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.
See? It’s all so easy once you know.
Ooh, and just get the people you’ve worked with to recommend you and give you some lovely feedback like this. (You’ll need to scroll down to ‘Recommendations’).
So that’s that.
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.
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.