“He’s a well respected man about town, doing the best things so conservative…ly..” (Kinks)
Well, that was fun.
My last post (on the mojo-sucking power of missing deadlines) seems to have caused much gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes…
… plus a lot of self-reflection that may even lead to behavior changes amongst the professional class.
That would be so cool.
However, I know from shameful experience that merely vowing to do better ain’t enough. Human behavior is inherently stubborn and our brains insubordinate.
It’s freakin’ HARD to change… even when change is in your best interest.
No, wait — especially when it’s in your best interest.
… let’s look at a “brain tool” you can borrow to help you change.
I call it…
“The Miracle of Soft Deadlines.”
Here’s what it’s all about: Meeting hard deadlines pretty much defines you as a professional in advertising or marketing. (As well as everywhere else in life.)
This is especially true if you’re part of the team creating the ad — either writing the words, or delivering the tech side (including graphics and all the other details required for finished product).
Early in my own freelance career, I pledged (to myself) that I would commit fully to the professional’s code: Be where I said I’d be, when I said I’d be there… having done what I said I’d do.
Though painful at times… adopting that creed has helped me to never miss a hard deadline.
… I have missed oodles of “soft” deadlines.
In fact, I’d be doing it wrong if I HAD met all those softies.
Let me explain the tool: One of my most memorable quotes (from an early Rant newsletter) has got to be “Deadlines are the world’s greatest invention — without them, nothing would ever get done.”
For a guy like me… a full-bred slacker addicted to easy ways out… the discovery of the POWER of a deadline, taken to heart, was mind-blowing.
Suddenly, I was getting all this stuff… done.
However, I quickly learned that JUST setting a main, hard deadline was dangerous.
Because it was arbitrary.
Just plucking a date from thin air, and making that your deadline… is asking for trouble.
You can really get your butt in a sling that way.
The much better path…
… is to use the same tactics smart folks use to solve ANY problem: Break it down… and attack the pieces.
This is the main secret behind Hot Seats, of course. What can seem like a single, monolithic problem that defies fixing…
… is really just a puzzle that needs to be taken apart, and examined in detail…
… which (ta-daaaa!) always deconstructs that monolithic capital-P Problem, and gives us bite-sized chunks that are easily dealt with.
Often, what seems like The Problem (“Not making enough sales”) is really just a symptom. As in: fresh competition is undercutting your prices, beating you at PR and pay-per-click, and/or winning hearts and minds with better copy.
Trying to get more sales without understanding the elements of the situation will leave you dazed and confused. And going broke.
But figuring out it all stems from a price thing… or an SEO thing… or (even better) simply a matter of re-establishing your go-to-guy position with a copy overhaul…
… well, all that is EASY to put into action.
“Break it down.”
Keys to the universe, my friend.
With deadlines, I learned to lay out a functional, extremely practical time-line for any new project… and set up multiple soft deadlines to support the hard final deadline.
A soft deadline would be, for example, receipt of the “Care Package” from the client, containing all the research materials I’d requested to get started.
Or the date I wanted to have all interviews with the client and his minions done.
Or (for myself) the day I had a big batch of headlines and USPs written out, so I could choose the best and get moving to bullets and offer.
Or… and this is a biggie… the arrival of the first payment for the gig.
Listen closely: Soft deadlines are SUPPOSED to be missed, much of the time.
They’re like red flags to alert you when the project is behind schedule…
… or (for freelancers) that your client is going to passive-aggressively blow your hard deadline.
And when that happens… no amount of “proof” from you that he never sent the info you requested, or never allowed you to interview his staff, or never provided testimonials…
… will change the emotionally-charged subject line in your clients brain: “Writer Misses Hard Deadline, Causes Grief And Anguish!”
Bottom line: If you take the job, you accept the fact of a hard deadline.
And if you’re a true pro, you will meet that deadline…
… no matter what.
There are no excuses.
But here’s the kicker: If you discover you WON’T be able to meet a hard deadline… you are responsible for finding another way for the deadline to still be met.
The easiest way to do that… is to not accept the job in the first place.
I’ve turned down more jobs in my career than I’ve accepted, by nearly a 9-to-1 ratio. And the main reason I refuse a job… is because I don’t believe the client has his shit together.
And when he doesn’t have his shit together, I will be the one taking the blame when the project dies a gruesome death.
This is where soft deadlines come in big-time.
I have, over the years, figured out how long it “should” take me to write copy for a given job. The actual tapping of keys (creating the final draft of the manuscript for the ad, website, or whatever) is not difficult to judge.
A few days, maybe a week or so. (Tip: Most “A List” writers produce around two pages of copy a day. No matter how many hours they spend “writing” — at the end of the day, they’ve got two pages, max. This is superb-level copy, though… not hack work. I’m not putting down hacks, either — I can go into Hack Mode myself, and ram out 8 pages a day of schlock. Sometimes, schlocky copy is all that’s needed to make a sale. Keep that in mind when learning to judge your own capacity for production.)
