There are a great many perks to being a freelancer (if you’re regularly employed, obviously). A lot of variety, regular change of scene if you work on site for multiple clients, working days to suit your personal schedule, being free of office politics and so on. But while things may be going swimmingly overall, unless you have a longstanding relationship with your client, it’s quite possible that there’s one thing you may be expected to leave locked in your drawer: your opinion.
Last week, Magnus talked about the boundaries that copywriters and designers may or may not cross, venturing into each other’s territories by daring to offer an opinion. As he said, quite often, any ground is relinquished slightly reluctantly. But recently another freelance copywriter friend of mine - let’s call her Emma - rang me for a chat because she found herself in a bit of a predicament.
Long story short, Emma was reporting in to a head of copy in whom she had very little confidence. Apparently he couldn’t spell, didn’t understand basic grammar rules such as when to hyphenate or not and, crucially, had precious few original ideas. And yet he’d only joined the company six months earlier, apparently to overhaul pretty much everything, copy-wise: web content, direct mailings, product descriptions, social media engagement, the lot. How he got the job in the first place raises a whole range of questions, but I would just be guessing if I ventured an opinion on that point.
I was tempted to start this paragraph stating that, a copywriter not being able to spell or having a less than perfect grasp of grammar shouldn’t be a copywriter, but then deleted it because it sounded too obvious. But actually, maybe the obvious does need stating: those skills are absolutely crucial. It’s akin to an accountant not being able to use a calculator. So let's agree that those requirements are indeed requirements (and I completely sympathise with Emma on that point), and move on to the ideas part of the problem.
Copywriting covers a broad spectrum, of course, depending on who the client is and what the requirements of the project are. You don’t need to be brimming with ideas to rewrite a 100-page employee handbook or an insurance manual. As long as the brief is clear (which, in this day and age, is likely to be something like, can you make this sound less stiff and more friendly?) then what you really need for those two tasks is perfect spelling, perfect grammar and the ability to rephrase complex material into what we in the trade call "clear messages". Let’s face it, you’re not going to win any awards for talking about a company pension scheme, when all you’ve basically done is substitute the words "do not" for "don’t".
But that wasn’t the problem Emma encountered. There’s not much argument about the correct use of apostrophes. You’re either right or you’re wrong, by and large. Emma was, in fact, writing some direct mailings for a well-known beauty product. She uses the product herself anyway, so she is a longstanding member of the very audience she was writing for - plus she’s worked in the beauty industry before. She came up with some killer headlines, great straplines and top-notch body copy, and forwarded her work to the head of copy for approval. She’d expected him to write back with an effervescent, "Wow, that’s great! Thanks!" But...
The reverse happened. He instead wrote back saying that her tone of voice was not "on brand" and that it wouldn’t appeal to the target audience (not that he was in that beauty product audience himself). He then rewrote some of what Emma had written, copying in the director of sales and marketing. Not only was his copy apparently as dull as dishwater, it also contained two typos in the only two sentences. And Mr Director Of Sales And Marketing wrote back within minutes saying, "Perfect! Let’s go with this!"
Emma had a really miserable Friday night. She’d been undermined, told her work wasn’t good enough, and someone for whom she had little respect in copywriting terms had ridden roughshod over her lovingly crafted copy, which she (not unreasonably) believed was miles better than what was ultimately approved. "What can I do about it?" Emma asked me.
[Deep breath] Sorry, Emma - nothing.
I know that’s absolutely not what you want to hear, but the fact is that there is a very clear pecking order here and you are right at the bottom of that order. Ultimately, however bad the head of copy might be, however bad his grammar is, the fact is that he is the permanent staff member and you are as disposable as a post-it note. If the people he reports to haven’t found him out yet, then they either will eventually, or they won’t and their sales figures won’t be as good as they wanted them to be next quarter or next year (and if they have any sense, they'll take a look at the sales copy). As a freelancer, you have to accept that, unless your client specifically asks you for your opinion or has the wisdom to recognise and bows to your superior knowledge, you have next to no rights, power or authority.
You’re providing a service and they’re paying you for it. Yes, of course you are entitled to (and arguably should) make your case if and when you’re questioned or taken to task over it, but they’re the client, it’s their product and it’s their money. The last thing you want to do is risk any bruised egos (on their side) because be assured that your phone won’t ring again if they perceive you to be difficult - or worse, threatening.
Imagine you’re a painter and decorator. You might think that a blue ceiling and black walls with a red heart and golden dagger emblazoned on it will look vile (and you’d be right), but if that’s what the client wants, that’s what you’ve got to paint for them. So your only real options are:
- do the job you were hired for: give the client what they want and get paid for it
- find another client to replace them
- get a permanent job and work your way up to head of copy so that you can make your opinion matter, if that’s important to you
It’s a tough old game, being a freelancer. And the one thing I’ve found I need more than perfect spelling and grammar is a very thick skin!