How to freelance

When copywriting is NOT the answer

Small businesses sometimes struggle with marketing.  They know they want the cure - more sales usually - but they don't want to take the medicine. In my experience marketing embraces a range of disciplines and activities: branding, PR, advertising, websites, product literature, case studies etc. etc.

Copywriting touches all of these points but, on its own, it isn't sufficient. I have worked with a couple of smaller companies who have had this problem. I'm good at what I do and I can help most businesses a lot. I'm good at prioritising and categorising product features and translating them into customer benefits.  I'm good a project management and understanding website development and magazine production. I'm really good at website copy, brochures and other long copy. But I can't solve all their problems on my own.

I have a good track record, good clients, do good work and, yes, talk a good talk.  Small businesses sometimes see me as a kind of magic bullet.  What tends to happen next is that the projects start off with great enthusiasm but turn to disappointment when their expectations (usually unspoken) aren't met.  Then they turn to the next magic bullet solution.  It's expensive for them and frustrating for me.

The reality is that my work is best when it complements the work of other experts. Typically for my lovely, large clients like Microsoft, HP and eBay, I work with an 'ecosystem' of agencies and staff to deliver large projects.  My work infuses everyone else's and their work builds on what I do.

I've had a few small business clients where everything went brilliantly (RiskCare's website was one or case studies for a couple of small tech companies) but in those cases the brief is very specific.

The warning signs that a project is going to be a problem are:

  • The absence of any coherent marketing plan or strategy, just "we need to sort out marketing."
  • Vague, non-specific briefs. Even if I draft a brief for them, there is sometimes an expectation that I'll do "more" somehow.
  • "Can we just book a day of your time?" as if that's going to solve all their problems.
  • Being asked to attend lots of meetings that don't actually produce decisions or confirm briefs but just help them think through their troubles.
  • When I'm asked to comment on or contribute to areas that aren't really my primary expertise.
  • Very long, rambling introductions to the company or its products. "The company was started in ..." followed by a life story, as if the company's history IS the company.  "ProductXYZ has..." followed by a two-hour super-technical presentation, as if the product IS the company.
  • They want me to be a kind of surrogate marketing director.
  • Time goes by, work is done but nothing changes.
  • Vagueness about budgets, the process of purchasing (e.g. no purchase orders) or the business side of the engagement.
  • Lots of free pitching from me and other agencies.
  • I get a nagging feeling that I'm not really "deploying my full force along lines of excellence."

I guess this post is a long way of thinking through some of the factors that might cause me to suggest that a prospective client look for a different advisor or where I might want to do some education and pre-qualification before I work with a company. I know a few copywriters read this blog and I'm interested if this tallies with their experience.

Matthew Stibbe

Matthew is founder and CEO of Articulate Marketing.