“Do the least damage possible to the client.” (Me.)
Recently, a good pal (and damn fine copywriter) had a bit of a meltdown…
… because Life inserted some truly cruel and unusual shit into his day, and he was in danger of missing a deadline. (That’s a photo of a deadline, above. Nasty thing.)
This is a no-no among most top professionals of all persuasions. You don’t miss deadlines.
People are counting on you. As a freelancer, entire businesses may be counting on you.
Back when I wrote for the largest direct mailing outfits in the world, a missed deadline might mean tens of thousands of bucks wasted, as printing presses sat idle. If my piece was meant for a print ad, even more money could potentially go down the tubes — my deadline was attached to a publication deadline, and no magazine or newspaper waits for you to get your shit together.
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You don’t get your ad in on time, you don’t go into the publication. And you still have to pay (at least a penalty, and maybe the whole ad cost).
It’s serious stuff.
… because we’re all humans living in an essentially hostile world (full of danger, unpredictable risks, and lots of other gruesome horrors)…
… you need a plan.
A plan for that day (which hopefully never comes) when… shudder…
You may be forced to miss a deadline.
My colleague is a true pro. He understands that clients and printing presses and budgets and biz plans are counting on him to meet his deadlines…
… and over a decade as a freelance copywriter, has never to my knowledge missed one.
And yet, here he was…
… cornered by Life, and needing some advice on what to do.
So, I whipped out a short list of options.
And it was so good, I thought I’d share it here.
For you to use NEVER… unless there is absolutely no other choice.
So, ONLY for your deep Bag O’ Tricks-Maybe-Needed-Down-The-Line (and never for regular use), here’s that advice:
How to get out of a deadline…
… when you absolutely have to for only one of four reasons:
- You’re faint from loss of blood
- Space aliens kept you locked up all night doing anal probes
- Your eyes fell out…
- Real life or death emergencies
… which, by the way, are the ONLY real excuses a true professional would ever let get in the way of a deadline.
Let’s begin with the stark fact that I, for one, have never missed a deadline. Never. In a 30-year writing career.
A few colleagues have expressed shock over that. Cuz, from the complaints I’ve fielded over the years about my cohorts
The average copywriter misses approximately half their deadlines.
From rookie to top dog. It’s appalling.
But it also opens up a huge opportunity for writers who want to stand out (as all the “A Listers” do). One of the reasons I earned the global reputation I enjoy, in fact… is by meeting my deadlines.
Deadlines are sacred. I made a vow early in my career, “biz before pleasure”, and I stuck to it.
Without that attitude, I would be just another run-of-the-mill copywriter. No fame. No fortune. Not worth much.
In fact, the whole notion of meeting ALL your deadlines caused me to create what I call “The Professional’s Code”. It’s good for anyone in any kind of job where people count on you.
Here’s that code:
You are where you said you’d be… when you said you’d be there… having done what you said you’d do.
It’s just that simple. In biz, romance, hobbies, getting your hair cut, everything you do… you follow the code.
If you crave the respect (and rewards) of BEING a true pro…
… you move heaven and earth to make this code REAL in your life.
You become That Pro who can be counted on. Who follows through. Who you can trust with your life. Or the life of your business.
… nevertheless, there may come a time in your career when life interferes so drastically…
… that you are forced to miss a deadline.
If that happens, here are your options:
Option #1: Arrange for an extension.
You do not reveal details of your emergency. You’re not looking for sympathy. You’re a professional who is admitting that you cannot meet the current deadline…
… and something else needs to be arranged.
If they refuse your request for an extension, then: (a) return whatever fee you’ve already been paid, and deal with the professional shame of missing a deadline…
… or (b) hand in whatever you’ve completed up to this moment (if it’s even close to being what the client needs)…
… or (c) combine (a) and (b).
You may lose the client if what you give them isn’t something they can use… but then, who needs clients who don’t respect the fact that — once in a while — life hands you a bummer? (And, to be fair, what client needs a writer who misses deadlines?)
