“C’mere, I wanna talk to you…” A mugger in Ry Cooder’s “Down In Hollywood”
While down in San Diego for the Kern seminar, I managed to grab a couple of meals with Jeff Walker (of Launch Formula fame).
Always a treat to hang out with Jeff — smart cookie, funny, lives life according to his own damn rules.
Plus, he always says shit that makes me think.
This time, while everyone else was yammering at the table (one of the perks of going to these events is sharing meals with groups of fascinating folks)… Jeff leaned over and asked me something that has been gnawing at my brain for a month now.
“Do you think,” he whispered, “there’s a crisis in copywriting right now?”
For the few minutes we had to talk, he laid out a harrowing plot line: Increasingly, top marketers who are quite capable of writing their own stuff (like Jeff, and Rich Schefren, and Tellman Knudsen, and Mike Filsaime, and dozens of others) are hiring copywriters to handle the task.
Hey — even pro scribes like me are always on the lookout for hot talent to tackle some of the mounting writing chores that any successful online biz encounters.
And here’s the rub: Increasingly, freelance copywriters have learned to “talk” a good game… but can’t walk the walk.
They’re asking for — and getting — top fees.
And then either screwing up the project, or delivering inferior work.
This is not good, people.
I probably share some of the blame for this miserable state of affairs. Back when I started my freelance career (last century), freelancers were not treated well. You were more like a vendor, a guy merely supplying an unimportant service, and respect was hard to come by.
You often got paid last, almost as an afterthought. And you were expected to follow the whims of the client like a good slave, and not rock the boat.
I quickly decided this was bullshit. Most of the clients I had in the first couple of years — and this included veteran direct response agencies (who should have known better) — were so clueless about good selling strategies… that it would have been a CRIME to allow them to dictate what was written.
So I spoke up, argued, and insisted on following my “Gun To The Head” philosophy of writing what was NEEDED… not what would please the client.
This necessitated a chance in client-management, too. Rather than come in sheepishly, hat in hand, and act like a vendor… I realized I needed to blow the doors down and OWN the joint if I was gonna be a successful freelancer.
The strategy was simple, and based on experience: Most clients needed a freelance copywriter because they (or their staff) couldn’t write an ad that worked.
I knew how to do that.
Therefore… I was sort of like “the adult in the room”. The guy who could clearly see what was going on, what was needed, and how to do it.
In fact… whenever I delivered finished copy that the client “loved”… I knew I’d failed.
The best copy isn’t safe and nice and loveable.
I wanted my clients nervous as hell, and squirming as they read the ad. My job wasn’t to make them happy. It was to make the ad a success.
To do that — to get into the position where I could push “the right thing” through — required a very ballsy attitude. Take no prisoners. BE that guy who demands and deserves respect… and who proves his worth by ACTIONS.
You don’t earn that kind of respect by talking a good game.
Naw. You earn it by earning it. By doing your job, over and over, and producing results that prove you know what you’re doing.
Back in my bachelor days, I remember meeting many guys who lied about their circumstances in order to get the attention of women.
“But you don’t really own a Porsche,” I would say. “And you’ve never sold a screenplay to Hollywood.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Mr Suave And Debonair would reply. “It’s all about perception.”
These guys would actually “get” the initial attention they craved. And, I guess if you’re after the most shallow and fleeting relationship encounters possible, sometimes they were “successful”.
But it always seemed creepy to me. Bare-faced dishonesty should trigger shame in your heart, not elation at gaming the system.
On the other hand…
… when you actually possess “the goods”… the real crime is in hiding from your responsibility to do what you need to do to accomplish “the right thing.”
If, as a copywriter, you know from experience and talent what should be done in a project or ad… then pure professionalism demands that you stand up and make your case.
If that requires a little attitude, maybe a little bullying or bludgeoning of the client, then that is part of your job: You treat the gig as if the business was yours, and the consequences personal.
Top writers do that. They are, despite working for a fee, partners with you for the duration of the job. (The best of the best often work on a percentage of the deal, which makes them real partners… with a very real stake in the results.)
The lower rungs of the freelance world are still valuable, of course. There are mountains of writing jobs out there that do not require the attention of wise veterans who’ve been around the block a bunch of times.
I’m not going to dis any copywriter out there who is willing to accept “fulfillment” jobs, where no input from him is expected or wanted — you just need to write a coherent piece of copy that clearly communicates what the client needs communicated. I’ve done that in my career (even after I adopted the “hard-core pro attitude” for most jobs). Sometimes, you just need to apply your skills as a communicator of the written word, and leave your attitude and consulting and “making ’em squirm” tactics back at the office.
This “crisis” that Jeff was talking about almost entirely stems from this attitude thing.
Here’s what’s happened: A whole generation of freelancers have learned how to talk their way into getting big gigs.
And they simply do not have either the skills or the experience to pull off what’s required.
This sucks. Both for the freelancer — who gets tarred with a bad reputation — and for the client, who is out the hefty fee… and still doesn’t have copy he can use.
I wrote the notorious “Freelance Manual” five years ago, ironically, to try to nip this situation in the bud. I saw two things happening, as a result of the explosion of marketing online:
1. There was a growing need for good copy… and…
2. There was a dearth of good copywriters able to do any of it.
That Freelance Course is not available right now. This is not a pitch for it. You couldn’t get it even if you wanted it, for any price.
