Set up to fail – 12 danger signs

iStock_000001285627XSmall-w240 All my current clients are lovely, professional and efficient. This post is not about them. But in 10 years of professional writing, as a journalist and as a marketing copywriter, I’ve had a few bad experiences that have left me sadder and wiser. Here are a few warning signs that things may go off the rails.

  1. Bad brief. Even if a client can’t give you a detailed brief of what they want, they should be able to answer a few simple questions: who is this for, what do you want them to do/think/believe when they read it, how will it be delivered etc. Most bad projects started with an unclear, inconsistent or non-existent brief.
  2. Last minute. Watch out for clients who regularly want something at the very last minute. You know the sort of thing: 4,000 words in three days. This most often happens when I work for agencies rather than directly for their clients and it suggests, to me, that the agency isn’t well organised. (Of course, if it was, they probably would have done the work in-house and I would have lost the business, so perhaps I can’t complain too much about this.)
  3. Give me a discount. People have watched The Apprentice and think that good business means demanding a discount on everything. Negotiation is one thing – your quo for my quid. But I don’t give discounts simply because someone asks for them. Why should I? I’m busy and if I do project x at a discount, I miss out on the money I would have made doing project y at full price or spending the weekend with my family instead of working. In other words, every discount has an opportunity cost. Be especially wary of the ‘quantity discount’ proposal. A vague promise that ‘there will be lots more work later if you do a good job on this one’ is not a bulk order and doesn’t deserve a discount.
  4. All things to all people. A typical example is ‘this white paper needs to appeal to C-level executives, mid-level managers, IT specialists and postmen.’ This usually means that the client hasn’t thought through the target audience and objectives clearly. This kind of brief makes it very difficult to write. As a wise editor once said to me: ‘if you try to write about everything, you write about nothing. If you try to write for everyone, you write for nobody.’
  5. Copywriting is NOT the solution. I have seen a couple of cases where agencies have outsourced their copywriting as a last-ditch attempt to resolve deep structural problems with their client relationship. They hope that I can sprinkle some pixie dust on the copy and make their client happy. Sometimes I can do this, but more often it’s like bringing an attractive 18-year old Scandinavian au pair into failing marriage. Or something like that.
  6. Can’t talk to people. Talking to people – interviewing them, if you like – is an essential part of the way I work. The less direct, real information I get the worse my work is. Some agencies don’t want me to talk to their clients for fear that I will poach them. Other times, clients don’t want me to bother their colleagues. But they also want my best work. Cue HAL-style contradiction. “I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t let you do that.”
  7. No purchase order. I have had a few cases in ten years where someone has given me work without any sense of how to pay me when it’s done or any attention to the business side of the project. This happens occasionally in very big companies and it can mean months of delay while I have to remotely manage their vendor approval, purchase order and invoicing process. A good client knows how this stuff works because they use it all the time. A bad client plays fast and loose with your time and their company policies.
  8. Too many meetings. I get very nervous if the ratio between commissioned words and meetings or calls falls below 500:1. I’ve had some 500 word projects that have required four or five phone calls and dozens of emails. The problem here is not that the client is giving you too much information (never a problem, really) but that the client doesn’t value your time or they are trying to deal with political issues by involving lots of people in the project. Both bode badly.
  9. Too many moving parts. A project that starts with too many meetings can lead to endless rounds of revision where dozens of people get to have a say. What’s especially time-consuming and annoying is when I finish the third or fourth round of edits and I think the project is done. Then, a month later, that version comes back with redlining because another layer of management has been invoked. And then it goes to legal. And then it goes to the brand police. And then the whole process starts again. This doesn’t happen often but it’s very time-consuming.
  10. Changing personnel. Probably the only bad project of 2010 went wrong when a marketing manager and his assistant both left (at different times for different reasons) mid-project. The result was, effectively, a contract renegotiation with extreme prejudice. The problems were made more complicated because neither manager would talk to me directly, leaving their assistant as the only point of contact. This lead to delays, miscommunication and indecision.
  11. Small companies. Again and again, small companies cause more stress than big ones. The CEO acts like a big shot but doesn’t know how to delegate or take advice. They’re not used to working with agencies and expect everyone to act like a full time employee. They have limited budgets and stop-start projects. I like big clients who know what they want and it’s no surprise that my client roster is mainly multinationals (Microsoft, HP, Symantec etc.)
  12. Late payment. This doesn’t happen very often in the corporate world but magazines are notorious for paying journalists very late (if at all). My view is that once you have finished the work, the fee is your money. If someone doesn’t pay you promptly without a good reason, it’s pretty close to theft. I know small companies have rough patches and I know that big companies have bureaucracy and I try to make allowances. However, paying suppliers late suggests either a lack of working capital (in which case you might never get paid) or a lack of respect for suppliers (in which case you don’t want to work for them). Avoid bad payers like the plague – you’re a writer not a debt-collector.

See also: Writers are from Mars, Clients are from Venus and 11 things to do at the start of a new relationship.

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21 Responses to Set up to fail – 12 danger signs

  1. So very true. Most of your points are present in pretty much all projects on Elance, oDesk and similar!

    • Yes, I think a lot of this applies to online freelance services but you can use their feedback function to get some advance warnings before you put in a bid. Sometimes with regular client relationships, that’s just not possible.