This is assuming you haven’t made a habit of missing deadlines. You may have earned some slack, IF your rep is clean up to now.
If missing the deadline causes a huge problem for the client, then your reputation has taken a massive hit…
… and your job, for the next few years, will be to try to repair your reputation. It will be hard. And dependent on you never missing another deadline.
If you take the hit, face up to it. It’s a setback. You’ll have to work to fix it.
It is what is. (Good Zen advice for living imperfectly in a rough world.)
An extension only works if it works for your client, too.
If you must face the reality that you will not meet the deadline…
… then own up to it as soon as possible. Do not try to keep a fee you haven’t earned.
And — most important —
Do NOT vanish on the client!
The WORST thing you can do is go radio silent, leaving your client in the dark… just because you’re too embarrassed to admit you’re missing a deadline.
This compounds the error, essentially tossing your reputation into the toilet.
Own up to the situation. Again, you do not need to share details — what’s important to the client is not what’s happening to you, but what’s to become of his campaign. He paid you to do a job, and you’re not doing it. There are no “good” excuses for missing a deadline…
… but there are missed deadlines, even the most perfect of worlds.
Option #2: Meet the deadline despite the crisis.
Gear up, do the best job possible in the time you can give to the gig, working overnight if you must, and meet the deadline with something resembling a complete ad.
Schedule time to get at least some sleep, and to deal with the interfering emergency…
… but give the rest of your available time to the job. Make it happen.
I’ve even resorted to jamming out an ad in a couple of hours, to meet a deadline. Normally, I want weeks to carefully craft an ad… to research it, edit it, come up with multiple headlines, carefully craft the whole thing. However, I’m also capable of writing quickly, without the days of obsession and editing.
I prefer to have time to do it right.
But when time is not available, I do the best job I can inside of the small block of time I do have.
When you jam stuff out… what you end up with is what it is.
Just know that a top writer working at 70% is worth a lesser writer at peak output — which means, if you’re a veteran writer, this rushing to meet the deadline at the last minute can still produce “good enough” copy.
If you’re not a veteran writer… then you’ve got to make the call: Can you craft a complete ad — even an inferior one — in the time you do have available?
If you can’t, then this isn’t a good option for you.
Side note: The great Gary Halbert used to routinely finish ads, writing by hand on a legal pad, in the passenger seat of a car speeding to the client’s office. I’ve written speeches in the airplane, flying to the event I’d be speaking at. I know writers who’ve recorded themselves talking out copy while in the shower, and editing the transcription in the lobby of the client’s biz.
And I’ve written ads (and made major biz decisions on the phone) in hospitals, taking a break from attending to the loved one I was there to see. I never neglected my duties as part of the support team. But there was always time to break away for 20 minutes or an hour (when they were sleeping).
You do NOT need your usual “safe space” to create good copy, once you become a true professional. You use what you have.
Especially today, with modern technology. I’ve written ads on my iPhone, typing with thumbs.
Option #3: If you have even a day to spare, hire a ghost writer, and meet the deadline.
If the emergency forcing you to miss the deadline is also taking you away from your ability to do ANY work at all…
But there is still time for SOMEONE to do it, then this is the best option.
Early in my career, I worked for copywriting legends like Jim Rutz (inventor of the magalog), Jay Abraham and Gary Halbert in these exact situations. Sometimes, even for my very first jobs with them…
… so we had no history, and they had no idea of I could deliver quality or not. But they hired me, because I was willing to throw myself into the fire, work all night (for several nights, if needed), and move heaven and earth to help them meet their sacred deadline. And they’d heard from other marketers that I met my deadlines…
… even when they were unreasonably short.
It was a great way to kickstart my reputation as a writer you could count on. And it got me inside their operations, where I soon held high-status positions.
If you need to hire a ghost writer, hit up your network and pay what you need to pay to meet the deadline. It might be all of your fee…
… which is acceptable, because this is an emergency situation.
Oh, wait. You don’t have a network yet?
Well, why not?