I’m trying to make a point here: In that course, I had exactly three sections.
“Get Good” was the first section.
“Get Connected” was the middle section.
And “Get Paid” was the last.
That course created a bit of a sensation among would-be freelancers. It was the first time a pro had let rookies and outsiders “in” on the tactics of managing clients, networking with the Big Boys, and negotiating huge fees.
That trilogy — get good, get connected, and get paid — is still the foundation for a fabulous (and fabulously wealthy) freelance career…
… you gotta embrace the entire model.
You can’t skip the “get good” part. That’s where you earn the right to “get paid”.
What Jeff Walker has noticed is the tip of the iceberg out there. Since hearing it from him, I’ve since heard complaints from a huge section of the marketers I hang with… all on the subject of freelance copywriters presenting themselves as something other than what they are.
They talk a great game. They get the big fees. They seem connected, they network well, and they know how to manage clients.
But they forgot to get good at what they are supposed to do to earn those big fees.
In that Freelance Course, I made what I thought was a clear warning: Do not attempt to break into the “A” list of clients until you are ready.
How do you know if you’re ready?
If you have to ask… then you’re not ready.
The best writers have all served some kind of long apprenceticeship, where they were free to make mistakes and learn from them… without hurting their reputations, or hurting any big client who took a shot with them.
The lucky ones found mentors, who personally took them under wing and taught them the ropes.
The Freelance Course was meant to fill in the blanks for those many writers who couldn’t find a mentor.
The writers who followed my advice in that course (the first one of its kind) have done rather well for themselves. They get the best jobs, for the biggest fees, and they enjoy sterling reputations among marketers who hire freelancers.
They are a minority, however, it seems.
Whether the mob of freelancers out there mucking up the joint ever saw my course or not (and there are now several other guides to freelancing out there that are just fine) I cannot say.
One thing is certain, though: Too many are not learning to walk the walk before they get up on the soapbox and start talking the talk.
In business, when you’re the bottom-line owner, you will find out quickly if you have what it takes to thrive. Reality will smack you down in a hurry if you skip the fundamentals, or try to game the system without paying your dues and learning the ropes.
Freelancers, however, can actually hover above the rules of consequence. For a time, anyway. They get paid to produce an ad, and they can walk away from the project afterward.
This is NOT an excuse to do shoddy work. Pro’s — the real heroes of copywriting, the guys who become legends and own reputations that read like novels — throw themselves into every project with full force. There is NEVER an excuse to give less than 100% — if you accept a job, you are a partner in the project until you’ve done what needs to be done.
So, I suppose this is a warning shot across the bow of freelancers out there.
The top marketers — the guys who WILL pay top dollar for copy — are aware of this crisis.
And they talk with each other.
The rewards of taking the time to get good, before you start negotiating the big buck fees, are staggering. (And you can still earn a handsome living while you’re honing your chops and putting your nose to the grindstone, learning and getting experience.)
The damage, however, that you do by presenting yourself as something you’re not… is permanent and will murder your career.
Freelancing is a wonderful profession. But you don’t just waltz into it fully formed. You gotta master the craft.
Clients can suck. That’s a primal lesson all freelancers learn early, especially when they mentor under me.
However, when you are able to confidently swim the choppy waters of writing for multiple markets (and multiple clients), it’s all just part of a day’s work.
The clients may suck, the job may require you to think overtime and sweat more than you’d prefer at the keyboard (doing draft after draft until it’s right)… and your gut may wince at the moments of severest anxiety (like just before results come in).
But it ain’t digging ditches, is it.
It’s earning a living (and a damn good one, too) doing something you SHOULD love: Writing.
Copy is the foundation of business. All business, and all marketing. No video, website, print ad, email, text message, direct mail letter, fax, infomercial, radio spot, or anything else with a sales message… is created without someone sitting down and knocking out the copy. (Even “spontaneous” video is “written” — though the “script” may be in your head, assembled a nano-second before coming out of your mouth. It’s still copy. It’s still gotta be created.)
Writing is, in fact, the foundation of civilization as we know it. Scribes have always held a special place in society, because they are masters of communication.
Respect the gig.
Actually get good before you tell clients you’re good.
Don’t be shy about honestly assessing what you can do for any given client, and neotiating a truly fair fee that is a win-win for both of you.
You’re worth a higher fee when what you produce can quickly bring measureable results that make your pay irrelevant, because your stuff works.
This current crisis will end, one way or another, as the freelancers who actually produce are identified. The marketers with deep pockets are wary, pissed off and getting increasingly hip to how they can get “taken” by not-yet-ready-for-prime-time writers.
I do not understand why so many rookie writers are in a breathless hurry to get the big fees.
The ride is half the fun, people. Earning your success is a thousand times more satisfying than gaming the system… and it’s worth more, too.
Warning shot fired, and canon put away.
What do you think about all this? I’d love to hear from both freelancers and marketers who hire freelancers…
P.S. If mentoring is something you feel you need, in order to get your own ride going at top speed… don’t forget the opportunities of my coaching club.
Just read the copy on this link, and see if it isn’t something that fits the bill for you.
Free trials, you know.
Just a thought — if you’re considering moving ahead in your career, especially online.
Here’s the link:
"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."