  2. Jane says:

    Number 7 is so true. I currently work for a big company and it’s embarrassing the hoops we make suppliers jump through. We (my team) try to be a good client but are let down by the labyrinthine processes that we (and our suppliers) have to follow.

    • I completely understand that big companies have purchasing processes. In fact, most of my clients handle it pretty well. I’d much rather work for a multinational with a purchase order, guaranteed 45-day payment process and online invoice submission and status reporting because I’m pretty certain I’ll get paid on time. Smaller companies without the systems tend to be much worse. I guess my point is that sometimes individuals in those big companies don’t take the time to figure the processes out. I have had this happen a couple of times and it can be very painful to get someone to sort out the paperwork after they have had the work you’ve done and you disappear from their radar.

  3. Hi Matthew,

    Most of the items on your list can apply to dealings between agency and agency as well as agency and client. Many of them pertain to my (past) Search Marketing clients as well. Very well done!

    • Yes, very true, James. In fact many of the problems I’m talking about have come up when I’m dealing with other agencies and not directly with clients. I much prefer being a prime contractor and dealing with clients directly. Subcontracting through other agencies seems to add a layer of confusion and cost without really adding much value (at least from where I sit). Of course, there are always noble exceptions to every generalisation.

  4. Omar says:

    Thanks. How long have you been freelancing? If you’re going on a vacation should you give a long time employer a two weeks notice?

    • I’m not exactly a freelancer. I run a niche marketing agency. But whether you give notice to a client/employer sort of depends on the relationship you have with them and the kind of work you do. If they might reasonably expect notice or they are relying on you or you’re going into their offices regularly or something like that, I think it’s only fair to warn them about a holiday. If you were your client/employer what would you expect? That’s the easiest way to think about it. Matthew

    • Mel Kettle says:

      Hi Omar I freelance and consult and always give my
      clients/employers notice when I’m going away. I give as much as
      possible (up to 3-4 months) then remind them as it gets closer. I
      have never had any problems and rarely had to work on holiday – and
      I take at least 1 x 4-6 week holiday a year plus another few weeks
      at Christmas. However I also try and schedule holidays for when I
      think it will be a bit quieter in terms of work. As Matthew said,
      the reason I’ve never had any dramas (including when I unexpectedly
      had to go away for 5 weeks last year with NO notice) is because I
      have a strong relationship with all my clients and am honest about
      what else might be happening in my life that might impact on them.

  5. Mel Kettle says:

    Excellent article – thanks. I think most of these points apply to many small consultants, not just copywriters, and as a marketing consultant I have certainly had most if not all of these experiences. These days I try to have much clearer processes in place (at my end, especially around terms and conditions and getting paid), and I go with my gut a lot more. If my gut feels wonky I run away! And when I don’t, I regret it quickly!

    • Indeed. And I think your point about going with your gut is well made. Increasingly, I have learned to trust my instincts and walk away from situations before they turn really bad.

  6. Matthew, Another excellent post. All of them are, sadly, so
    very true. Maybe in some distant future a Miss World candidate will
    speak of these to be eradicated, as well as asking for peace for
    all men of course. Life would be much easier….

  7. Art says:

    I find your website very useful.

    Regarding point number 3 above; people asking for discounts. I always give a small discount if people ask, but you are right that if you are very busy there is no need to. I have found that people who ask for discounts are usually difficult clients who are late payers, so maybe if a person asks for a discount it could be considered a warning sign of problems ahead.

    • Well, that’s certainly an option and perhaps one could build in a small margin for discounting. If they don’t ask, you get a bonus. If they do ask, you’re only giving away what you had planned to discount from the beginning. It just seems a bit, well, sly to me. I prefer predictable, transparent pricing. What you get is what you pay for and vice versa. Also, discounting can be like feeding the crocodile. Give them a hand and they want the arm. But you are absolutely right that requests for discounts often correlate to bad payment regimes.

      Occasionally, when I find myself with more time than work – luckily not often – I prefer to do business development for myself or something that is speculative but completely free for a good, long-standing client. For example, I’ll do an unboxing video of one of their products or something that shows them that I have a wider range of services. That seems to work and it’s better to reward someone for being a good client than to discount in the hope that they will become a good client.

  8. Spot on! The “absent brief” happened to me AGAIN yesterday on a regular project for a repeat client. Sometimes it is up to us to insist on getting at least that basic information, even when the client is chomping at the bit, ready to get started. As the wrap-up of the project in question illustrated, “pestering” the client a little at the start saves everyone time and headaches over the course of even the tiniest project. The client promised to make a better effort and we agreed that I will pester away in the future and not worry about annoying the client with repeated requests for essential information.

    • It’s very frustrating, isn’t it? But it’s so important to keep pushing for details and agree a brief properly. In the end, you have to train the client to do the right thing. It’s in their interest too, I think. Matthew

  9. Hi Matthew, I read this article today and it reminded me very much of this post, except of course, you got their first.

    This is also succint and groups clients into 5 personality types that I am sure we can all relate to.


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