Butt-Saving 101a

Monday, 7:34pm
Reno, NV
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?

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

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.

Just enter your name and primary email address below and we'll send you the new report right away.

"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."

  • Chris Kellum says:


    THANK YOU for this! As a SEO consultant, and more recently, copywriter, I can’t tell you how much these past couple posts have meant to me. Both for the time management (deadline) initiatives, as well as having the balls to step up when your client doesn’t deliver.

    Kind of reminds me of one of the stories in your Kick Ass Secrets (read it last week) about the guy who tried to be cute and screw you on the up-front payment, and how you sent him his check back and told him not to contact you again.

    Not sure if you’ve read Frank’s little book that he shipped with Mass Control Monthly, but he also spoke of the “sushi nazi” out there, and how the guy ran a tight ship and if you stepped out of line, you were banned.

    Anyway, Frank reasoned that it was because the guy didn’t take crap that he was able to concentrate all of his efforts on what he did (or for us, “things that make the money”), and take his skills to another level.

    Thanks for putting it in context.


    P.S. In your post, you mentioned checking out the Simple Writing System. Isn’t that closed?

  • Tia Dobi says:

    When I was a unit production manager/line producer in film/tv, hitting deadlines was never a problem.

    If I’m late, I’m either dead or in the slammer.

    Now that I’m a crewmember (copywriter) and not da boss, life is different. (Interactive production is a joke…I’ve seen websites done–I can’t even say produced–many times…I suppose there’s no end to the budget.)

    These days I go for the 100% payment up front, choose clients wisely.

    When I was 25 years old a production guy taught me this (and I believe the best teachings are in a sentence) “Never give the money back.”

    Thanks for the breakdown tips…useful.

  • Adam says:

    Hey John,

    I have no idea how you manage to always get inside my head, but (and I swear on this) every time I come to your blog…somehow it seems that you address whatever problem has been festering in my mind before it even reaches the surface. Weird shit dude. Seriously.

    Anyways, I do have a question for you about deadlines. Hard deadlines, soft deadlines – I completely see how you manage the two and i love what you have to say. But my question is less about self motivation than it is about the rewards.

    Now, i’m not going to go on about some egotistical rant here. I know that my reward should come from within and my sense of accomplishment is internal-only. I’m not looking for a childish pat on the back from my company.


    What if your employers don’t take THEIR OWN deadlines seriously??

    Let me explain:

    I get a call from one of the owners from a company I’ve been freelancing for over the past year and a half. He’s got a butt-load of sales letters he needs, and he needs them fast. I tell him i’ll do what I can to get it done.

    Long story short, I bang out roughly 18 pages of SOLID-ass copy…sharp hook…great angle, the nines. (I did the bullets previously, as this was a year-long volume collection bundle package yada yada product, and I wrote promos for each monthly edition prior). Total length of the letter turned out to be 37 pages and NONE of it (that I wrote myself) was trash.

    35 hours in 3 days – and a beat to shit immune system leading to a nasty little flu-bug for the week after. Details aside.

    Sacrifices man, I’m used to em.

    Deadline? I’m told a day, then told to extend it 2 days later due to a delay in another project they’re working on to be launched at the same time. Kept up-to-the-minute with the bossman every step of the way, and finally give him a REAL badass sales letter that i’m proud of.

    His reply? “Thanks. We’ll be reviewing this next month.”



    Ok, so after a pseudo-hard deadline is shoved down my throat…i crank my engine full throttle to make it happen (sacrificing my own goddamn health in the process)…

    …and for what? To find out that my hard work would sit dormant for a month before anyone got around to peaking at it.

    (And its not like they’re paying me much either. I should be charging 3 times as much for what I pump out for these guys)

    (Ok I lied. I guess I did rant a bit. But at least I made you chuckle, if not a sly smirk or two.)

    So here’s the question I pose:

    If your employer does not take their own deadline seriously (or your work for that matter) how can you (or SHOULD you) take their deadline seriously yourself?

    Money is money. I take pride in my work and especially getting it done on time. But a “oh hey, thanks. Let me store your blood, sweat and tears poured out to meet an unrealistic deadline that serves no purpose” as they toss my shit on the back burner just doesn’t cut it with me.

    Catch 22! I make their deadline, i feel used. I miss it, i feel like I failed myself.

    (FYI: This is the company that got me into this gig so I’m far less likely to just cut the chord and walk.)

    I’d love your advice on this, if you wouldn’t mind. Especially since you know these dudes and have counseled them before (not to mention, they WORSHIP your copy…which is what brought me to you in the first place).

    Thanks man,


    John Carlton replies:

    Two comments, Adam.

    1. Get over it. Get paid, do your job to the best of your ability, and walk on. (Unless you have a stake in the outcome, like a percentage deal on results. Then, hire my pal Guido to go threaten ’em.)

    2. This is Rule Number One of freelancing: All clients suck. Learn to deal with them, on your terms… and learn the subtle (and not so subtle) ways you can control them.

    Remember — you gotta be The Adult In The Room

    Possible help: I’m about to re-release the long-unavailable Freelance Course again. Next week, maybe. In that manual, you will learn stuff it took me 20 years to master about positioning yourself with clients. When you do it right, the situation you speak of never chaffs your ass…


  • Himagain says:

    I just got here by accident.
    Laugh -a-minute!
    I’d never heard of you till now ( been out in the Cyberbog since before most “experts” were born)
    It reminded me of of a LOT of bar-crap over the years ……..
    But – you shouldn’t tell other young people to play tough with clients – unless they ARE stars, first.
    Even today, Screenwriters are only just getting rated over the canteen manager, and they really do make it all fit together.
    I well remember the “early god” of copywriting on the Web ….. whatsisname.
    Made his rep giving away gold coins.
    It’s the promoter and his idea that counts, the rest is really fluffing (as it is called in another trade).
    The truth is that the $75 composite video is going to change it all.
    THAT’s the new copywriting and it works on auto.
    A movie is worth a 1000 words……

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