One of your priorities in life should be to cultivate and nurture a network of colleagues who are in your biz. If you’re a writer, then that network should be full of your writing peers — the sort of professionals you can hit up when you’re forced to hire a ghost writer.
And those are your options.
Bottom line: Do not be bullied or guilt-tripped by the client — for your own peace of mind. Rest on your laurels if you have to — if your reputation is clean (because you’ve made meeting deadlines a professional habit), then this one time missing a deadline or returning the fee won’t harm you much.
Recite: “It is what it is. Under normal conditions, meeting this deadline wouldn’t be an issue. It is an issue, however, this time.”
Then make your decision on the best option, and engage the client in conversation if you’re backing out of the gig. The sooner he knows, the more he can mitigate the problems you’ve caused.
Seek the least damage to the client.
Side note: The best way to AVOID this travesty, of course, is to avoid agreeing to hard deadlines in the first place. Smart clients pad their deadlines, so they’re not actually “hard”, in the sense that missing it creates a disaster.
A “soft” deadline means there is still time after you turn in your manuscript before the ad runs, or gets printed, or the project starts. You’re not turning in your copy the day before the launch or the print date.
That doesn’t mean you can miss soft deadlines with impunity, though. The extra time is usually reserved for your copy being reviewed, fact-checked, and proofed. All very necessary stuff.
Top pro’s who’ve had experiences with deadlines prefer this arrangement. If there’s a problem — especially one in miscommunication between client and writer (including bad info, incorrect facts, and totally misunderstanding some essential part) — it can be caught early, during one of the multiple soft deadlines in the funnel.
It gets complicated, when writers don’t want early drafts of their work seen by the client. I certainly do not want this.
However, it’s very smart to insert soft deadlines where the client must get all info to you (so you can start writing)… where all facts (from phone numbers to links to research info) are double-checked… and where you float your hook (especially if it’s outrageous) or sale-closing angles (including guarantees).
This saves everyone a lot of problems.
It also forces the writer not to wait until the last minute to start writing (which is why sudden emergencies cause such havoc). If you’ve got all the info double-checked, and you’re sure of the facts you’re working with, AND you’ve cleared your hook with the client…
… then having to finish up in a hurry (when unexpected shit hits your fan) becomes much, much easier.
Top writers know how to navigate life and business at a level far above how regular civilians operate.
Because people are counting on you.
Hope this helps.
P.S. Want more good advice like this, specifically for copywriters and consultants?
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Thanks a lot. I have been forced to leave my many clients hanging for two weeks, and I am in the middle of rectifying the issue as best I can.
I certainly needed the advice:-)But most of all I needed a cool and professional perspective to center my thoughts and calm my mind.
Somehow your writing always make me step back, look up and smell spring:-) I need that – and I thank you for it.
All the best
Glad it helped.
Just don’t make a habit of missing any deadlines…
I won’t. Thanks.
I’m painting “biz before pleasure” on my wall.
I actually kept post-it notes with it on my wall, eye level, right above the keyboard, over my entire career.
It’s probably the main key to my success in life… and was especially required since I was a freaking slacker when I started my career…
I’ve instinctually followed this advice and am glad you’re saying this!
Working so late my eyes are about to bleed… Skipping fun beach outings because I gotta spend 30 hours over the weekend crafting my first sales page…
… oh, the joys. ;p
Much love John!
Another practical sliver! Life learning plus lots of well-intentioned advice. You’re one real guy in a sea of pen-pushers.
A well worked out plan B, alternatives & backups is a must for every freelancer. Especially for the one’s who work on multiple projects. And once the calamity is over, its crucial to introspect the reason for the missed deadlines. Vow never to repeat it.
That has worked for me so far.
Yep. Good plan.
I learned about deadlines from my dad… whose summation was “There are excuses, and there are reasons. Both mean the work is still waiting to be done”.
We were talking about hedge trimming, but funny how universal that was…
Good post, as always!
Good advice from your dad…
What if I already committed deadline suicide.
With a couple of clients…
I know it might not be easy to recover, but how do I jump into the reputation recovery gig?