The other day I was helping a friend who has recently begun his career in freelance copywriting. He had his very first assignment and wanted to do a good job, so he asked me to read over the piece for him. As I said before, your competition PROBABLY isn’t actually your competition, so I obliged. He’s a talented guy and a pretty solid writer but the first draft wasn’t quite right. It was good writing. It was clear. It was concise. But it didn’t match with what the client was looking for. He’d failed to stick to the brief that the client had provided. It’s easy to do. You’re plugging along. You think you’re making headway. You’ve got some great ideas. The juices are flowing. The words are flying onto the page. That’s all well and good, but you need to remember who hired you, and why.
Why do I think people fail to adhere to briefs? I think that when it comes down to it, there are three reasons. None of these reasons make you a bad person. They all make sense. They’re not inherently evil. We don’t read a brief and say, “to hell with them, I know exactly what I’m doing.” No. But there are a few things that get in our way as humans and we need to at the very least stop and consider them.
I haven’t read very many copywriting briefs where the client hasn’t been pretty clear about what they wanted. In fact, most have been crystal clear. Here’s what we need you to say, here’s where we want it to lead and here’s how long it needs to be. As someone who loves to write and (hopefully) does so with some skill, I sometimes marvel at why copywriting is even a job when I’m given SO much to work with. If you know all this, why don’t you just write it? But then I remember that some people don’t have the time, skill or interest to write and I shut up. But most writers are relatively creative people and so we think that it would be AMAZING if we BLEW AWAY the client with some CRAZY content that was just THE BEST. And here’s the thing. When it comes down to it, the client doesn’t want you to blow them away.
You’re not writing the next great short story or novel. You’re writing 500-600 words on why people should buy a good pair of walking shoes. It is absolutely your job to punch up the piece as much as possible and make it as interesting as it is informative. But no one is expecting that the reader is going to be crying or laughing or really moved when they finish your piece. There are gigs where that is the case, but in the copywriting world, they’re few and far between. If you want moving, go read Jodi Piccoult. We’re talking about insurance, lawn care and tires. Don’t try to interpret what the client is saying. They’re saying what they said. If it’s not clear, ask. Ask until it is clear. And once it’s clear, write it. Don’t turn a junior high slow jam into an interpretive dance piece.
When I started writing copy for a local marketing firm, I had no idea what I was doing. I knew I could write on any topic that they gave me. I knew I could turn boring into interesting and I knew I could turn data into information. I knew I could do that. But on that first day, they threw a lot of terms and phrases at me that I didn’t understand. I had no experience in inbound marketing and most of my copywriting experience had been web copy for some relatively static sites. But that first brief was talking about TOFU and CTA’s and all sorts of stuff that I didn’t know anything about. So I asked what it all meant. And making sure you understand what things mean is of the utmost importance. Otherwise you can waste a lot of your time and a lot of their money. And nobody likes that. But I’m going to tell you here and now that I did something wrong by asking what all of that meant, and here’s why.
I used to be a manager at the Halifax Mac Store. Not the makeup store, (although we got 1-2 interesting and confusing calls a week) but rather the computer shop in downtown Halifax. I sat at a counter, with a big shiny computer in front of me. Customers would come in and ask things like “do you know what OS will work with a 2008 iMac” and I would answer those questions quickly and confidently because I was using a secret weapon; Google. Honestly, people would come in and ask me a question and I would type that question in VERBATIM to Google and it would spit out an answer. If they asked me how I knew, I’d tell them that I asked Google. If they asked me what I searched for, I’d tell them that I searched for the exact question that they asked.
The team at this marketing firm was very busy. This is why I was hired. I was hired to take some work off their plate so that they could accomplish more. And here I was asking questions that could easily be Googled while they were trying to hammer out more briefs and proposals. When I was a young boy and I asked me mom what a word meant, she’d tell me to go look it up. We’re all grown up now but my mom is still right. If you don’t understand something, look it up. If you STILL can’t figure it out, ask.
This, as far as I’m concerned, is the biggest obstacle and danger in the world of reading briefs. And this, I believe, was the category that my friend fell into. I’m not suggesting that people are egotistical maniacs. We all have an ego. But we need to learn when and how to put it in check.
My friend has some experience in the field that the client was asking him to write about which can be vey dangerous. The more he wrote, the more he distanced himself from the brief. He didn’t need to refer back because HE KNEW what he was talking about. And he did, without a doubt. But it wasn’t what the client ASKED him to write about.
It was an easy fix. He went back to the drawing board, did some heavy editing and a couple hours later had a polished piece. He submitted it, the client was pleased and paid him in full.
When a client gives you a brief, they’re defining what they want. Can you imagine if we did this in any other job? “Ok, so you asked me to mop the floors but INSTEAD, I decided to pull up all that old tile and replace it with hardwood.” “You asked me to take this document to Kinkos and fax it but INSTEAD I BOUGHT US A FAX MACHINE.” Sure, both of those might seem like upgrades. But give them a try and let me know how excited your boss is.
Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do and die. – Tennyson