We all know that advertising, marketing and branding is the art of creating stories that sell.  But how far can you stretch the truth before it becomes a downright lie?  I was recently shocked to discover how elastic a line some copywriters take, especially when it comes to promoting themselves.

You are joking, right?

I was prompted to write this post by a recent discussion on Linkedin that featured on the Copywriting Training Forum.  It was entitled “Branding Yourself When You Have No Experience as a Freelance Writer” and the author asked “I have a question. I’ve been reading up about branding, and I want to know how I go about branding myself as a freelance writer when I have no professional experience to back it up. Anybody have any suggestions?”

My immediate response was unprintable.  And I figured it best to let it go – the guy was merely naïve, rather that deliberately dishonest.  Stupidity is not a crime.  Yet.

And it is hard to break into any career, including copywriting – you can’t get work because you have no experience, and you can’t get experience without work.  The answer, I believe, is to work for nothing in order to build up your skills and portfolio – ask people if they’ll give you assignments so you can practice and you’ll find most people are pretty obliging.   But blagging paid-for projects out of people under false pretences is not only dishonest but a recipe for disaster.

So it was a contentious question and I was interested in how others would respond.

So far so good

The first reply was very oblique but cautioned that “There are some writers who brand themselves as experts only after 2 weeks.”  The next was very tactful, and actually apologetic: “Hi – don’t want to be picky here – and this kind of backs up what Craig said – but until you are actually working as a freelance writer then you cannot ‘brand’ yourself as one!  If only branding were as simple as saying “I say I am, therefore I am”!”   Amen to that.

Uh, oh, this is getting scary

But the next reply saw no ethical problem whatsoever.  Their advice was breezily unconcerned with any tiresome need to tell the truth.  “You can begin to build your brand by creating a visual identity for yourself. Create a logo, design a website, print business cards. All these things say something about you, so make sure they say the sort of things you want. It could be: professional, creative, traditional, wacky … it’s up to you.”

Yea, I can be any kind of copywriter I want – starting from now!

Another contributor took the same line with “Branding is how you want to be seen as in the future…you can build an image for yourself without proof, if you know how you want to look like.”

Right, fake it till you make it.  It’s not a lie – I’m just speaking future truth.

The truth is a whore.  Discuss.

Yet another agreed,  “Your brand does NOT require you to have more than you have now. Your true brand will, indeed, eventually be the impression that clients form of you in their minds… but it’s your prerogative to start them off with the image you want them to have.  It’s really all about deciding what you want to feel like as a business, and so what you say and how you say it on your site and other marketing material…will all contribute. Be bold though. You can ‘be’ whatever ‘brand’ of copywriter you want to be.”

So, don’t hold back, be bold and LIE BIG!  And you can decide for yourself “what you want to feel like as a business”….me, I’d feel a tad uneasy, even guilty.  But hey, I’m boringly old school.

Another writer shares their personal experience by pointing out reassuringly that “If you have a website, business cards and a logo, you will be surprised at how many people take you at face value.”    Hmmm, more fool them.  Which brings me to my next point.

Where is your emotional intelligence?

This discussion was posted on the Copywriting Training Forum.  And one of the things trainee copywriters are (usually) taught is to “put yourself in the prospect’s shoes”.

Right.  So who is the prospect here?  It’s someone who needs professional help with copywriting.  So, let’s forget all this crap about “you are whatever you tell people you are” and try to see things from their point of view.  Try being ****ing human, just for five minutes.

They are busy, they have a marketing problem and they just want someone who can sort it out.  They trust you.  But then they discover you’ve never completed a genuine copywriting project in your life.  And that you are taking them for a fool. And, to add insult to injury, you expect to be paid.

How are they going to feel?  Pissed off.

Shit for brains?

This begs a number of questions.

  • Do you honestly expect to make any money behaving like this?
  • What kind of job satisfaction can you expect to enjoy if you take this approach?
  • If you get a project, and screw it up, how much damage are you doing to that business and the people who rely on it for their livelihood?
  • Have you no conscience whatsoever?
  • Do you really think people who run businesses, or work in marketing, are totally clueless?
  • What damage are you doing to the image of copywriting as a profession?

Show me the proof

Happily not all copywriters are so shockingly clueless and casually dishonest.  But when so many are so shameless how can you find a good one?

Fortunately, there’s an easy, and effective answer.  Look at the work.  If they can’t show you any then don’t use them.

Even if they do have examples of work, make sure it is genuinely theirs.  And ask them to talk you though the project – what was the problem they were asked to solve, who was the target audience, what was the objective, and how did they approach the task?  This, at least, should satisfy you that they have some experience, and that they understand the basics of what they are supposed to be doing.

I’m constantly amazed at how few copywriters show examples of their work on their websites.  Either they don’t have any.  Or they aren’t proud of what they’ve done.  Neither of which bodes well!

The sad truth is that many copywriters are much better at promoting themselves than their clients.  But what do you expect – that’s marketing!

Illustration credit Lee Crutchley – he has some great ones on his site