Caveat emptor – hire copywriter with caution

February 2, 2014


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

  1. Randy Kershner February 3, 2014 Reply

    Well said, Jim. I applaud you for speaking up on this one and hope you don't mind that I just shared this in several of my LinkedIn groups. Thanks for sharing and cheers - I agree on all points!

  2. Jim February 3, 2014 Reply

    Hi Randy,
    glad you agree. I didn't plug it all over Linkedin for fear of being too provocative but I'm delighted you have!
    Cheers, and thanks for the support - I really appreciate it. Sometimes I sit alone at my screen and think "Am I the one who is losing the plot here?!"

  3. Richard Hughes February 4, 2014 Reply

    Right on the money Jim!

    Every point in your article is accurate and true. This is a subject that needs to have a line shone brightly on it, and the fraudsters who engage in these disgusting and misleading practices, exposed.

    The truth of the matter is, when it comes to upholding the integrity of our profession as well as the quality of work we invest so much time and effort into "One bad apple can indeed spoil the whole bunch" and accomplish nothing but to negate the value and tarnish the image all true professional copywriters strive to maintain.

    • Jim March 24, 2014 Reply

      Hi Richard,

      Thanks for enthusiastic feedback. I'm getting a bit tired of marketing people who don't seem to question whether a copywriter is capable or not. Call yourself "a trained copywriter" and that seems to be enough for some clients (so long as you're cheap!).


  4. Tim Gander March 14, 2014 Reply

    Hi Jim! Your post caught my attention, and I have to say this is a situation which has been bothering me as a professional photographer. So many people now list their skills as "web designer, graphic designer, photographer".

    They may be excellent at web and graphic design, or not, and in any case these are very separate skills too and most commonly the person might be good at one or the other, but not both and they've almost certainly never trained as a photographer.

    Again, I would urge any prospective client to check out their website for photos and to check that they're genuinely theirs. It isn't the competition which bothers me so much as the harm they do to rates and the perception of the profession.

    One point I would disagree on, and of course it could be different in the copyrighting world, but I would urge photographers never to work for free in order to gain experience. Shoot personal projects, and shoot them as if you were on assignment. But don't pretend the images were commissioned. Use them to form the basis of a web portfolio and to attract the kinds of clients who want that style of work. Working for free just makes it harder for the beginner to ever charge decent rates.

    Otherwise, top post and thank you.


    • Jim March 24, 2014 Reply

      Hi Tim,

      Yes, it's same with copywriting: "web designer, social media consultant, photographer, brand strategist, copywriter - I'm great at all of them!"

      Very good point about not working for free. It is better to do personal assignments to gain experience/show competence. Working for nothing on real jobs just devalues the work and makes it harder for all those in the industry to get paid.



  5. Andrew Healey March 19, 2014 Reply

    Hi Jim, you make a very good point.

    I recently wrote content for a guy who wanted to be a property developer. Apart from buying a couple of his own houses, he's never done it before. It was amazing what rubbish he wanted me to write, like "No. 1 property developer." I think people like him are a symptom of listening to too may Antony Robins-type business coaches who say you can be what ever you want to be. Of course you can, but you must pay your dues first.

    My advice to someone aspiring to become a freelance copywriter is to forget about branding and keep a low profile until they have built up experience. As you say, getting experience by working for free is a great idea.

    • Jim March 24, 2014 Reply

      Hi Andrew,

      Yes the personal development industry has a lot to answer for in terms of getting people to believe they can become anything they want. In fairness the good ones caveat that with "but you've got to do the work" - it's the audience who prefer to skip over that depressing stuff and jump straight on to the the "speaking it into existence" bit.



  6. Clarke Echols March 21, 2014 Reply

    A few months ago, I encountered a company advertising programs to become "certified" copywriters, or something like that. Since that entails credentials, I snooped around their website a bit, and came across a sample lesson from one of their (expensive -- much higher priced than AWAI) courses.

    The production quality was mediocre, at best. But I was really puzzled at their approach: Just go out there and tell people you're a copywriter, get some jobs for practice, and build your business -- or words to that effect.

    When I signed up with AWAI, I'd been a senior writer at HP in technical publications, and also a learning products engineer. By then, I could prove 25 years of practical, inside-the-industry, working experience, and I was ranked in the top 5% of HP tech writers company-wide. I had produced system reference manuals as large as 3000 pages in 3 volumes, and had full editorial, typography, content writing, and general production (by myself) for four years. No brag intended; just fact.

    And when I tangled with that "basic 6-figure course" from AWAI, I felt like I'd just had my head handed to me on a platter. I didn't even know what a "copywriter" was! Yet I had an established reputation world-wide. I've been intensely learning copywriting for more years than I care to admit, and I am just now getting to feel like I'm reasonably good at it.

    But I'm comparing myself with Clayton Makepeace, John Carlton, Ben Settle, Daniel Levis, Bob Bly, and others who have become treasured friends.

    There is nothing wrong with a beginner who has had TRAINING from masters (like those at AWAI, though there are some others available, John Carlton included), building a portfolio of pieces they've written for themselves or others, but you can save yourself a lot of embarrassment if you carefully avoid any appearance of faking your way to success.

    In this business, if you fail, you'll have a lot of company. Admit your errors, do what you can to fix it, and keep trying. Just tell the truth, take responsibility, eat crow when appropriate and continue onward. Don't ever quit. As Clayton Makepeace says, the day will come when you'll be really glad you didn't give up.


    • Jim March 24, 2014 Reply

      Wise words Clarke and thanks for sharing them on my blog. Like you I'm very suspicious of some of the courses being touted around. Some, when you dig a bit, look good (at least they seem to be from people who are actively doing what they teach) but others are truly awful - the people offering them don't know what they don't know, or just don't care, or both.

      Kind regards, and many thanks for taking the time to comment,


  7. Dani Waldrop April 11, 2014 Reply

    The answer is simple: unpaid internships. They are posted everywhere, if you visit the agency websites or job boards. This is ethical, and gives newbies the experience they need.

  8. Dani Waldrop April 11, 2014 Reply

    The answer is simple: unpaid internships. They are posted everywhere on agency websites and professional job boards, and give newbies the experience they are seeking.

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