(So, if I estimate a Website, for example, will end up needing around 12 pages of “A Level” manuscript copy, I know I’ll need to set aside at least 6 days of writing. Or two days for Hack Mode stuff.)
(Side Note: This skill was easier for us to learn back in the Old Days of direct response. The average long-copy direct mail letter was either 8 or 12 pages. Never 9 or 10 or 13… because the letter would be printed in “signatures of 4 pages each. That’s how the printing process worked. So you wrote final copy to “fit” — which is something no Web-oriented writer can get his brain around, because it doesn’t matter how long copy is online — there’s no printing, and thus no physical limits.)
(And more’s the pity, to my mind. Too many writers online today are needlessly verbose, and waste reader’s time with repititious, tangent-infested copy that takes forever to cover short distances of a pitch.)
Now, for me to figure I needed, say, 5 days to “write” an ad was just the beginning.
Next, I’d break down the process required BEFORE I sat my butt down to tap keys.
The first payment, of course, is first on the list. (I was as ruthless about this with huge clients as I was with entrepreneurs… and with old friends. I refused to even waste a single brain cell on the project until the check cleared the bank… and every day that check was late, I pushed back the hard deadline for final copy. This caused a ruckus at places like Rodale, who faced printing penalties in the 6-figure range… and I’m pretty sure I’m still the only writer they’ve ever dealt with who had Marketing VPs hand-carrying checks from accounting to be Fed Exed overnight… to a writer.)
(That really frosted them, too. The natural tendency of all VPs, everywhere, is to regard a copywriter as a lower life-form, unworthy of common respect. This is true even in ad agencies, ironically. So I delighted in rubbing executives noses in the fact that the copy really was driving the bus…)
(No wonder I was blacklisted at Rodale, before that first piece became a control that mailed for 5 years… and became a First Choice for jobs there.)
(But that’s how a professional SHOULD work. As the hired pro, you are The Adult In The Room. The client will want to dick around, and put you on a 60-day payment arrangement because “that’s the way our accounting is set up”… as if that’s YOUR fault.)
(Well, screw that. I work for money. I have zero qualms about sharing a “Get Paid First” professional ethic with hookers, mercenaries and lawyers. If you’re gonna trade services for moolah, make sure your client understands that the moolah must be delivered, on time, as agreed… or we shoot the deadline.)
Also in my contract were dates for delivery of information… interviews… testimonials… etc.
The check, and the final copy were quasi-hard deadlines. I could be reasoned with, but never compromised.
The rest of my demands were SOFT deadlines. I fully expected the client to miss some or all of them… because I purposely padded the time between these soft deadlines to allow for the very human tendency of clients to MISS EVERY IMPORTANT DATE PUT IN FRONT OF THEM.
And the first soft deadline a client missed triggered a very pissed-off call from me, making it clear that HE was creating a situation that threatened the final, hard deadline.
So get those materials together, right now, and Fed Ex them to me.
Okay… I didn’t spend my career calling clients jerks, or screaming into phones at them.
But it did happen occasionally.
I took my job as The Adult In The Room very seriously.
And laying out soft deadlines helped me keep the pressure on the client to get me what I needed.
Cuz I couldn’t even start those 5 days of writing until I had my USP-creation research done… my lists of features/benefits ready for bulletizing… my hooks discovered… the offer nailed down… and all the rest. (For further study, please refer to the Simple Writing System.)
… soft deadlines are like the pillars of support for any real hard deadline. They’re the teeth in the beast’s mouth.
And there IS an art to “breaking stuff down” into bite-sized chunks… both for problem-solving (in Hot Seats and consulting), and for figuring out the reality of hard deadlines.
Maybe we’ll get around to explaining that part of Butt-Saving 101 later on.
What do you think?
P.S. Of course, the BEST way for you to get a quick education in how professionals break stuff down for problem-solving…
… would be to attend my new Hot Seat Event in San Francisco this coming February 21-22.
I’ve packed the room with a jaw-dropping list of professionals and experts in makiing money through wicked-good marketing. In any economic situation.
And you are guaranteed a Hot Seat when you attend. That means everyone will focus every available resource on you and your situation… resolving every problem you can bring up, and delivering an Action Plan you can put to use as soon as you get home.
In 20 years of doing Hot Seats, I have yet to come across a biz problem that couldn’t be resolved… quickly, and in detail. With a specific path to moving forward, and getting the results you want.
This event is a no-pitch zone — there will be no lectures, no pitches for other products of any kind, no fluff whatsoever.
Just two solid days of hard-core marketing wizardy… focused entirely on you and the handfull of other attendees allowed in.
Spots are just ridiculously limited. We can only do around 6 Hot Seats a day. There are just 2 days.
So yeah, if you’re interested, you better get a move on.
Here’s the link:
All will be explained there.