sent back a blunt and blustering email (‘… I must say I am amazed …! I want it all done for £Xxx!’). It was obvious he had no respect for our profession. No understanding that, like his work, my job had to be assessed seriously if it was to be quoted honestly. Ah well. I was rather glad not to work with him after all.
Along the same lines as this, a headhunter called and wanted me for a freelance contract at an ad agency, but then wanted me to lower my day rate. I refused. I know the extra £ is their commission, but I’m the one going through all the pain for it. The ad agencies who contact me directly are always happy to pay my freelance rate, and never ask me to drop it. That keeps me happy and resentment-free.
The only time I will adjust my fee is if I can work remotely, as it saves me around 4 hours a day of travelling. Other than that, jog on.
I love working with start-ups. I love being involved in new tech, new product launches, naming strategies and strapline creation. It’s all very exciting. But if you are approached by someone who has a start-up business but who doesn’t know a thing about marketing, I’d stay well clear.
Example: I was kindly recommended to someone by an existing client. The guy had launched a start up and now needed regular copywriting to fulfil his marketing plans. After listening to his enthusiastic pitch for 30 minutes about his great idea, I began to get a bit worried. He kept admitting he knew nothing about marketing, or what he should be doing. I began to think he didn’t know what he wanted.
I like to help anyone I can, but trying to find out what someone needs, in an area where you are not a specialist, would take weeks of research plus the skills of an entire marketing team including a planner, strategist and account director to back up your humble writer.
Regretfully, I called him back to say thanks, but I wasn’t The One for him.
Good copywriting can only get you so far. It can’t be the answer to the entire marketing programme.
There’s something very sad happening in the creative industry. I’ve hesitated to talk about, because I hate to sound bitter.
But here goes.
It’s about the hiring strategy of ad agencies. And before you assume this is all about me, it isn’t. I am not looking for employment. (Unless it’s really, really good. In which case — call me?)
But. I digress.
I still occasionally freelance in London ad agencies. Yes, I know! Over 45 and they still let me in. Amazing. I put it down to my ability to camouflage my age with my chameleon wit and brilliant bantz. Yeh. Skillz.
I am without doubt the oldest creative (and often, still the only female) in the department. And I’m saddened to see that, slowly but surely, senior creatives are being ‘let go’.
Now, I know it’s a tough life. I’ve been made redundant three times myself. But what saddens me is what happens next.
A junior team will be hired to take their place.
Nothing wrong with juniors, by the way. I was a junior copywriter once. I know I had a lot to prove. I wanted to be better than the best. I wanted to shine and learn, and make my words and ideas work brilliantly for whatever client, whatever brief I was given.
The attitude was, you could win an award with a great trade press ad for glue.
And people often did win prestigious awards for that work.
There was a constant, hard fought battle for creative supremacy. To produce work you were proud of. To be the ones who ‘cracked it’.
But the junior teams I’ve witnessed recently are treated very differently.
They’ve been brought in to simply churn out dull, repetitious work. Cheaper, and hopefully just as fast, as the recently redundant-ed seniors.
They can’t afford to let anything messy or time-consuming (like creativity, or an idea) get in the way. They’re briefed to crank it through on the process conveyor belt and get it out again as quickly as possible.
To make maximum money for the shareholders, I presume.
Even an old idea engineer like me finds it a slog to keep producing the best, shiniest things hour after hour, quickly and efficiently. Or to fix and re-oil the stuff that’s been poked at by account teams and broken by clients.
But because I have years of experience, I can get out serviceable goods pretty smoothly. I know it’s not going to win me any awards, but I can still take pride in it as a professional.
So, what about the junior teams who are thrown onto the factory floor?
From my observations, it’s bloody terrible. And it’s creating terrible work, while the creatives have a terrible time doing it.
You can forget the craft of copywriting for a start. And I’m not just being an old has-been, harping on about mis-spellings and grammatical errors – although I’ve seen plenty of those get past client approval stage, sadly.
There seems to be no care. No love. No passion for communicating with wit or engaging a customer emotionally.
Or maybe there is no time for that any more?
What was once an inspiring, exciting industry has transformed into one that acts and operates like a large, dull factory. (Apologies if you work in a factory and find it stimulating and amusing. Please feel free to add your factory anecdotes below.)
So, all the supposed optimum targeting that digital has given us – being able to deliver the right message at the best time to personally connect or make a sale — actually means nothing.
Because the messages churned out are boring, tired, samey. Easy to disregard.
I don’t blame the junior creatives entirely for this dulldom. They are no doubt doing their best in a commoditized* world where the bean counters took control. They were just the cheap labour solution. And I’m sure the bean counters are now happily rubbing their beans together.
But from what I’ve seen, it’s leaving a massive skills gap. Because no one has time to inspire the love of communication or copywriting.
Creative directors are time pressured and sprint from meeting to meeting. No time to help train up the new junior. They barely have time to properly assess and approve the creative work.
If there is an experienced midweight team still left in the department, they’ll have to account for every billable hour on their timesheets. Spending time overseeing the junior and putting those hours against the associated job numbers would no doubt impact the all-important profits.
So who has time for these young creatives? No one as far as I can see. They are left to their own scant resources.
Some of the writing I’ve seen go out of agency doors is very, very bad. Clients reject copy, and in some cases, even write it themselves. Which is pretty dispiriting.
How did the industry end up like this?
Back when I was on junior placement at BMP, I remember how difficult it was to get creative approval for just one sentence of copy. I must’ve been in to see the senior team four or more times to hear how I could improve the phrase. To create 25 words of pristine perfection.
It was often excruciating. It was definitely time-consuming.
But I was learning. Every word should matter. Every full stop should pull its weight.
Now the creative values that once made our business so fantastic are seen as unprofitable. And I wonder who will eventually account for that.
*Here your amusement (or not).Commoditization is defined as the process by which goods that have economic value and are distinguishable in terms of attributes (uniqueness or brand) end up becoming simple commodities in the eyes of the market or consumers. In this case that’s the clients who pay for the agency’s supposed expertise.
When I’m feeling suitably writerly miserable, when all avenues to creativity seem blocked, when hard-fought written words are thrown away like litter, the cheery rhetorical question of this ad makes me want to laugh. Madly.